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DISASTER AT ROSS GROVE -- July 4, 1878

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Copying is permitted only with permission of the Author listed below. Article posted here
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The following account is from a collection of various sources including the following newspapers: Pittsburgh Daily Post, The Pittsburgh Evening Chronicle, The Pittsburgh Commercial Gazette as well as the diary of H.J. Heinz (Provided by Historian Ruth Weir of Pittsburgh). The narrative that follows has been put together in order by the Author, Michael Riethmiller of Etters, PA, a descendant of the Reithmiller family. For more info on the sources, you may contact the Author (riethmillerclan@ya-RemoveThis-hoo.com) or, the news articles can be found at the Pennsylvania State Library in the Newspaper room.


DISASTER AT ROSS GROVE -- July 4, 1878


The First German Lutheran Church of Sharpsburg, of which Conrad RIETHMILLER and his family were members, had decided to hold a picnic on July 4, 1878 in honor of the 102nd anniversary of American Independence. Extensive arrangements were made for an all day gathering, which would include the picnic, to be held at the Ross Estate in an area known as Sugar Camp Grove, some 400 yards away from the Ross mansion¹. The grove lay along the West Penn Railroad line, some seven miles from the city and consisted of a cluster of very large and very old Maple and oak trees, of which some stood anywhere from 40 to 75 feet in height and measured some 4 to 6 feet in diameter.

The United Presbyterian School occupied a grove on "The Hill" and a Gymnastic club occupied a grove on the west side of the road. Many of the parishoners came to the picnic area by taking the train up the West Penn Line to Ross Station a few miles above Sharpsburg, near present day Aspinwall, while the rest took their wagons and buggies to the site, parking them in amongst the trees of the grove.

W.C. MEYER, a dry good merchant from Sharpsburg, was Superintendant of the picnic. He placed the attendance that day at around 200. A chow chow wagon was provided by H.J. HEINZ for the picnic. There was a temporary roof erected for the shelter of those preparing the meal.

A Beautiful Day For A Picnic.

The weather was good that morning, the skies were clear and bright and the heat was the only complaint. Aside from the meal, there were sporting activities being carried on amongst the shelter of the trees. Sometime between noon and 1 p.m., a brief thunderstorm appeared with little warning. It rained hard and the wind was strong enough that it broke loose the makeshift roof of those preparing the food carrying it away in the opposite direction of the gathering and sending those underneath it scrambling to get clear, which they did without any further mishap.

Then, the weather simply cleared up as quickly as it had gone bad and the sun returned and everyone relaxed again. The skies darkened occasionally throughout the remainder of the afternoon, only to clear up again. Little attention was paid to the bizarre weather patterns.

Around 3 p.m. things changed quickly, the wind began to pick up from the west, then changing to come in from the north. Rain began to fall heavily and thunder and lightning rolled in fast followed by hail. The distant house was deemed impossible to reach and people began taking cover inside their buggies and wagons. H.J. HEINZ had his Barouche driven clear of the grove, while Conrad RIETHMILLER and his family and many others numbering around 18 or 19 total took cover in and underneath his wagon, which stood close to an enormous oak of some 5 feet in diameter. Approximately 30 yards away was the chow wagon as well and another wagon stood nearby also.

Disaster Strikes!

Within moments of the storm coming, lightning struck the oil stills of the Cosmos Oil Works on the opposite side of the Allegheny river opposite the grove, sending flames from the now burning oil soaring into the darkening skies, distracting the picnickers and causing further panic among them. The horses began lurch and become anxious as the heavy Gale-force winds began to rip branches and leaves from the large trees and scatter them across the grove.

Men now struggled to contain the horses, which were now threatening to upset the wagons spilling those inside to the ground. The Pastor of the Lutheran Church, Rev. Karl WALZ tried to calm the congregation, though it was in vain.

W.C. MEYER and his son were hiding underneath Conrad's wagon when the lightning struck the oil stills. The boy became frightened and bolted from underneath the wagon with his father chasing after him. They cleared the grove as did Mr. HEINZ, who by now had unhitched his horse. At about this moment, the storm moved into the grove and uprooted five of the larger trees sending them crashing down in a confused state just missing the Meyers, but a falling limb struck Mr. HEINZ's horse probably fracturing its skull as HEINZ later said "It closed up his eye and swelled his head. He may get over it."

