Colonel Elias J. Unger (1830-1896)

Col. Elias J. Unger
Colonel Elias J. Unger

The Bulletin.

Early Life:
Elias J. Unger was born on March 16, 1830, in Lower Paxton Township, Dauphin County, PA (near Harrisburg, PA) to David and Catherine (Eisenhower) Unger. The Unger's were of German origin. Unger was raised on the family farm there. He attended the local public schools and the illustrious Harrisburg Academy.
At the age of 20, Unger moved to Harrisburg. Unger began working for the Pennsylvania Railroad Company, first as a route agent, then brakeman, and then conductor on the Eastern Division of the line, which was the stretch from Harrisburg to Philadelphia. In this capacity, Unger served as a conductor on the first train on the Eastern Division which made its first run on August 1, 1857. This was the Harrisburg Accommodation or Tub Train, which ran from Harrisburg to Philadelphia via the old Philadelphia and Columbia Railroad. Unger was also involved and active in society. He was a 32 degree Scottish Rite Mason and also a member and Past Grand of Dauphin Lodge, No. 160, International Order of Odd Fellows (I.O.O.F) of Harrisburg. On December 19, 1854, he married Annie C. Steele. The Unger's had one child, Mary, who married George C. Wilson. Unger was active in the Methodist Episcopal Church, attending Locust Street M.E. in Harrisburg and Christ M.E. in Pittsburgh where he was appointed to the building committee. As president of the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club, Unger often invited the minister of Christ M.E. Church to the Club to provide church services.
The Keystone Hotel Company:
In 1867, Unger was promoted to Secretary and Treasurer of the Keystone Hotel Company, the hotel company of the Pennsylvania Railroad Company. In 1868, Unger became the superintendent of the Union Depot Hotel in Pittsburgh. It was said of Unger, "The colonel is a gentle man of great suavity of manner, very attentive to guests, and possesses a high toned moral character." In 1875, Unger was elected as the president of the Keystone Hotel Company. Unger oversaw the establishment of the West Philadelphia Depot of the Pennsylvania Railroad. The West Philadelphia Depot was, essentially, the Philadelphia version of the Union Depot Hotel. In the summer of 1877, Unger became the superintendent of the Mountain House at Cresson, running this facility in addition to the Union Depot Hotel. The Harrisburg Telegraph wrote, "The Mountain House is no longer a resort of local repute, but has attained a National celebrity under its present admirable management."
Pittsburgh was one of the many cities to be impacted by the Great Railroad Strike of 1877. Pennsylvania Railroad President Thomas A. Scott and Western Division Superintendent Robert Pitcairn demanded and received military protection of railroad property. When Pittsburgh city police and responding National Guardsmen from the local area proved unwilling to enforce the laws as they were sympathetic with strikers, officials sent in National Guardsmen from Philadelphia. These men had no remorse for the strikers, shot and killed 20, and wounded many others. Strikers retaliated and set fire to 39 buildings including Unger's Union Depot Hotel. Unger and his family lost all of their possessions except for what was at Cresson.
In light of the fire at the Union Depot Hotel, in the fall of 1877, Unger purchased the Seventh Avenue Hotel in Pittsburgh. One of Unger's early business partners in the Seventh Avenue Hotel was Andrew Carnegie. Unger bought out Carnegie's ownership in 1882. The Seventh Avenue Hotel was originally built with 140 bedrooms. Under the ownership of Unger, by 1884, the hotel was expanded to 240 rooms. Unger received high praises for his operation of the Seventh Avenue Hotel, "Mr. Elias J. one is more widely or favorably known to the travelling public." In the fall of 1879, Unger resigned as Superintendent of the Mountain House. Unger stayed on as Superintendent of the Seventh Avenue Hotel during a majority of the years of the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club. On August 31, 1886, an earthquake rocked Charleston, SC. Col. Unger, through the Seventh Avenue Hotel, donated $25 to the relief effort.
Unger retired from the Seventh Avenue Hotel in October 1888. Unger sold his proprietorship in the hotel for $65,000 to B.C. Wilson. Upon Unger's retirement, the hotel had 250 rooms and was valued at $250,000. Upon the news of his retirement and as a sign of the renown in hotels with which he was known, the Harrisburg Telegraph wrote, "Col. Unger's retirement it is hoped is only temporary. He is too good a hotel man to remain out of business long." The paper went on to write, "The reasons for Col. Unger's retirement as given by himself, one that he is becoming old now and desires to retire from active business life. He will travel for some time and then will return and live in the city." Upon his retirement, Col. Unger resided permanently at the Lake View House (see below).
Military Service:
Through further research on Unger's involvement with the Mountain House, an unexpected discovery was made. Johnstown Flood researchers always believed that "Colonel," was, at best, an honorary title as no military record of Unger's was ever found. However, a reference to Colonel Unger as Superintendent of the Mountain House was discovered in the May 14, 1878, Army and Navy Journal and Register. This journal was a "who's who," of military service members and veterans; it would not have included mention of a person if they were not in the military. More in depth research into a military career for Unger was done. During the Civil War, Unger would have fallen under the Enrollment Act. This subjected all males between the ages of 20 and 45 for the draft. The act divided the United States into enrollment districts. These enrollment districts were largely just congressional districts, with a few minor exceptions. Col. James B. Fry, provost marshal general had the unenviable task of enforcing this unpopular law. Unger's name does appear on a Civil War draft list. The Federal Militia Act of 1862 threw all able bodied men between the ages of 18 and 45 into militias; call-ups of which were to be apportioned state by state with quotas proportional to the population.
On August 9, 1862, the Secretary of War issued General Order 99 directing all Union governors to enroll all able bodied men aged 18 to 45 in the draft. Pennsylvania had such a large percentage of volunteers that in most instances men registered for the draft did not have to fight in the war. Militia officers were still elected by the men in the unit and Unger was always described amiably, so it makes sense that he was elected colonel. It must be kept in mind that in many instances militia units only existed on paper. It is possible that Unger, because of his job as railroad conductor, was exempted from service. The Union draft provided exemptions for railroad engineers only. However, in many instances railroad employees in general were exempted. Unger worked on the important Pennsylvania Railroad on the Eastern Division between the two crucial cities of Harrisburg and Philadelphia. Further, the Pennsylvania Railroad contributed $50,000 to a fund that gave bonuses to men who volunteered for military service, ostensibly encouraging as many volunteers as possible so that its workers would not have to be drafted. There is no paper trail for the above assertion about Unger's expemption, but it makes sense as technically federal law would have been broken for Unger to be exempted for being a conductor.
The Pittsburgh Exposition Society:
Unger was instrumental in the establishment and operation of the Pittsburgh Exposition Society. In that era, public expositions were very popular. The Pittsburgh Exposition Society existed to create expo halls and public parks in Pittsburgh. Of Unger's instrumental leadership in the society, this appeared in the June 15, 1887, Pittsburgh Daily Post:
Governor Beaver signed the Pittsburgh exposition bill in the presence of Col. E.J. Unger and A.L. Burchfield, who came here in the interest of the measure. The gentlemen showed the governor that the proposed exposition was almost universally desired, and would be of great public benefit. The governor said that the measure had been under consideration for some time, because he had not been thoroughly convinced that it was not in the interest of private corporations. When Messrs. Burchfield and Unger had concluded their statement, the governor attached his signature.
Unger was listed as a director of the Pittsburgh Exposition Society along with South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club members S.S. Marvin and Robert Pitcairn.
The Penn Bank Lawsuit:
Unger led the charge in a lawsuit brought against the Penn Bank in 1884. Unger and others accused the Penn Bank of trying to thwart the Standard Oil Company. The lawsuit fizzled out as, eventually, the Penn Bank failed. The failure occurred because the bank president William N. Riddle and cashier George L. Reiber willfully allowed for overdrafts. Since these men and not necessarily the bank itself were guilty of wrongdoing, most likely Unger's lawsuit would have failed anyway.
Involvement in Clubs:
Unger, as well as other members of the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club, was a member of the Sportsmen's Association of Western Pennsylvania. This organization was a forerunner to and operated at the same time as the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club. In the year 1879, the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club was chartered. Unger's name does not appear on the charter; however he was a member of the club by 1880. This is evidenced by the fact that in the fall of 1880, Cambria Iron Company engineer John Fulton went to the South Fork Dam to investigate its stability. Fulton stated that he was met by a "representative delegation," of the club and that Unger was among this delegation. Unger's hotel prowess was well known and respected among the Club and in the summer of 1886, he arranged for William Manger, Chief Clerk of the Seventh Avenue Hotel, to manage the Clubhouse for the summer.
