Witness to Disaster

William Parry Rees was a man who died too young, but lived long enough to view an American tragedy.

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Funeral arrangement for William P. Rees, photographed by Edwards Brothers, 162 and 164 Main Street, Johnstown, Pennsylvania. Ann Longmore-Etheridge Collection.

This wonderful funeral cabinet card includes a photograph of the deceased William P. Rees, as well as date of his death (4 March, 1891) and his age (“23 years and 4 months”). It also features the interesting inscription “A.O. of K.M.C and K. of G.E.” The first denotes the deceased’s membership in the fraternal society Ancient Order of Knights of the Mystic Chain. The second refers to his membership in the Knights of the Golden Eagle, a fraternal organization founded in Baltimore, Maryland, in 1872. The orders’ original objectives were to help its members find employment and aid them while unemployed. Membership was open to white males over 18, without physical or mental handicaps, who were able to write and to support themselves, were law-abiding of sound moral character, and of the Christian faith. There was a female auxiliary called the Ladies of the Golden Eagle.

A splinter group of the Knights of Pythias, the AO of KMC was founded in Reading, Pennsylvania, in 1870. According to a website about the order, “Though it seems to have been quite popular in PA, it doesn’t seem to have made much headway outside of that state—it is not listed among the top forty fraternal orders in the world almanac of 1896 and probably had no more than 10,000-15,000 members at its peak. Like most small orders, it did not survive the Great Depression of the 1930s.”

Another site about the AO of KMC states that “This group was founded in 1871 in the traditions of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. Amongst the founders were freemasons and Knights of Pythias. Some of the characteristics of this order can be traced to these two groups. The Knights of the Mystic Chain has three degrees: Knighthood, Mystery and Chivalry…. There was also a separate paramilitary uniform-rank and a degree for women: Naomi or the Daughters of Ruth. In 1889, the order started to work in insurance, however it never grew larger. At its top it had around 40,000 members. It disappeared in the first half of the 20th century.”

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William Parry Rees

William Parry Rees, the deceased young man who belonged to both of these groups and from whom these flowers—and possibly funeral expenses—presumably came, was born in Cefn Bychan, Denbighshire, Wales, in about 1866. He was the son of Baptist minister Llewellyn Rees (b. October 1835, Glyntawe, Breconshire, Wales) and his wife Elizabeth Edwards (b. 7 June 1839, Ystradgunlais, Breconshire, Wales, daughter of Edward Edwards and Elizabeth Parry), who wed in 1861. His elder brother Henry E. had been born in August 1863 in Carmarthenshire; his younger sister, Kate W., was born in Cefn Bychan in 1869.

The 1871 Wales Census places Elizabeth Rees alone at the address 1 Cefn Bychan, with her young children. The enumerator names her as head of household, but also notes in a scribble that the missing Reverent Rees “is abroad.” Cefn Bychan (“Little Ridge” in Welsh) is part of the larger community of Cefn within the County Borough of Wrexham. The area was heavy with iron, coal, and sandstone—therefore quite industrialized, with mining, blast furnaces, forges, and stone cutting aplenty.

The Rees family had crossed the Atlantic to the United States by the early 1870s. This is made clear by the 1880 census of Millville, Cambria County, Pennsylvania, which recorded the birth another son, Llewellyn, Jr., in Texas about seven years before. Further evidence in the 1900 census narrows the emigration year to 1871, probably just after the Welsh census indicated the Reverend Rees was abroad. Chances are that he was already in America and that his wife and children followed when the way had been prepared.

Sadly, the Rees’s daughter, Kate was not to long enjoy her new life in America. Eleven-year-old Kate and her seven-year-old brother Llewellyn both died 11 November, 1880, certainly from infectious disease, and were buried in Johnstown’s Grandview Cemetery on 13 November. It must have been a terrible blow to Elizabeth and Reverend Rees. Like many grieving parents, they tried to replace the beloveds they had lost. The following year, 42-year-old Elizabeth gave birth to a daughter they named Edith. Elizabeth fell pregnant again in 1882, but the child died at birth. Grandview cemetery recorded the burial of a “Son of Elizabeth Rees” in the same plot as other Rees family members. Mysteriously, that interment did not take place until 1890, although the death had occurred eight years earlier, suggesting the infant was first laid to rest in another location.

