FOR decades they were a blight on the otherwise picturesque landscape surrounding this town -- those towering gray-black spoils banks, remnants of a coal mining industry long since gone from the area. They stood as monuments to a grimy past, a depressed present, and an indifferent future. But in recent years the culm banks, as they are called, have begun to disappear as new ways to tap their energy potential have been developed. A new physical beauty, which began with the cleanup after Hurricane Agnes roared through the region in 1972, continues to reshape Wilkes-Barre and the surrounding countryside. The accompanying mental tone, too, is becoming more upbeat with the passing years. There is hope, even a note of enthusiasm now, for a future that finally appears promising.
This town, one of the first to reap the benefits of the Industrial Revolution in North America -- but also among the first to lose its heavy industries -- has fallen on its face and struggled to its feet more times than most during this century. There have been four floods (the last and most devastating in 1972), the depression years of the 1930s, the end of coal mining, the loss of the textile and shoe industries, and most recently the decline of the apparel industry in the face of foreign competition. The fact that ``no one smokes anymore,'' to quote one resident, has also contributed to the end of the hand-rolled-cigar industry.
If you studied history only through the headlines, you would marvel that there could be any optimism left in this city. But you would be discounting the special qualities of the people, the town's unique situation within a few hours of the megalopolis that stretches from Boston south to Washington, and the valley's abundant water. Now that the dikes, the dams, and weirs along the Susquehanna River have been strengthened, a good water supply is recognized for what it is. There are those who look east to an increasingly thirsty New York City and see water becoming a significant revenue earner in the future.
Businessmen in service-related, high-tech, and light manufacturing industries are beginning to look at the valley with renewed interest, according to Chris Breiseth, president of Wilkes College, a relatively recent arrival to the region. Dr. Breiseth accepted the Wilkes College post precisely because of the ``challenges that come with the developing opportunities'' in the region.
Innovative thinking has also created new uses for the culm heaps that for decades draped such a hang-dog image over the city.
Using technology developed during the past decade, the city's Steam Heat Authority is burning the culm waste to produce cheap heat for the downtown area, replacing conventional coal. Another company is bonding the fine materials into large pieces that can be used like conventional coal, and a third is processing the waste into charcoal. Yet another is producing water-filtration materials from the culm. Two byproducts of these relatively recent undertakings are valuable new real estate and a more visually pleasing environment.
Tom Bigler, who moved here 40 years ago to start a small radio station and stayed on to join the NBC affiliate when television came into its own, knows this region as well as anyone else. He cites two ``tragedies'' that ultimately brought benefits to the town: the time in the late 1950s when the Susquehanna broke into the mines and brought such underground mining as remained to an abrupt and permanent halt, and the 1972 flood.
In the 1950s, mining beneath the Susquehanna came too close to the riverbed. The river broke through without warning, plunging into the warren of interconnecting tunnels and mine shafts under the city. When it was all over, 11 miners had died, but the ``geological integrity'' of the city was restored. Because the mining tunnels had been filled with water, they were no longer subject to collapse. From then on, Mr. Bigler says, there was no longer any need to limit the height or weight of new construction over heavily mined areas.
When hurricane Agnes roared through the region in June of '72, it was the water, not the wind, that wreaked the havoc. Agnes dumped 18 inches on the landscape in 24 hours and the Susquehanna rose visibly almost by the second.
The river crested at an almost unbelievable 40.6 feet; the central square downtown turned into a lake 12 feet deep. Damage was placed in excess of a billion dollars, but the federal and state aid that poured in came to within $10 million of that figure. The bulk of that money went into restoring streets, sidewalks, power and gas lines, and the like.
Before the flood, Bigler explains, more than 75 percent of all housing in Wilkes-Barre had been built before 1920. The less stable of these structures fell to the storm and had to be rebuilt. The demolishing and rebuilding that normally take place over decades in a city was accomplished here in one fell swoop.
Today, Ed Schechter, a longtime Wilkes-Barre resident and businessman, is one of many people visibly helping to pick up the valley and propel it forward. Over many years he met with fellow businessmen in a local restaurant -- ``Ben's place,'' as it is known -- to discuss the town's problems and opportunities. Out of these once-a-week breakfasts came the Committee for Economic Growth, which Mr. Schechter now heads as executive secretary.
The committee plans to bring 5,000 jobs to the region within the next five years, Schecter says, by attracting appropriate industries -- telecommunications, rubber and plastics, food distribution, health and beauty aids, data processing, and the like. That goal is attainable, he believes, given what he sees as the area's advantages:
Location. Wilkes-Barre is within overnight delivery of a third of the US population (some 73 million people) and the major ports and airports for export to Europe and the Middle East. It shares with neighboring Scranton a Class 1 airport. Recreational opportunities are available half an hour from the city or less, while the big-city attractions of New York and Philadelphia are roughly two hours away by car.
Inexpensive and plentiful land, water, and electricity.
Affordable housing and office space. Housing costs are 25 percent below the national average and half those of the Greater Boston region. Office rentals are far less than the going rates in major East Coast centers.
Education. Fifty-eight percent of the public school students go on to higher education, and the number of high school dropouts is half the state average.
A low crime rate. Rand McNally's ``Places Rated Almanac'' puts Wilkes-Barre as the sixth lowest in crime of the 329 metropolitan areas nationwide.
Yet another plus is the now developing partnership between new industries and the city's universities, which Dr. Breiseth sees as an important key to opening up the door to a prosperous future.
Breiseth points out that more and more the expertise of the university in both management and research is being used by smaller companies typical of those being attracted to Wilkes-Barre.
These new companies, he says, generally have neither the budget nor the manpower to undertake all of their research needs, so they will look increasingly to the colleges and universities for much of their research and development and other needs. Where a new industry decides to locate may well hinge on where it can get good backup support from a college, Breiseth contends.
Even though it may have a distance to go, Wilkes-Barre has come a long way from the days when it was described as a ``grimy little coal town.''