By Jonathan Haeber
I’ve been struggling with this location. The reason is this: I often hesitate to reveal locations to the public because their revelation often leads to their destruction. At the same time, there are certain stories that simply have to be told. This is one of them.
In the heart of Pennsylvania coal country at the fringes of a small city is a brewery. The brewery has become a federal building, and its hulking brewhouse still proudly displays the pomp of the Gilded Age. Within the shadows of its countenance is a small, shuttered train station. Like most abandonments of our modern era, this diminutive edifice tells the story of corruption, mismanagement, and the ineptitude of bureaucratic sinecures.
The modest Italianate structure facing the railroad tracks along Wilkes-Barre Boulevard was known as the Lehigh & Susquehanna Station (and later the Central Railroad of New Jersey Station). From the outside, it looks like most small-town stations in most rail-towns of mid-19th century America, but looks are deceiving. Within its walls are awe-inspiring works of original craftsmanship: hand-carved mahogany, hand-laid terrazo, and – perhaps most compelling – a resplendent, curved staircase banister, a spiral exemplar of roccoco. Just look inside this station and you’ll immediately know why it earned its place in, “Great American Railroad Stations.”
The story of this station, however, isn’t told through its beauty. There is a sordid side, too. This station – as it exists in its dilapidated state – is a manifestation of boss politics that still seems to thrive despite the death of the “Tweed” gang and Tammany Hall. Granted, Wilkes-Barre is one among hundreds of cities with rampant corruption. All too often, we pay too much attention to national politics when the true turpitude rests in our local leaders (dare I call them leaders).
Market Street Square, the property in which the railroad station rests, was owned by convicted (and admitted) felon Thom Greco. Greco has been called a real estate mogul by some, but at least one anonymous online comment finds the title humorous. “‘Mogul?’ Really? I’ve sold to that guy 4 times over the last 20 years, and it took threats of all kinds to get my money. I always got, ‘Mr. Greco is unavailable’ from some young woman on the phone.”
But Greco is just a strand of much larger, much more Machiavellian web. Fact is: He was not part of the County Redevelopment Authority, who decided to purchase the station from him in 2005 for $5.8 million. Unlike the commissioners who accepted bribes and extorted flat screen televisions in exchange for Greco’s largess, he wasn’t the guy who had control over taxpayers’ hard-earned dollars. Truth is, to properly tell this story, we have to start in 1868 – when the station was built. Yes, this station has more layers than its recent ignominious decline.
A Product of Pennsylvania’s Coal Boom
When the station was born, the Steam Age was at its apex. Locomotives bombasted their way westward to join the continent by iron rail. The same year that the Wilkes-Barre station was built, the Golden Spike was driven into its Laurel Tie at Promontory Summit, Utah. Suffice to say, the country was hungry for coal – both to power its steam engines, and to cast the increasingly voracious appetite for steel. Wilkes-Barre was conveniently situated between two canals. Getting coal from one canal to another meant that the two waterways had to be connected by rail. These were the Wilkes-Barre station’s inchoate moments.
The rabid enthusiasm of the era was immediately apparent within its original walls and accouterments, but only once I was inside. I was a week into my journey, so it wasn’t easy to elicit any sort of enthusiasm out of me, especially after exploring dozens of awe-inspiring sites-in-decline. The station feigns curiosity with its exterior. Honestly, it isn’t much to look at from the outside. Its embellishments aren’t like a vainglorious wedding cake, but rather like a hollow birthday cake (with opportunity for surprise of course).
Like many cakes, this station also had layers; additions and extensions attenuated its hidden corners and serendipitous potential. In the early 20th century the Central Railroad of New Jersey was the sole leasor of the tracks. Many a luxurious Jersey passenger passed through its hallways. No doubt, the ornate frosting within its walls was spackled on after the fact; fireplaces were later added and aristocratic comforts became prominent. Whereas the early station served the needs of industry, the improved station became the playground of quixotic entrepreneurs, tycoons, and political bosses.
A Grand Train Station in Decline
Those halcyon days quickly came to a halt by the Great Depression. Passenger service precipitously declined while anthracite coal prices plummeted. The CNJ went into receivership for an entire decade, beginning in 1939. By the time it was finally able to emerge from its financial straits, the railroad found itself in the midst of a burgeoning American love affair with the highway. It didn’t take long for the Wilkes-Barre station to receive its final passenger on July 1, 1963. Train NO. 301 feebly rolled into the Wilkes-Barre stop with a single passenger coach in tow; its two passengers exited the car; and, according to railroad historian Ed Gardner, “thus ended a period of passenger service inaugurated 120 years earlier.”
