History of Lilly, Pennsylvania

 

History

This "History of Lilly" was taken from the April, 1948 Lilly High Flash published by the students of Lilly High School:

 

"The first official record we have of the town of Lilly, Cambria country, Penna. is from the Journal of Samuel Maclay, surveyor, who with John Adleum and Timothy Mattach, was commissioned by the supreme Executive Council of Pennsylvania in the spring of 1790, to make a survey of the Kiskiminetas, Conemaugh and Little Conemaugh rivers and a portage to the Frankstown Branch of the Juniata river, and to report on the practicability of constructing a line of water and overland highway from the East to the West. On the night of August 31, 1790 they encamped in a laurel thicket at the mouth of a run (Bear Rock or Bear Rock Run) and on the morning of September 1, 1790, their provisions being about exhausted on account of the failure of their pack-horse to come up, they divided some chocolate which was all they had left, and hastened onto the Galbraith road and down to the mouth of Poplar where they secured provisions.

 

They afterwards surveyed the Juniata and Frankstown Branch and surveyed part way up the eastern slope of the mountain for a portage to Lilly, but finding it too steep, the project was abandoned. The ultimate result was the making of the second Frankstown Road from Frankstown to the junction of the Little Conemaugh and Stony Creek.

 

The present site of Lilly was once a swamp, first settled by the German and Welsh who came for the purpose of farming. As early as 1806, a patent for 332 acres of land was granted to Joseph Meyer, or as Anglicized Joseph Moyers, and his wife for a grant of land that was designated under the name of DUNDEE and which was the first name given to our town. The Moyers, like all the pioneer families, worked hard for several years clearing out the land, building a grist mill and digging a mill race. This undertaking apparently proved too much for them for in March 1811, they sold the land to Simon Litzinger, one of the first millers of Northern Cambria.

 

In 1823 Litzinger sold these holdings in what was then Summerhill Township - for it was not until 1831, that WASHINGTON TOWNSHIP was erected - to Joseph Lilly. Since Joseph Lilly died soon after that, the right to the property descended to four of his sons, one of whom was Richard for whom the town was later named. In September of the same year these Lilly heirs in turn sold the in-land to a Philadelphia firm by the name of Eliher Chancy and Thomas Biddle and Co. Along about the middle of the 1840's, however, the president judge of this judicial district, Judge Thomas White, together with John C. O'Neil and George Ross, acquired the mill property and sixty acres of land which they later passed to James Conrad. This grist mill became known as Conrad's Mill and did a rather good business for miles around since quite a settlement had been made before this in the vicinity of what is now Lilly.

 

After 1830, with the beginning of the construction of the Allegheny Portage Railroad, another section of the community began to develop at the base of incline Plane No. 4 and was referred to as FOOT OF FOUR. Repair hands formed the nucleus of this community and they began calling the town LAUREL RUN on account of the laurel which grew along the railroad. As travel and business increased, a tannery was built on the site of the present Polish church and adjacent to the tannery a warehouse, in which building the post office was located. A sawmill was established to harvest the large stands of hemlock trees which populated the area. This bark gave off quite an odor which attracted the attention and remarks of the travelers who went through on the railroad. One Mr. Swank who visited here is credited with the suggestion that the town be called HEMLOCK.

 

In the year 1858, the New Portage Railroad was under construction and the cars from the Old Portage Railroad were transferred from the site of the original Dundee tract to the present site. For many years the light from Tiley's Coke yard could be seen at night over a considerable part of the county. This first opening was bought by Tiley from Michael Moyer, or Myers, who seems to have been the first one to open a coal mine in this district. In the later part of the 1850's and the early 1860's Jeremiah McGonigle also operated a coal and coke business. Coal was mined principally for the black smithing purposes and was transported across the mountains into Huntingdon and Bedford Counties in sacks on pack horses. With the opening of the Old Portage Road, however, came a new market for the coal business. Coal was used to fire the stationary engines at the heads of the planes. Lilly, of course, has the honor of being called the pioneer coal town of Cambria County, for a copy of the census for Western Pennsylvania for 1840 gives the number of coalmines in Cambria Country as 41, and of that number 35 belonged to Washington Township.

 

The coal industry, which thus began, and which governs and controls the lives of so many of us today received a track to the location of the New Portage Road where a family by the name of Richard Lilly lived. In coming from the foot of the plane over to the location of the New Portage Road people now called the place Lilly. When sixty citizens, only four of whom are living today drew up a petition for the incorporation of our borough, the name of Hemlock was not considered and on June 11, 1883, by a decree of the court of Quarter Sessions of Cambria County, our town became the BOROUGH OF LILLY in honor of Richard Lilly who finished the building of the grist mill. The post office, however, continued under the named Hemlock, until the year 1888.

 

At the time that Conrad acquired the grist mill and George Tiley and his sons began a coal and coke operation immediately below Conrad's Mill, the main line of the Pennsylvania railroad was put through Lilly. It crossed the Old Portage Railroad immediately below Lilly, and again at Summerhill, and united with Old Portage near the Argyle Tipple at South Fork. This railroad made our town a factor to be reckoned with in the steel and steamship ports of the world by facilitating transportation. It removed us from the isolation of a self-sustaining hamlet and brought us into the realm of knowledge, culture, and toleration, and it so linked our lives with the lives of those of other town, cities, states, and even nations, that our fortunes now fluctuate with the ebb and tide of all humanity. This then is the history of Lilly, a link and one of the first links in the world's great industrial chain."

 

KKK Riot (Excerpt By Lillian Thomas, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette April 11, 2004)

 

 

Eighty years ago, more than 400 Ku Klux Klansmen rode evening trains into the tiny Cambria County town of Lilly, made their white-robed march through town -- darkened after its electric lines were cut -- and burned two crosses in a nearby field. When they returned to the depot, they were confronted by townspeople wielding a fire hose. Someone started shooting, and by 10 p.m. three Lilly residents were dead and 20 people were injured.

 

It was a time when a quarter million people in Pennsylvania were members of the Klan, when all but two of the state's counties had KKK chapters and when its agenda was strongly anti-Catholic. Lilly, a coal-mining village of about 2,300, was targeted because it was predominantly Catholic and a stronghold of United Mine Workers -- and because it had defied the Klan on previous occasions.

 

"They came prepared for trouble. That was the reason that they came in here," said Art Yingling, one of the men injured in the April 5, 1924, melee, in an interview before he died two years ago. "This was the only place around here that tore down their crosses. When they put up their crosses, they tore them down."

 

Anti-Catholic sentiment.

 

About 300 of the men took a train from Johnstown secured by the Klan for the evening, dubbed the KKK Special. "They would have a plain brown package that they folded and carried under their arms," to indicate that they were Klansmen, Yingling recalled. In the package was the white robe and headdress. After the Special arrived around 7:15, another 100 or so more Klansmen came in on the regular passenger train from Pittsburgh, the 610, and another passenger train traveling west from Altoona.

 

"I can remember that night like it was yesterday," said Morris Shullman of Lilly, whose father owned a business right across from the train station. "I was sitting there with my mother and the train pulled in on the side tracks. It had maybe 10 cars on it. [The Klansmen] lined up and started to march up the street."

 

The Klan was strong in the area, with a higher percentage of the population on its membership rosters than areas in the South known as Klan strongholds, said Philip Jenkins, a Penn State University professor who has studied the Klan. He compared the Catholic-Protestant antipathy in Western Pennsylvania of the 1920s to present-day Northern Ireland.

 

Blacks were targeted and attacked, but in Pennsylvania, "Catholics were overwhelmingly the major targets of hatred and fear," Jenkins wrote in his 1997 book "Hoods and Shirts." The Klan was dominant in several nearby towns, including Cresson and Portage.

 

Lilly was different.

 

Founded by Irish and German Catholics in 1806, it had a small Protestant minority. Though there were Klan members and sympathizers (residents remember that the Klan newspaper was sold in town), the town had defied previous attempts to burn crosses. It also was a strong United Mine Workers town and the Klan's hostility to unions had been increased by the decision of the UMW earlier that year to expel workers in the local district who were Klan members. Many of the mine workers were Eastern European immigrants who spoke little English, another category of people targeted by the Klan.

