If you are reading this, it is probably because you saw the title and thought one of two things:
“There was a zoo in Kirby Park?” Yes, there was! But the Flood of 1936 led to the eventual demise of the Kirby Park Zoo. You can read about the Kirby Park Zoo here .
“I know where those zoo ruins are in Kirby Park”. No, you don’t. You know where ruins are, but they most likely are not zoo ruins, at least not the structures that you think are zoo ruins.
But I do kind of hope that someone out there has the information needed to prove me wrong. The idea of zoo ruins is far more romantic than the theory that I’m about to blog about in this post…..
“It is sadder to find the past again and find it inadequate to the present than it is to have it elude you and remain forever a harmonious conception of memory.”— F. Scott Fitzgerald
I am not a historian and I am bringing this up to prove a point. Despite the fact that I am NOT a historian, there is information out there that could lead someone to believe that I am legitimately a historian if they were to run across a Letter to the Editor that I wrote which ran on August 5, 2010, with the misleading title “Historian seeks info, stories about old Kirby Park zoo.” Yes, I am a member of the Luzerne County Historical Society, but that does not make me a historian unless belonging to the Philadelphia Museum of Art also makes me an artist!
This is how historical misinformation can spread. Unintentional misunderstandings, misquotes or a misprint in a publication can be used as a reference over and over again by other writers and researchers until it becomes part of the “facts”.
We’ve all been told with certainty at some point that Betsy Ross made the first flag, it was even printed right there in our grade school text books! Yet many historians (the real ones!) dispute that “fact” and Betsy’s house is not part of the U.S. National Park Service–which is a huge indication that the story is not true.
During my short time as a faux-historian, I’ve come to the realization that historical research is hard, time-consuming and not exactly always….well….EXACT. It’s more like trying to fit together a puzzle with missing pieces, filling in the blanks using a combination of critical thinking and speculation to try to create a complete picture.
The very first article that I ever read about the zoo was pulled out of the Kirby Park file at the Luzerne County Historical Society. This article ran on May 13, 2001, in the Times Leader, and was titled “Kirby Park: About 4 score years ago, a green place bloomed along the river.” In the article, it states, when referring to the famous Olmsted Brothers landscape architectural firm who were commissioned to design Kirby Park, that “they did the entire original design for Kirby Park, including a zoo, a band shell and a wading pool.” The statement was attributed to a quote by a man named Larry Neuman, president of the Wyoming Valley Historical Society (now the Luzerne County Historical Society).
Unfortunately, Larry Neuman was never the president of that organization, but Larry NEWMAN was! Still, I did spend time searching for Larry Neuman. I’ve also spent a decent amount of time searching for information about the Kirby Park Zoo plans and repeatedly came up with nothing. Again, I’m not a historian, and I would hardly say that my search was completely thorough, but I tried every avenue that I could think of—the courthouse, city hall, different local historical organizations, the library—and couldn’t find any plans for the Kirby Park Zoo or any indications that the structures left standing were zoo buildings.
When I did finally contact Larry Newman, he shared a whole bunch of information that he had about the zoo, but said that he did not know if the zoo was part of the original plans for the park (he mentioned plans designed by someone else—I’ll get to those plans later).
Further in this article from May 2001, it states “John Mayday, president of the River Front Parks Association, said a walk down the Olmsted Trail—which follows the old drive through the natural area—will take you past the wading pool, as well as the foundations for the old gardener’s cottage, the band shell, a riverside observation deck and a couple of old zoo buildings.”
I had the opportunity to have a very entertaining conversation with Mr. Mayday earlier this year, and he told me all about the cottage, wading pool, band shell and observation deck, but was unsure about the remaining structures. He also gave me a booklet produced by the Riverfront Parks Committee about the Kirby Park natural area that mentions nothing about zoo buildings either.
So I am unsure about how or where this idea about the few ruins left in Kirby Park being part of the zoo actually came from–and I cannot find any proof that a zoo designed by the Olmsted Brothers was part of the original park plans, but my guess would be that the writer of that article misunderstood or misheard that information. Or maybe he pulled it from another source himself, but that particular article contains the earliest mention that I can find about “zoo plans/ruins” in a local newspaper. And then every article that I have been able to find after that point, contains that same information, probably using that same article as a reference, just as I did when I wrote an article about the zoo myself.
I eventually just gave up on finding any more information about these structures, until one day I decided to look through the resources at the Luzerne County Historical Society again to learn more about the children’s playground that was designed as part of the original plans for the park, but was lost when the levee was constructed that cut that area off from the rest of Kirby Park.
