Features appear in each issue of Pennsylvania Heritage showcasing a variety of subjects from various periods and geographic locations in Pennsylvania.

The Forty Fort Meeting House Meeting stands on the edge of the sprawling Forty Fort Cemetery, just northwest of the Luzerne County seat of Wilkes-Barre, among of a Union the graves of colonial setters and the recently interred. Despite the building’s historical, religious, and architectural significance to northeastern Pennsylvania, it remains largely unnoticed by area residents. Yet, this venerable house of worship stands as testimony to a peaceful coexistence after a bloody and tumultuous chapter in the Keystone State’s history. Its importance cannot be overstated—especially as the landmark enters its third century this year.

Built in 1807, the Forty Fort Meeting House is the oldest church building, and the first completed church in northeastern Pennsylvania to hold religious services. Only the Luke Swetland Homestead, built in 1797, and the Nathan Denison House, built in 1790, predate it on the west side of the Susquehanna River. The meeting house served the Methodists and Congregationalists (who later became Presbyterians) until 1837.

In 1662, Connecticut Governor John Winthrop (1606–1676) obtained a charter from England’s King Charles II that united the colonies of Connecticut and New Haven. The crown also granted one-third of present-day Pennsylvania — a broad band of its northern tier — to Connecticut, including the land now known as the Wyoming Valley. Inexplicably, nearly twenty years later, in 1681, Charles also granted the same land in Pennsylvania to founder William Penn (1644–1718).

In 1762, the Susquehannah Company, organized ten years earlier to engage in land speculation, dispatched a small group of Connecticut settlers, accompanied by the Reverend William Marsh, to the Wyoming Valley, but Native Americans drove them out. A second group of forty settlers — from which the borough takes its name — also sent by the Susquehannah Company laid out a 20,000-acre manor in 1769, now the Borough of Forty Fort.

With the region claimed by Penn’s heirs, Connecticut’s settlers were instructed to hold the land against both the Indians and the Pennsylvanians. During a meeting arranged by the settlers in hopes of finding a peaceful solution, three of the settlers were arrested for intrusion and trespassing and jailed in Easton. After making bail, they returned to the Wyoming Valley with the dispute still unresolved. The next time they tried to negotiate the matter in person, authorities representing Pennsylvania’s claim arrested the entire delegation. The arrests marked the beginning of the Yankee-Pennamite Wars.

Although the settlement was attacked and badly damaged three times, the Susquehannah Company settlers remained in control of the Wyoming Valley. Connecticut’s settlers were encouraged in 1771 when Great Britain’s King George III affirmed their claims dating to the 1662 charter granted to Governor Winthrop. Four years later, in 1775, a group of Pennsylvanians who had a financial interest in the area hired an army of seven hundred men to drive out the Connecticut settlers. The settlers were able to fight off this militia and remained entrenched in the region.

For three years, the war for independence from Great Britain redirected everyone’s attention. In 1778, many of the men who had joined George Washington’s army to fight in the American Revolution returned to the Wyoming Valley when they heard that the British and Indians were terrorizing the region. Colonel Nathan Denison (1740–1809) led the settlers on July 3, 1778, against a large contingent of British loyalists and Indian forces in the Battle of Wyoming, also known as the Wyoming Massacre. It’s unclear to historians if Denison underestimated the size of the force he was attacking or overestimated the effectiveness of his troops, but his army was nearly annihilated. Between 200 and 300 settlers died in the battle. The Iroquois tracked and massacred fleeing patriots, including women and children, and executed all prisoners.

The hostilities with the loyalists and their Indian allies ended in the Wyoming Valley in July 1779 when Continental Army General John Sullivan (1740–1795), under orders to execute a scorched earth policy, marched through the region, destroying Indian settlements on his way to western New York. The end of the American Revolution in 1783 did not resolve the conflicting claims and the Yankee-Pennamite Wars continued, albeit modestly, until 1799. To decide the matter, Congress had seated a special court made up of commissioners from the two contending states in 1782. The court ruled against Connecticut’s claim on the Wyoming Valley, but the Connecticut settlers could remain on the land they occupied. It took until 1807 for the details of this agreement to be implemented. Connecticut gave up all its claims to land west of New York, with the exception of the Western Reserve in what is now Ohio and south of the 42° line of latitude. Pennsylvania provided compensation to its citizens whose claims were vacated.

