Tragedy at Hometown Hill
Before Hometown Hill highway became today's SR309, seen here, it was a narrow, meandering road called Route 29, climbing Hometown mountain slightly west of the current route.
Life is priceless.
Yet it took just ten cents to kill seven men. It was one of the darkest days in our region, and it happened 80 years ago this summer.
It was during the days of Prohibition, when booze was scarce and so was money. Still, the summer night of Monday, July 13, 1931, provided an opportunity to party, and so a group of coal region men decided to gather together. They figured they'd build a campfire and secretly enjoy a few drinks at time when the manufacture, sale and transportation of alcohol was illegal.
They set up camp north of Tamaqua at the ruins of the H. A. Weldy Gun Powder Works plant, which had been out of business for about 25 years.
"It closed about 1906 or 1909," confirms historian Dan Schroeder, Locust Valley. The plant's heavy concrete ruins rest on the banks of the Little Schuylkill River just west of Hometown Hill, along what was then Pa. Route 29, today's SR309.
The scenic site is situated at the entrance to the Tamaqua Tunnel, a historic feat of 1854 railroad engineering. The 21-acre industrial complex includes the steep hillsides of Hometown mountain. Mostly secluded, it isn't visible from the neither a nearby highway nor the Tuscarora mountain road which passes high above the riverbed. The perfect setting.
In that peaceful valley, the night was supposed to be one of fun, laughter and camaraderie.
But something went horribly wrong.
A parade of dead and dying
The first hint of disaster came shortly after noontime Tuesday when Norman Bilzeit, 45, Tamaqua, staggered into the Sun Oil Company plant at the Taggartsville bridge near the foot of Hometown Hill.
"He fell to the floor and upon arrival of a doctor was pronounced dead," reported a Pottsville daily newspaper.
Around the same time, Daniel Evans, 54, Coaldale, entered Tamaqua town hall, located on Rowe Street just steps away from the railroad tracks. Evans said he was sick, and asked those on hand to summon a doctor. He was placed on a cot inside in a cell, where he spoke of at least two other buddies back on the hill. He said they were sleeping off effects of liquor. Then Evans died. It was 1 p.m.
Police went north of town in search of sleeping men and instead found two dead - John Cashman, 40, Shamokin, and Thomas Davis, 37, Nesquehoning. Their contorted bodies were discovered in bushes at the bottom of the mountain.
The death toll was four. But the day was still young.
More victims surface in Tamaqua
Shortly later, a motorist passing northbound through Tamaqua approached the Pine Street Bridge and noticed a man sitting on the bank of the Little Schuylkill River. The man suddenly collapsed, falling headfirst into the water.
The motorist stopped, pulled him out, and rushed him to Coaldale Hospital, where he passed away. The victim was identified as Alfred Murton, 50, Centralia. By this time, police knew a tragedy of yet-unknown proportions was unfolding.
Why were men staggering into Tamaqua and falling dead?
Shortly after 4 p.m., Tamaqua authorities found a man lying in the woods at the north end of Washington Street, still alive.
He was identified as Patrick Slavin, 58, McAdoo.
At the same time, Tamaqua police discovered another victim, still alive, inside a train box car owned by the Reading Railroad Co. The train car was stationed at a rail siding at the 400 block of Railroad Street. The man was found after a nearby resident heard moaning sounds coming from inside the car. The cries were from James Sweeney, 59, Mahanoy City.
Sweeney and Slavin were very ill. Both asked for water, according to reports in the July 15, 1931, edition of the Tamaqua Evening Courier. They were treated by Dr. Robert Dress, then rushed three miles to Coaldale Hospital by Tamaqua Police Chief Nelson Hughes and Constable Howard Eddinger.
Sweeney died shortly after admission. Slavin remained in critical condition. Though gravely ill, he was able to speak. His broken words provided the first glimpse into what had taken place. The story was nothing short of unbelievable.
A deadly elixir
Slavin actually uttered words of the tragedy even before reaching the hospital.
"Between gasps as he was lying on the ground ... Slavin said that the gang was at the camp Monday night and it was then they started drinking," reported the Evening Courier.
