DURYEA —Digging can lead to anything, including bringing a family together.
In 2010, the Frances Dorrance Chapter 11 PA Archaeological Society discovered the foundation of a property owned by a man named John Phillips in the late 1800s on the Conrail Site, located near Coxton Yards in Duryea.
The discovery included the foundation of a house, a well and also various items such as a Civil War medicine bottle, a 1853 three-cent piece, ceramics dating back to the 1750s, dishes, porcelain dolls and a five-cent token to an old bar once located in Pittston.
The discovery of Phillips’ foundation peaked the interest of an out-of-state family, which led them to do research of their own and conclude that they are his descendants.
On Aug. 8, eight relatives of Phillips traveled from New York and North Carolina to the Greater Pittston area to see the place their ancestor once called home.
Stephen Phillips, who splits his time living in Cooperstown, New York and Madird, Spain, said he is the fifth great-grandson of John. He first read about the foundation discovery in a Times Leader newspaper article back in 2013.
The article led him to a book called “Digging Up Wyoming Valley: An Archaeological Search in Northeastern Pennsylvania,” written by Mark G. Dziak.
“Having done so much research on the family history, it kind of affirmed the folklore that had been passed down through our parents who talked about West Wyoming, Wyoming, Pittston and the whole area,” said Stephen. “My father was the last one born in the last family house in West Wyoming. We’ve heard so much about it at such a distance.”
When a member of the Phillips family got in touch with Ted Baird, treasurer of the archaeological society, about their relation to John and interest in visiting the site, Baird was thrilled that the findings in the area meant more than just digging.
“It was exciting,” said Baird. “We had an actual tie to somebody who had family that came from here,” said Baird.
After digging through his family tree and taking a DNA test earlier this year to find more family under the John Phillips name, Stephen discovered he was the cousin of John Viggiani, of Lithgow, New York. whose family is related to the Phillips family through Vigianni’s mother, who has a cousin within the Phillips family.
“My son and I did it (took DNA tests) because I was really trying to find the Italian side of my family in terms of where they came from and all that kind of stuff,” said Viggiani. “The first hit I see is this Stephen Phillips and so I called my mom, asked her if she heard of him and she said that he is her cousin Hank’s son. Stephen and I started talking, and my mom and her cousin talked about coming here and these coincidences, and now here we all are.”
The two gentlemen said they had never met until a few months ago while the Phillips family was working out the details of visiting the Conrail Site.
Walking through the foundation and learning of the archaeological findings and history from Baird, Viggiani said it was great to bring the family back to the Greater Pittston area. He said once everyone moved out of the area, the family dispersed.
Stephen could not help but appreciate the way a homestead was made in the area.
“It’s beautiful, but it’s costly,” he said. “There are four tough seasons in this part of the country. What makes summer so beautiful is a winter so difficult, but there’s also bugs. When you try to imagine digging out a basement, cutting the trees and trying to farm this land along with flooding and Indians — it all gives you an appreciation of what it took for people to settle in this area.”
Baird said the house that once stood on the Conrail Site was taken down sometime in the early 1900s after it was purchased by the Reading Blue Mountain & Northern Railroad Company to make way for a railroad.
The railroad company still owns the property to this day, but gives permission to the archaeological society to excavate the site.
“We think the railroad company tore it down and burned it,” Baird said. “A 1917 map showed there was supposed to be a railroad coming through here.”
Digging up the foundation, Baird said, was done by hand and the project is still ongoing.
As the railroad company still owns the property of the foundation, everything the archaeological society has uncovered is staying at Baird’s house for the time being but must first be offered to the railroad company. If not, Baird will try to find a local place to display the artifacts.
Baird went far and beyond to fill the John Phillips descendants with as much knowledge as possible about their ancestor, including that he owned 1,300 acres of land from the Susquehanna River to Old Forge and was a Revolutionary War solider.
Baird also provided a binder filled with photos, documents and articles about John Phillips and the history of the Conrail Site.
“I love doing research,” he said. “I love digging into paperwork and digging for things online, as well as digging in the dirt. I find stuff on local history in Moscow where I live and I do genealogy. It’s just fun for somebody who likes to research.”
Reach Jimmy Fisher at 570-704-3972 or on Twitter @SD_JimmyFisher