The Sourbeck Children: An American Family Entwined with the Rails

When this daguerreotype image was captured, Annie and Harry Sourbeck had been fatherless for most of their lives.

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Sarah Ann and William Henry Harrison Sourbeck, Scoville 1/6th-plate daguerreotype, circa 1850. Ann Longmore-Etheridge Collection.

Daguerreotypes were the earliest form of photography – little wood-encased miracles of light and the long exposure of silvered copper plates. Sometimes the exposures lasted more than a minute, especially in the 1840s, which were the early days of the art form. A note in the case of this image reads “Sarah Ann Sauerbeck, Henry Sauerbeck, 1850?” This guesstimate accords well with the case design, with the simple brass mat that framed the image beneath its glass cover, as well as the clothing of the Sourbeck siblings. The two would have had to be very still, looking into the empty black eye of an alien, unnerving camera for at least 30 seconds. It was almost certainly their first photograph.

Sourbeck is the correct spelling of the family name, or at least that which they used the majority of the time. Even as late as the mid-nineteenth century, spelling could be fluid with both given and surnames. Sarah Ann Sourbeck, recorded in various public records as “Annie” and sometimes “Anna” (she will be Annie within this article, to distinguish her from her mother), was born in March 1841 in Cumberland County, Pennsylvania. Her younger brother, William Henry Harrison Sourbeck, came along four years later, on 11 August, 1845, in Harrisburg, Dauphin (now Lebanon) County, Pennsylvania, a small city located on the banks of the Susquehanna River. The boy, named after the ninth president of the United States who had died the previous April, would be known by all as Harry. They were the children of Sarah Ann Collier (1804-1886) and her second husband John Sourbeck (1786-1847). When this daguerreotype was captured, they were aged about eight and five and had been fatherless for much of their lives.

Sarah Ann’s father eventually lost the hotel after using it as collateral for the bail of a friend, who promptly fled.

Sarah Ann Collier was the daughter of Jonathan (1780-1828) and Catherine Tice Collier (d. 1809). She was born in Dauphin County, Pennsylvania, to a father who was a hotelier in Upper Paxton Township. According to a descendant, he had used his children’s inheritance from their maternal grandfather to build the Millersburg Hotel, which still was operating as late as 1996. Sarah Ann’s father eventually lost the hotel after using it as collateral for the bail of a friend, who promptly fled. Collier was dead by the age of 48, passing away in March 1828 in Buffalo Township.

Sarah Collier first married Dr. Samuel Fahnestock (1803-1829). According to a letter by H. S. Bickel, pastor of the Church of God in Camp Hill, Pennsylvania, which was preserved by the family, “Mrs. Ann Nicholas of Camp Hill…said that Dr. Samuel Fahnestock’s mother was a member of the Seven Day Baptist faith, and lived at Oysters Point…. She was the mother of two boys, both physicians.” Pastor Bickel noted two daughters born to Samuel and Sarah Ann: Catherine Fahnestock, who may not have survived childhood, and Susanna (1830-1915). One of the girls, “I was told was a mute,” the Pastor wrote.

Dr. Fahnestock died of unknown causes at age 26 in 1829. His widow Sarah Ann was enumerated on the 1830 Census of East Pennsboro, Cumberland County, Pennsylvania, as heading a household three – two of whom females under the age of five. In his letter, Paster Bickel wrote that Catherine and Susanna Fahnestock were raised by Fahnestock’s mother, but it is not known whether they were eventually sent to their grandmother out of duress or because their mother remarried and her new husband was not interested in raising step-children.

If the cause was the latter, Sarah Ann’s suitor, John Sourbeck, had reason enough. The widowed Sourbeck had 10 offspring by his marriage to Lydia Hemphill (b. 1791): Dorcas (1810-aft. 1840); Daniel E. (1812-1883); Margaret (1816-1852); Jane (1818-1841); Joseph S. (1822-1857); John (1823-1864); Adeline (1824-aft. 1900); James W. (1829-1873); and twins Elizabeth (1831-1889) and Mary (1831-1901), whose birth may have lead to Lydia’s death at the age of 42 years. Whilst his older children were married and established, in 1832 Sourbeck needed a mother for his infant twins, as well as three-year-old James, eight-year-old Adeline, nine-year-old John, 10-year-old Joseph, and 12-year-old Jane.

