Labor Leader: William H. Sylvis

William H. Sylvis, future labor leader, was born in the town of Armagh on November 28, 1828, to Nicholas Sylvis, a wagon maker, and Maria Mott. The Sylvis family moved to Mauch Chunk (now Jim Thorpe, PA), his father worked for a boatbuilding relative and then moved to White Deer Valley, where he began his own wagon shop in 1835.

A faltering economy forced William Sylvis, 11-years old at the time, into indentured service on the land of a wealthy farmer and state legislator from the Philadelphia area. His father’s wagon-making business began to grow again, and his father wished that young William would work for him when he turned 16, but William went to work for the Forest Iron Works instead.

During this time, the common practice for businesses was to pay their employees only enough to survive from week to week, and the remainder of the wages would be paid at the end of the year. Sylvis worked for nearly a year, but before he received the bulk of his pay, the company went out of business.

William Sylvis

From Philadelphia, Sylvis moved to Curwensville, Clearfield County to work as a foundry apprentice. He also taught Sunday school in Hollidaysburg and worked in Johnstown for a short time before he married. In 1851, he married 15-year old Amelia A. Thomas; the following year the newlyweds along with their infant son moved back to Philadelphia in 1852 and worked in the Cresson, Stuart and Peterson Foundry. Sylvis soon learned the hardships of a low paid worker, as he struggled to provide for a second son born in 1854.

In 1854, tragedy struck in a work-related accident at the Cresson Foundry. Sylvis was working as an iron molder among fellow workers who were casting molds in sand. Another molder was carrying a long ladle of melted iron, stumbled, and the ladle spilled into one of Sylvis’ boots. Sylvis became crippled in that leg. This was before disability benefits, so Sylvis knew that such an injury would likely lead to begging on the street or selling pencils, just to survive.

Despite his injury, a year later, Sylvis returned to work at the foundry. During the Panic of 1857, the company wanted huge wage concessions, and a fledgling union struck; although Sylvis was not a member of the union, he picketed with the members. Sylvis soon became secretary of the union and probably its most active member. Two years later, Sylvis founded the Iron Molders Union and became the president of the National Labor Union (NLU) (a predecessor of both the Knights of Labor and the American Federation of Labor). As president of the National Labor Union, Sylvis supported the right of women to vote (this was 54 years before women had the right to vote in the United States).

During this time, Sylvis not only worked his regular 10-hour shift at the foundry, but also the workload of writing union reports. He also started to deliver speeches to his fellow laborers. But with the quick rise to influence and his sharp tongue, there were enemies. Those enemies were behind charges that Sylvis embezzled union funds. Sylvis provided a full accounting but was still voted out at the 1861 convention.

The Civil War caused a boom in production and there was no shortage of jobs in molding or other trades, but the unions’ power declined because of their members joining the ranks of draft dodgers fleeing to Canada. Sylvis opposed war because he realized that a division of the nation would undermine labor’s progress, because of this Sylvis favored a compromise that would divide the west into a northern free area and a southern slave zone. Sylvis did serve briefly as an orderly sergeant in the fall of 1862 by leading a group of men in pursuit of Lee as he withdrew from Antietam.

The Molders were revived in Pittsburgh and added the tag “International” in recognition of Canadian locals. Sylvis was exonerated from the charges and was elected president. The only issue was that the union did not have money and few members, so Sylvis embarked on three organizing tours to the west, and his work paid off. Two years later, the International Union boasted 122 locals with a membership nearing 7,000.

In 1865, tragedy struck the Sylvis family; typhoid fever claimed his wife in October. Sylvis swifty wooed and wed Florrie Hunter, whose family he had befriended in Hollidaysburg. The following year, there was a fifth child added to the Sylvis family.

Sylvis also founded the International Journal, a union periodical; it was through this periodical that he helped start “Reading Rooms” for the general public. He also helped obtain an eight-hour work day law for federal employees.

Sylvis was ahead of his time in his calling for social reforms and the extension of union benefits to women and African-Americans. In fact, Elizabeth Cady Stanton was accepted as a delegate at the 1868 NLU convention. It should be noted that Sylvis had a continued prejudice against African-Americans; however, he wanted them included in organized labor to prevent their use as strikebreakers.

Sylvis dedicated his life to labor, at the expense of his health; and on July 22, 1869 he was stricken by inflamed bowels and five days later he died, at the young age of 41. He left behind his wife and five children with less than $100. The NLU appropriated money to cover his funeral, and there was a 10 cent tax collected from all members to help the family. After his death, the NLU severed its ties to the women’s movement, and in three years disappeared altogether.

*Sojak, Frank, Indiana County labor group works to honor Armagh native, Johnstown Tribune-Democrat. May 20, 1990.; William H. Sylvis Pioneer of American Labor.; William Sylvis: A forgotten hero of labor. Himler, Jeff, Marker Pays Tribute To Armagh Labor Leader, Blairsville Dispatch, June 7, 1990.

