Benjamin Franklin Ruff (1829-1887)

Benjamin Ruff
Benjamin Ruff, Founder and first president of the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club


What follows comes from the following sources:
1.) Kaktins, Uldis, Carrie Todd Davis, Stephanie Wojno, and Neil Coleman. Revisiting the Timing and Events Leading to and Causing the Johnstown Flood of 1889. Pennsylvania History: A Journal of Mid-Atlantic Studies. 80, no. 3 (Summer 2013): 335-363.
2.) McCullough, David. The Johnstown Flood. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1968.
3.) McGough, Michael R. The Club and the 1889 Flood in Johnstown, Pennsylvania. 2006[?].
4.) Pittsburgh Daily Post, Wednesday, March 30, 1887, p. 3.
5.) Pittsburgh Daily Post, Thursday, March 31, 1887, p. 2.
6.) U.S. Department of the Interior. National Park Service. Historic Structure Report: The South Fork Dam (June 1980), by Harlan D. Unrau. Denver, 1980.
7.) Sanger, Martha Frick Symington. Henry Clay Frick: An Intimate Portrait. New York: Abbeville Press, 1998.

Benjamin Franklin Ruff, founder and first president of the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club, was born in 1829. His wife was Mary Jane and they had a daughter Sally, who was born in 1860. Benjamin Ruff was a friend of Henry Clay Frick. He often stayed at the Monongahela House, a residential hotel in Pittsburgh, close to Mr. Frick.

He was a coke salesman, railroad tunnel contractor, and real-estate broker. "Ruff bought the dam and the lake from John Reilly, an Altoona Democratic politician and former Pennsylvania Railroad official who was then serving what would be his only term in Congress. Ruff paid $2,000 for the property, which was $500 less than Congressman Reilly had paid for it four years earlier when he had bought it from the Pennsylvania." As founder of the Club, Ruff bought 8 shares of stock at $800. According to Martha Frick Symington Sanger, granddaughter of Henry Clay Frick, Mr. Frick and Mr. Ruff were co-owners of the dam. However, other sources state Ruff was the owner outright, and encouraged his friend Frick to join the Club who, in turn, came to be a spokesman and promoter for the Club. Ruff served as Club president until his death in 1887.

Benjamin Ruff's Repairs to the South Fork Dam:
Ruff bought the property in the name of the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club of Pittsburgh, and quickly sought to make repairs to the dam, in order to expedite members coming to the lake. "The first idea that Ruff, who had no experience in waterworks and dam construction, proposed for the rebuilding of the dam was to construct it to a height of about 40 feet and cut the spillway down some twenty feet deeper to handle the overflow. But when he found that this would cost considerably more than repairing the old break of July 1862 and restoring the dam to somewhere near its original height, he chose the latter course. Ruff then employed as foreman and superintendent of the work Edward Pearson of Pittsburgh, an employee in the local freight department of the Pennsylvania Railroad at Pittsburgh and later an employee of Haney & Co., general teamsters for the freight department of the railroad. This was a curious appointment since Pearson had no engineering training and had never been engaged as a contractor on a waterworks or dam construction project."

"Ruff set about repairing the dam by boarding up the stone culvert and dumping in every manner of local rock, mud, brush, hemlock boughs, hay, just about everything at hand. Even horse manure was used in some quantity. The discharge pipes [which had been removed previous to the Club's ownership, most likely by John Reilly] were not replaced and the 'engineering' techniques employed made a profound impression on the local bystanders." On Christmas Day 1879, a rainstorm washed out all the repairs.

"Even though he was not able to lower the level of the spillway, Ruff went ahead with his plans to cut down the top surface of the dam to widen the carriage road that traversed it. Ruff and others agreed that one of the more impressive views of the lake was from the breast of the dam. Club members generally came to South Fork by train and were then chauffeured to the Clubhouse or a private cottage by carriage. The view of the lake from the breast of the dam was magnificent and would create a memorable first impression. The original width of the top of the dam was as narrow as ten feet at spots. So that wagons and carriages could pass each other along the breast of the dam, it was widened to at least twenty feet and in some spots as much as thirty feet. The increased width of the dam was achieved by cutting the level of the dam down approximately two to three feet. By original design the bottom of the spillway had been ten feet lower than the top of the breast of the dam. Without an equal reduction in the level of the existing spillway or the installation of another spillway, cutting the level of the breast down two or three feet, reduced the effectiveness of the spillway to prevent water from overtopping the dam by twenty to thirty percent."

Recent research, however, has indicated that the main reason for the lowering of the dam was to get fill material for the sealing up of leaks present in the dam. After the lowering of the dam was completed, Ruff probably observed that this action had the added benefit of providing a spacious, two lane road for carriages and, therefore he did not raise the dam back up to its original height. Regardless of the reasoning for the lowering of the dam, Benjamin Ruff would have been the one to give approval for this work to be completed. This takes us to the fall of 1880 and, for a time, the repairs are finished.

The Cambria Iron Company v. The South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club:
Daniel J. Morrell, general manager of the Cambria Iron Company, became very concerned when he heard that somebody was tinkering with the old and, by now, dilapidated dam. He made special arrangements to have the company's mining engineer and second in command, John Fulton, inspect the dam in the fall of 1880. On November 26, Fulton published a report, listing a number of flaws with the dam. On December 2, Ruff sent a rebuttal letter to the Cambria Iron Company, stating in closing: "We consider his [Fulton's] conclusions as to our only safe course of no more value than his other assertions. I submit herewith the report of our engineer, feeling certain, you and your people are in no danger from our enterprise [emphasis added]." Daniel Morrell sent one last letter offering the help of the Cambria Iron Company to make the dam secure, to which history records no answer.

One Last Repair:
Right on the eve of the first season of the club, Lake Conemaugh was stocked with black bass from Lake Erie. This ultimately cost the Club about $1,000 and certainly it wanted to keep its stock from escaping downriver. "In an effort to protect their investment and retain the black bass in their lake, a weir was added across the spillway. This weir was a series of metal screens attached to the wooden piers of the bridge that had been constructed across the spillway. Although these screens did permit water to pass through, they restricted the totally free flow of water over the spillway as did the wooden piers of the bridge. The restrictive effect of the weir was exaggerated when the screens became clogged with debris such as leaves and twigs from the lake." This proved a huge problem and contributing factor to the failure of the dam on May 31, 1889.

The Death of Benjamin Ruff:
Benjamin Ruff died at 11:45 pm on March 29, 1887 at the Monongahela House, Pittsburgh. The following was his obituary which appeared in the Pittsburgh Daily Post, on Thursday, March 31, 1887:

"The funeral services of the late Colonel B.F. Ruff, who died at the Monongahela House Tuesday night, were held yesterday afternoon in Samson's undertaking parlors, on Sixth avenue. There was a large gathering of the friends of the deceased gentleman. The floral offerings were profuse and tasteful. They came from Lodge No. 484 A.Y.M., of which he was a member from the Knights Templar, to which he belonged; from a number of leading sportsmen, and from his daughter. The remains were shipped last night for Joliet, Ill., where they will be interred.

Colonel Ruff formerly lived in Joliet, where he was a large contractor, he having built the Illinois Penitentiary at that place. He was an enthusiastic patron of field sports, was the founder of the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club, and a vice president of the Western Pennsylvania Sportsmen's Association. He had made the Monongahela House his home for a long time."

Last updated: February 20, 2021

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