There may have been a connection between Sarah Ann’s father, Jonathan Collier, and John Sourbeck, who were close in age and both hoteliers, which drew the couple together. However they met, Sarah Ann Collier Fahnestock, age 28, married forty-six-year-old Sourbeck, on 2 August, 1832, and took up the position of mother to his brood. Paster Bickel wrote that “Sourbeck kept a hotel in Camp Hill,” and a commodious inn would have provided the space the growing Sourbeck clan needed. The couple’s first child, Caroline, was born in 1834. Next came George Washington Sourbeck, born 26 February, 1837, then Annie in 1841.

Paster Bickel concluded his letter with an intriguing and somewhat snide side note: “Mrs. Nicholas doesn’t know anything of them after they removed from Camp Hill. She said that it is hardly likely that John Sourbeck’s children were baptized while they were in Camp Hill.” Whether Mrs. Nicholas referred to Sourbeck’s children by his first marriage, his second, or both, is unknown.

“His table shall be furnished with all the varieties of the season – his Bar, Beds, and every thing connected with the establishment, shall not be excelled by any in the borough.”

The family decamped from Camp Hill before 1842, when the Harrisburg City Directory contained this notice from Sourbeck: “The undersigned respectfully announces to his friends and the public, that he has taken that well known tavern stand, in the borough of Harrisburg, known as Franklin House, in Walnut-st., formerly kept by B. Hale. His table shall be furnished with all the varieties of the season – his Bar, Beds, and every thing connected with the establishment, shall not be excelled by any in the borough. The Carriage house and Stabling are extensive and convenient, and sufficiently large to accommodate drovers. The house being situated in the centre of businesses, renders it a desirable stopping place for those having business at the Capitol of the State, as well as Jurors attending Courts; and having long been known as the keeper of several public houses in Cumberland county, he flatters himself that his old friends and customers will favor him with a call. No pains will be spared to minister to the comfort of his guests during their stay with him – he therefore respectfully solicits a share of public patronage.”

While John and Sarah Ann Sourbeck operated Franklin House, Matilda Georgia was born 21 February, 1843, and Harry was born in 1845. The pub and inn, sitting on the busy corner of Walnut and Raspberry Alley, seems to have been a bustling establishment, however the 1844 tax rates list Sourbeck as tenant taverner – not an owner – who possessed one horse and cow. The Harrisburg Business Directory notes that in 1845, a baker named John O. Austin was either employed by or worked out of Franklin House; others listed in residence at the property were boot and shoemaker J. M. Awl and Jacob Brua, a printer.

“Mr. Sourbeck, who could not swim, immediately sank.”

The Sourbecks’ lives changed dramatically on 10 July, 1847. The 13 July issue of the Harrisburg Telegraph, tells the tale:

“On Saturday afternoon last, Messrs. John Sourbeck, Christian Kendig, Jonathan Novinger, and a Mr. Graham went fishing in the Susquehanna, at Dauphin, in a skiff. They had not got far into the river before the skiff ran upon a rock. In getting it off, three – Messrs. Sourbeck, Kendig, and Graham – got upon the rock, where Mr. Graham slipped, and in his endeavoring to save himself, he caught hold of Mr. Sourbeck, and pulled him into the water. A struggle ensued to save themselves by the boat, which was upset in the attempt, when all three were obliged to save themselves in the best way they could. Mr. Sourbeck, who could not swim, immediately sank. Mr. Graham could swim and made for shore, but sunk before he reached it. Mr. Novinger clung to the boat until he was rescued. Mr. Kendig remained on the rock until he was taken off the rock by a boat from shore. Two of the four were thus suddenly launched into eternity within a few moments after they had left their friends on an excursion, more of an amusement than a utility. Mr. Sourbeck was a man of over fifty years age, extensively known; he was keeping a public tavern at Dauphin at the time of his death. Mr. Graham, who was from Perry County, near Newport, we are informed, and attached to the Engineer Corps engaged in locating the Pennsylvania Rail Road. They both left families to lament their loss.”