"The stuff had an oily odor," said Slavin. In order to drink it, they were forced to strain it through an old rag at least six times to remove the oil and dirt in the fluid.
It was mixed with water, and "it tasted good at the time," said Slavin, an itinerant umbrella mender by trade.
Slavin said two men grew seriously ill almost immediately, and the others became scared, so they threw away the fluid and rags. But it was too late. All had ingested the deadly potion.
The next day, just before 6 p.m., Slavin died at the hospital. Before he passed away, he said his eyesight was growing bad. His eyes appeared inflamed, police said, and he complained of stomach pains, "at times, simply staring away, unable to say a word," said police.
The stark reality of the suffering is sobering news to one of Slavin's descendants, who today wonders why so many grown men chose to drink a curious, unknown substance.
"Slavin would've been a cousin to my great-grandmother on my mother's side," said Rob Evans, 56, of Auburn. Evans is credited with uncovering details of the long-forgotten tragedy while searching his family tree.
"It just jumped out at me," he told the TIMES NEWS after discovering documents related to the case. Evans, a native of Deer Lake, said his ancestors didn't care to speak about what had taken place or mention the men who were lost.
"My grandmother didn't talk much about it," he said. Instead, heartbroken family members of the victims quietly buried their dead, and the episode was swept under the rug.
Yet it was a tragedy that challenges the imagination and speaks to hardships of life during some of America's toughest days. In total, seven men were dead, six of whom died within a span of 12 hours. But the story doesn't end there.
Reports by a witness indicated a drunken man had been seen wading through the Little Schuylkill River before disappearing up the mountain. That person - the eighth victim - could not be found. Police believed he wandered away and died on the mountainside. Or was he up there suffering? The answer came the following day.
John Murphy, 35, of Sunbury, was found alive in that town, his face red and swollen. He admitted to having been at the party and said he drank some of the "stuff" and became ill. But he said he was able to make it home. What became of Murphy is unclear. He was banished from Sunbury that same day after being caught stealing socks from a clothing store. Did he survive long-term? Did he perhaps drink just a tiny bit of the poison, not enough to kill? Or was he ultimately the eighth one to die? Nobody is quite certain.
As for the others, physicians who examined the men said all died in "extreme agony" due to poisoning. Using similar words, a police report indicates the men "died in great agony" as determined by the position of the bodies.
Before passing, Slavin said Murton was the one who purchased the deadly drink.
Physicians said the concoction was a slow poison, if not immediately fatal. But it definitely was certain death.
What did they drink?
Private Joseph Davey of the Pennsylvania State Police, Tamaqua Motor Barracks, learned that a man, later determined to be Murton, had entered Leo Faust's Taggartsville garage on July 13 and asked to purchase a product called alkerene.
Upon hearing none was available, he asked to buy ten cents' worth of radiator alcohol, somewhat comparable to today's antifreeze.
Mary Jones, deputy coroner, later visited the campsite and found dozens of heating preparation cans and several radiator alcohol containers spread among the ashes of a fire pit.
Police said the cans contained alcohol in a gelatin base, perhaps similar to today's sterno-type fuel. According to police, some addicts at that time had a formula for extracting the alcohol by straining it through cloth, then adding lemon to kill the taste. In this case, the men may have mixed that liquid with antifreeze.
As a result of the tragedy, all area stores and garages stopped the sale of those products.
In a sad twist of timing, just 18 months later, the 21st Amendment was ratified. It lifted Prohibition immediately and made consumable alcohol available to the public once again.
But it came too late to prevent the Hometown Hill Tragedy. Today, nobody seems to know about the death and suffering that took place at the bottom of the mountain.
There are no historical markers to denote the site where ten cents was enough to kill seven men. Generations have come and gone. Those who knew details have passed away. Little or nothing has been handed down. There are no memorial services or prayer sessions.
After 80 years, the Hometown Hill Tragedy seems to have been lost to the passing winds. In so many ways, time itself can mimic the effects of alcohol.
It eases the mind. It washes away sorrow. Time gives us distance from the cruelties of life.
Then, when nobody is left to remember, all of the pain and suffering evaporates. An unspeakable tragedy is forgotten.