On Halloween night, just outside Connellsville, Pennsylvania, a man was violently murdered for the gold in his pockets. Mystery surrounded the event, and for years the townspeople spun tales and ghost stories around the site of the crime. I can’t tell the story better than a local, so I’ll let you read the tale as written in Connellsville’s “Weekly Courier” on February 3, 1904.
But when did this murder take place? And why was a Halloween story being published in February? Let’s look a bit closer.
The furnace described in the story is the Etna Furnace, built by Thomas and Joseph Gibson in 1815 on Trumps Run, one mile from Connellsville and 1/3 mile from the Youghiogheny River. It went out of blast between 1836 and 1840. The story describes blast workers discovering the body, so we can assume that the murder took place between 1815 and 1840. It seems the stories that had been told about Connellsville’s first murder had been told for a very long time and had spun a long series of tall tales along the way. So why publish the story and make such direct connections to White Rock Distillery in the article? If the murder took place so long ago, why bring it up over half a century later?
Let’s consider the times. The temperance movement was in full force in the early 1900s, and the White Rock Distillery, which had been making rye whiskey just outside of Connellsville since 1894, had new owners who were plans to upgrade the facility. It seems that this article was a sly effort to connect the distillery site to a deep and lingering fear memory that never left the town. The description of the victim as “addicted to strong drink” and laving a “love for whiskey” were odd additions to the story as they had nothing to do with the crime committed. And when you consider that the distillery did not exist on the site until a decade before the article was written, the anecdote becomes even less relevant to the story. It may be easier to understand the context after learning a bit about the history of White Rock Distillery and its owners.
The History of the White Rock Distillery-
Just south of Connellsville along the old Etna Furnace wagon road (later known as Arch Street) was a relatively small distillery originally built by Mark Gemas. Gemas was producing 5 barrels a day of rye whiskey and raising about 100 hogs for meat on the facility’s spent mash. The pigs were kept in a shed that straddled Trump Run, a small creek that emptied into the nearby Youghiogheny River. Gemas went into production in October 1894 under the supervision of the government’s storekeeper and gauger, Sampson K. Reed of Beaver, Pennsylvania. Just four years into production, the plant was purchased by William C. Reynolds. The local newspaper described Reynolds as being in “the local grocery business here”, but he was, in fact, the recently retired superintendent of local United No. 1 and 2 coke works. William Reynold’s registered distillery #63 sold White Rock Pure Rye Whiskey, which was old stock rye whiskey from his warehouse, even if it had all been distilled by Mark Gemas.
The name “White Rock” was not arbitrary. Before Connellsville merged with the neighboring community of New Haven to become a city, South Connellsville was known as White Rock. White Rock Station would have been the depot along the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad used for exporting whiskeys produced at the Gemas Distillery. The name White Rock fell out of use after Connellsville became a city in 1909. The bustling coal business and the rapidly growing population of Connellsville provided Reynolds with plenty of customers during the short time he owned the property.
It does not appear that Reynolds ever planned to distill his own whiskey. After only a few years, he sold the property and returned to managing local coke works. The new owners changed the name to The White Rock Distilling Company. Among the new owners was Sampson K. Reed, who had previously worked with Mark Gemas as the distillery’s storekeeper. Reed’s partners were J.I. Martin, J.C. Martin, and his brother, Lewis K. Reed. In On June 2, 1902, the partners incorporated with a capital of $50,000. J.I. Martin served as the company’s president, J.C. Martin as vice president, Lewis K. Reed as secretary, and S.K. Reed as treasurer and superintendent. They were now producing with an increased capacity of about 2000 barrels per year.
The original White Rock Distilling Company plant after renovations was a 3-story frame building complete with all the modern amenities. It included a pump house to draw fresh water from a deep well below the plant, a coal house to provide coal for the boiler house, a roller mill run by a 25 horse power engine, and two sets of stills. Listed as a “beer still” and an alcohol still with doublers, it appears that the plant had both a chambered still and a column still at its disposal. A 38’x58’, 3-story, brick bonded warehouse with a capacity of 1300 barrels sat about 65 feet south of the still house. It lay between the distillery and the Yough Brewing Company buildings just a stone’s throw down along the road. A cattle shed on 6 foot risers straddled the creek on the northern side of the still house. The cattle that were raised there on spent mash were sold for meat. The facility’s retail house and offices sat along Arch Street where the road crossed over Trump Run. As modern and productive as the plant was, it would not remain outside of town for long.