On 14 July, the Democratic Union carried this item: “Two Men Drowned – On Saturday last, John Sourbeck of Dauphin, and Thomas Graham of Newport, Perry County, were drowned in the river at Dauphin, whilst on a fishing excursion. Sourbeck leaves a wife and fourteen children to mourn his untimely end. Graham has left a wife and three children to regret his loss. The bodies of the drowned men have been recovered.”

John Sourbeck was buried in Dauphin Cemetery, where his gravestone stands today. Inscribed upon it is this verse: “Ye friends that weep around my grave, Compose your minds to rest, Prepare with me for sudden death, And live for ever blessed.”

“He was early in life necessitated to do for himself.”

After losing their pater familias, life immediately became difficult for the family. Just how difficult is evidenced within the 1881 History of Stark County, Ohio, edited by William Henry Perrin, which contains a short biography of George Washington Sourbeck (known as Washington or Wash), John and Sarah Ann’s eldest son.

“He was early in life necessitated to do for himself, and began his career as driver on the canal from Harrisburg to Nanticoke and Wilkesbarre. This he followed one season, when he went to Mechanicsburg and apprenticed himself in the boot and shoe trade, and remained there six years.” (The 1850 Census places Wash with Irish immigrant shoemaker Edward Lamant, his family, and apprentices.)

Sarah Ann and her youngest children also moved to Mechanicsburg. A document preserved by the family states, “Sarah Ann Sourbeck the bearer, has been an acceptable member of the Methodist Episcopal Church in Mechanicsburg, Carlisle Circuit, Baltimore Conference. Given under my had this 11th day of September, 1849. James Watts, Preacher in charge.” If Mrs. Nicholas of Camp Hill thought there had been an earlier issue with the Sourbecks and religion, it seems to have been rectified.

It was during the family’s years in Mechanicsburg that the daguerreotype of Annie and Harry Sourbeck was made, most likely by Andrew B. Tubbs, who was active in Harrisburg in 1850, although the velvet liner of the case is not embossed with Tubbs’ name as in other surviving examples. There is no question that John Plumbe, Jr. – who was one of the earliest daguerreotypists in America, and who established galleries bearing his name in cities such as Frederick, Maryland; Portland, Maine; Ontario, Canada; and Louisville, Kentucky – operated a daguerreotype franchise in Harrisburg in the 1840s. Tubbs may have taken over the studio late in that decade.

The rarity and wonder of photographic images, even some two decades after the introduction of the daguerreotype, is evidenced in a surviving letter of 5 February, 1865, from Sarah Ann’s nephew, Emanuel H. Salada, to his aunt. His mother was Elizabeth Collier (1831-1867). (I have lightly edited this excerpt to increase readability.)

“I would inform you that I received the photograph you sent and further I was pleased very well to have it…. When I showed it to sister Amanda Hoffman, she kissed it and said, ‘She looks like mother did.’…. I would like to have my family taken and send it to you all but our place will not afford [a photographer] to stop here. But if I live till next summer I will take them to Harrisburg and have them taken. Further, I am sorry to say to you that I can’t fulfill your wish in regard of sending my mother’s picture. She never had it taken as far as I know,” Salada concluded mournfully. “I would give 20 Dollars myself for one likeness of my mother.”

“I came west with my parents in 1851 or 1852, when the Pennsylvania Railroad was not yet completed.”

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Sarah Ann Sourbeck, circa 1865.

Harry Sourbeck, the tow-headed boy who looks at us suspiciously through the daguerreotype’s photographic hole in time, shared an early memory with the Alliance Weekly Review, which published a biographical item about him on 3 April, 1914. “I came west with my parents in 1851 or 1852, when the Pennsylvania Railroad was not yet completed…. I remember well the conductor calling out the first through train to Pittsburgh. It was at a place where they were loading canal boats on cars to take them over the mountains by rail.”