As I looked for playground information, instead of zoo information, through the double binder titled Kirby Park Wilkes-Barre Olmsted Frederick Law Plans 1921 and the Kirby Day Book (June 4, 1924 ,“To Fred M Kirby from his son Allan P Kirby”) at the Luzerne County Historical Society, in addition to other information provided by Riverfront Parks booklets, the mystery surrounding the remaining structures seemed to be solved, at least in my mind anyway.
References to the Children’s Playground
“Nor have the kiddies been overlooked. The little concrete block cottage almost on the west bank of the river, at a point below the Market Street Bridge, is to be used as a rest room for mothers and children. The large section of the lawn surrounding the house will be utilized as a playground for the youngsters. Between the rest house and the grove south of it there will be swings, sand courts, a bathing pool and many other interesting features for the amusement of the youngsters.” —-Kirby Day Book
“The grounds around the bungalow near the river, formerly belonging to Thomas Podmore, were laid out as a playground for children. The intention was to use the large front room of the house and the front porch and as much more of the house as may seem desirable in the future as a rest room for women and children. If only the front room of the house is required for that purpose the balance of the house is available as an apartment for the caretaker, with entrance at the rear. The cost of all improvements in and around the bungalow and children’s playground was $10,477.56.”–Kirby Day Book
“The pool was part of the original Olmsted design and was used by children for wading.”— Riverfront Parks of Wilkes-Barre, Riparian Trail Guide, Kirby Park Natural Area, Yours to Discover & Enjoy **Note: In some articles the pool is called a “Reflecting Pool”
“A children’s playground immediately south of the Market Street Bridge in such a location that if the new bridge is erected the arches will afford shelter and also access to the present playground and park north of the bridge. This playground would be in its permanent location and should be equipped with apparatus which is readily removable during the winter when the area is not in use and at other times when it may be threatened by floods. The present bungalow on the knoll near the river could be used for a caretaker’s home until such a time as this area may need to be graded to increase the channel cross-section…..” —Plan Book, Kirby Park, Page 569
“As you walk along the Olmsted Trail, you will see remnants of structures from the original park area, including an animal cage from the zoo, remnants of the Caretaker’s Cottage, and the Reflecting Pool.”– Riverfront Parks Olmsted Trail “Remnants of a Time Past” (project for the Leadership Wilkes-Barre Class of 2000) **NOTE: I wish I could figure out where they got this information at! I also wonder how or if this influenced the 2001 Times Leader article referring to zoo ruins.
I have no basis for making this statement, other than lack of information, BUT if there is a zoo remnant still left in Kirby Park, this is most likely it. I didn’t come across anything in the plans for the park that indicates what this structure may have been, and it is the one ruin that no one that I spoke with offered any insight about.
Given the lack of pictures available of the zoo while it was open, all that I can offer on this subject is the following information in the hopes that someone can either help to prove or disprove that this structure could possibly be the remains of the bear habitat—the only zoo structure that I was actually able to locate a picture of so far.
(And I do apologize because I have to go back to the Luzerne County Historical Society to look up the title of the booklet that contains the following pictures from the 1936 flood. My notes are incomplete–all that I have is that editors & publishers of the book are Edward J. Donohoe and Hugh J. Brislin.)
This is a closer crop of the background behind the bears. Keep in mind that the levee had not been built yet.
In the picture above, if you walk from the unidentified ruins to the top of the current levee system and snap a picture, which is of the Kingston Armory (built in the early 1920s), this is what you get if you crop that building. Is it possible that it is the same view? I’m not really sure myself….But apparently this is what the real historians would do to try to figure out this kind of stuff!
References to the Band Shell
“The foundation has already been laid for a band stand to be located in the midst of the beautiful shade trees forming the grove near the bend of the river. “—Kirby Day Book
The next structure on the Olmsted Trail is what I believe to have been the band shell, which was part of the original Olmsted Brothers design.
In conversations with other people who I have run into while walking along the trail here, this is the remaining structure that seems to capture the imagination the most. Several people have told me that they thought it was the remains of the bear habitat or the monkey house because of the little tunnel system/walk way that runs underneath the structure.
Other people thought it was the band shell with bathrooms below the stage with layer upon layer of mud deposited underneath from all of the flooding throughout the years.
“A Bandstand with concrete foundation and with storeroom beneath was built in the wooded area near the river at a cost of $3,001.19”—Kirby Day Book
References to the Pavilion
As you are walking along the path in the natural area of Kirby Park along the Olmsted Trail, you will find this structure on the left hand side.