On March 29, 1887, Benjamin Ruff, the founder and first president of the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club died. On April 2, 1887, a notice appeared in the Pittsburgh Daily Post that a meeting would be held on April 13 to elect a new president. While there is no follow up article to confirm Unger's election, he is identified as "president" in articles and on documents soon thereafter.
At the Club, Unger resided in a farmhouse overlooking the lake. For years, this structure-still standing on the grounds of the Johnstown Flood National Memorial-was always just referred to as the, "Unger House." However, some recently discovered newspaper articles indicate that the house was actually referred to as the "Lake View House" and the adjoining property as the "Lake View Farm." The home was originally owned by a Mr. Joseph Leahey, sometimes spelled Leckey. Leahey claimed that eight acres of his property were in Lake Conemaugh and so, largely because he did not care for the Club, Leahey let people fish there. The Club instructed Unger to strike a deal with Leahey so that the Club could acquire the property. A "Judge" Thomas and Unger did eventually broker a deal with Leahey for $4,000. However, during the process, Unger decided that he did not want to give the property to the Club, but rather keep it for himself. At first, the club and Unger were at odds over this move, but eventually the club let Unger keep the house and farm. The December 23, 1885, Johnstown Tribune stated: The Judge and the Colonel went to Ebensburg and had the deed for the farm made in the Colonel's name, and the Colonel has found it convenient to retain the instrument unaltered. The farm has enhanced three-fold in value, and the Colonel recognizing a good thing when he sees it, clings to it with as much tenacity as old Mr. Leahey. At this time, Colonel Unger was still a permanent resident of Pittsburgh and stayed at the Club when he came to visit.
NOTE: What follows is not meant to be a detailed explanation of the events of May 31, 1889, but rather a description of Unger's involvement in those events.
The year 1889, started uneventfully for Unger. In March 1889, Unger visited the Club to ensure everything was in shape for the upcoming summer season, and to assess the progress on the construction of a new sewage system for the Club. On the night of May 30, 1889, Unger returned to the Lake View House from visiting friends in Harrisburg. On the morning of May 31, Unger looked down from his porch and said, "...the valley below me seemed to be all under water, and I couldn't understand what all that meant." Unger got dressed and ran down on top of the dam, seeing troubles all over the place. Unger commanded W.Y. Boyer, Superintendent of Grounds for the club, to take Italian workers involved in the sewage project to the southeast side to dig an emergency spillway. As they were digging, the workers hit rock and could not proceed. Unger then sent staff to the principal spillway to unclog the fishing weir, but they really got started too late and had no success. U.Ed. Schwartzentruver was an eyewitness to the attempt to save the dam. Many years later, he was interviewed by David McCullough. Schwartzentruver told McCullough that a John Bucannon of South Fork implored Unger to rip out the fishing weir but Unger refused. As the situation worsened, Unger went back and attempted this but it was too late and the weir would not budge. There was nothing to do now but wait until the failure of the dam. Of the dam failure, Unger said, "little by little until it got a head way, and when it got cut through it just went like a flash." Unger went on to say, "Oh it seemed to me as if all the destructive elements of the Creator had been turned loose at once in that awful current of water." Colonel Unger then collapsed and had to be carried to his house and put to bed. On the night of June 3, a group of Johnstown citizens came to the club to look up Col. Unger, but he was not there. Journalists referred to the group as a "lynch mob" though there is no evidence that such a meeting would have gotten that far.