What seems at first to be misremembering – that Harry travelled with both parents when his father was dead – resolves with the understanding that it was Daniel, Harry’s eldest brother, more than 30 years his senior, who led the party west. Their destination was a triumvirate of villages sprung up around the Cleveland & Wellsville and Ohio & Pennsylvania railroads that would later unify into town called Alliance.

According to Amtrak’s Great American Stations website, “At Alliance, the two railroads crossed, and to this day, any map of the area prominently displays the graceful ‘X’ that the rails create upon the landscape.”

The site continues, “In 1853 the first depot in town was constructed on the north side of the rail crossing near E. Main Street and Webb Avenue; Main Street was laid out to lead directly to the station, as city leaders recognized the potential impact that the railroad would have on their community. Old photographs show it to be…an octagonal two-story central section with a low tent roof. This portion of the station was flanked by one-story wings that featured large dormer gables trimmed in fancy bargeboard. The building appeared to be wood frame and covered in clapboard, while the windows were crowned by Tudor inspired window hoods that were in keeping with the eclectic nature of the overall design. Also on the north side adjoining the depot was a hotel and dining hall.”

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Sourbeck House with a steam train at the platform.

On 12 May, 1852, Daniel Sourbeck arrived to take charge of the latter, which “became noted for famous meals throughout the length of these great thoroughfares and their connections…. Sourbeck came here at the solicitation of members of that company especially to take charge of their house. He had been engaged up to that time, in the Dry Goods trade and hotel business for a number of years in New Brighton, Pa. To the Sourbeck House, Alliance owes greatly her early fame; for the excellent manner in which the house has been managed in all its departments from his installation therein, has caused it to be spoken of far and near, and always has it been associated with the name of Alliance,” explains Stuart McKees’ Directory of 1868.

During the years in which Daniel ran the establishment it burned down once and was rebuilt of brick, and “Many noted individuals stopped at Sourbeck House, among them Louis Kossuth, the leader of the Hungarian revolution, [who] was received with honor and made a brief address in 1852, also in the same year, Gen. Winfield Scott on his way to Cleveland where he made the historic speech which lost the presidency to the Whig party in the fall,” notes The Alliance Review, published by the Alliance Historical Society.

The Review also allows us a glimpse of an age that was ugly with racism: “Mr. J. H. Sharer in his history of early Alliance tells of listening to the speeches of these men and also relates the incident when ‘Fred Douglass in company with two hundred delegates to a Free Soil convention, had stopped at the Sourbeck House in 1852 for a dinner previously ordered. Mr. Sourbeck, seeing the colored man in the dining room and not knowing he was one of the party, took steps to eject him whereupon all present arose from their seats and marched in a body to the round house which stood nearby on the north side of the track and adopted a series of stinging resolutions, rebuking Mr. Sourbeck for the indignity he had heaped upon them.’”

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Sourbeck House was rebuilt in brick after a fire destroyed the old wooden hotel and station.

Daniel Sourbeck’s prospering business attracted other members of the clan such as brothers John, who would shortly move on to Youngstown; James, who died in Alliance in 1873; and Wash, who rejoined his family in 1855 after a sojourn working on the rails. “[Wash] came to Alliance, and was engaged in his brother’s dining hall at the railroad depot for about one and a half years,” notes the History of Stark County, Ohio. Afterward, “He went to Youngstown and engaged at his trade for a short time when he accepted a clerkship in the Union Hotel, where he remained for two years. He purchased the passenger dining-rooms on Liberty Street, Pittsburgh, which he conducted about a year, sold out and returned to Youngstown, Ohio.”

“I glanced over my shoulder just in time to see the rear coach leaving the track.”

In 1855, Daniel Sourbeck was nearly the victim of a horrific train wreck that was widely reported in the eastern United States. According to the Friday, 31 August, Baltimore Sun, a train of five passenger cars “left Philadelphia at 10 o’clock…reached Burlington before 11 o’clock. It then stopped, waiting for the arrival of the 8 o’clock New York train from Jersey City…. After waiting for from five to ten minutes, and the New York train not appearing, the Philadelphia train went forward slowly, watching for the approach of the downward train. It had gone forward about a mile and a quarter when the New York train came in sight.” The Philadelphia train began to back up. The engineer did so at speed, not knowing that a “light pleasure wagon driven by Dr. Hannigan of Columbus, N.J., had attempted to cross the track.” The last passenger car, which at the train’s reversal became the leading car, crashed into the wagon, jumped the track, and rolled down an embankment dragging other cars with it and crushing some together.

