One hundred years ago, Greater Pittston folks were living through a wartime Christmas for the first time in living memory and they were feeling the effects. The United States had entered World War I in April 1917.
One effect was darkness. For two nights a week, Pittston went dark.
Electricity was a booming technology and electric company customers loved to show off. Bright displays of electric lights on standards along the streets, many privately owned, were common. Merchants installed bright electrified signs and window displays in their storefronts. The Pittston Gazette described Downtown Pittston as a “White Way,” a reference to the “Great White Way” nickname for Broadway in New York City.
In 1917, large industries such as railroads, collieries, and knitting mills ran their own power plants. Pittston, as did other towns, had its own power company, The Citizens’ Electric Illumination Co.
The power plants burned massive amounts of coal — for example the Delaware, Lackawanna and Erie Railroad’s power plant outside Scranton burned 350 tons a day.
As coal was vital to the war effort, on Dec. 20, 1917, William Potter, federal fuel administrator for Pennsylvania, ordered A.C. Campbell, chairman of the county coal committee, to declare Thursdays and Sundays “lightless nights.”
The war also impacted workers and work. There was fear President Wilson would declare Austria-Hungarians in the United States as enemy aliens, meaning they wouldn’t be allowed to work in vital industries. Austria-Hungry was allied with Germany. But with 70,000 Austria-Hungarians working in the coal industry in Pennsylvania, Wilson did not issue the order. Austria-Hungarian immigrants were considered loyal to America.
Lehigh Valley Railroad president E.E. Loomis was not on board with his workers’ war effort. In a letter to employees he wrote: “I sometimes feel Lehigh Valley employees fail to realize what a necessary factor the railroads are in the winning of the war. They are literally the backing of the men in the American camps and the French trenches. Without their faithful service and courage our bravest troops become useless. This is so true that railroad men unwilling to at this time give to their work the best that is in them are actually slackers.”
The war kept postal workers busy. The volume of Christmas mail in 1917 was the greatest in history. More than 300,000 postmen were employed to move billions of tons of letters and packages. Presents for soldiers advertised in the Pittston Gazette were vest pocket Kodaks, $6; Army flash lamps, $1.75, and photo pockets, 75 cents, for carrying of pictures of home folks.
The Red Cross prepared thousands of packages for the troops. Joining the Red Cross was pushed as a patriotic duty all over the country. Membership for a year was $1 and that was all that was required. In Pittston, on Dec. 22, 2017, the Saturday before Christmas, the Red Cross set up booths at Pittston stores Peck’s, Kresge’s, Pittston Dry Goods and Fowler Dry Goods; the Dreamland and Roman theaters and the Garden Theater in West Pittston and the First National and Miners Banks.
A donation list in the Pittston Gazette showed Police Chief Newcomb and Mayor Donnelly each donated $5. K.R. Ross donated $25, the equivalent of almost $500 in 2017 dollars.
Though American soldiers under Gen. John Pershing, commander-in-chief of the American Expeditionary Force, didn’t arrive in Europe in large numbers until the summer of 1918, by Christmas of ’17, hundreds of young men and boys from Greater Pittston were already in France fighting or at training camps stateside, especially Camp Mead in Maryland. Some of the boys who were still stateside were granted Christmas furloughs.
Edward Baker, son of Mr. and Mrs. Jacob Baker, Butler Street, was home for Christmas. He had transferred from artillery to mounted. Albert West of the 311th Field Artillery band and his brother, Harry West, 310th Infantry bugler, were home with their parents, Mr. and Mrs. Albert West, Vine Street.
Navy men William Dendle of the city and Ralph Bartlett of 101 Rock St., Hughestown, were home. Bartlett was assigned to the battleship Oklahoma. In Wyoming, Jacob Breese, of the 109th, was visiting his parents. Avocans John Loftus and John Clifford got a few days off from Camp Hancock, Georgia.
Half of the Pittston contingent training at Fort Mead were furloughed on Friday, Dec. 21, and were home by Sunday.
Among them were: Edward Kearney, Richard Walsh, Donald Craig McDonald, John Coyne, Benjamin Freed, Matthew Tigue, Patrick McLain, James Helreigie, A. Marette, Joseph Finnan, Lawrence Cavanaugh, P. Kirwan, John Daley, Stanley Kabanzeski, Patrick Flannigan, George Flannigan and Joseph Reddington.
Some of the furloughed men had to go back on Dec. 26. Those on extended leave were fêted by the Pittston Elks at a ball at the State Armory on Dec. 28. The 10-piece Elite Jazz band with saxophones and banjos entertained.
Among those who weren’t granted leave were two flyboys with the first U.S. military aviation units. Joseph Devlin of Tompkins Street, who had passed his Army Aviation Corps examination and was on his way to Kelley Field, Texas, and Frank Ertle, who was with the U.S. Navy Aero Corps in Pensacola, Florida.
At least one Pittston woman was on her way to the front for Christmas in 1917. Army nurse Janet Thompson, Broad Street, daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Mungo Thompson, was called to France from Fort Mead so quickly she couldn’t get home to say goodbye.
Pittston residents got a scary preview of what the future might hold for many of the city’s boys on Dec. 21, when two Lehigh Valley trains pulling 13 cars filled with wounded Canadian soldiers passed through Pittston, accompanied by a corps of Red Cross nurses. At the Junction, the trains stopped for a few minutes and citizens there were allowed to board and talk to the soldiers. The wounded were headed to Buffalo and from there to hospitals in Canada, or for the lucky few, home. The men had been fighting for more than two years.
Source: Digital archives, Pittston Gazette, Dec. 20-25, 1917.