Memorial Park: So Small but Full of History

Located directly behind the Historical Society is a unique little park that has a lot of history behind it. Memorial Park is the smallest of the Indiana County Parks. The site was originally surveyed in 1774 and was the site of a church cemetery. If you visit the park today, many of those graves are still located in the park. Some of the notable people buried in the park: John Lydick (Revolutionary War soldier and pioneer), Dr. Jonathan French (first resident doctor in Indiana), and Daniel Stanard (Indiana’s first resident attorney). The deceased continued to be interred in Memorial Park until 1875, at which time the Indiana Borough Council passed an ordinance prohibiting further burials at the graveyard.

During the 1850s and 1860s, the cemetery fell into disrepair, tombstones had fallen over and the site served as a stop on the Underground Railroad in which runaway slaves would hade among the overgrowth and tombstones.

In 1845, there were three fugitive slaves that came to Indiana. They rested all day in the old graveyard, hiding among the tombstones, brush, and without anything to eat. The three fugitives were Charlie Brown, Anthony Hollingsworth and Jared or Garrett Harris. (See another blog post outlining the trial of Anthony Hollingsworth).

By 1877, the cemetery was noted as a cow pasture and was known by residents as Skeleton Park.

In the center of the park is one of the most noteworthy objects in the park (besides the graves) and that is the doughboy statue. The statue was erected and dedicated on Memorial Day 1925. The story behind the erection of the statue is a unique one and filled with conflict.

Doughboy Statute in Memorial Park

The history of the statue began in 1923 when the American Legion committee was organized, which included Alex Stewart (father of James Stewart), Steele Ober, A.F. Blessing, Samuel Wolfe, Harry Campbell, George K. Clark, Edgar Walker, and Richard Watson.

The original plan for the land, owned by the Lutheran church, was to sell the trees to help finance the building of a church on another part of the property. The local veterans however, opposed the idea of selling the land and building the church on the rest, so they mounted a campaign to erect a memorial on the property. Alex Stewart was the driving force behind this campaign. In 1922 the Farmers’ Bank donated the tall pedestal to the Mothers of Democracy and an individual made a gift of the Doughboy sculpture.

The Mothers of Democracy along with the American Legion and Alex Stewart (the monument committee chairman) became involved to erect the monument. Alex, his son Jimmy, and a group of Stewart’s interested associates began digging a hole for the pedestal’s foundation. A group from the church, concerned that the erection of the memorial would reduce the price they could get for the land, filled in the hole. So, the next day, the committee group once again dug the hole, followed by the church group filling it back in again. This time, the church group erected a fence along with a “NO TRESPASSING” sign around the property. This did not discourage Stewart and his group, Stewart invited both groups to the site and when all were assembled, cut the fence, crossed the area and defied anyone to do anything about it. The stories differ as to whether Alex spent time in jail, and if so, how much. The story has a happy ending, that Indiana bought the land the Doughboy was erected where Stewart and his associates had wanted it to be placed.

The purpose of doughboy statues was to honor veterans from World War I. The official title of the statue of the statue is the “Spirit of the American Doughboy” because the local committee wanted to honor all veterans of previous wars, choosing the more general name.

Blue Spruce History

Located in Ernest, PA is a popular Indiana County Park, Blue Spruce Park. This ever-popular park has some great history behind it, linked to the railroad that ran through town. Because Ernest was also known for its coal mine, the railroad was an ever-important mode of transportation, but the locomotives were damaged by the acid mine water and created a large expense to the railroad. In this area Crooked Creek was polluted by the acid mine water. The solution to this problem was to purchase large quantities of land to protect watersheds to provide a pure source of water. Hence, Cummins Dam was built (also known locally as Cummings Dam with a “g”). The dam was constructed by the Buffalo, Rochester and Pittsburgh Railway (BR&P) on Getty Run in 1908 and named after an early landowner, J.D. Cummins. The Dam was enlarged in 1912 due to water leaking through the shall rock at the bottom of the lake bed, this caused an inadequate water supply for the railroad. The work in 1912 included capping the existing dam by adding eight feet in height. 

Once the Dam was completed it became a place for people to visit for swimming, fishing, and picnicking.  It is reported that the BR&P Railway even stopped at the nearby Cummings Railroad Yard to allow passengers to disembark the train and take a short walk to the dam to picnic and enjoy the day. 

Cummings Yard was located between Creekside and Chambersville and had a large water tower that was gravity fed by a pipeline from the dam. The Yard had its own volunteer fire company. There was also a collection of houses, on what is the current park property, that housed the railroad yard workers. 

In 1932, BR&P was acquired by the Baltimore & Ohio (B&O) Railroad. This railroad hauled coal from the mines and coke from the coke ovens, primarily to markets in Buffalo and Rochester, New York. There was also passenger train service to distant cities and to vacation spots like Niagara Falls. An advertisement from the time offered two 5-day excursion trips to Niagara Falls for $5.00. 

Train Excursion Ad
Advertisement for an train excursion to Niagara Falls

Many people from the area will remember the Hoodlebug, the gas-powered motor car, that ran on the B&O line and offered service between Indiana and Punxsutawney which ran until 1952. The Hoodlebug also transported mail and supplies in a separate attached car. There was another Hoodlebug that ran on the Pennsylvania Railroad line between Indiana and Blairsville. 