Sourbeck was traveling on the train with a friend named Kelly from Philadelphia to New York. The engineer, Mr. Kelly claimed years later in a Pittsburgh Daily Post article, “pulled the throttle wide open, sending the light train flying backward over the road. Mr. Sourbeck remarked about the high speed and swaying motion of the cars. I glanced over my shoulder just in time to see the rear coach leaving the track and rolling over. I was just reaching for the bell cord when our own car lurched over…. When I regained my senses, I was lying beneath the body of a dead man.”

Dozens were killed and severely injured. Daniel Sourbeck was reported by the Sun to have a scalp wound. Mr. Kelly recalled that Sourbeck was “badly hurt and suffered for some time.”

Even so, Sourbeck could count himself amongst the lucky. A female passenger, Mrs. Benjamin Harvey, described the terrible scene to the Sunbury American: “She says that portions of bodies were scattered over the ground, while wounded men and women, bleeding, and some dying, were lying upon the bank, exposed to the hot sun. The leg of a man was thrown some distance from the body, while his heart and other small particles of flesh and bones were found in other directions.”

Less than a year later, on 6 December, 1856, another tragic train accident occurred, this time, literally, too close to home. There was a “collision in which the train on the C. & P. crashed into the train on the Ohio & Penn, which had not yet cleared the crossing. It was rushing along at such speed and hit with such force that the cars were pushed into the wooden station house that stood on the north side of the track and where the platform and waiting room was filled with people. Eleven were killed and twenty seriously hurt,” reported the Alliance Weekly Review.

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Sourbeck House and depot around the time of the accident.

The 12 December issue of the Freemont Weekly Journal includes more details. “One of the passenger cars was thrown into the rotunda of the depot, and another into the sitting room of the Sourbeck Hotel, in which several persons were sitting. Both of these rooms were torn to pieces, and the inmates either killed or wounded.”

William H. Vincent, who was a clerk at Sourbeck House, later described the scene in a handwritten autobiography: “After coming into the public room we found one of the Pennsylvania cars – two trucks of it were in the room, four doorways were all broken down. On going outside, the platform was all broken and the bodies of seven person were lying dead.” Vincent saw the dead bodies of his doctor and the doctor’s wife, as well. “The doctor’s body was found with his clothing around and between the front wheels of the locomotive, which was still on the track except the two front wheels,” he wrote.

It does not appear that any of the Sourbecks were injured during this incident. The damage to the property was quickly repaired, and within a few years, Albert, Prince of Wales (later King Edward VII), would be a noted guest, as would President Abraham Lincoln whilst on his way to Washington, D.C., for his inauguration. A few years after this auspicious visit, the same rail lines would transport wounded and ill soldiers through Alliance as the Civil War raged. Amongst these soldiers would be one of the Sourbecks’ own.

“At the time of his enlistment said Sourbeck was a sound able-bodied man and free from all chills and fever.”

During the Civil War, brother John Sourbeck enlisted, fought, and ultimately died. Sourbeck joined up on 26 May, 1862, becoming a first lieutenant with the 84th Regiment, Ohio Infantry. But it was neither bullets nor cannon shot that took out John – it was tiny, hungry mosquitos.

In a pension case filed by John’s widow, Jane Griffith Sourbeck, she produced the sworn testimony of Third Sergeant Levellette Battelle of the 84th Ohio who said he was “personally acquainted with Lt. John Sourbeck when enlisted, prior to, and during his service in said organization. At the time of his enlistment said Sourbeck was a sound able-bodied man and free from all chills and fever. In Cumberland, MD, in July 1862, said Sourbeck took sick with chills and fever caused by being exposed…to a malarial climate. During the rest of his service, he had several attacks of chills and fever and was at the time disabled from service on that account.”