We’ve NOW arrived at the time in White Rock Distillery’s history when Connellsville’s “Weekly Courier” published the article about the murder-
By 1904, the owners were eyeing properties within the town of Connellsville and looking to relocate their operations. Though it may be a coincidence, this decision began being advertised just months after Connellsville’s local newspaper wrote a story about the town’s first murder which had “occurred at (the) point where White Rock Distillery now stands”. It seemed strange timing to be telling apocryphal Halloween stories about the town’s first murder in February. The article also included statements such as “…But then there was nothing disreputable in either making or drinking whiskey in early times.” The insinuation that drinking was disreputable suggests that the article placement may have been an effort by the temperance groups to sway public opinion. It was, after all, common practice at the time to print articles condemning the use of alcohol. Again, perhaps it was coincidence, but that May, after looking at several options within the borough limits, the White Rock Distilling Company closed a deal on a new property in Connellsville’s First Ward. The “old Gray property” as it was called, at the intersection of South Arch Street and Fairview Avenue sold for $5,850. The new 3 story still house and bonded warehouse were completed by October of the same year. The license for the old distillery was transferred to the new facility. Sales began in their new salesrooms on October 22nd and the plant was ready to operate by Halloween. In July 1905, the old plant was sold to the Pittsburgh Art Stone Company who planned to manufacture faux stone from concrete. It appears that the concrete manufacturing business had fewer issues with being associated with the site of a murder…
HAPPY HALLOWEEN 2022!!! Cheers, everyone:)
For those that wish to know what happened to White Rock Distilling AFTER 1905-
Only 3 years after its relocation, the White Rock Distilling Company changed hands again. Theodore Klein, William L. Brennan and Harold K. Nill, all of McKeesport, purchased the plant for $90,000. Lewis Reed’s death in April 1907 led Sampson to consider a change of career. He would remain on as manager for the new owners and help as $25,000 in improvements were made, but he would move on the following year. His replacement, B.H. Christner, was chosen in February 1908. S.K. Reed took on proprietorship of the Colonial Hotel in Point Marion. Reed purchased the hotel from D.J. Johnson for $25,000.
The White Rock Distilling Company continued to produce and sell their sweet mash rye whiskey until 1917. By 1919, the plant was listed “for rent”. A portion of the plant was leased to Samuel A. Coughenour for the purpose of making soft drinks. Their reasoning for the switch to non-alcoholic beverages was in anticipation of “the day when the country goes dry because of nationwide prohibition.” When constitutional prohibition did go into effect on January 16, the first large distillery warehouse to be robbed in the county belonged to the White Rock Distilling Company. The same night the law went into effect, 43 barrels disappeared from their warehouse. Fayette County witnessed many other warehouse robberies from other distilleries over the next few months and began to question if the distilleries themselves were, in fact, to blame. The public began to see discrepancies in reports coming from the government and those coming from the distilleries. They began to believe that the distilleries were not being honest about how many barrels were being stolen. Uniontown’s Morning Herald and Connellsvile’s Courier wrote about “unaccounted for” barrels and the “startling surprise” of these mysterious disappearances of whiskey were too much for “a public whose credulity has already been taxed to the utmost.” (The Morning Herald, Sept 28,1920) However the whiskey was disappearing, the black market for whiskey was rising. The White Rock Distillery may have been the first to be robbed, but the rest of western Pennsylvania’s distilleries would continue to suffer from raids and robberies. It is unclear where the rest of the contents of the distillery’s warehouse ended up, but it is likely that the $6.50 per gallon taxes due on the barrels that remained were enough to make the owners quickly rid themselves of the financial burden they had now become.