The first tree to be uprooted was the one in which Conrad's wagon was standing beside. Lightning struck the massive oak, splitting its trunk and the force of the wind picked the tree straight up into the air and then sent it crashing down on top of the wagon destroying the top, bed, running gears and one rear wheel and sinking the wagon into the mud, burying it up to the axles.

Furious Weather Causes Death and Injuries!

Ursula RIETHMILLER, wife of Conrad, was holding 15 month old William, their son, in the wagon during the unfolding of these events. The tree smashed into the wagon crushing her skull, breaking her leg and killing her instantly. She fell on top of the infant and he smothered to death under her. The oldest daughter, Annie Elizabeth was bruised up badly and Conrad was struck in the chest, another child had his leg broken, while another sustained a fractured ankle. Frederick RIETHMILLER was struck in the head, though not seriously and Charles RIETHMILLER had his back sprained. A Mrs. STOEPNER, a resident of Etna, was struck on the head and died, most likely instantly.

Pastor WALZ's 8 year old son, Ludwig, was also in Conrad's wagon and died of a blow to the head. Annie GEISLER, about 20 years of age, was injured seriously. She was struck in the head and chest and soon began to bleed internally. Lizzie BURGUND, a 13 year old girl was struck in the back, which broke. Lizzie KRAFTS suffered a broken leg.

A different tree fell upon another wagon with approximately 20 people inside. Two sons of Peter PRAGER (President of the Sharpsburg and Etna Savings Bank) were killed. Willie PRAGER, 16 years old, died from a fractured skull as did his brother, 9 year old Hermann, who was caught under one of the heavy branches and struck on the head so hard it reportedly flattened his skull and spilled his brains upon the ground.

20 year old Sophia GEUTZMAN was also killed, bringing the death toll to seven. Another brother, George PRAGER, sustained a foot injury. Peter RAUM was injured slightly, but was sore and unable to move for days afterward. A brother of Annie GEISLER had his arm crushed and Michael SCHRUM, of Sharpsburg, suffered two broken ribs.

Panic Stricken / Searching For Survivors.

The Presbyterian School and Gymnastic club both scattered and many returned on foot to Sharpsburg. A loud wail went up immediately from the injured which could be heard above the noise of what was, by now, a Tornado, attracting the attention of others. Conrad appears to have gotten out of the wreckage and went searching for an axe. Others, realizing what happened went running towards to scene with whatever they had, including axes and began digging out those caught in the ruins of the wagons while the storm continued to rage around them. The rain accumulated to between 2 to 3 inches on the ground before subsiding.

The rescue continued as the storm abated and the water began to receed. When it was all over, the ground was terribly muddy. Trees had been torn apart and five large holes were visible where the monstrous trees had stood. They were now upon the ground, their roots towering into the sky as high as 15 feet. Approximately 20 smaller trees were blown over as well as the five large ones and, in the grove above the Railroad, about 30 tree were destroyed. Debris lay everywhere.

Dr. BRINTON, of Sharpsburg, was present and quickly made his way to the scene, with many others. He pronounced Lizzie BURGUNDS broken back to be fatal. He immediately called for assistance. The Undertaker, Mr HOLZHEIMER, responded and hurried to the area.

The Rev. Karl WALZ was struck on the head as well, but seems to have been alright until he saw his sons mangled corpse, which proved too much for the man and he began to slip into a temporary insanity, which consisted of laughing continously and not being able to recognise anyone present.

The Dr. sent W.C. MEYER and J.W. OVER, Esq. were sent out to find Coroner THOMAS, but they had to return as the Coroner was not present, most likely due to the holiday. They decided to consult with the Coroner the next morning.

The news reached Sharpsburg in less than 30 minutes and the borough came to something resembling a standstill as people clammored for news and information on family members and friends. Even the taverns, although open, stood empty.