Once the region was stabilized and the title to the land determined, the settlers sought to establish a proper house of worship. The Susquehannah Company had set aside certain lands to be used for a “gospel ministrie” in 1768. A house of worship had been under construction before the Battle of Wyoming, but it was destroyed during the battle. In 1770, the proprietors of Kingston Township had designated one acre of land as a burying ground. Twenty-nine years later, the neglected appearance of the burial ground inspired them to clear the overgrown graves and enclose the grounds with a fence to keep out wandering cattle. In 1803, plans for a house of worship were developed, and subscriptions were sold in 1806. On April 3, 1807, the proprietors “voted that all the common or public land below the grave yard and adjoining the lands of Philip Jackson and [Elijah] Shoemaker [1747–1778] be appropriated for building a meeting-house.” Benjamin Dorrance (1767–1837), Daniel Hoyt (1756–1824), Lazarus Denison (1773–1841), and Luke Swetland (1729–1823) formed a building committee.

The committee selected Joseph Hitchcock of New Haven, Connecticut, as the architect and builder and hired master cabinetmaker Gideon Underwood to construct the interior. During the winter of 1806–1807, the stone for the foundation and the hand-hewn pine beams for the framework were hauled to the site. The building was enclosed in the summer of 1807 and the interior was finished during the following winter. The first services were held in the unfinished structure in 1807 with the building in full use by June 1, 1808.

The building was sometimes referred to as Union Chapel because it was built to meet the needs of two congregations. Researchers credit Bishop Francis Asbury (1745–1816) of the Methodist Church for inspiring the Methodists and Congregationalists to build a church together with a sermon delivered on July 19, 1807, in the woods adjoining the incomplete structure. The Congregationalists of Wilkes-Barre, on the east side of the Susquehanna River, had decided in 1791 to build a church. Their building, Old Ship Zion Church, also built by Joseph Hitchcock, but in a vastly different style, was not finished until 1812. East side Congregationalists attended Old Ship Zion Church while west side Congregationalists attended Forty Fort.

The Methodists and Congregationalists did not worship together. Although they harmoniously shared the same facilities, they retained separate identities throughout their use of the meeting house. Union Chapel served as a house of worship until 1837 when each congregation began building its own church. The Reverend Ard Hoyt was pastor of the Kingston and Wilkes-Barre Congregationalists when the meeting house was built. He remained their pastor until November 17, 1817, when he left for Brainard, Tennessee, to serve as a missionary to Cherokee Indians. Shortly after Hoyt’s departure, the west side Congregationalists voted to become Presbyterians but continued using the meeting house until they erected their new church. The Methodists conducted the final regular service recorded in the meeting house, and groups sporadically used the building for various purposes after 1837.

Many modern colonial-style residences possess the same simple style of the meeting house that includes a wide, rectangular shape and adorned with similar shutters. The similarity, however, ends there. Close inspection reveals a church whose early New England architecture is now uncommon even in New England. A similar chapel, built in 1825 in the Hanover Green Cemetery, south of Wilkes-Barre, has been greatly altered.

Hitchcock chose a design for the meeting house that was archaic at the time and would have been more appropriate in the early eighteenth century. His plan may have been influenced by the memories of settlers who had left eastern Connecticut before the Revolutionary War, but his design for Old Ship Zion Church in Wilkes-Barre embraced a more current style. The Forty Fort Meeting House was built according to the square rule, which was a remarkable feat of skill in those days. The square rule relies on a standardized approach. The timbers all have a uniform size and shape at the points where they join. One advantage of this method is that the frame is made up of interchangeable parts, but it was much more difficult to produce such uniformity in those days. The building is fifty feet long by forty feet wide and is approximately thirty-eight feet high. The wood-framed structure with white clapboard siding rests on a three-foot stone foundation. The moderately pitched roof was originally wood shingled. The entrance is located on the long side, which was typical of New England meeting houses.

Inside and out, the old church is a striking study in symmetry. On the exterior, twenty-nine identical double-hung sash windows are arranged in two tiers directly over each other on each of the four sides. Each window has twenty-four panes of glass bordered by the original paneled shutters on the lower tier and more modern louvered shutters on the upper tier. Many of the individual panes are original, evidenced by their wavy, bubbled appearance. A few panes are modern, installed during recent restoration efforts. The short sides of the building have six windows each while the front facade has nine, with the extra window being situated directly above the entrance and in line with the upper tier windows. One elegant feature stands out at the center of eight standard windows in the rear of the building on the north — an arched window suggestive of colonial Georgian architecture. It is strategically placed to furnish light on the pulpit located on the inside of the wall. While it breaks the otherwise horizontal lines, its central placement contributes to the symmetry.

