On Wednesday, October 19, 1938 the Lock Haven Express weather report stated, “Rain tonight and probably Thursday morning, colder on Thursday, and in central and west portions tonight.” The paper noted it had been 80o F. the day before.[i] The same paper reported that two small fires had occurred the day before, one near Haneyville and the other in Paddys Run. The Harrisburg Telegraph was predicting temperatures near 78o F with rain to follow.[ii] The fall of 1938 was dry. While spring rainfalls had been near normal, the summer and fall proved much drier with precipitation 2 inches below normal.[iii] A killing frost had hit the northcentral part of the state on October 7 followed by higher than normal temperatures. The forest was tinder dry.
On the morning of October 18, 1938 a series of fires broke out near Lick Run and Jerry Run in Cameron County. The fires burned throughout the day and men from camp S-132 at Hunts Run were detailed to fight the fires. Additional men who had returned to camp from their regular duties were sent out to work the night shift after eating dinner. They returned to camp at 5:30 a.m. the following morning.
Along the First Fork of Sinnemahoning Creek, about four miles upstream from its confluence with Sinnemahoning Creek, at a place called Pepper Hill an arsonist had set fires on the west side of the valley. Truck driver, George Poloski was dispatched to check on the report of a wildfire in the area. At noon Poloski phoned District Forester Charles Baer to report the fires and returned to camp S-132 to eat and pick up the fire crews.
Two crews were dispatched from camp S-132. Both crews had been on the fire line all night and had only a few hours sleep when they were dispatched to the blaze. Crew 1 had 25 enrollees and was led by foreman Adolph Kammarath. Crew 2 had 22 men and was led by foreman Gilbert Mohney. The 49 men were exhausted from the previous night’s fire duty.
When the crews arrived on the fire scene they found four separate fires. A decision was made to attack the smallest fire. The terrain where the fire is located is some of the steepest to be found in Pennsylvania. Crew 2 under Foreman Mohney began building a fire line on the right flank of the fire, while others in the crew began backfiring. The going was tough and in 45 minutes only 200 feet of fire line had been constructed. The crew was instructed to move to the top of the mountain and construct a downhill line. As the crew proceeded to the top of the mountain the men became separated with some men stopping to rest while others moved on. At about 3:30 p.m. the crew noticed that the wind had shifted and the backfire they had set below had jumped their fire line and was burning toward them. The fire assumed the shape of a horseshoe. The fire burned on the panic stricken crew’s left and right as well as behind them.
Some sought shelter in the rocks. Others raced toward the summit in an effort to get away from the fire. The flames caught the men. In all the fire claimed eight lives. Foreman Gilbert Mohney, 38 of Ridgway, Basil Bogush, 19 of Conemaugh, John Boring, 19 of Johnstown, Howard May, 18 of Erie, and Andrew Stephanic 18, of Twin Rocks all perished at the scene of the fire. Ross Hollobaugh 18 of Rimersburg died the next day at Renovo Hospital. Stephen Jacofsky 17 of Johnstown died the next day at the hospital in St. Marys. George Vogel who was believed to be from New Kensington died November 2, in Renovo.
Over twenty others were injured in the fire, many requiring hospitalization. Peter Damico was severely burned, transferred to Walter Reed Hospital in Washington, D.C. and eventually returned to duty at camp S-132. Enrollees Kiliany and Gaydos were credited with leading many of the crew to safety.
In an ironic twist of fate rain began to fall about the same time the men were trapped and the 134 acre fire was extinguished, not through the efforts of the firefighters but rather by the heavy rain that fell that night.[iv]
In the days that followed federal, state and county officials began an investigation into how the fire started and how and why the men were trapped. Initial reports found in the press had the size of the fire at 800 acres, names were misspelled, and the hometowns were somewhat disorganized. George Wirt was the P.D.F. & W. investigator but the main investigation was conducted by federal and county officials. Cameron County District Attorney Edwin Tompkins would lead the county’s investigation. On October 22, 1938, three days after the fire Tompkins stated that “improper supervision” led to the deaths.[v] Tompkins said he would convene an inquest into the deaths and he “would subpoena everybody with the slightest connection with the case.”[vi] The C.C.C. investigation was under the direction of Colonel C.D. King, Commander of the Indiana District of the C.C.C. which covered Cameron County. Captain Alton Miller, Sub-district Commander and Lieutenant Rodman Hayes Cameron Camp Commander were the C.C.C. officials on site for the investigation.