An affidavit filed by Dr. Frederick Whistler concludes John’s story: “[He was] discharged from service in the fall of 1862 …. He continued to suffer with chills and fever until he died of a congestive chill April 30, 1864. From the time of his discharge until his death, I saw him frequently each month, knew he suffered from said disability during that time by observing his symptoms and hearing his complaints. I was with him and saw him about two hours before he died.”

John Sourbeck was buried in Oak Hill Cemetery in Youngstown, Mahoning County, Ohio. Much like his father before him, John left many children behind, including an infant not yet one year old. His wife Jane never remarried. During her final years, she lived on Oak Street in Youngstown, dying 5 January, 1901.

“He was of a wandering disposition and has not been heard from since 1896.”

Unlike some of her male relatives, little exists to fill out the character of Annie Sourbeck Gray. We have a photo of her taken in the 1870s and we know the Grays would have three children together: Mary E. (b.1857); Louis Henry (1859-1945); and Margaret Anna (1864-1927). By 1861, they had left Alliance for Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and remained there through the 1870 Census. They lived in Brewster, Barnstable County, Massachusetts, by 1900, when they were enumerated in the household of Annie’s sister Matilda Sourbeck Crosby. At that time, Theodore Gray stated his occupation as “day laborer” – surely a harsh job for a 65-year-old man. It was in Brewster with his wife and in-laws that Theodore died at age 67 on 2 August, 1902.

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Annie Sourbeck Gray, circa 1872.

On 17 February, 1887, Annie’s daughter Margaret married Edwards Cranston Brooks (8 November 1860-12 January, 1922), who was a West Point graduate and commissioned cavalry officer. In 1898, he was sent to Santiago, Cuba, for the duration of the Spanish-American War, and because of meritorious service received a brevet U.S. Army captainship. In 1900, he served as auditor for the Island of Cuba. This information comes from Genealogies of Rhode Island Familes, Vol. I, which also includes this amusing comment about one of Brooks’ cousins, George Williams: “He went to Oregon with his father and other members of his family in 1851, but he was of a wandering disposition and has not been heard from since 1896.”

Annie and Theodore Gray’s son, Louis, became the president of the L. H. Gray Steamship Company and later the head of Associate Charters, a railroad freight shipping venture. He was a successful businessman who married Halcon L. Robertson on 4 October, 1893, in Cook, Illinois. In 1900, the census places him in Seattle, Washington, where he remained for the rest of his life, dying at age 85. The couple had no children.

After Theodore Gray’s death, Annie Sourbeck appears on the 1910 Census in Ward 3 of the District of Columbia, dwelling with her daughter Margaret Gray Brooks and two granddaughters. She lived until 1920, dying in East Brewster, Massachusetts, in August of that year.

“Happy, oh happy may you ever be, And be you blessed in Immortality.”

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Sarah Ann in the 1870s.

By 1870, Sarah Ann Sourbeck had moved to Chicago’s 4th Ward. A picture exists of her in taken that decade in which she appears a relatively well-heeled, silver-haired widow. That her sons and stepsons provided for her is certain, if the discretionary income of Daniel Sourbeck is any evidence. The Stark County Democrat reported on 7 August, 1873, that he had gone to New York and “bought a fine Specimen of Darwin’s ancestry which came duly to hand, in a fit condition for burial, accompanied by $10.00 express charges. If [Sourbeck] were not a Christian, we would expect to hear that he had become profane. The Express Company has not got the ten dollars, but then it can have the monkey.”

Sarah Ann Sourbeck remained in Chicago until her death, 9 April, 1886, aged 82 years, one month. The funeral took place at the home of her son Wash on 11 April, followed by her burial in Alliance City Cemetery. Wash would follow her to the family plot on 26 June, 1891.

There exists an acrostic dated 23 July, 1838, which proclaims itself as “a token of respect” to Sarah Ann from soi-disant poet James Fitzpatrick of Cumberland County, Pennsylvania. The lines that Fitzpatrick wrote to match her first name are apt by which to bid her farewell:

Sweetest of bliss shall thy pure bosom know; And flowers of Beauty on thy pathway grow; Refulgent jewels shall thy brow adorn, As pure and radiant as the star of morn; Happy, oh happy may you ever be, And be you blessed in Immortality, Ne’er fading flowers on thy path shall grow, Nor ever sorrow will thy bosom know….”

