1835 – March 29, 1887*
Benjamin Franklin Ruff was born in 1835. His wife Mary Jane was born in 1840. They had at least one daughter, Sally, who was born in 1860. Ruff is said to have been a Connellsville-area neighbor and a friend of Henry Clay Frick. In her wonderful book on Frick, Martha Sanger tells us that Ruff often stayed at The Monongahela House, the residential hotel in Pittsburgh where H. C. Frick also lodged. So when Ruff envisioned the summer retreat in the hills above Johnstown, it was natural that he promoted this idea to Frick, who by that time had achieved his goal of being a millionaire by age 30. Indeed Frick was fast becoming one of the richest men in America and he was, as yet, single.
There is an excellent account in David McCullough’s “The Johnstown Flood” of how Ruff bought the land and developed it for the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club. Below is a summary from other sources...
For the record, the charter members of the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club were: B F Ruff; T H Sweet; Charles J Clarke; Thomas Clark; W F Fundenberg; Howard Hartley; H C Yeager; J B White; H C Frick; E A Myers; C C Hussey; D R Ewer; C A Carpenter; W L Dunn; W L McClintock; A V Holmes.
B. F. Ruff had been a tunnel contractor for the Pennsylvania Railroad and sometime-real estate salesman, as well as a coke dealer. He became not only the purchaser but also the developer and the first president of the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club. B. F. Ruff supervised the repairs to the dam, and while he was not a civil engineer, he had a background that included being a railroad tunnel contractor.
Here is how two Flood historians describe it…
In 1879 Henry Clay Frick was approached by a good friend and neighbor, Benjamin Ruff. Mr. Ruff had quite an idea - to purchase an old canal reservoir a few miles upstream from Johnstown and create a new fishing and hunting club, which was all the rage at the time. Mr. Frick signed on, and in that year the infamous South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club was born.
For the next 10 years, the club owned a breathtaking lake and offered some of the finest scenery that Western Pennsylvania had to offer. The club's membership grew to include some of America's most powerful men. The club itself was a private affair, yet it found itself in the middle of one of the largest scandals of the late 19th century: the Johnstown Flood of May 31, 1889.
(Source: Stanley Pinkas, Chairman; Douglas J. Richardson, Historian; 1889 South Fork Hunting and Fishing Club Historical Preservation Society; St. Michael, PA; from Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Letter to the Editor, Saturday, January 22, 2000)
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One source summarizes the history of the start of the Club this way…
In 1875 Congressman John Reilly bought the dam, lake, and surrounding land for $2,500, then sustained a $500 loss when he resold it to Benjamin F. Ruff in 1879. Ruff developed the property into the exclusive South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club with a wealthy nabob membership of 100 families including those of Andrew Carnegie, Andrew Mellon, Henry C. Frick, A. V. Holmes, Philander C. Knox, W. L. Dunn, and John A. Harper. Each paid $2,000 to join [sic; McCullough says the cost to join was $800.00; "The Johnstown Flood"; page 57].
As McCullough further relates, Cyrus Elder, the chief legal counsel for the Cambria Iron Company, became "extremely exercised" by the news that Ruff was rebuilding the old dam... (TJF, page 67). Ironically, Elder would later buy the deceased Morrell's membership and on the day of the Flood, lose his home, his wife and daughter to the deluge.
A brief history of the dam by John Fulton, who was Club member Daniel Morrell’s chief engineer at the Cambria Iron Company, as printed in the “Annual report of the Commissioner of Health of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. 1928/30"; which also has outstanding plans and sections of the South Fork Dam…
The work of the dam was begun in 1840 and completed in 1852. It was constructed under the authority of the state of Pennsylvania, from plans by William E Morris, principal assistant engineer; the work was performed under contract by Col James K Moorehead. … the dam was abandoned in 1857. the first break occurred in July 1862, carrying out about 25,000 cubic yards. The break was caused by neglect of the bulkhead and general want of repairs to the dam. As its pool at this time was only half full, a moderate amount of damage was caused in the valley below. In May of 1875 this property consisting of about 500 acres including the dam was sold to Hon. John Rilley. He held the property until 1879 when he disposed of it to B. F. Ruff, an old railroad contractor, for $2000.
[David McCullough states that although Congressman Reilly sold the property at a slight loss, he made up for it by first removing the old cast iron discharge pipes and selling them for scrap. (The Johnstown Flood, page 55]
Mr. Ruff the same year interested some Pittsburghers and others in this property and organized “The South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club”. He estimated the cost of repairing the first break at $1,700—it is said to have cost $17,000. The repairs were made in the summer and fall of 1880. During this and subsequent years a number of quite elegant cottages were built along the south margin of this, “The Conemaugh Lake”. …(thereafter follows an account of the exchange between Ruff and Morrell regarding the need for repairs and the insufficiency of the brush used as fill, etc. as well as an account of the flood itself). ...there is no evidence that any engineer was employed in making these repairs. Mr. Ruff evidently dominated the whole of the operations of the repair of the dam. Every operation in making these repairs exhibited a total lack of skill or criminal negligence. (thereafter these flaws are enumerated and described)
- John Fulton, C. E.
- Engineer Member
- Johnstown Pa. January 1, 1898
Accounts of the improvements made on behalf of the Club by B. F. Ruff and Cyrus Unger included lowering the top of the dam by about four feet, making the roadway across the top of the dam wider (about 17 feet) and more convenient for carriages to pass one another going to and from the Clubhouse and Cottages. This made the center of the dam the lowest and weakest point.
Benjamin Franklin Ruff died suddenly on March 29, 1887 of a carbuncle of the neck, at a Pittsburgh hotel. It was two years, almost to the day, before the tragic events of the Johnstown Flood.*
*(Ruff's year of death is given in David McCullough's American Heritage article about the Flood called, “Run For Your Lives!”, June 1966; and he further provides the day and month in his book "The Johnstown Flood" on page 78).