Take A Walk With History
••Thursday•, 16 •September• 2010 10:36•
    Like a caged animal, my imagination was captured as a child when a friend’s grandmother told me about the animals that used to live at the Kirby Park Zoo. Seizing hearts and minds was most likely the intent of the park’s founder and namesake, along with Wilkes-Barre City Council, when plans were put together for Kirby Park and the Wilkes-Barre Municipal Zoo.
    Fred Morgan Kirby donated more than 70 acres of riverfront land on the west bank of the Susquehanna River and Wilkes-Barre City Councilmen commissioned the Olmsted Brothers firm to design “a park for the people” in 1921.
    The elder Olmsted, Frederick Law Olmsted, Sr., is credited with inventing the profession of landscape architect and is said to have “planned the American landscape itself.” This 19th-century visionary designed Central Park (with Calvert Vaux) and conceived the idea of a “parkway” for vehicles— on a tour of nature. During a history spanning 125 years, the Olmsted firm completed more than 3,000 landscapes across the United States and Canada, with Fredrick Law Olmstead, Jr., eventually heading the family firm and becoming internationally renowned as a landscape architect himself. The Olmsted impact touched upon parks, suburbs, cemeteries, private estates (including the Vanderbilt Mansion), conservation areas, and university campuses.
    Completion of Kirby Park by the Olmsted firm took more than three years. Later, the city added a zoo to the original Olmsted design. In 1932, the Wilkes-Barre Municipal Zoo was officially opened in Kirby Park and featured monkeys, bears, deer, buffalo, wild game birds, and several other small animals. The attraction was located near the Susquehanna River and   was incorporated into the Olmsted design near the cottage, reflecting/wading pool, sand boxes, and walking/bridle paths.
    The path to abandonment began when Kirby Park was washed out with the flood of 1936. At that point, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers decided that a dike system that sliced through Kirby Park would best serve the city of Wilkes-Barre in terms of flood protection. This division created the divide that distinguishes between the “natural” and the city-maintained areas of Kirby Park. The zoo existed within the natural area.
    According to accounts in local newspapers at that time, the Luzerne County Humane Association had been advocating for the removal of the zoo, citing that 10 deer, several buffalo, three bears, several goats, and a fox all died while in captivity. It is said that rats had infested wooden cages at the zoo, and the Humane Association deemed the smell annoying and the zoo a health menace.
    By 1946, all that remained of the zoo was the monkey house, which had been rebuilt on the half of the land still maintained by the city of Wilkes-Barre. At that time, the city decided that it was best to send the monkeys off to the Nay Aug Park Zoo, in Scranton, because maintaining them had become too expensive. The concrete foundation from the monkey house was blasted away.
    Remnants of the caretaker’s cottage, the wading pool, a river observation deck/pavilion, and ruins of other structures from the old zoo area can still be seen in the Kirby Natural Park Area today. The paved part of the trail is the remnant of an old bridle path that wound thru that part of the park decades ago. Recently, the trail has been connected with improved paths, completing a loop for walkers. The loop has 16 stations that coincide with the “Kirby Park Short Loop Podcast Trail Guide”, which is available at iTunes U, through Wilkes University.
    The Trail Guide podcasts were created by students under the direction of Dr. Ken Klemow. Station 10 features the caretaker’s cottage and reflecting pool. The rest of the structures are not part of the loop. The five remaining structures are located along the Olmsted Trail if you follow it straight ahead. Some of the structures are difficult to locate during the summer months because of the abundance of plant life in the area. You can locate the Kirby Park Short Loop and the Olmsted Trail by using the steps on either side of the Market Street Bridge. The Olmsted Trail is the main trail running through the natural area.
    You can launch Wilkes University at iTunes U and get your own free copy of the guide for your iPod at www.wilkes.edu/pages/1829.asp.

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