While some people like to speculate that it was part of a structure once used to house monkeys, I now believe it was a Pavilion that was part of the original plans for the park.
The Kirby Park Wilkes-Barre Olmsted Frederick Law Plans 1921 mentions placing a small pavilion in the picnic grove.
The Woodsy Owl Deck “The deck you’re standing on is what’s left of the gazebo from the original Olmstead Brothers’ park.”–Riverfront Parks of Wilkes-Barre, Riparian Trail Guide, Kirby Park Natural Area, Yours to Discover & Enjoy Page 29
Zoo Structure or Toilet Building? That’s the question……
“Located about half way down the river bank in the wooded section are small separate concrete toilet buildings for men and for women”—Kirby Day Book
Located near the pavilion ruins, on the right hand side of the trail, you will find this structure (there is another similar structure a little further down the path, deeper into the wooded area). This is the one that has been pictured in local newspaper articles the most often and is always identified as a “zoo structure”, usually in the form of a picture looking out of the window.
I believe that these structures may have actually been bathrooms.
In notes to Olmsted a toilet building for men and boys in circular grove of trees near children’s playground are mentioned. Also included are notes to place a small pavilion in picnic grove, toilets to be either included in or near the building. —Kirby Park Plan Book pages 394 and 395
“Located about half way down the river bank, in the wooded section are small separate concrete toilet buildings for men and women.”–Kirby Park Plan Book Page 592
“A comfort station for men and one for women have been erected in the grove.”—Kirby Day Book
Water was supplied to that area of Kirby Park
“The balance of the supply to the park is supplied by a two-inch and smaller pipes extending from the manhole at the junction of the drive to the children’s playground and along the river to the toilet buildings near the bandstand. The total cost of the three toilet buildings, including sewage disposal, was $15, 985.74.—Kirby Day Book **Note: unsure where the third toilet building may have been. Maybe that could be the unidentified structure if it isn’t part of a zoo cage?
The Kirby Park Zoo did not officially open until 1932, although there were zoo animals housed in Kirby Park prior to the official opening. The zoo was mentioned in the original plans for the park, but I never did find any actual plans for the zoo designed by the Olmsted Brothers.
REPORT OF VISIT BY H. J. Koehler, September 16, 1926, Notes: “Zoological garden. 1 Bear, 2 owls, 2 pheasants, 1 coon. Have it in the northwest corner.” –Kirby Park Plan Book
This is the only other picture that I have been able to locate of the Kirby Park Zoo:
“The modest beginning of a zoo has been made. Restrict it to its present area and in its present condition. There can hardly be an objection to it. Should an enlargement be considered, this ought to be carefully planned for in advance, and probably in some other location of the park.” – Kirby Park Plan Book, page 616, From Mr. Gilbert S. McClintock, October 6, 1926.
I find it hard to believe that I have been unable to locate any more pictures from the park, especially of the monkey house which would have been considered to be quite an exotic creature to have hanging around Luzerne County, especially during the 1930s!
There is one other piece of the puzzle out there that I am aware of that may help to shed some light on the mystery of the Kirby Park Zoo. Unfortunately, I have been unable to obtain any access to it.
As a result of my Letter to the Editor, I received the following information in an email from Carl J. Handman of Eyerman,Csala & Handman, located on Public Square :
“The “ZoologicalBuilding” (project #228) was the last project I know of designed by W-B architect, Clark Wright Evans, AIA (1857-1940). My firm’s archives (Evans sold his firm to Robert Eyerman c.1935) contained 13 tracings, including a perspective rendering, dated September 1932. In 2002 I donated all of the Clark Wright Evans drawings in our archives (31 projects from 1898 to 1932) to the Hoyt Library in Kingston. They are stored there in acid free paper in flat files.
You can probably view them there by making an appointment with the new Library Director. She was not there when I made the donation, & if she is not familiar with them, let me know & I can fill her in on the details of my donation.”
I contacted the Hoyt Library via email and received this response:
On Wed, Aug 18, 2010 at 12:37 PM, Hoyt Library <email@example.com> wrote:
The material is in a restricted area of the library. Due to budget cuts we do not have anyone who could be with while you are researching your topic. We have reduced our hours and staff. When funding is resumed we will be happy to accommodate you.
I did send another email to the Hoyt Library on October 26th of this year requesting access to these materials again, but I have yet to receive any response. Maybe one of the real historians out there can take up the cause and gain access to this information!
To learn about the zoo animals, visit:
Look here for a new update about the Kirby Park Zoo: