On the hilltop overlooking Johnstown, Pennsylvania, and just behind the 888 graves of the unidentified dead from the Great Flood of 1889 stand two family mausoleums with the name “Pearce” chiseled above the entries. There are only a half dozen other families in this massive burial site who had the means to preserve their loved ones for eternity in this fashion, and the story of how they came to be laid to rest at Grandview, one of the nation’s most famous cemeteries, is also worth preserving. At this time, I can’t find any connection between these Pearces and our immediate family, but perhaps in the future, if we can go back far enough, this West-central Pennsylvania family and our Pearces of Pine Creek near Pittsburgh can be linked. But, let’s begin with several similarities:
• Our Original Family Narrative (OFN) tells us that a brother and sister, Richard and Sarah Pearce, married a sister and brother, Susan and Charles Austen, in the same London ceremony of 1813 [see earlier articles]. In the story of the Pearces of Portage, two brothers, Robert and James, married two sisters, Prudence and Liza Thomas.
• The Richard Pearce and Charles Austen families settled along Pine Creek in Allegheny County and made a living milling grain and farming before being laid to rest in the Cross Roads Cemetery nearby [OFN]. The Robert Pearce and James Pearce families settled near the Bens Creek in Cambria County and made a living mining coal and providing electricity for that area before being interred at different cemeteries: Prospect in Portage and Grandview in Johnstown.
It’s this story of the Pearces of Portage, PA, newly discovered, that we relate in this article. Though far from complete, it’s bittersweet tale of how so little is remembered of a family, idiosyncratic as it was, that did so much for a community.
The Borough of Portage was founded in 1890 as a stop along the mainline of the Pennsylvania Railroad. The township of the same name began many years earlier and was named for the railway linking the Pennsylvania Canal, which ran from Philadelphia to Hollidaysburg via the Schuylkill and Susquehanna Rivers, to the rivers flowing into the Ohio at Pittsburgh via the Conemaugh, Kiskiminetas, and Allegheny Rivers. The town and township were named for the function of canal boats being lifted out of the water in Hollidaysburg, placed onto railroad cars, and “portaged” over the Allegheny Mountain 36 miles to Johnstown. The route contained 10 planes, a stone viaduct across the Little Conemaugh River, a 900 foot long tunnel (newly renovated for hikers), an amazing skew-arch bridge, and several other minor bridges (WWW.PORTAGEPA.COM). Today the National Park Service depicts this incredible feat of engineering at its museum and grounds near Cresson, PA (WWW.NPS.GOV/ALPO). This transportation system, though only operating 20 years (1834-54) was glorified in the writing of no less than Charles Dickens and others. Mid-century the Pennsylvania Railroad was able to replace the horse and mule teams and canal boats with wood and coal fired locomotives along the new route of the Horseshoe Curve through Altoona. The trip across the Keystone State that once took 22 days, now took only six. But the real, lasting contribution were the immigrants who rode the system to get to jobs along the mainline: mines (coal) and mills (iron and timber). The abundance of natural resources, including water, and now human resources, gave Johnstown and Cambria County the reputation of a “little Pittsburgh.” The nation depended upon her energy supplies, wood, and hard metal in the wartimes of the 19th and 20th centuries as well as for everyday living. The newly remodeled Portage Station Museum, which relates this small town’s role in the development of 19th century American industry and transportation, is open by appointment [contact Nancy Troxel or Ruth Richardson].
In 1868 the Big Survey, later known as Cambria Mining and Manufacturing Company, bought land along Bens Creek and opened its first coal mine four years later. Several years later the famous Sonman Mine began operations. Unfortunately, its fame rests with the underground disaster of 1940 that killed 63 men. Nearly 60 other mining operations have worked the Portage area in the past 125 years. It was out of this setting that the Pearce Mine of Portage was founded, and later the Pearce-run Portage Power and Light. Today the Pearce Building stands in the heart of this small town as an enduring tribute to this family and their contributions to this community.
Who were these men and women? Where did the family originate? What do we know about them? According to The History of Cambria County, Thomas J. Pearce was the son of Welsh-born George (1839-1910) and Ellen Pearce. They operated a hotel in Brisbin, Clearfield County before opening the George Pearce and Sons Coal Mine in Portage. It was also known as the “Last Chance Mine” and later the “Hog Hole Mine.” They had seven children. The four brothers were:
Robert ( ), who married Prudence Thomas ( ) and begat George (1893-1957) and Rachel ( )
Thomas J. (1864-1914), who married Margaret Lange (1866-1955) and begat Wilbur (1888-1950), James G. (1895-1918), F.W., who married Julia West (1901-28), and
[The separate Robert and Thomas mausoleums each contain their heirs and are located at Grandview, Johnstown.]
J. James (1872-1915), who married Liza Thomas ( ) and begat Rachel (1902-75), who married Charles Voloshin (1904-79).
[These graves are located in the rather ornate Pearce-Thomas section of the Prospect Cemetery, Portage.]
William Henry ( ), who married a Patterson from Portage and moved to Huntingdon.
I had the privilege of interviewing 93-year old Russell Thomas, the nephew of Prudence and Liza Thomas Pearce, at his home in Portage where he still lives on his own and drives a car everyday. His wife died several years ago. Russell drove the “trouble truck” for Pearce’s Portage Power and Light Company. His father, Thomas Thomas, supervised the operations at the generating station until it was bought out before World War II by Pennsylvania Electric, now General Public Utilities. Russell says that the Pearce Mine went bankrupt and is still in the county court system, but that recently several family members had inquired about its viability. The town still has several mining companies, but they haul coal from other areas to the cleaning plant, after which it is used for power generation at several areas nearby.
