Change in travel plans determined fate of Donora couple who died in 1934
Editor's note: Part 2 of 2
There was no question that Donora physician Dr. Henry J. Strauch and his wife Ruth were planning to take a sea cruise vacation at the end of the summer in 1934. Their destination, however, wasn't certain.
They couldn't decide whether a trip to Bermuda aboard the liner Monarch of Bermuda or a journey to Nova Scotia would be the more appealing vacation.
The Herald-American newspaper in Donora reported in its coverage of the couple's death in the Sept. 8, 1934, disaster that destroyed the Ward Line's Morro Castle that Dr. and Mrs. Strauch, a registered nurse, would not have been aboard the ill-fated cruise ship “except for a last minute change of plans,” according to information it received.
“The doctor had talked over plans for a cruise to Nova Scotia, and later a trip to Bermuda, with local steamship agents,” the newspaper revealed. “While on a business trip to Pittsburgh, however, he had stopped at Mellon National Bank's travel bureau and while there decided on the Ward Line's Havana cruise and engaged passage. The Ward Line, incidentally, is not represented in Donora.”
The newspaper also emphasized that “... wide local concern was evident in the community regarding Dr. and Mrs. Strauch. Relatives were continually receiving inquiries as to the latest information all day yesterday and today.”
The fears of the couple's families, friends and the community turned to reality with this headline in The Herald-American on Tuesday, Sept. 11: “Bodies Of Doctor And Wife Arrive In Donora For Burial.”
The somber story read as follows: “A Donora physician and his wife who left here 11 days ago on a pleasure cruise to the tropics came home today – in death.
“Victims of the mysterious tragedy which overtook the Ward Line's Morro Castle New York-Havana cruiser, the bodies of Dr. and Mrs. Henry J. Strauch of Tenth Street and Meldon Avenue arrived in Donora on the Pennsylvania Railroad at 9:27 this morning.
“They will be buried together on Thursday, September 13, less than two weeks from the day they went away on the vacation destined to be their last.”
The newspaper announced that funeral services would be held Thursday afternoon at 2 p.m. at the couple's home by the Rev. Frederick L. Will, pastor of Trinity Evangelical Lutheran Church of Donora. Interment would take place in Monongahela Cemetery.
The story said Mrs. Ruth Charlotte Strauch was survived by her parents, Mr. and Mrs. E. Werner Rose of Castner Avenue, and two sisters, Mrs. Regis Schmitt and Miss Catherine Rose, both of the same address. Dr. Strauch, who had practiced medicine for the past four years, was survived by his parents, Mr. and Mrs. Jacob Strauch of Pittsburgh, two brothers, Hans and Joseph Strauch, both of Pittsburgh, and a stepbrother, Peter Strauch of Detroit, Michigan.
A similar story in The Daily Republican in Monongahela, noting that the bodies of the couple arrived at the Pennsylvania Railroad station in Donora and “were taken in charge by the Rabe Funeral Company.”
A story in The Charleroi Mail on Sept. 11 also indicated that the bodies of Dr. Strauch, who reportedly was on the medical staff at Charleroi-Monessen Hospital in North Charleroi, and his wife were among those discovered and brought to shore at Spring Lake, N.J. It said they were returned to Donora aboard the “Fairmont Flyer” train.
“According to information received here, the Donora doctor and his wife drowned when their ship was swept by flames off the Jersey coast Saturday,” The Mail said. “Neither body showed signs of burns.”
It continued: “Earlier yesterday the relatives had sent a message in which they expressed the belief the bodies of the prominent young couple were in the ocean and probably would never be found unless washed ashore.
“But a new clue was discovered by the members of the party searching for the remains — Verner Rose, father of Mrs. Strauch, and Regis Schmitt, a brother-in-law, both of Donora, and Joseph Strauch of Pittsburgh, brother of Dr. Strauch — and in the Waters undertaking establishment in Jersey City they found both bodies. A message received last night in Donora stated that Mr. Rose would leave Jersey City last night with the bodies and arrive home at 9:30 a.m. today. Regis Schmitt and Joseph Srauch will return by automobile.”
Another story in The Charleroi Mail on Sept. 12 said Dr. and Mrs. Strauch “apparently leaped overboard and drowned as there were no burns to indicate they had been burned.”
Myriad information about the Morro Castle is available on the Internet.
One of the best sites is Encyclopedia-Titanica.org, which is administered by Jim Kalafus, president of Gare Maritime in New York City. Kalafus did not respond to requests for comments for this story.
Three books have been written about the tragedy. The most popular among some readers is “Fire At Sea: The Story Of The Morro Castle” by Thomas Gallagher.
A lengthy investigation was held into the suspicious cause of the deadly fire that destroyed the Morro Castle, which was built in 1930 at a cost of $4 million. Accusations of negligence against and criticism of officers and crew members of the ship prevailed, and rescuers also were targeted for alleged slow response time.
Some crew members, however, were lauded for their heroic actions in attempting to save passengers.
According to various sources, the official inquiry did not end until early 1937. Federal judge John C. Knox assessed liability of $890,000 against Ward Line, an average of $2,225 per victim.
Officially, the cause of the fire was never determined, but arson was suspected.
Details of the investigation and findings — as well as pictures and videos of the disaster — are available on multiple Internet sites.
Conflicting reports of the death toll of the Sept. 8, 1934, tragedy prevailed over the years, some saying as many as 189 persons died.
On Sept. 8, 2009, however, the Asbury Park (N.J.) Historical Society marked the 75th anniversary of the disaster by dedicating a large memorial plaque in honor and memory of the “137 passengers and crew ... who lost their lives on September 8, 1934 when the ship burned off the Jersey Coast when returning from Havana, Cuba to New York City.”
The monument also is dedicated to the “many courageous Jersey Shore residents who risked their own lives or provided assistance to rescue Morro Castle survivors from rough seas and recover the victims who washed ashore or were pulled from the sea.”
The historical society also emphasizes that American maritime history “was forever changed by the Morro Castle Disaster. Incorporating fire-prevention design into ships and requiring mandatory life boat drills are a direct result of this great loss of life.”
The ravaged Morro Castle remained beached near the Asbury Park boardwalk and convention center for several months after the fire and became an eerie tourist attraction. It was eventually towed away and sold to a breaking company and scrapped.
Ron Paglia is a freelance writer.