Postcard Opens a Window to a Near Family Tragedy

A serendipitous discovery in the archives: a postcard describing a close encounter with death when the York Rolling Mill exploded in 1908. And when I saw the recipient had the same last name as me I thought “wouldn’t it be funny if we were related?” Turns out we are!

My colleagues here at the Pennsylvania State Archives are working hard to digitize our collection of 29,000 postcards. Representing every county in the state, this is an amazing resource and has so many interesting images of people and places in Pennsylvania, not to mention fascinating stories from the people who wrote them. Postcards were a popular form of communication in the 19th century and weren’t just used during tourist trips. At the moment we’ve digitized about 5,500 postcards and more are being uploaded online all the time!

When our staff were going through the York County postcards, this image caught their eye:

York_County_Miscellaneous_Views_of_York_Pa_York_Rolling_Mill_Disaster_Wrecking_Crew_At_Work.jpg
This postcard and thousands like it can be found on the Pennsylvania Power Library website.

With a caption like “York Rolling Mill Disaster, August 10, 1908. 10 Killed 19 Injured,” who wouldn’t stop and take a closer look? On the back of the postcard were a few lines written by a York, Pennsylvania man named Harry to his cousin Lucretia Stump from Colchester, Illinois. The message briefly said that their Uncle Mike worked at the plant and was very nearly killed in the disaster himself:

“Here is were Uncle Mike work as clerk, and had a narrow escape, as a stay Bolt of the exploded Boiler just grazed his head but 15″ inches, going through a window which he was sitting at while at work at his desk. He escaped However without a scratch.”

York_County_Miscellaneous_Views_of_York_Pa_York_Rolling_Mill_Disaster_Wrecking_Crew_At_Work_Reverse
The message on the back of Harry’s postcard.

Wow! What a story! Noticing that Lucretia had the same last name as me, I was sent a copy of the postcard. They asked if I was related? I didn’t know, but the Stump family has lived in York County, Pennsylvania since the 1750s. Most us stayed put in the York area so odds are we were related at least distantly, but how?

After digging through my family tree and conferring with my uncle who is our family genealogist extraordinaire, it turns out that Lucretia and Harrys’ grandfathers were cousins and are related to me too!

Harry’s full name was Harry Arthur Stump, born in York Township in 1894. He is my great-grandfather’s cousin. Harry was still pretty young in 1908 and was probably working on his parent’s farm when his uncle was nearly killed at the York Rolling Mill. My great-grandfather Henry was the same age and lived nearby.

The York Rolling Mill was one of the largest mills in York in the early 1900s. Making iron rods of all shapes and sizes, the plant used a large boiler they nicknamed “Jumbo” to run red hot iron through steam-operated rollers into all sorts of shapes. The mill was run by the Susquehanna Iron and Steel Company and supplied material to railroads and other industrial customers in the area. Harry’s Uncle Mike was one of hundreds of men working there.

After years of operation and no safety inspections, the massive boiler was pitted and corroded so badly that its outer plating was only 1/16 inches think in many places. Unable to stand the pressure it exploded that fateful day in August at 3 pm, killing 10 instantly and catapulting a 2 ton metal piece several blocks away where it flattened a house. Raymond Sechrist, a boy at the time, was one of thousands who heard the blast from miles away: “We kids were playing in the basement of one of the houses down on Water Street at the time. We heard this terrific blast and rushed out like kids would and the neighbors started coming out to see what happened. Nobody knew, because the blast was about a mile away.”

York Rolling Mill_tractor
This engine was hurled from the York Rolling Mill explosion into a ravine. Pennsylvania State Archives.

The York Gazette reported that this was the worst industrial accident that York County had ever seen: “Men who happened to be in the neighborhood say they heard a great noise like that of an explosion of dynamite. Looking toward the rolling mill, they saw a huge cloud of dust that looked like smoke. Then they heard a crashing of timbers and they saw the centre of the big mill sink down to the earth. This mass had sunk upon nearly two score of workmen and the hurried search soon revealed the imprisoned men beneath.”

It was pure luck that Uncle Mike escaped with his life. News of the disaster spread fast and it’s likely that Harry wanted to let his mid-western cousin know that the family was ok.

Edna Lucretia Stump
Edna Lucretia Stump, photo uploaded to Ancestry.com by user Jean Hills.

I didn’t know this before, but a branch of the Stump family actually left York County in the 1860s and settled in Illinois. Lucretia (full name Edna Lucretia Stump, 1889-1968) was the child of one of these migrants and never lived in York herself, though she had many family members there and clearly kept in touch. She is a much more distant relation to me than Harry, she’s my 3xgreat grandfather’s uncle’s granddaughter, whatever that makes us. But she is still a member of the Stump family and I’m excited to know about her!

Sadly, I also learned that Harry himself was later a victim of tragedy in York County. Recently married in 1921, he was building a new house for himself and his young wife Laura. While walking home after a hard day’s work, he was hit by an automobile just 200 yards from home and killed.

HA Stump_Death.JPG
The Evening News (Harrisburg) July 21, 1921

My favorite part about family history is the tiny gems of information that you find by chance. They’re always unexpected and can turn up the most interesting stories. A few years ago I dug into a story from a different branch of my family where a relative was killed by an exploding cannon at a New York political rally in 1888. Looks like my family has a bad track record with explosions! I am really lucky that I’ve been able to find these tiny nuggets of my family’s history, and am glad that we have archives that preserve these pieces of the past!

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