HEADLINE NEWS . . .
“At 6:15 am, Thursday, 24 April 1890 the alarm was sounded . . . “many wounded”
“A neighbor on Second Street said he saw the smoke issuing from the drying room at an earlier hour, but thought it nothing unusual . . . “
“The destruction of the Unicorn Silk Mill, the loss of of five lives and wounding many citizens will be long remembered by the peoples of Catasauqua with sadness and regret.”
“The funeral of George Paff, one of the victims of the Catasauqua fire, took place Wednesday afternoon . . .”
In my posts dated, 27 April 2016, Grandma, a Little Cooperation . . . Please, and 30 April 2017, In Plain Sight, I learned WHO Eva – my Great Grandmother – is. And, WHO George PFAFF is and what his relationship is to me. To read the other posts in this history mystery series follow these links. Grandma isn't Playing Nice! . . . On Either Side; and The Grandparents are Out of Control! And, Having Way Too Much Fun!!
Who is Eva PFAFF? Eva is the daughter of Louisa MILHEIM and George M PFAFF, the step-daughter of Oscar Ramer, the mother of Catherine Louise STARR and my maternal Great Grandmother.
Eva was born 24 January 1889 in Hokendauqua, Lehigh County, Pennsylvania to Louisa MILHEIM and George M PFAFF. She was baptized at St Paul’s Lutheran Church, Howertown Road, Catasauqua, Lehigh County, Pennsylvania, 6 months later on 24 June 1889.1 While the baptismal record lists the parents, it does not record the father’s first name, but does record the mother’s full name. In discussing this with the research staff at the Lehigh County Historical Society; Lehigh Valley Heritage Museum, this would seem to indicate that the parents were not married. The sponsor was Mrs. Annie Faust.
Sadly, Eva’s father, George M PFAFF died prematurely as a young man just shy of 22 years of age, in April 1889. Eva never knew her father; her mother, Louisa, married Oscar Ramer three years later, on 31 May 1892. Oscar Ramer was the only father Eva ever knew; the only Grandfather her daughter, Catherine STARR ever knew; and the only Great Grandfather, Catherine’s children ever knew. So we can now see where the confusion entered the “family tree.”
There are only four documents that actually record Eva’s maiden name as PFAFF; two of which also provide her father’s name.. .
Eva’s 18 May 1911 marriage license3 records her maiden name as Eva E PFAFF and also records her parents as George and Louisa PFAFF.
Note, neither I, nor the local genealogist I hired, Richard Musselman, nor the Assistant Curator at the Lehigh County Historical Society; Lehigh Valley Heritage Museum could find any marriage record of Louisa MILHEIM and George M PFAFF. I don’t believe they were ever married..
Note, that the wedding announcement states “Mr. Pfaff is a clerk at the Penn Junction of the P & R R R.” The Mr. “Pfaff” referred to is incorrect; my Great Grandfather, George E W STARR was a clerk and in the employ of the P & R R R.
Eva’s death certificate.5 Eva’s daughter, my Grandmother, Catherine (nee STARR) Kriebel was the informant. Catherine provided Eva’s parents as Geo. MILHEIM and Louisa PFAFF. Poor Grandmom. I can only imagine the feeling of loss at losing a beloved parent; in her grief Catherine mixed up her grandparents surnames. The names should read . . . Father’s Name: Geo. PFAFF and Mother’s Maiden Name: Louisa MILHEIM.
While the death certificate doesn’t explicitly record Eva’s maiden name as PFAFF, I think it can reasonably be inferred. And, as noted Eva PFAFF lived with her maternal MILHEIM grandparents in 1900. (see the 1900 US census record above). I also believe the following documents for Eva’s mother, Louisa MIHEIM, support this conclusion.
Note: Louisa’s full given name is Mary Louisa MILHEIM, she was known however, by Louisa. Her Father, Charles MILHEIM.
Louisa’s marriage license,7 records her name as M Louisa MILHEIM and her father’s name, Charles MILHEIM.
Who is George M PFAFF? George is the son of David PFAFF and Sarah (Sally) Ann ROCKEL, Brother of: Anna C PFAFF; Sarah E PFAFF; Joseph R PFAFF; Clara K PFAFF; and John A PFAFF. Father of Eva Elizabeth PFAFF and my maternal Great Great Grandfather.