 

Right after the Klansmen arrived, the electricity to the town was cut, probably by locals who were working with them. The community, in a high valley scooped in the Alleghenies near Ebensburg, went black.

 

You can start at the tracks at Railroad and Cleveland streets and follow the Klan's route from that night along Lilly's meandering streets, past the same storefronts, beneath the same Catholic Church on the hill where many townspeople belonged, by the same Lutheran church where the Klansmen turned north to go up to Piper's Field. That field is now full of homes; the site of the cross burnings about where a green-and-white garage and basketball hoop now sit.

 

That night, the town had no intention of being cowed by the Klan. One Klan member was beaten up; residents contemplated setting loose coal cars up by Piper's Mine on the hill above town to roll down and smash the KKK Special. Instead they decided to use water against the KKK's fire and hatred.

 

A modern hydrant squats about where its forerunner did, just across the street from the depot where the Klan went to get back on the trains. That's where the townspeople hooked up the section of hose they'd gotten, spraying the tail end of the Klan procession. Frank Miesko, 22, the lead man on the hose, was shot dead there. Hugh Conrad's uncle, Phil Conrad, 24, was standing in a storefront two doors down, watching, when he was shot and killed. Cloyd Paul, a 26-year-old Protestant who had helped cut the wood for the crosses, was the third man killed.

 

Phil Conrad's youngest sister, Helen, was in a nearby home. "We went upstairs and you could see Piper's Field," she told her uncle Hugh. "When they shot across the brick street, when the bullets hit those bricks, it sounded like roller skates. It just sounded to me as a kid like skates."

 

After the Klan invasion, Lilly was invaded by the press. The story and the subsequent trial made national headlines. When the KKK Special arrived in Johnstown that night police locked the doors and searched the coaches, confiscating weapons and arresting 25 found carrying them. Many more guns were later found along the tracks, where they had been thrown by their owners during the train trip. State police came to Lilly the next day and patrolled on horseback for several days. Two men -- a Lilly resident and a Klansmen -- were initially charged with murder, but those charges were dropped because no one would testify against either man. It was never determined who started shooting.

 

Twenty-eight Klansmen and 16 townspeople were charged with riot, affray and unlawful assembly. Cambria County Common Pleas judges all recused themselves from the trial, and an appellate court judge from Philadelphia was brought in to preside. When the trial was held two months later in Cambria County Court, all the defendants were tried together, despite the efforts of attorneys to secure separate trials for the Lilly residents and the Klansmen. The trial transcript shows that the judge, Thomas E. Finletter, made clear his view that anyone out on the streets that night was engaged in rioting. All of the defendants in the trial -- both Klansmen and townspeople -- were sentenced to two years.

 

Many Catholics refused to patronize businesses whose owners testified against townspeople in the trial, and some hung carved wooden "Ku Kluckers" on electric lines in front of homes of Klan members or sympathizers, but for the most part the tension between the two groups was damped down, said Conrad.

 

Though the Klan remained powerful -- 40,000 Klansmen marched down Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C., that year -- its membership began to decline and dropped off precipitously by the 1930s.

 

Lilly, too, has declined. The last mine closed more than 40 years ago. The population is around 900. It's still a Catholic town, but its two parishes were merged several years ago. There aren't many who remember the confusion and violence of the night 80 years ago, but "Their painful journey altered the footprints for future generations."

 

 

Points of interest

Lilly has a lot of points to visit throughout the community. The old Portage Railroad had a route that went right up the Level Road, and continued on towards the Lemon House (Cresson). If you enjoy ATV riding, there are plenty of places to ride. The Lilly Coal is a place to do tricks and ride all day. Trails to the Lilly Mountain take you to Blue Knob State Park. Baseball is a past-time to our town. Bill Tremel, who played in the Majors for the Chicago Cubs, is from Lilly on Willow Street. AAABA games are held at the Lilly-Washington Township Memorial Fields, which showcases the best pre-college players in the country and pro scouts come here to see their talents.