The five-paneled double door entrance is original as is its distinguishing feature, a large metal lock. One final interesting feature of the front door is that the key to the lock is exceptionally large. Appropriately, the teeth of the lock key form the shape of a cross. Other exterior designs are limited to subtle molding around the entrance, uncut modillions beneath the cornices, and a closed lunette on the west side.

The prominent feature of the single, expansive room is Gideon Underwood’s original hand-crafted pine interior. Native white pine trees supplied most of the wood. Underwood’s work has never been painted. The normally light-colored pine has darkened naturally with age. A simple cross motif is formed by the rails and stiles of the wood paneling around the pulpit. It is not known whether this was meant as a religious symbol or was simply the architectural convention of the time. Congregationalists strongly opposed religious icons, but the ingenious incorporation into the paneling of the wood is a subtle suggestion of the Christian cross.

Directly opposite the entrance, and in front of the arched window, rises the highly elevated pulpit. The window and pulpit are the only features not found in a true New England meeting house. The pulpit stands approximately twelve feet from the floor and is enclosed with hand-planed paneling. It is reached by a single winding stairway. During typically long services, ministers often hurled fire and brimstone from the high pulpit, tempered with piety and humility to congregations. The height of the pulpit helped to carry the minister’s voice and commanded the attention of his flock. The large window also illuminated the minister whenever he wanted to remind them of God’s light and power. It probably also helped him read notes and scriptures.

Below the pulpit is an enclosure with a bench and desk facing the pews. This area was originally occupied by the clerk of the congregation, possibly church elders, and later by the choir.Two long-handled collection boxes are kept in this area of the meeting house. One is original while the other is a replica made shortly after the flooding in the aftermath of Hurricane Agnes in June 1972. Underwood also designed a small storage space behind this area.

On either side of the long aisle that leads from the door to the pulpit, are six rows of high pews that face the pulpit. Each pew, enclosed on each side by a small paneled door with a wooden latch, seats seven to eight people. Each family who contributed to the church most likely had its own pew. Those of greatest honor were on each side of the pulpit, and on each side of the door opposite the pulpit. The enclosures provided privacy, warmth in the winter, and probably kept small children contained and orderly. In addition, the builders constructed slightly elevated boxed pews of varying sizes against the end walls. Benches placed all around the roomy interior of these enclosures suggest their use by more prominent families. The box located just to the left of the entrance contains a small door that leads to a crawl space beneath the building.

Located in each corner of the entrance wall is a simple, narrow, winding staircase leading to a gallery that extends around the front and two sides of the building. It is broad, with a level floor. From the rear wall, the spectator could just see the head of the preacher. This area once contained benches and was probably used by servants, visitors, and other individuals who did not have a family pew. A small attic with two windows is located above the gallery. The gallery is supported by four hand-turned wooden columns, each ten inches in diameter and situated among the pews. Twelve supporting hand-hewn timbers, enclosed with hand-planed, beaded boards, along the walls — four in the front, four in the rear, and two on each side — support the framework.

The building’s walls and the ceiling — rising twenty-three feet above the floor — are composed of the original plaster. A vent in the center of the ceiling was probably used for some sort of chimney attached to a heating source early in the church’s history. The walls of both the main floor and the gallery are plastered above and wainscoted below. Another interesting feature of the building’s interior is the irregular pine planking for the floor. The builders did not waste what they had, so the planks range anywhere from six to twenty-seven inches in width. The meeting house remains unheated and without electrical lighting. The only modern electrical outlet is for the organ and a small light for the organist.

The most remarkable aspect of the Forty Fort Meeting House is that it has remained virtually unchanged since 1807. From the door’s solid lock to the window behind the pulpit, nearly everything the visitor sees is as it was when completed in 1808. The two congregations abandoned the building in 1837 and the adjoining burial grounds were neglected for another twenty-five years. Such neglect had a positive side to it as it probably spared the building from many alterations. The building was also fortunate that it was not in the path of industrial development in the Wilkes-Barre region. In the late 1850s, William Swetland (1789–1864), grandson of Luke Swetland, began to care for the building. On March 6, 1860, the Forty Fort Cemetery Association was chartered and the burying ground was deeded to the association by the proprietors of Kingston Township and Swetland named as its first president. A prosperous gristmill and distillery owner, officer of two Pittston banks, and president of the board of managers of the Lackawanna and Bloomsburg Railroad, Swetland provided for the painting and repair of the meeting house in his will. The association’s purpose, as it remains to this day, was to maintain the historic edifice, as well as to enlarge the cemetery.