George PFAFF was born to David PFAFF and Sarah (Sally) ROCKEL, 28 September 1868, in Schnecksville, Lehigh County, Pennsylvania. His parents were both 29 years of age. George’s birth was recorded in the St. Paul’s Lutheran Church Register.9
By 187010 George is living in Slatington, North Whitehall, Lehigh County, Pennsylvania with his parents and siblings: Sarah E; Joseph R; Clara K and John A.
Note when this record was transcribed, the Head of Household was recorded as “Dana” and the 12 year old son was recorded as “Gengrele.” I’ll give you that the enumerator’s handwriting is poor, however, after careful study of the image, I believe that “Dana” is actually David and that “Gengrele” is George.
In 1883 George’s parents would file for divorce and eleven months later, 16 December 1884, the Lehigh County Court of Common Pleas decreed that David and Sarah A PFAFF be divorced.
There are only two more known life events for George on his timeline. The first is the birth of his daughter, his only child, Eva Elizabeth PFAFF, born 24 January 1889.
And, three months later, 24 April 1890 . .. .
A TERRIBLE DISASTER – The Catasauqua Silk Mill Destroyed by Fire. George PFAFF worked at the Unicorn Silk Mill as a car oiler for the Central Railroad of New Jersey.
The Unicorn Silk Mill was located in the upper part of Catasauqua, where the New Jersey Central Railroad crosses the canal and is nearly opposite Hokendauqua. The fire destroyed the entire structure, save the one-story annex building. A dozen people were buried in the ruins when the gable of the main structure fell upon the thin roof, crushing through it like it was tissue paper . . .
Newspaper accounts of the fire; the injuries of many; and deaths of a reported five ran in a number of local papers such as the Allentown Democrat; Lehigh Register; the Allentown Morning Call; the Catasauqua Dispatch; Allentown’s Der Unabhangige Republikaner; and Der Friedens Bote. Newspaper accounts of the fire also ran in the Philadelphia Inquirer; Illinois and New York. This was no “small town” incident; the scale and magnitude of the disaster and suffering that day were great!
And, until reading the newspaper accounts, I had my 21st century blinders firmly in place, believing that news did not travel in the 19th century, like it does today, at the “speed of light.” How wrong I was. From the Allentown Democrat . . .10
“The news of the awful disaster sped like a whirlwind through the Valley, and all the morning trains brought hundreds of people to the scene of the calamity. Many of them led by a mere idle curiosity, others by an eagerness to render aid, and still others by the haunting dread that some they loved had been crushed in the awful ruin.”
The following is a compilation of excerpts I’ve taken from the local papers.
“George Paff one of the injured, died on Saturday night at St Luke’s hospital, making the fifth death from the accident. He received his injuries while aiding the firemen.”11
“[John] Paff was also among the first to be taken out and was seriously injured. His right leg was broken near the knee and the left hand was so badly burned as to cause the skin to peel off and hang over the cords of the fingers. His face was also frightfully scalded and he was severely hurt internally. He was taken to St. Luke’s Hospital, and while at the train depot he frequently tore his flesh for pain and cried out in despair to his friends: ‘Shoot me and rid me of my pain.’ “12
“. . . It was some time before the steamers could be put into service owing to the difficulty in getting them to the canal bank, the mill being a quarter of a mile away from the town. After much exertion both fire companies, The Phoenix and the Southwark, got ropes and lowered, their steamers down a steep embankment 50 feet high, west of the mill, to the canal . . . About 7:10 o’clock a loud explosion of vitriol and other acids occurred, and the concussion caused the massive roof, weighted down with the belting and machinery, to fall in. The roof carried a portion of the south wall with it, and the men were caught under the mass of falling bricks and timbers. There was a system of hose and pipe for fire use in the mill, but no way of connecting it with the water pipes of the town, so that the system was useless. The fact is, the fire hose had been sent away for repairs. The floors were pretty well saturated with oil, so that the flames had no obstacle, but rather were assisted in spreading from story to story . . . Dead and injured men were in the midst of the debris, smoke, dust and burning material. Others standing near jumped from windows and doors in their haste to escape . . .”13
“The first alarm sounded twenty-five minutes after six o’clock . . . the Phoenix and Southwark steamers, with their four hose carriages were on the scene. No water mains have been laid on Front Street to the mill and the steamers were obliged to draw their support of water from the Lehigh River, which is in close proximity to the mills . . . The scene of horror that was presented in the interior of the ill-fated mill truly beggars description. Here and there men with burned and scalded bodies and bruised limbs ran excitedly about the mass of smoking bricks under which some of their fellow men were buried and it took some time to restore order. The moans of the injured and dying were heartrending and as the poor victims called upon those about them to rescue them or to kill them at once, the stoutest heart quailed. When the wall fell the men who had stood on the roof were carried down with the building and formed a part of that horrible mass. The men were being burned by the hot bricks and again scalded by escaping steam and the sufferings of the unfortunate ones were excruciating.”14
The cause of the fire? Never officially determined; a mystery. It’s thought, spontaneous combustion. The building was heated by steam and was considered comparatively safe from fire.