On Monday, October 23, 1938 a mass was celebrated at St. Mark’s Roman Catholic Church for the seven dead. At the Hyner Camp, the flag was lowered to half-staff and taps was played in remembrance of their fallen comrades.[vii] Robert Fechner, Director of the C.C.C. sent condolences to the families of the deceased.[viii]
On October 31, 1938, District Attorney Tompkins began an inquest into the Pepper Hill Fire. The inquest was expected to last three days. Tompkins was concerned that the fire was arson caused and that improper supervision had led to the deaths.[x] The testimony began with parents of four of the deceased in attendance.
Early testimony of the witnesses indicated that they did not believe the fire could have started from others burning in the area, and trains and discarded smoking materials were also ruled out as sources of ignition.[xi]
On November 2, 1938 Earl Getz, supervisor of camp S-132, testified that “the youths had received some experience fighting fires in September.” When Getz was further questioned about how much training the men had received he refused to answer, stating that the information was in the records turned over to the U.S. Department of Agriculture that was conducting its own investigation. Lieutenant Rodman M. Haynes, reserve officer at the camp admitted that the book C.C.C. Safety Regulations Relating to Forest Fire Fighters, had not been issued at the camp until two days after the fatal fire. He also testified that no other regulations or information concerning the fighting of forest fires had been posted at the camp.[xii]
Later testimony from the C.C.C. men reported they had worked on roads all day of October 18 and then had been on a fire through the night. They had gotten only six hours of rest before they were dispatched to the Pepper Hill Fire.[xiii] As testimony went on, survivor enrollees testified about the conditions they faced, how they escaped and tellingly that they had not received any classroom instruction in firefighting.[xiv] The testimony in the Coroner’s Inquest concluded on November 10, 1938.
On November 12, 1938 the coroner’s jury of “experienced woodsmen” decided after hearing nine days of testimony that the fire’s cause was incendiary and set by “some person or persons unknown. The jury also found camp officials guilty of “laxity and negligence” and recommended that any officer in charge of the camp be reprimanded and disciplined in accordance with army regulations.[xv]
Though Tompkins’ inquest was closed the Pepper Hill Fire would have long-lasting ramifications in the C.C.C. and in forest fire fighting.
The CCC Declines
The Civilian Conservation Corps had passed its high water mark. Enrollments were down, largely in part to an improving economy. War in Asia, the rise of Nazism and Fascism in Europe were beginning to drive the economy. On January 18, 1939, Robert Fechner asked Congress to make the C.C.C. a permanent part of the federal government.[xvi] Congressman May of Kentucky, Chairman of the House Military Committee suggested giving the C.C.C. enrollees military training.[xvii] Director Fechner was quoted in the press as opposing military training in the C.C.C.[xviii]
In January of 1939, Robert Fechner made a proposal that the C.C.C. become a permanent agency of the Federal government. His proposal asked for permanent civil service status for the enrollees to continue the work they had been doing. Fechner’s proposal met with resistance from Congress, much as the same proposal from Roosevelt had a couple of years earlier.[xix] Fechner was, however opposed to compulsory military training of the C.C.C. He said, “I do not believe there is any need or justification for compulsory military training or military training of any character as the term is usually understood in the CCC.”[xx]
Not only was enrollment dropping due to increased jobs in the private sector but other problems began to crop up in the C.C.C. The Federal Security Agency (FSA) was created by Roosevelt to consolidate several offices and boards under one director. The C.C.C. lost its status as an independent organization. Fechner was furious and considered resigning.[xxi] Despite the changes the agency moved on.
