In tribute to a fallen hero who selflessly served his community and sacrificed his life during the devastating 1889 Johnstown flood, law enforcement and community members have finally made sure that the grave of a patrolman and hometown hero has been marked with a headstone.
Officer Samuel B. Eldridge, aged 35 at the time, tragically lost his life while helping those in need during one of the deadliest floods in American history.
Eldridge’s story, long documented in historical accounts, came to light recently when Tina Sepp, the sister of Pennsylvania State Police Trooper Joseph Sepp Jr., who was killed in the line of duty in 2002, discovered that there was no tombstone at Eldridge’s grave.
This discovery led to a collaboration between members of the Road Dawgs Motorcycle Club, the Cambria County Sheriff’s Office and the Johnstown Police Department to enshrine Eldridge’s memory.
Sheriff Don Robertson expressed the sentiment behind this initiative.
“I think everybody deserves a final resting place and deserves to be remembered. Knowing that this guy gave his life in the 1889 flood, I think it was a very moving thing for everybody to do for this guy that nobody met before, didn’t know a whole lot about him. It’s kind of a cool story to tell. But, at the same time, we didn’t want him to be forgotten,” Robertson said.
“To me, I just think the guy deserved it. He went out on his day off to help people, left his family at home … I just think this was a great thing that we put together, put a little bit of effort into getting this guy a headstone. I think he deserved it,” echoed Chuck Mack from the local Road Dawgs chapter.
Samuel Eldridge’s act of heroism during the 1889 flood was well-documented.
Pulitzer Prize-winning author David McCullough wrote in his book, The Johnstown Flood, that Eldridge was “one of the best-known policemen in town.” Moreover, there is a tribute to Eldridge at the online Officer Down Memorial Page.
Writer J.J. McLaurin also provided a contemporaneous account of the events.
“The flood caught him in the street and swept him to his death … His body was one of the first to be recovered.”
On that fateful day, Eldridge, off duty, rushed to aid his fellow citizens as he realized the severity of the flooding.
He promised his wife that he would return home if the situation became too perilous. However, unbeknownst to him, the South Fork Dam had ruptured almost simultaneously, sending a deluge of water into the valley, resulting in the loss of more than 2,200 lives, including Eldridge’s.
Despite the passage of 132 years, Eldridge’s courageous actions continue to inspire those who have learned of his story.
Johnstown Police Department Captain Chad Miller declared that it was important to preserve the local history.
“History is important,” Miller said. “It’s important in the department. It’s important to recognize those who sacrificed before us and for the community. I want to make sure the officers know … the history, they know who’s come before them, they know the dangers of the job, they know what can happen, and honor those that sacrificed their life for us. They’re our brothers.”
Eldridge now rests at Grandview Cemetery, with a headstone that bears the inscription: “In Honor of His Heroism.”
Yet, for Nick Wuckovich, a Johnstown Flood Museum tour guide, there’s still a sense of unfinished business.
“There’s a guy there who’s a hero, and there’s no marker for him to say he gave his life for the Borough of Johnstown,” Wuckovich said, noting the significance of this long-overdue tribute to the hometown hero.