According to one newspaper account . . .
“A fatal mistake in the erection of the silk mill was the entire lack of water facilities in case of fire. Had the building been supplied with plugs and hose, the employees could have readily mastered the flames at the discovery, but the distance of the fire department and difficulties in locating the engines along the canal, gave the flames such advantage that no fire apparatus could have saved the building.”15
George M PFAFF died three days later at St. Luke’s hospital. His funeral took place Wednesday afternoon, 30 May 1890 at his home, located in West Catasauqua. He was laid to rest at the Fairview Cemetery, West Catasauqua, Lehigh County, Pennsylvania.
As of two days ago, I could only hypothesize that my Great Great Grandmother, Louisa MILHEIM, would have attended George’s funeral. And, had he lived, he and Louisa would have married, raising my Great Grandmother Eva PFAFF.
As serendipity would have it, as I was putting together this post, I misplaced one of the many newspaper accounts I had amassed during my search for and research on George M PFAF;, THE newspaper account that I most wanted to review and use.
So, it was out to Newspapers.com in search of what I swore I already had. Did I find the article? No . . . not at first. BUT, OMG what I did find!!! A two sentence blurb hidden amongst other . . . stuff. What did it say? Here, I will let you see for yourself . . .
“It is said that Geo. Paff, one of the unfortunate victims of the silk mill fire at Catasauqua, was to have been married shortly.” Published in the local paper 7 May 1890.16
And, what of the article that I misplaced that caused this happy “accident?” I found it. It was on my computer. I have never been happier to have thought I lost a valuable record!!!
Now, I can’t prove it, but I strongly believe, that my above hypothesis is 100% accurate, IF George M PFAFF had lived, he and my Great Great Grandmother, Louisa MILHEIM, would have married and raised their daughter, Eva Elizabeth PFAFF . . . TOGETHER!!
Observations. Several of the articles refer to “John” Paff. I believe this is in error. George PFAFF had younger brother, John A PFAFF. John was 15 months younger than his brother George; born 5 December 1869, Schnecksville, Lehigh County, Pennsylvania, to David PFAFF and Sarah (Sally) ROCKEL. He passed away at the age of 63 on 10 March 1932 in Allentown, Lehigh County, Pennsylvania.
While it is entirely possible that John too was employed by the Unicorn Silk Mill and was on site that fateful day, 24 April 1890; he too, along with his brother George could have “jumped in” to render aid and he may very well have been injured, I don’t believe the accounts of “John” in these articles are referring to him.
As noted John lived until 63 years of age while his brother George did not survive the incident nor his injuries. I think it more likely that the “John” referred to in the articles is actually George. In the confusion of that day and the horrible events unfolding, it isn’t hard to imagine how two young men, of the same family, and similar in age could be confused.
I don’t know much about my Great Great Grandfather George M PFAFF, but what I do know is that he sacrificed his young life to help others in need without thought to his own personal safety. I KNOW HE IS A HERO as are the others that rendered assistance, some at the loss of life that day.
Remembering the Injured and Lost
While this post is about my maternal Great Great Grandfather George M PFAFF, I feel it important to remember the others that suffered horrific injuries and loss of life. I think George would have liked that I / WE didn’t forget them . . .
Those who died:
Joseph Lodigiani; John Good; Charles Frick; Ulysses Everett; William Fenstermacher
Those who were injured:
Henry Price; Michael Moran; Clifford Riegel; John Graffin; William Mote; Robert C Dougherty; William Kay; William Howells; Robert Wilkinson; Samuel Morris; Thomas James; Albert Derhammer; Wilson Young; William Jones; Henry Souders; Thomas Jones; and Oscar Harte
My Great Great Grandfather had the following siblings who survived him: Sara E PFAFF, married to Alfred Kuehner; Joseph R PFAFF, married to Emily LaBarre; Clara K PFAFF, married to Adam Roth; and John A PFAFF, married to Emma Beitel.
I would LOVE to hear from any of their descendants; did any of them know of their hero uncle George? Would I get lucky enough that a photo exists and survives of George? What about photos of my Great Great Great Grandparents; David PFAFF and Sarah (Sally) Ann ROCKEL?
