Forty Fort Meeting House
The Forty Fort Meeting House (20 River Street) was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1988. Portions of the content on this web page were adapted from a copy of the original nomination document.  Adaptation copyright © 2009, The Gombach Group.
The Forty Fort Meeting House, built in 1806-08 and located in the Old Forty Fort Cemetery, is a wood-framed structure with white clapboard siding. It is fifty feet long by forty feet wide and is approximately thirty-eight feet high from the base of the three foot stone foundation to the peak of the shingled roof.
It is a large rectangular building covered by a moderately pitched roof with a two foot overhang on all but the east side. Typical of New England Meeting Houses, the main entrance is located on the long side (south elevation). The almost perfect symmetry of the building is enhanced by the balanced and consistent placement of twenty-nine identical double-hung sash windows arranged in two tiers directly over each other on each of the four facades. Each window has twenty-four panes and is bordered by the original paneled shutters on the lower tier and more modern louvered shutters on the upper tier. There are six windows on each of the east and west facades and nine on the south, the extra window being situated directly above the entrance and in line with the upper tier windows. Centered among the eight standard windows on the north side is an arched window with a molded trim and a keystone. It is strategically placed to furnish light on the pulpit located on the other side of the wall. While it breaks the otherwise horizontal lines, its central placement contributes to the symmetry.
Other exterior design is limited to subtle molding around the five-paneled double door entrance, the uncut modillions beneath the cornices, and a closed lunette on the west elevation.
A few minor changes have been made to the exterior without affecting the basic concept of the building. Prior to 1888 there were doors on the east and west sides of the building, but these have been boarded up, and only the front entrance remains. Two attic windows have been placed on the east elevation, and the roof has been replaced several times. There appear to be no additional exterior renovations.
The interior consists of a single expansive room with a twenty-three foot plastered ceiling which conceals the oak framing of the roof. The floor is constructed of irregular sized planks of pine ranging from six to twenty-seven inches in width. The extensive carved wood interior remains virtually unaltered from its original state, but has darkened with age. The highly elevated pulpit, located directly opposite the entrance and in front of the arched window is faced by six rows of enclosed pews that are separated by the main aisle. Around the perimeter of the room are additional boxed pews. Located in opposite corners of the south wall are two flights of stairs, each leading to an upstairs gallery that extends around the front and two sides of the building. The gallery is supported by four turned wooden columns, each ten inches in diameter and situated among the pews. Visible along the walls are the twelve-supporting timbers of the framework, four in the front, four in the rear, and two on each side. The walls of both the main floor and gallery are plastered above and wainscotted below.
The only change to the interior has been the addition of two stoves for heating purposes. The building is kept in excellent condition with proper attention given to both cosmetic and structural elements.
The Forty Fort Meeting House, an important building in terms of both local and national significance, is of an architectural style that expresses an early part of American history, particularly the post-Revolutionary Period when the Puritan influences spread westward.
The borough of Forty Fort in which the Meeting House stands was settled in 1769 by the "First Forty" Connecticut colonists under claims made by the Susquehanna Company (1753-1803), a private land speculation enterprise. Careless and conflicting land grants made by King Charles II to both the Connecticut Yankees and Pennsylvania claimants resulted in much dissension and even blood-shed until 1803 when the dispute was finally resolved, and the Connecticut settlers received certificates of ownership. During the thirty years of agitation, the Yankees continued establishing their position once peace was established, the residents were able to formally institutionalize and the need for a church developed. This Meeting House is a product of their stabilization. Because Meeting Houses of these early settlers often served as both civic and religious centers, it is reasonable to assume that the Forty Fort Meeting House was used for both purposes.
Religion has played a key role in the early development of our country, and in establishing early settlements provisions were usually made for a ministry. In 1768 the Susquehanna Company set aside certain public lands to be used for a "gospel ministrie," but due to the attention the settlers gave to their immediate survival needs and the threats caused by opposing claimants, it was not until April 3, 1807 that the actual site was chosen. Part of this public land was already being used as a burial place, and it was appropriate, as was the custom, to build the church on the same property.
The commission to design and build the Meeting House was given to Joseph Hitchcock from New Haven, Connecticut. In the summer of 1807 the building was enclosed, and during the winter of 1807-08 the interior was designed by Gideon Underwood. The entire building was complete and ready for occupancy in June 1808, and remains the first finished church in which religious services were held in Northeastern Pennsylvania.
As a Union Church, the Meeting House served both the Connecticut Congregationalists (who later became Presbyterians) and the Methodists simultaneously. As the community grew, each congregation proceeded to build its own church; thus in 1837 the Meeting House was abandoned. In 1869 the Forty Fort Cemetery Association was formed with the intent of maintaining both the old burial ground and the Meeting House. To this day that association holds the key to the building. Although the Meeting House is still used in the summer for Union Services and an occasional wedding or funeral, it now exists more as a monument and record of the past that allows us to reflect on our heritage.
Architecturally the building is an expression of a very conservative and unpretentious Puritan society. The style was carried to Wyoming Valley via the Connecticut settlers who probably borrowed it from Rhode Island. Testimony to this lies in the fact that the Forty Fort Meeting House is almost an exact duplicate of a church built in 1707 in North Kingston, Rhode Island. Kingston was the original name of the Wyoming Valley area where the Connecticut colonists settled. Although historically this style fits into the early colonial period and the Forty Fort Church was not completed until 1808, it contains many of the traditional elements of the New England Puritan Meeting House style. Its extreme plainness of form reflects the Puritan rejection of all seductive embellishments and emphasizes a straightforward use of material. There is no old world precursor for these simple barn-like structures. The interior design also rejects the traditional orientation of most churches by placing the pulpit on one of the long walls rather than at the end. This serves to bring the congregation closer to the focal point of the church.
This building, although structurally quite simple, is an irreplaceable edifice, representative not only of a unique style of architecture, but of a significant period of American history that should be conserved.
Boyd, Julia P. Ed., The Susquehanna Company Papers, Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1930.
Brewster, William. History of the Certified Township of Kingston, Pennsylvania Wilkes-Barre, Pa.: Smith-Bennett Corp., 1930.
Dickson, Harold E. One Hundred Pennsylvania Buildings State College, Pa.: Bald Eagle Press, 1954.
Gowans, Alan. Images of American Living, Phila., Pa.: J.B. Lippencott, 1964.
Jenkins, Steuben. Union Services at the Old Forty Fort Church, June 15, 1888 Wilkes-Barre, Pa.: Wilkes-Barre Record, 1888.