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Funeral notice for Sarah Ann Sourbeck.

His wife’s surname was Reeves, and a family story says she came from a banking family, but her first name remains stubbornly unknown.

Harry Sourbeck was schooled in Alliance “until I was 14 years of age, and started firing when not quite 15,” Harry told the Alliance Review in 1913. “I was promoted to engineer at the age of 19, in the year 1864. The first thing I did was on a steam car, built on Massillion, Ohio, and the first engine I ran was an 18-ton engine, with one pair of drivers and a wood burner, the cylinders set half way back of the boiler.”

Harry did not join up during the Civil War, possibly because his railway position was considered essential by the Union. Near the end of the war, in 1865, he told the Review, “I was transferred to New Castle, PA, to run a construction train in building the Lawrence Branch Road from New Castle to Youngstown on the Pennsylvania Lines.” According to the Locomotive Engineer’ Monthly Journal, “He ran the first engine that ever went into Youngstown of the Pennsylvania lines.”

Harry Sourbeck married for the first time in the late 1860s. His wife’s surname was Reeves, and a family story says she came from a banking family, but her first name remains stubbornly unknown. Harry had by her a son, Franklin William, born 25 September, 1869, in Sharpsville, Mercer County, Pennsylvania, and who died 21 November, 1917, in the State Epileptic Hospital in Gallipolis, Ohio, after spending a lifetime in Alliance as a telegraph operator for the Pennsylvania Railway Company.

Frank Sourbeck married an Alliance native, Laura May Moyer (1874-1961), on 17 December, 1890, and with her, he gave his father four grandchildren: Harry Lloyd (1891-1964), Pearl Marie (1892-1983), Floyd Maurice (1897-1978), and Margaret May Sourbeck (1903-1986).

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Frank and Laura Sourbeck

In addition to his railway career, Harry Sourbeck also co-owned several retail shops. He and his brother-in-law Thomas Clark Moore ran a business together at Irving House, located at Conneaut Lake Park, northwest of Pittsburgh. The building housed Sourbeck & Clark, probably a hardware store, according to an interview with a relative. There was also Sourbeck & Moore, also probably a hardware store, in Alliance. In addition, Harry owned the lots on what is now Wayne Street, Alliance, upon which he built homes, including his own dwelling at number 231.

After the breakup of his first marriage or the death of his spouse – we don’t know which of these occurred – Harry Sourbeck married Lydia D. Robinson (1861–1912) on 1 May, 1878, in Alliance at the home of the bride’s father, George Robinson. They went on to have three daughters: Bertha Eliza (1874 – 1963), Flora E. (1879 – 1919), and Fannie Helen Crosby Sourbeck (1895 – 1973).

Willie Donovan was frequently sent upstairs to have Mrs. Sourbeck cash large bills for the barkeep.

While this article may stand perilously close to being retitled “Daniel Sourbeck, Man Around Town,” there is one anecdote left to share about this colorful chap in his old age. In 1882, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported, “The community was startled on Friday night on becoming aware that Dan Sourbeck had been robbed of $600…. Some years ago, Mr. Sourbeck lost $10,000 in the Alliance Bank, since which time he, and especially Mrs. Sourbeck, lost confidence in banks and concluded to be their own bankers, and hoarded their surplus cash in a trunk in Mrs. Sourbeck’s private room.”

A boy named Willie Donovan, who was employed by the Sourbecks, was frequently sent upstairs to have Mrs. Sourbeck cash large bills for the barkeep and thusly “became aware that there was a handsome depository in the house.” One day, Donovan was sent to Mrs. Sourbeck’s room to light a fire and stayed longer than usual. He told his employers that this was because the fire would not properly light. A few days later, the Sourbeck’s granddaughter Sophia discovered that money had been taken from the trunk. Unfortunately for Donovan, it had already been noticed that he was “quite flash with cash” and had bought a new suit, a watch, and other valuables. When questioned by the police and Sourbeck, he convinced them that he had been put up to the theft by Sourbeck’s neighbor, Olie Clark. Both Donovan and Clark were arrested for the crime.