The following appeared in The Cambria Freeman, on June 7, 1889, though it is of dubious credibility. It is included in this biography as the statement is said to be from Unger:
D.J. Neff, Esq., of this city heard the follow[ing] story of the bursting of the reservoir near South Fork from Colonel Unger, formerly of the Mountain House Cresson, and more recently proprietor of the Seventh Avenue Hotel, Pittsburg [sic, recurring], Mr. Unger said: 'My hotel is about two and a half miles from South Fork and in the immediate vicinity of the reservoir. A day or so ago I sent word to Robert Pitcairn, Superintendent of the Pittsburg Division to come with several of his friends to my resort and I would entertain them. Fishing and hunting would be the bill of fare. That same night the heavy rains came and the next morning I went to my hotel, near the reservoir, to fix things up in general. I saw that the reservoir was rapidly rising and immediately set to work to strengthen its banks. (This was on Friday). The rains continued, and the water was rapidly rising and getting the better of me, and I saw that a break was inevitable. I immediately sent a messenger in all haste on horseback to warn the inhabitants of the danger, and to lose no time whatever in telegraphing Johnstown of the danger which was sure to come. The South Fork people on hearing the alarm immediately dropped everything and fled for their lives for the hills, and so were saved. Scarcely had they been warned and in safe places, when with a mighty roar which cannot be described, the bank broke and the water shot forth like from the mouth of a cannon. It completely swept everything with it and took houses as if they were mere chips. The course was between the two hills, thereby preventing a spread, but gaining more strength and force every inch it went. I don't know if Johnstown ever got the message or not. Have not seen my messenger since. No lives in South Fork were lost, but all the property and houses between the two hills was completely swept away, and no trace of a town is left. Don't know if my guests got the word and are on their way or not.'
Unger after the Flood and Death:
After the flood, Unger's name appeared in society newspapers. Unger and his wife spent time at Chautaqua Lake, NY, in addition to Cresson and Ebensburg, PA, not far from the site of the South Fork Dam.
Unger suffered a heart attack in December 1895, which he never fully recovered from. In August 1896, he and his wife decided to move back to Harrisburg to be closer to their daughter Mary and her family. Unger died at 7:15 pm, Tuesday, September 22, 1896, at 113 Market Street, Harrisburg, PA. He was survived by his wife Annie, daughter Mary, and son in law George C. Wilson. Funeral services were held on September 25, 1896, at 113 Market Street, Harrisburg.
-Biographical and Portrait Cyclopedia of Cambria County, Pennsylvania, Cambria County, Historical Society, 1896.
-Harrisburg Telegraph, February 28, 1868.
-Pittsburgh Weekly Gazette, December 21, 1868.
-Harrisburg Telegraph, September 13, 1875.
-Pittsburgh Weekly Gazette, October 31, 1876.
-Pittsburgh Daily Post, May 17, 1877.
-Harrisburg Telegraph, June 22, 1877.
-Schedule I, Concolidated List, Class I, 14th Congressional District.
-The Northern Draft of 1862,
-Harrisburg Telegraph, July 25, 1877.
-Harrisburg Telegraph, November 1, 1877.
-Army and Navy Journal and Register, volume 15, May 14, 1878, p. 635.
-Pennsylvania Historical Review.
-Harrisburg Daily Independent, December 6, 1879.
-Fulton Report on the South Fork Dam, November 26, 1880.
-Pittsburgh Post Gazette, December 8, 1884.
-Johnstown Tribune, December 23, 1885.
-The Indiana Democrat, Indiana, PA, May 13, 1886.
-Pittsburgh Daily Post, September 11, 1886.
-Pittsburgh Daily Post, April 2, 1887.
-Pittsburgh Daily Post, June 15, 1887.
-The Bulletin, vol. 15, no. 11, July 16, 1887.
-The Bulletin, vol. 15, no. 17, August 27, 1887.
-Pittsburgh Daily Post, October 10, 1888.
-Harrisburg Telegraph, October 11, 1888.
-Pittsburgh Daily Post, March 5, 1889.
-The Bulletin, vol. 18, no. 22, March 30, 1889.
-The Cambria Freeman, June 7, 1889.
-Pittsburgh Dispatch, September 14, 1890.
-The Pittsburgh Bulletin, vol. 25, no. 16, August 27, 1892.
-The Pittsburgh Bulletin, vol. 25, no. 17, September 3, 1892.
-The Pittsburgh Bulletin, vol. 25, no. 19, September 17, 1892.
-U.S. Department of the Interior. National Park Service. Historic Structure Report: The South Fork Dam (June 1980), by Harlan D. Unrau. Denver, 1980., pp. 82-84.
-McCullough, David. The Johnstown Flood. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1968, pp. 91-93.
-Pennsylvania Railroad Testimony, July 1889, Col. Elias J. Unger.

Last updated: April 27, 2017

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