Christian H. Meisel was born in Newark, New Jersey, around 1857, one of at least six children of German immigrants Michael and Louisa Meisel. Newark was a longtime baseball hotbed and young Chris must have played the game, but the details are lost to history.
By 1880, he had begun to settle down. He found work as a jeweler, married a young woman named Effie and began a family. Their daughter Louisa was born in July of 1881 and was followed by two sons, Harry in November of 1884 and Christian Henry on Christmas Day, 1887.
Yet the acceptance of adult responsibilities did not entirely supplant his love of baseball. He served as manager of a local semipro club called the Domestics and was successful enough at doing so to attract attention. Meisel was then hired to manage a strong semipro club in Hartford in 1883.
The next season he was approached about managing the Virginia Club of Richmond, a club that began the year in the Eastern League but ended it in the major league American Association. Negotiations reached the point where an offer was made to him, but Meisel decided the salary was too low to justify the upheaval to his young family. So he instead elected to serve as official scorer of the Hartford club. (Sporting Life, April 9 and May 7, 1884)
He then returned to Newark, and in 1887 served as assistant manager for the city’s entry in the International League, while also having a brief tenure as manager of Scranton. The next year his hometown placed an entrant in the Central League, and Meisel was selected to manage it. Matching wits against such experienced baseball men as Sam Crane, Patrick Powers and Fergy Malone, he led the “Trunkmakers” to a splendid 83-23 record and the 1888 league pennant. At season’s end he was offered the opportunity to manage the Mansfield (Ohio) club in the Tri-State League.
It must have been a difficult decision, but this time the opportunity to make a name in baseball surmounted all obstacles. Leaving his wife and three young children behind in Newark, Meisel set out for Mansfield in the spring of 1889.
He had his hands full in his new position. Mansfield had posted losing records in each of the last two years, and Meisel soon discovered why. According to sportswriter Oscar Ruhl, the club endured a lengthy early-season losing streak and became such a laughing stock that a club of boys aged 12 to 14 from nearby Galion challenged the club to a best-of-five series.
In addition to the team’s inept play, there were widespread rumors that players were not adhering to the club’s “total abstinence rule.” As a result, Meisel began to clean house, slowly but surely replacing the incumbents with players he knew from back east. Before long, he had put together one of the league’s strongest entries, though the dreadful start meant that it would take some time to move up in the standings. (Oscar Ruhl, Mansfield News Journal, February 7, 1936)
By the end of May, Meisel was comfortable with his club’s progress and traveled back to Newark to conduct some business and visit his family. As his train passed through Pennsylvania, it encountered torrential rainstorms. The train forged ahead until it entered the narrow Conemaugh Valley.
At about this time, the downpour caused the South Fork Dam to burst upstream, and the waters of Lake Conemaugh surged through. A wall of water, traveling at forty miles per hour and reaching as high as sixty feet, cascaded along until it reached the defenseless Conemaugh Valley. The waters poured into the river, overwhelming the residents of Johnstown and the train on which Chris Meisel was traveling. More than twenty-two hundred people lost their lives in the Johnstown Flood, including Meisel.
The aftermath of the calamity was as prolonged as the flood itself had been sudden. A massive relief effort, which featured Clara Barton and the American Red Cross, was organized, and donations poured in to rebuild the town and care for the estimated 25,000 survivors. Nonetheless it was a painstaking effort to rebuild the city and identify the bodies. Despite the best efforts of the volunteers, more than one-third of the victims were never identified and were buried in the Plot of the Unknown at Johnstown’s Grandview Cemetery.
Many blamed the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club for the tragedy. The club, with a the membership that included such wealthy Pittsburgh steel and coal industrialists as Andrew Carnegie and Andrew Mellon, had bought the South Fork Dam along with the accompanying abandoned reservoir, and then raised the lake level so as to create an idyllic refuge from the city. The club’s maintenance of the dam was shoddy, however, and while no successful lawsuits were ever brought against club members, many believed that they were responsible for the calamity.
The anguish of Effie Meisel was increased by fear that Chris Meisel would be one of the many victims whose remains would never be identified. In early June, there were reports that his body had been discovered, but these proved unfounded. (Brooklyn Eagle, June 7, 1889) After that, the days dragged by without further word.
Finally, after five agonizing months, Chris Meisel’s body was retrieved and identified on the basis of a ring on his finger. His remains were brought back to Newark for burial, and his funeral attracted a large turnout. (Newark [Ohio] Daily Advocate, October 21, 1889; based on an article in an unspecified Newark, New Jersey, newspaper)
Even in the face of unspeakable tragedy, life goes on and some sense of normalcy is restored. Effie Meisel was remarried in 1896 to a man named Irving Culver, and raised her three children to adulthood.
Baseball too goes on. Jack Remsen took over the reins of the Mansfield club, and the strong nucleus that Meisel had put together steadily made its way up the league’s standings. But after Mansfield moved into second place, four of the league’s six clubs, including first-place Canton, dropped out. The two remaining clubs, Mansfield and Dayton, finished the season and Mansfield claimed to be the pennant winners on the basis of having the best record of the two finishers. The league, however, decided to recognize Canton as its champion. (Oscar Ruhl, Mansfield News Journal, February 7, 1936)
The Johnstown Flood claimed more than twenty-two hundred lives, a figure comparable to the number of deaths resulting from such recent tragedies as Hurricane Katrina and the events of September 11, 2001. Such statistics are one way for us to appreciate the magnitude of human pain and suffering that resulted from events that otherwise seem unfathomable in scale. Another is to remember the stories of men like Chris Meisel and the individual losses that resulted: the end of a promising career as a baseball manager and, more importantly, the young widow and three fatherless children left behind.
Contemporary newspapers and sporting publications, as noted; censuses and city directories; research by Reed Howard; Oscar Ruhl, Mansfield News Journal, February 7, 1936.
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