The article concludes with Sourbeck reflecting that one of the two keys to his money drawer had gone missing some time before “and on several occasions [he] missed money from the drawer. A number of cigars were also stolen out of a case, all of which he attributes to the faithlessness of the boy in hoc.”

Sourbeck died 14 November, 1883, at 71 years of age, leaving the entirely of his estate, minus small bequeaths, to his wife Eliza, who outlived him by only a year. Both are buried at Grove Cemetery, New Brighton, Pennsylvania.

“Engineer W. H. Sourbeck was not at his post nor on the engine.”

On 6 November, 1898, a newspaper of no less gravitas than The New York Times ran the following story: “Joseph Desmond, Fireman on a Pittsburg, Fort Wayne and Chicago locomotive, drawing a fast passenger train last night near Columbiana, Ohio, suddenly discovered that Engineer W. H. Sourbeck was not at his post or on the engine. The train was running at a high rate of speed at the time. The fireman promptly shut off steam and stopped the train. Conductor Holloway ordered the train run back, and Engineer Sourbeck was found lying unconscious beside the track with his skull badly fractured. His injuries will likely prove fatal. It is thought that he climbed out on the running board and, losing his balance, fell to the ground.”

The Pittsburgh Press’s article ran on page one under the headline “He May Recover.” It reported that after Fireman Desmond had stopped the train and calmed the passengers, a search party was organized to find Sourbeck. “For several hours the mystery remained unsolved, but finally the crew of a freight train found the missing engineer among some trees, 50 yards from the railroad track.”

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Harry Sourbeck in the 1890s.

Sourbeck suffered a fractured skull, a broken breastbone, and an injured spine. After a period of unconsciousness, he awoke, but could not explain what happened. Later, his memory returned and he told the Press reporter that he was leaning from his cab window, oiling machinery, when he lost his balance and tumbled from the train.

Years later, the Locomotive Engineer’ Monthly of January 1914 would write that the accident “did not amount to much.” It certainly did not dim his love of the railroad. The Journal noted that when Harry retired he was the oldest engineer on the lines west of Pittsburgh and that there was no one left in any department who had been there when he had begun. He received a pension in January 1914, by which time he had a permanently injured hand and impaired hearing. But when interviewed, he “still appeared fit, agile, and strong…and would like to live until he was 100 years old to see the great changes to come on the railroads.”

Harry’s wife, Lydia Robinson Sourbeck, passed away a few years before his retirement, on 6 September, 1912, in the 34th year of their marriage. Harry, now a stately silver-haired man, would live on in the city with his youngest daughter, Fanny. He continued to travel to by rail, telling the Journal that “‘By sand, it’s the happiest day of life; it’s just like going out on a lark…. [A]fter riding in the cab for over a century I’m going to ride the velvet instead of the leather.’” That publication notes that he had recently returned from a rail trip to Florida, where he had made the short crossing by boat to Havana, Cuba.

Harry Sourbeck died at Suburban General Hospital on 13 September, 1930, of pneumonia, age 85. He was buried on 15 September at Union Dale Cemetery, Allegheny County. Ω

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Harry Sourbeck in the 1910s.

This article would not have been possible without the research of Dale Alan Sourbeck into his family’s history. I also thank him humbly for allowing me to use the photos of the family has he has meticulously collected.

Author: Ann Longmore-Etheridge

Writer, journalist, editor, historian.

2 thoughts on “The Sourbeck Children: An American Family Entwined with the Rails”

  1. What a well-researched and written article that blends family history, early photography history and this family’s connection with the early railroads in the United States as well. I also think it was wonderful that you were able to use the family history and family photo collection of Dale Alan Sourbeck to enhance your article as well as bring to life these family members that you did not have your own photo of in your collection. I hope to see more collaborative efforts between family historians in the future, especially if they too have early photos of thier ancestors in thier collection. Combined with your writing style, the Sourbeck family truly came “to life” to me, which is how I feel when working on my own family history!

    Liked by 1 person

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