Back at Sugar Camp, the anguish was evident as the bodies of the dead were removed from the wreckage and placed in wagons requisitioned for the purpose of transporting the dead and wounded back to Sharpsburg. About this time, Mrs. SCHROADS discovered her 8 year old daughter was missing and a search immediately went out for her. She was found sometime later with an injured foot, but it was feared for sometime that she was dead.

Conrad clutched his infant son as if he was still alive, refusing to put him down, overcome with grief. He and the other injured and dead were loaded into the wagons and they started for home. A short distance from Sugar Camp, they found that the bridge over Ross Run had been swept away by the storm, so the procession had to stop. W. C. MEYER sent for lumber to replace the bridge.

Darkness was settling over Sharpsburg when they finally reached town. The bodies were removed to their homes, with the exception of Ursula and William RIETHMILLER, who were removed to the care of the Undertaker, Mr. HOLZHEIMER because of the numerous injuries within the family.

Many of the families were very poor and the town did what it could to help. W.C. MEYER and others paid for the funerals and the medical expenses were also covered. Mr. HOLZHEIMER provided six hearses for the funeral, which been set for the following day, July 5, at 3:30 pm.

Final Services / Interments.

Various ministers agreed to participate and interment was to be in the church cemetery in the far end of town. At about 10 am on the 5th of July, between 40 and 50 curiousity seekers took the train up to Ross Station and proceeded to the site, where they toured the grove and surveyed the damage. By 11 am, there were as many as 100 surveying the destroyed groves.

An inquest was held that morning by Coroner THOMAS. A jury was selected and witnesses were examined. The Coroner ruled the deaths accidental. By 1 pm, Rev. WALZ was improving. His mental faculties were returning to normal, though he refused to speak and was still in a fair amount of pain. At around 2 pm, the casket containing his son was brought to him, so he could say goodbye.

Earlier in the day, the Mother of Sophia GEUTZMAN visited the home of Mr. MEYER and asked him to postpone her daughters funeral till the following day. She gave him no reason. Mr. MEYER told her that the funeral was already scheduled for 3:30 pm. She simply replied, "well, if you are going to bury the rest, take her." Later, it was discovered that she believed her daughter was only stunned and would wake up.

The funerals took place that afternoon. Conrad RIETHMILLER and his children were unable to attend because of the injuries. The six hearses lined up on South Main Street near the Presbyterian Church and about 4 pm, proceeded to the houses of the deceased. Mrs. STOEPNER, of Etna, was first, then Sophia GEUTZMAN, then Ludwig WALZ, then Herman and Willie PRAGER and finally Ursula and William RIETHMILLER, who were in the casket together.

Brief services were held at each of the residences, Rev. Friedrich SCHEIT, of Allegheny, Mr. RIDENBACH of Lawrenceville, P. BRAND of South Side, E.L. BROWN of Bennett Station and Frederick WAMBAGNASS of Allegheny officiated.

Then the procession went to the cemetery outside of town. Six hearses led, followed by 13 carriages and buggies and almost 1000 people on foot. When the western edge of Sharpsburg was reached, a heavy shower of rain began to fall and those on foot scattered and many fell back to town.

Then, the rain stopped and the bodies were interred in the following order:
1) Ludwig WALZ
2) Ursula and William RIETHMILLER (in the same casket)
3) Mrs. STOEPNER
4) Sophia GEUTZMAN
5) William PRAGER
6) Henry PRAGER

Rev. SCHEIT read a brief discourse (Amos 3:6 "Does the war trumpet sound in a city without making people afraid? Does disaster strike a city unless the LORD sends it?") in German. Rev. SCHILLINGER read Job 1:21 ("Job said, 'I was born with nothing and I will die with nothing. The LORD gave and now he has taken away. May his name be praised!") in English. Several remarks were made by other clergymen.

A Related Disaster.

Five others lost their lives that day in a separate incident along Sandy Creek on the opposite side of the river when the house they were occupying was washed away, due to the swelling of the creek, bringing the toll to twelve.


¹Fox Chapel - A History of an Area and Its People. Frances C. Hardie. p. 11. A Georgian country mansion built about 1820 and named "The Meadows", located on the corner of today's Fox Chapel and Freeport Roads.


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