It was still a dangerous place to work. On February 13, 1939 Captain Edward Jelens, a C.C.C. supervisor at Renovo died from injuries he received in an automobile accident on January 21st. Five enrollees from the camp at the Gettysburg battlefield were injured when their truck overturned on June 8, 1939.[xxii]
In another incident, First Lieutenant Crenson E. Davis, commander of Camp S-116 near Clearfield disappeared on February 1, 1939 when he went to Clearfield to cash payroll checks. The 26 year-old was initially feared to be the victim of bandits.[xxiii] On March 8, 1939, Davis was arrested in Texas when he tried to enlist as a private in the Army under an assumed name.[xxiv]
As projects were completed camps began to move and shift. Enrollees were transferred to other camps as the camps were phased out. On May 12, 1939, Company 2328 at SCS-6 at Shelocta began to disassemble their buildings and move them to a new site near Homer City.[xxv] Maryland was unable to fill its quota of enrollees and Pennsylvanians were used.[xxvi]
On June 15, 1939, President Roosevelt issued an executive order that civilians, rather than Army officers would now be in charge of the C.C.C. camps.[xxvii] In early July Roosevelt announced that Paul V. McNutt would head the FSA.[xxviii] Later in the month it was announced that Pennsylvania would be allowed to furnish 6,042 enrollees of who 344 would be war veterans.[xxix]
In July of 1939 work was progressing on what was to become known as the Wayside Rest Memorial. The project, two miles east of Emporium on route PA 120 was to be a memorial to the eight C.C.C. men who had lost their lives as a result of the Pepper Hill Fire. The memorial was conceived by Father Paul Giegerich, chaplain of the C.C.C. district. Each enrollee and officer was asked for a small contribution to the project, often just a nickel or dime. C.C.C. enrollees and officers from across the state contributed to make the project a reality.[xxx] On October 19, 1939, one year to the day after the Pepper Hill Fire, the Wayside Rest Memorial was dedicated.
On September 1, 1939, Germany invaded Poland starting the war in Europe. The C.C.C. which had been in decline because of a lack of enrollees was further hampered by a lack of manpower, as American industry was roused out of its deep slumber of The Depression and jobs became plentiful.
Another blow to the viability of the C.C.C. came on December 31, 1939 when Robert Fechner died at Walter Reed Hospital in Washington, D.C. where he had been for the past five weeks after suffering a heart attack.[xxxi]
The CCC would continue until 1942. As the demands for men and materials for World War II increased, the CCC became an anachronism and funding for the program was eliminated as the world went to war.
[i] The Express, Lock Haven, PA, October 19, 1938
[ii] The Harrisburg Telegraph, Harrisburg, PA, October 19, 1938
[iii] NOAA, National Climatic Data Center, http://www.ncdc.noaa.gov/
[iv] Schultz, Michael, Pepper Hill: A Tragedy, Wildland Firefighter, February, 2001, along with multiple other references including Ely, Warren, in Forest Fire Warden News, 1981, and multiple press accounts by UPI, AP, and INS.
[v] Bradford Evening Star and The Bradford Daily Record, Bradford, PA, October 22, 1938
[vi] The Kane Republican, Kane, PA, October 22, 1938
[vii] The Express, Lock Haven, PA, October 25, 1938
[viii] Warren Times Mirror, Warren, PA, October 27, 1938
[ix] Harrisburg Telegraph, Harrisburg, PA, October 29, 1938
[x] Harrisburg Telegraph, Harrisburg, PA, October 31, 1938
[xi] The Kane Republican, Kane, PA, November 1, 1938
[xii] The Kane Republican, Kane, PA, November 2, 1938
[xiii] The Express, Lock Haven, PA, November 8, 1938
[xiv] The Kane Republican, Kane, PA, November 10, 1938
[xv] The Kane Republican, Kane, PA, November 14, 1938
[xvi] The Evening News, Harrisburg, PA, January 19, 1939
[xvii] The Gettysburg Times, Gettysburg, PA, January 21, 1939
[xviii] The Pittsburgh Courier, Pittsburgh, PA, March 4, 1939
[xix] The Evening News, Harrisburg, PA, January 19, 1939
[xx] The Pittsburgh Courier, Pittsburgh, PA, March 4, 1939
[xxi] History of the Civilian Conservation Corps and Its Lasting Legacy, Civilian Conservation Corps Legacy, Inc., Edinburg, VA, 2010
[xxii] The Gettysburg Times, Gettysburg, PA, June 8, 1939
[xxiii] The Kane Republican, Kane, PA, February 2, 1939
[xxiv] The Gettysburg Times, Gettysburg, PA, March 8, 1939
[xxv] The Indiana Gazette, Indiana, PA, May 20, 1939
[xxvi] The Gettysburg Times, Gettysburg, PA, March 28, 1939
[xxvii] The Gettysburg Times, Gettysburg, PA, June 16, 1939
[xxviii] The Evening Sun, Hanover, PA, July 11, 1939
[xxix] The Gettysburg Times, Gettysburg, PA, June 24, 1939
[xxx] The Kane Republican, Kane, PA, July 21, 1939
[xxxi] The Evening News, Harrisburg, PA, January 1, 1940