In 1861, two acres were purchased from Nathan Shoemaker and as the years passed, other purchases were made which enlarged the cemetery to its present irregular shape and size of approximately thirty acres. Some notable features of the cemetery include two Native American graves located between the cemetery’s entrances, the granite marker of James Bird (1785–1814), executed for desertion aboard the U.S. Brig Niagara, headstones for Eli and John Swetland, the gravestone of Luke Swetland, the plot of Civil War-era Congressman Charles Denison (1818–1867), and the grave of Henry Martyn Hoyt (1830–1892), governor of Pennsylvania from 1879 to 1883.

There were, at one time, doors on the sides of the meeting house. Sometime prior to 1888, those doors were boarded up, probably when two heating stoves (which are no longer in use) were added to the building. This is the only major alteration to the original building. The Society of the Colonial Dames of America, under the supervision of local architect Thomas H. Atherton (1884–1978), restored the meeting house in 1922. Atherton designed a number of commercial and residential edifices in Wilkes-Barre, among them schools, office buildings, and an armory. The extent of the renovations is unknown, but they appear to have been minor. Researchers believe the louvered shutters on the upper tier of the exterior were added. Dorothy Dickson Darte later had the exterior painted. In recent years, the entire building has been kept in repair and painted by the Forty Fort Cemetery Association.

During Hurricane Agnes in 1972, about 1,500 graves — one-third of the cemetery — among them 2,000-pound vaults and remains of some of the earliest settlers of the Wyoming Valley, were ripped from the earth and washed away by the raging flood waters of the Susquehanna River. The flood spared the meeting house any immediate structural damage, although the waters rose to the tops of the pews. To the relief of the association and historians, the old church just needed a good cleaning.

In 1988, the Forty Fort Meeting House was placed on the National Register of Historic Places through the efforts of Mary Atherton Frantz and Harry B. Schooley Jr., descendants of prominent families. In early 1992, Marjorie Lindsay Coon Robinson, president of the Forty Fort Cemetery Association, expressed concern about the continuing deterioration of the meeting house. The exterior badly needed painting, and the interior revealed that a leaking roof was causing the 185-year-old ceiling plaster to loosen and break away. Window panes were cracked or broken, and groundhogs and skunks had free access through a ground level opening. Under Robinson’s guidance, the Forty Fort Meeting House Preservation Committee was formed for the preservation of the building.

In the early 1990s, it was determined that lingering moisture from the 1972 flood had caused some rotting of the sills. The committee replaced portions of the sills on the north and east sides of the building, as well as some of the wooden cornices and soffits. The meeting house received a new asphalt shingle roof and a fresh coat of paint. In 1997, the plaster ceiling was patched and painted, the stone steps leading to the front entrance reset, and the entire exterior of the two-story building, including all twenty-nine twelve-over-twelve windows, scraped and painted. In 2002, the meeting house received a grant from the Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development (DCED) to prepare a historic structure report. Long recognized as a leader in historic restoration projects, John Milner Architects Inc., Chadds Ford, prepared a report that addressed a number of problems which still required attention.

The exterior of the meeting house’s stone foundation appears to be in relatively good condition on the exterior, but rodents had undermined the interior, which eventually would have led to more settling and structural damage if not repaired. The extent of the problem required lifting the entire building in order to install a new steel-reinforced concrete foundation. The existing stone foundation remains intact so that the appearance of the building has not been altered. The architectural study estimated the cost of the project at about $139,000. Thanks to funding from the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission (PHMC) and DCED, and support from donors and foundations, the bulk of the project was completed in time to celebrate the building’s bicentennial in October 2007. The PHMC and DCED each granted $60,000 for the work. Association board members, local foundations, and individuals have also pledged thousands of dollars to help underwrite this phase of the project. The association is working to fund an endowment of $300,000 to perpetuate the care of the property.

Betsy Bell Condron, Kingston, who served as chairman of the Forty Fort Meeting House Bicentennial Committee, emphasizes “the preservation of this important historic building allows us to continue using it to teach both residents and visitors about the very early history of the Wyoming Valley.” She says the meeting house “tells many stories of settlement patterns, early politics, and religious history,” adding that few communities can claim an early nineteenth-century building that has remained virtually intact for more than two hundred years. “This gem,” Condron continues, “belongs not only to the residents of Forty Fort and Luzerne County, but to all the citizens of Pennsylvania. I hope that people will come and visit to learn more about this region and the individuals who braved the wilderness to settle it.”