Both Reverend Rees, his eldest son Henry, and second son William (whose professions were listed as railroad engineers), appeared in an 1887 city directory for Johnstown, living in Elk Street, Morrellville, a borough just outside of the town. They and the rest of the Rees clan were shortly to witness one of the most horrific disasters in U.S. history—the apocalyptic flood that devastated Johnstown on 31 May, 1889. The catastrophe resulted from the failure of the South Fork Dam of the Little Conemaugh River, 14 miles upstream from the town, killing 2,209 people.

“The South Fork dam held back Lake Conemaugh, the pleasure lake of the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club, a prestigious club which included such famed entrepreneurs as Andrew Carnegie and Henry Clay Frick on its membership rolls. Officials there feared the dam would fail…. The lake was a little over two miles long, a little over a mile wide at its widest spot, and 60 feet deep at the dam itself,” wrote Edwin Hutcheson in Floods of Johnstown.

The flood was described by Hutcheson as “a body of water which engineers at the time estimated moved into the valley with the force of Niagara Falls. [It] rolled into Johnstown with 14 miles of accumulated debris, which included houses, barns, animals and people, dead and alive.”

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Main Street, Johnstown, Pennsylvania, after the 1889 flood.

There are a number individuals surnamed Rees who died in the Johnstown flood, but none of these were definitively related to the Reverend Llewellyn Rees family. In fact, the 1889 Johnstown directory denoted men killed by crosses typeset beside their names. Reverend Rees is included in that directory—sans cross—as the pastor of the Baptist church in Morrellville. The same directory includes a lengthy news account of the flood and notes that “Morrellville…escaped with slight comparative loss, and the same is true of all towns farther down the river, but the people of these had the exciting and heart-rending experience of rescuing many that had floated down from Johnstown, and of seeing others go by without being able to assist them.” The reverend and his sons would almost certainly have been amongst the rescuers who tried to save people during the flood and who searched for survivors and victims in the aftermath.

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Men removing a body from the debris after the Johnstown Flood.

On 4 March, 1891, less than two years after his town was decimated, railroad engineer William Rees died of as yet undiscovered causes—as young has he was, infectious disease or accident are surely to blame. He was buried several days later in the Grandview Cemetery Rees family plot.

In 1893, the Johnstown directory listed Reverend Rees at 234 Fairfield Avenue. His eldest son Henry, also resided in the house. The reverend and Henry were listed at the same address in 1899. With them was Elizabeth Rees and Edith, still a student.

The 1900 census of Johnstown placed the Reverend Rees and his wife alone in their home. Eldest son Henry was in Johnstown, but had a new home with his wife Esther Cole, whom he had married in 1896. Esther had been born in Wales in December 1871 and had come to America in 1897. If the marriage date of 1896 is correct, it implies that Henry had returned to Wales and there found a bride. Also living with the couple was Esther’s niece, Mary Cole (b. January. 1888, Wales), who had emigrated in 1898 or 1899. In 1901, the couple had a son whom they named Ralph E. Rees. Esther Cole Rees died 27 February, 1908.

The Reverend Rees died 15 March, 1911, and is buried at Grandview. Daughter Edith Rees, became a school teacher at the Bheam School just down the street from the family home, remained with her mother, Elizabeth, until at least 1920, when both women are recorded together on the census. Elizabeth Rees died of a cerebral hemorrhage 3 September, 1922, and was buried at Grandview three days later.

Henry Rees appears on the 1910 census of Wilkensburg, Allegheny County, Pennsylvania, as a 47-year-old widower and a laborer at the Westinghouse Air Brake Company. His wife’s niece, Mary, also dwelt with Henry, probably caring for his son, and may have doing so since his birth. Ralph would eventually go west to Billings, Montana, appearing on censuses there after 1930. He married a woman named Beatrice and had at least one son and two daughters.

Daughter Edith also went west to Kirby, Big Horn County, Montana, where she married William H. Furman (24 Nov., 1874-22 May, 1955). Edith died 5 January, 1971. Ω

Author: Ann Longmore-Etheridge

Writer, journalist, editor, historian.

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