Not much is known about the Pearce family-run electric company except for several advertisements that appeared over the years. A July 4th program in 1913 referred to electric lights operating on “day current” (the first telephone pole had been set a year earlier). A town 25th anniversary booklet was published in 1915 that encouraged citizens to “Get your house wired for electricity.”
In addition to running the electric company, Thomas was also Vice-President of the town’s First National Bank, borough mayor, and a school director. He had married his German-born bride and moved to Portage in 1888 from Houtzdale, not far from Brisbin, Clearfield County. Thomas and Margaret had finished building the well-appointed offices of the power company along Main Street just before his death in 1914. They had built a mansion just across the street in what is now the grand location of the Beck Funeral Home. Their six children were Hester Hohnka of Clymer, Indiana Co.; Nellie Schultz of Castle Shannon, near Pittsburgh; James G., who dies in 1918 at age 22; Wilbur E. of Johnstown; Ferris of Castle Shannon; and Olive, who never married. Thomas called himself an Episcopal (Church of England), which is rather unusual for a Welshman, usually Baptists and Presbyterians. He would have had to drive 25 miles to Johnstown to the only Anglican church in the county. But, he was also a Mason, an Odd Fellow, and an Elk, and would have had to drive to meetings there as well. Margaret was a member of the United Brethren Church and Secretary-treasurer of the local cemetery, which is another irony as we shall see.
Over the years, after the electric company was purchased and moved to Johnstown, the Pearce Building has housed a drug store, auto supply, cleaners, clothing and department stores, law and accounting offices, and the Kittaning Coal Company. Interestingly, around 1926, the building even had a five-bed hospital on the second floor. By 1940, no property on the borough map was recorded to Pearces. The elder Mrs. Beck told me in an interview that that was about the time Margaret Pearce sold her house to the funeral home and moved to the county seat in Ebensburg. She described Mrs. Pearce as “eccentric.” It is not known who owns the commercial Pearce Building today, but it stands regally at the end of Main Street, which has to make a zig-zag between the Pearce’s former residence and the stately business center. You’ve heard the expression, “You can’t miss it.” Well, the Pearces obviously made a statement by making everyone go around and between their buildings. It’s a wonder someone hasn’t plowed into one of the structures in the past 90 years.
One of the most interesting things we’re looking into is the belief that one or both of the beautiful Pearce mausoleums was constructed and filled at a cemetery in Portage and then, for reasons unknown, moved to the Grandview Cemetery some 25 miles away in Johnstown. Linda Miko, of the Prospect Cemetery Committee in Portage, related a feeling from her elderly parents that the Pearce vault(s) was/were moved to Johnstown over a dispute involving the burial of babies or people of certain religions or ethnic origins. But for certain, to accomplish such a feat must have required some commitment and much capital. In other words, the Pearces of Portage must have believed in what they wanted and had the money to do it!
Joseph and Amy [Pearce] Gribbin, who recently moved back to Portage after living near Pittsburgh for many years, contacted me by e-mail to say that her Great-grandfather William Pearce (1861-1929) headed another Pearce family in that small town. William was born in Brown Hills, England at the time of the American Civil War. It’s not known when he came to the United States, but he married Amanda Ann Evans (1867-1909) two years before the Great Johnstown Flood of 1889. They had 11 children including Esther (1892-1944), who was Amy’s grandmother. Esther married Harry Anderson and their seven children included Amy’s mother, Sarah. It’s interesting that this large family shares many of the same names found in ours: Nelson, Sarah, Pearl, Charles, William, Howard, and Thomas, to name a few. Some of the unusual names in this family include Pansy, Xopher, Duvall, and Zenobia. They may have been cousins of the four brothers who owned stock in the Pearce family mine and power company. The only grave from that Pearce family that we could locate in Prospect is above the mass grave of the influenza victims of 1918 and is marked “Anna Pearce.” We believe it to be that of the matriarch, Amanda Ann Evans Pearce. With so much space around this plot, probably other Pearce stones had fallen over and have been removed.
Research continues into this and other Pearce families in Cambria, Indiana, Jefferson, and Clearfield Counties. A Pearce family used to operate an appliance store in Johnstown’s West End as late as the 1980s, and Pearce’s Pet Store is still active near the town of Indiana. At least one Pearce Reunion is held near the Cambria County seat of Ebensburg each year, and several family deaths have been recorded in the Johnstown newspaper. A survey of the Johnstown city directory of 1925 revealed at least a dozen Pearce families with a variety of occupations from police officer to coal mine operator. Today, the Portage phonebook lists no Pearces and the Johnstown directory lists only four. We are in the process of contacting them. As we said at the outset, we hope someday to connect all of these Pearces of West-central Pennsylvania with our large family from Pine Creek near Pittsburgh. But for now, I for one see at least one more similarity between our Pine Creek Pearces and the Pearces of Bens Creek, Portage, beyond the brothers and sisters who married the sisters and brothers: How quickly the families grew up and moved away, leaving little memory in the communities they served. I am just that much more grateful for our Original Family Narrative and the North Park legacy.
Centennial Book Committee. Portrait of a Town: Portage, PA.
Indiana, PA: A.G. Halldin Publishing Co., 1990.
Gilpatrick, Cathy. E-mail. October 9, 2001.
Gribbin, Joe and Amy. E-mail. September 17 & 19, 2000.
Miko, Linda. E-mail. October 12, 2001.
Mutch, Frank. Personal Interview. February 28, 2001.
“Portage History.” October 1, 2001
Thomas, Russell. Personal Interview. September 25, 2001.