Cyrus Elder (1833-1912)

Cyrus Elder was born on June 16, 1833, in Somerset, PA to Clifford and Rosanna (Benford) Elder. In 1889, Elder was the only South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club member from Johnstown. He lived a prolific life, serving as an attorney, a revenue commissioner for Pennsylvania, author of books and poetry, and civil leader for Johnstown.

The great Somerset fire occurred the same year that Elder was born, 1833. Subsequently, his family moved to Ohio. His father died in 1846, and the family moved back to Pennsylvania. At the age of 15 and, until the year 1855, he lived with an uncle. He then returned to Somerset to read law under William J. Blair and George W. Benford. He was admitted to the bar in 1856. That year he also attended the very first Republican convention in Philadelphia in June, which nominated John C. Fremont for president. On March 22, 1859, he wed Nancy Jane Swank. The Elders had five children: George, Nancy Moor, Genevieve Clifford, Emily Louise, and Cyrus Elder Jr.

Cyrus, along with this brothers Leroy, William, and Virgil, served in the Civil War. He was elected 2nd Lieutenant and earned a promotion to 1st Lieutenant of Company A, 10th Pennsylvania Infantry Volunteer Reserve Corps. He served with McClellan in the Peninsular Campaign. However, he became sick and was discharged from the military. He then was hired by Daniel J. Morrell of the Cambria Iron Company. He served as associate editor of the Johnstown Tribune for two years after, then became an attorney and eventually chief counsel for the Cambria Iron Company.

In 1880, the Cambria Iron Company conducted an engineering report of the South Fork Dam. While flaws were detected in the dam, nothing was done to correct them, and so, Daniel Morrell purchased a membership in the Club, presumably to keep an eye on things. Upon Morrell's death on August 24, 1885, this membership was transferred to Elder. In 1885 he, along with John Fulton, also an employee of the Cambria Iron Company, was instrumental in developing Grandview Cemetery high above Johnstown.

In addition to establishing the cemetery, Elder became a city leader in other ways. In 1866, he was one of the organizers of the Johnstown Water Company. He served on Johnstown's borough council for the Second Ward. He organized both the Bessemer Steel Company as well as the Johnstown Savings Bank, serving as solicitor there as well. He was a founder of the Cambria Library. After the flood, he served as secretary of the Johnstown Flood Finance Fund.

The following is Elder's experience in the flood, according to journalist J.J. McLaurin, in his book The Story of Johnstown:
"Cyrus Elder, solicitor of the Cambria Iron Company, returned from Chicago in the forenoon [aboard the Day Express passenger train]. Water surrounded his residence, hindering him from getting home. His wife and daughter stood on the porch, waving their handkerchiefs to welcome him. During the afternoon he procured a boat somebody had constructed of rough boards and endeavored to reach his family. The craft upset, spilling Mr. Elder into four feet of water. He waded back and entered his brother's house for a change of clothing. While he was putting on dry garments, the flood overwhelmed Johnstown. His elegant home was utterly destoryed, Mrs. and Miss Elder going down with the wreck, to be seen no more." (McLaurin, 342)

The loss of his loved ones in the flood might lead one to think that Elder harbored ill will toward the Club, but in fact the opposite was true, according to David McCullough, "Having lost his wife and one daughter, his home and just about everything he owned but the clothes on his back, Elder had as much cause as anyone to lash out at the club, and certainly not to do so was to go against the temper of the entire town. But he stuck to his position. He admitted that Johnstown people had long been edgy about the dam and said, 'Therefore, if anybody be to blame I suppose we ourselves are among them, for we have indeed been very careless in this most important matter and most of us have paid the penalty of our neglect.' It was a brave and most un-popular thing to be saying in Johnstown." (McCullough, The Johnstown Flood, 253)

In 1901, Elder retired and moved to Philadelphia where he resided at the Colonial Apartments, 1100 Spruce Street. This is where he died on December 14, 1902.

Last updated: February 7, 2022

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