The five decades that followed were largely modest years for the station. Vacant cars – skeletons of an earlier era – stood in a pall-like atmosphere to be eaten away by time. The station itself was painstakingly restored in the mid-70s, and it was placed on the National Register of Historic Places on May 12, 1975. Reading MU cars and Fruit Grower Express cars began to occupy the adjoining lot. Around 1980 it opened as “The Station,” a high-end bar and restaurant. Some of the nearby Reading MU cars were converted into charming Bed & Breakfast-style overnight accommodations.
According to Michael G. Rushton of NEPA Railfan, the place was quite “ritzy” by 1984, and it hosted political functions with expensive, gourmet cuisine. The station was then owned by Marvin Roth, but he passed away and the park was auctioned. A single, lonely plaque bears the Marvin’s (and the station’s?) epigraph: “Marvin Roth, a local entrepreneur, rehabilitated this edifice so posterity may forever enjoy its presence.”
The Choo Choo Inn (the train car sleepers) were phased out, and “entertainment magnate” Thom Greco acquired the property. “The crowd started changing,” Said Michael Rushton. “It was not the college crowd, but thugs from out of town… There were shootings, stabbings, robberies, fights, breaking into cars.”
Its final incarnation was as Banana Joe’s, a restaurant chain with cocktails and American fare. Rushton said nobody really went to it, and for “whatever reasons, it failed.” The nearby rail cars met a similar fate. By this time they had become occupied by the homeless and were the victims of fire at least twice a week. Such was the state of the Station when the Luzerne County Redevelopment Authority considered buying the property in 2005.
Rebirth as Market Street Square and Chess Piece in Corruption
By early 2006 the Luzerne County Redevelopment Authority decided to purchase the building for $5.8 million. By then, it was dilapidated and in need of millions in restoration work. It soon became apparent that the Authority had purchased a white elephant, and it stands to this day an embarrassment to all taxpaying Luzerne County citizens. Even more egregious are the stories of the men embroiled in this controversy.
Thom Greco worked with numerous Authority commissioners in the negotiation for the building’s sale. Soon after it was sold, Greg Skrepenak asked Greco for $10,000 worth of flat screen televisions, presumably for his father’s sports bar. Greco complied, but when he asked for payment, Skrepenak alluded to the fact that the televisions were recompense for the county’s purchase of the Market Street Square Station. Unfortunately, Skrepenak is difficult to reach these days… He’s in jail for accepting $5,000 in bribes for another completely separate deal with a developer.
Skrepenak wasn’t the only Redevelopment Authority official to be tied up in legal trouble. Back in 2005, Allen Bellas was drumming up the purchase of the Railway Station in the local newspaper. “It’s going to tie into all the downtown projects. It’s obviously going to help out the passenger rail service.” Of course, five years later, the station is still not helping out passenger rail service and is far from helping downtown Wilkes-Barre. As for Allen Bellas, who was then the Executive Director of the Redevelopment Authority, he’s in jail for a $2,000 bribery scandal that’s unrelated to the Station. Even the owners of the property leased to Big Ugly’s Sports Bar (the Bar that received the tainted $10,000 worth of flat screen TV’s), were ensnared in October of 2009 for paying a $1,400 bribe to Gerald Bonner and William McGuire, both one-time bureaucrats in the Luzerne County Housing Authority.
All of these events transpired so quickly that the Redevelopment Authority had to respond with its own Public Relations campaign. Their first order of business was to verify the accuracy of the price they paid for the station. This is generally done by using two neutral real estate appraisers. Before they purchased the property, they chose Stanley Komosinsky and Alan Rosen, neither of whom appear on the roster of the Appraisal Institute (the nationally recognized professional organization for appraisers). Perhaps not coincidentally, both appraisers valued the property at exactly the same price: $5.74 million. And it gets even deeper: Alan Rosen works for the real estate company owned by the Mayor of Wilkes-Barre, Thomas M. Leighton.
A Dilapidated Symbol of Corruption
These days, the Central New Jersey Rail Station (now euphemistically known as “Market Street Square”) sits in neglect. But the station serves as a very salient symbol of bureaucracy run amok and the loss of accountability in local government. It’s highly likely that the men involved with embezzling the public coffers in various ways will receive nothing more than a few months in jail and a slap on the wrist. They’ll return to their lives agrandized by the lucre from the backs of their constituents.
The fact still remains: It is a beautiful building, filled with wonders, curves, craftsmanship, and symbology. If one spends moments inside of this grand structure, one is easily transported beyond the depressing story of how it came to be what it is. I left the disheveled box cars that line the building and walked back to my car. When I photographed it, I was oblivious to its history; and in those innocent moments I had truly discovered a different world inside of a tiny little train station among the once-prosperous anthracite valley of Pennsylvania.