Shortly after the 1909 opening of the Luzerne County Courthouse on North River Street in Wilkes-Barre, the city’s park commission began mulling ideas for developing the land along the Susquehanna River between the Market Street and North Street bridges.
Ideas were discussed, including a proposal by the Wilkes-Barre Bridge Company to build a third toll bridge from Union Street to Wilkes-Barre in what is now Nesbitt Park on the west side. The land was acquired from the DL & W. Coal Company in exchange for three acres at Parsons.
“The plan to use the common river as a playground at the north end has been discussed for some time and it is at the request of many prominent businessmen that tentative preparations are underway,” reports the Wilkes -Barre Record on May 14, 1912. .
Any development had to incorporate the Laurel Line, which took passengers from Wilkes-Barre to Pittston and Scranton passing the Temple of Justice.
What opened in late June 1912 were five tennis courts.
“The new tennis courts on the Upper River Common opened on Saturday and attracted a number of tennis players. The courts are considered the best in this part of the state,” reported the Wilkes-Barre Record on June 24, 1912.
The tennis courts were considered a success as they attracted hundreds of players, men and women, of all ages and professions. Clerics and lawyers wearing suits were often seen playing tennis and leagues and tournaments were held on the courts.
“Busy every day an outdoor sport is permitted, the city courts are busy with young and old,” reported the Record on September 4, 1912.
Other ideas were discussed to develop the common river which included large gardens and walkways.
“It includes a large flowerbed opposite the end of Union Street, larger than any of the single beds now laid out, and which will much beautify this section”, reported the Record on October 4, 1912.
The large flowerbed flourished in the city’s park commission building a greenhouse which officially opened to the public on November 22, 1913.
“Declared by many to be the most modern structure of its kind in the country, the greenhouse situated on the Common River near Union Street will be ready for occupation and public inspection in the near future”, May 23, 1913, edition of the Record reported.
William Latton of Jersey City, NJ built the greenhouse, widely known as the Palm House, at a total cost of $10,000.
One of the features of the greenhouse was its curvature design matching those of the courthouse.
Decades passed until more recreational development of the river township came to prominence with the Col. Ernest G. Smith Memorial Playground in 1948. The playground was built between the greenhouse and the tennis courts and included a shallow wading pool, roller rink, swings, and bath house with showers and toilets.
More than 1,500 people attended the inauguration of the playground on August 17, 1948.
“The whole center will be surrounded by a high chain-link fence to protect children from Laurel line and river trains,” reported the Times Leader on July 28, 1948.
The playground was the site of popular hopscotch tournaments in the 1950s.
Unfortunately, flooding by the river forced the closure of the recreational gems on the south lawn of the courthouse.
The St. Patrick’s Day flood in March 1936 damaged the greenhouse and it never recovered. In the late 1950s, the greenhouse fell into disrepair and became a liability to the city, eventually demolishing the once grand structure.
The Agnès flood in June 1972 finally changed the landscape of the river commune, as the playground and tennis courts were removed to make way for raised dykes.
Today, a gazebo stands on the site where the greenhouse once stood.