With the leading structural concern resolved, the Forty Fort Cemetery Association can once again turn its attention to the care of the building and burial grounds. During its first two hundred years, the building has withstood neglect, industrial expansion, flooding, and bitter conflicts. The Forty Fort Meeting House is garnering far-flung public appreciation of its rare architecture and historic significance as it embarks on its third century as a landmark worthy of continued preservation. The celebration is just beginning.


Scott Doyle on the Forty Fort Meeting House

For the Forty Fort Meeting House in Luzerne County, meticulous care by concerned citizens proved critical. However, it often takes resources beyond the means of many not-for-profit groups to preserve a historic or older property. To assist owners of historic resources, the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission (PHMC), through its Bureau for Historic Preservation (BHP), administers a preservation grants program and provides professional expertise and technical advice. Since funding for preservation projects is limited, PHMC awards grants through a competitive application process. Applicants may improve their chances of success by consulting a PHMC grants program manager prior to submitting an application.

The preservation of historic buildings and structures can be a complicated, complex task. It’s important to seek professional guidance and become familiar with PHMC’s grant process. The best place to begin is with the PHMC Web site to review guidelines, services, types of grants available, and application deadlines. Applications must be submitted through PHMC’s Internet-based eGrant service by the deadline to be eligible for consideration. A grants program manager is available for those seeking assistance for projects.

PHMC’s Keystone Historic Preservation Grant Program provides assistance for preservation construction projects, such as the restoration of the Forty Fort Meeting House. To be considered for funding, a property must be eligible for the National Register of Historic Places and be open to the public on a regular basis. The maximum award amount is $100,000 and grants require 50/50 matching funds. “While Keystone grants cannot pay for the entire cost of a restoration project — additional private and public funds are necessary — these grants can help offset the cost of a project and are an instrumental tool for other fundraising activities,” says Scott Doyle, newly named chief of the BHP’s Grants Program and Planning Division.

Doyle notes that PHMC grants recently funded extensive structural upgrades to the Pearl S. Buck House in Dublin; protection of a group of farm buildings and a Quaker-inspired arboretum at the Tyler Arboretum in Media; restoration of a historic barn by the Gettysburg Battlefield Preservation Association; emergency stabilization of an endangered blacksmith shop of the Cambria Iron Works in Johnstown; repair of the wind-damaged Salem Square Civil War Monument in York; and restoration of the marquee of the historic Keystone Theatre in Towanda. Since the program’s inception in 1994, more than 450 Keystone Grants totaling $26 million have generated $125 million in matching funds.


For Further Reading

Brewster, William. History of the Certified Township of Kingston, Pennsylvania, 1769 to 1929. Wilkes-Barre, Pa.: Smith-Bennett Corporation, 1930.

Forty Fort Committee. Forty Fort Old Home Week: A Borough Observes Its 50th Anniversary, June 6 to 12, 1880–1937. Forty Fort, Pa.: Forty Fort Anniversary Committee, 1937.

Hanlon, Edward F. The Wyoming Valley: An American Portrait. Woodland Hills, Calif. and Wilkes-Barre, Pa.: Windsor Publications and the Greater Wilkes-Barre Chamber of Commerce, 1983.

Orlandini, John. The Ancient Native Americans of the Wyoming Valley: 10,000 Years of Prehistory. Kingston, Pa.: John Orlandini, 1996.

Press of George MacNamara. History of Luzerne, Lackawanna and Wyoming Counties, Pa. New York: W.W. Munsell & Co., 1880.

Trussell, John B.B. The Battle of Wyoming and Hartley’s Expedition. Harrisburg: Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, 1976.


The editor gratefully acknowledges the gracious assistance of John D. Milner, FAIA, John Milner Architects, Chadds Ford, and Jesse C. Teitelbaum, executive director, Luzerne County Historical Society, Wilkes-Barre, for providing images illustrating this feature.


Vance Packard devoted most of his professional career to the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission as an archaeologist, curator, museum director, and division chief. After retiring in 1997, he continues in the field by serving on the boards of directors of several historic sites and museums. He was a founding director of the Society for Industrial Archeology and the Coolspring Power Museum in Coolspring, Jefferson County. He serves on the Forty Fort Meeting House Preservation Committee.