Thank you for visiting . . .
DISASTER AT ROSS GROVE -- July 4,
(None of the following copyrighted information, partial or in total, may be used by
any person or organization, electronically or otherwise, for the purpose of profiteering.
Copying is permitted only with permission of the Author listed below. Article posted here
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,
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
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
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
the chow wagon as well and another wagon stood nearby also.
Within moments of the storm coming, lightning struck the oil stills
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
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
up badly and Conrad was struck in the chest, another child had his leg
broken, while another sustained a fractured ankle. Frederick
was struck in the head, though not seriously and Charles RIETHMILLER
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
and many fell back to town.
Then, the rain stopped and the bodies were interred in the following
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
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.
Back To Home Page