And, of course if others have similar stories of heroism; life cut short; triumph, etc. I’d love to hear them!!!
Copyright © 2018 Family Preserves; Tracy L Meyers
1St. Paul’s Lutheran Church (Catasauqua, Lehigh County, Pennsylvania), Baptisms, 1853 – 1987 Volume 1, Page 108, Baptism, 1889. Eva Elizabeth Paff, born 24 January 1889, baptized 24 June 1889. Lehigh County Historical Society, Lehigh Valley Heritage Museum, Allentown, Pennsylvania
2ncestry.com, 1900 United States Federal Census (Online publication – Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations Inc, 2004.Original data – United States of America, Bureau of the Census. Twelfth Census of the United States, 1900 Washington, DC: National Archives and Records Administration, 1900. T623, 18), Ancestry.com, http://www.Ancestry.com, Year: 1900; Census Place: Whitehall, Lehigh, Pennsylvania; Roll: 1430; Page: 5B; Enumeration District: 0093; FHL microfilm: 1241430.
3Marriage License, “Pennsylvania, County Marriages, 1885 – 1950,” index and images, Famil Search (https://familysearch.org/pal:/MM9.1.1/VF43-NG5 :, “Pennsylvania, County Marriages, 1885-1950,” database with images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/pal:/MM9.3.1/TH-1942-21138-66?cc=1589502 : accessed 5 September 2015), 004839066 > image 637 of 914; county courthouses, Pennsylvania
4Married, 20 May 1911, accessed 1 January 2018, Marriage Announcement, The Allentown Democrat, Allentown, Pennsylvania, online images (https://www.newspapers.com)
5Ancestry.com, Pennsylvania, Death Certificates, 1906-1924 (Provo, UT, USA, Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2014). Ancestry.com, http://www.ancestry.com
6Ancestry.com, Pennsylvania, Church and Town Records, 1708-1985 (Online publication – Provo, UT, USA: ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2011. Original data – Historic Pennsylvania Church and Town Records. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: Historical Society of Pennsylvania. Original data: Historic Pennsylvania Church and Town Reco), Ancestry.com, http://www.Ancestry.com, Historical Society of Pennsylvania; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: Collection Name: Historic Pennsylvania Church and Town Records; Reel: 491)
7Pennsylvania County Marriages 1855 – 1950 Index and Images (Family Search), “Pennsylvania, County Marriages, 1885 – 1950,” index and images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/pal:/MM9.1.1/VF43-NG5 :, Date License acquired: 31 May 1892 / Date of Marriage: 31 May 1892. FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/pal:/MM9.1.1/VF4V-782)
8Ancestry.com, Pennsylvania, Death Certificates, 1906-1924 (Provo, UT, USA, Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2014), Ancestry.com, http://www.Ancestry.com
9St. Paul’s Lutheran Church (Catasauqua, Lehigh County, Pennsylvania, USA), Death Register, Volume III, 1853 – 1987, Page 90, Death Register, 1890; Lehigh County Historical Society, Lehigh Valley Heritage Museum, Allentown, PA
10“A Terrible Disaster – The Catasauqua Silk Mill Destroyed by Fire – Five Lives Lost, and A Number of Persons Severely Injured,” The Allentown Democrat, 30 April 1890, archived, (https://www.newspapers.com/image/16253142 : accessed 4 January 2018), Columns 2 and 3; citing print edition, p. 3
11See Ibid., “A Terrible Disaster – The Catasauqua Silk Mill Destroyed by Fire . . .”
12“Terrible Disaster – Destruction of the Catasauqua Silk Mill, Four Men Dead and Many Injured,” The Lehigh Register, 30 April 1890
13“A Terrible Disaster – The Catasauqua Silk Mill Destroyed by Fire – Five Lives Lost, and A Number of Persons Severely Injured,” The Allentown Democrat, 30 April 1890, archived, (https://www.newspapers.com/image/16253142 : accessed 4 January 2018), Columns 2 and 3; citing print edition, p. 3
14Terrible Disaster – Destruction of the Catasauqua Silk Mill, Four Men Dead and Many Injured,” The Lehigh Register, 30 April 1890, p. 1
15“Catasauqua Disaster,” The Catasauqua Dispatch, 30 April 1890, p. 5
16“In Brief Paragraphs,” The Morning Call, 7 May 1890, archived (https://ww.newspapers.com/image/16210359 : accessed 2 January 1890 column 7; citing print edition)