The story behind Cummins Dam is not without tragedy. On Sunday August 18, 1940, James Kendrick, a fourteen-year-old from Chevy Chase, drowned on an afternoon outing. A large crowd gathered at the site to watch the four-hour search and recovery of the body. A funeral service was held at the Church of the Living God in Chevy Chase and burial took place at the Greenwood Cemetery. 

It was during World War II that there was a concern during the war that the dam, along with other industrial sites in Western PA, could be blown up. Therefore, night watchmen were employed at these sites throughout western, PA because this region was so important in supplying coal, steel, and industrial products for the war effort. 

The railroad company was always trying to keep people away from Cummins Dam. The property had been posted with “No Trespassing” signs, and vandals were constantly tearing down the old signs down. The company routinely issued notices and published warnings in the local papers requesting trespassers stay off the property. However, people continually came onto the property despite the warnings. 

There was a severe tornado passed over the area on June 23, 1944. There were many trees on the property that were destroyed. The railroad also suffered damage when a railroad caboose car was blown off the tracks near Chambersville. Two B&O employees, David Potts and Lewis Grube, were slightly injured while riding in the caboose. Mr. Potts suffered a head and back injury and Mr. Grube was not seriously injured except for some lacerations of the body. 

It was in 1965 that Indiana County became involved with the site when funds were secured to acquire 377 acres for a county park, 143 of these acres were originally owned by the railroad, by this time it was Rochester & Pittsburgh Coal Company (R&P). In 2001 an additional 230 acres were acquired from R&P. The park today totals 650 acres.  The park was originally known as Rayne Township Park until Blue Spruce Park was chosen by the Indiana County Park Boar in September 1968. 

Murder in the Park 

Blue Spruce Park again saw tragedy in 1980, as it was the scene of a murder. On January 3, 1980, John Lesko and Michael Travaglia, both 21, picked up William C. Nicholls, 32, of Mt. Lebanon at the Edison Hotel in Pittsburgh. Richard Rutherford, 15, also accompanied the group. Mr. Nicholls was an accomplished organist at St. Anne Church in Castle Shannon. 

The group traveled in Nicholl’s new sports car to Indiana County. They spent several hours at the Rose Inn, then drove to Blue Spruce Park. Mr. Nicholls was bound and gagged in the vehicle trunk while the others were inside the Rose Inn. As the group drove to Blue Spruce, they gathered rocks from along Groft Road. Once at the park, they pulled Mr. Nicholls from the trunk, shot him in the arm, stuffed cigarette butts down his throat, gagged him with a scarf, placed the rocks in his jacket, and then threw him into the icy waters. It was the next day after Lesko and Travaglia confessed to the murder and told the investigators where the body could be found. The autopsy report revealed the Nicholls was still alive when he was thrown into the lake. 

The story doesn’t stop there, after leaving the park the group headed to Apollo, and on their way they baited Rookie Police Officer Leonard Miller to approach their car by speeding past him several times and running a red light. As Officer Miller approached the stopped car, he was shot and killed. 

Later that day Lesko and Travaglia was apprehended in Pittsburgh and began to tell their story of four murders over the span of eight days. The first victims were Peter Levato and Marlene Sue Newcomer. These murders became known as the “Kill for Thrill” murders.  

You may be asking yourself, how did Lesko and Travaglia find or even know about Blue Spruce Park. As it turns out Travaglia’s father owned a trailer near the park that was used as a summer camp and he had visited it as a child. 

The pair plead guilty to second degree murder in Indiana County and sentenced to life imprisonment for the murder of William Nicholls. They were then turned over to Westmoreland County for trial for the death of Officer Miller. They were convicted of murder and given the death sentence for Miller’s death. In 1981, they began a long series of appeals. Travaglia died in prison in 2017; Lesko continues to appeal the sentence of death. 

In 2009, a book about the crime spree was released, “Kill for Thrill” written by Michael W. Sheetz. 

Lady Umpire 

Also located on the park grounds is an historical marker on the ball field honoring Bernice (Shiner) Gera. She was a native of Ernest, born in 1931 and made baseball history as the first female umpire in the sport. Baseball was not her first career, instead she started working as a secretary and got married. One day she decided that she would like to become an umpire. She discussed and convinced her husband, Steve, of the idea and she enrolled in the Florida Baseball School in 1967.  

For five years Gera was barred by minor league baseball, but won a landmark lawsuit allowing for her to work as an umpire.1 Her first, and only, game as a professional umpire took place on June 24, 1972 in a New York-Pennsylvania League game in Geneva, New York. This achievement thrust her into the national spotlight and opened the doors, not only for other women, but for men previously denied umpiring opportunities because of arbitrary restrictions. 

Bernice went on to work in community relations and promotions for the New York Mets Baseball Club. She was inducted in the Indiana County Sports Hall and Fame. She was an outstanding athlete in her own right. As a youth, she was described as a “tomboy” who could play ball as well as most boys. Bernice Gera died on September 25, 1992.

New York State Div. of Human Rights v. New York-Pennsylvania Professional Baseball League, 320 N.Y.S.2d 788 (N.Y. App. Div. 1971).