Sixty-three-year-old Joseph H. Bruce (1840-1908) of
990 North Oakley Avenue in Chicago
survived the Iroquois Theater fire in 1903 and was
one of the first to testify at the coroner's inquest
in January, 1904. (See clipping
reports of his testimony in two newspapers, it seems
likely he attended the Mr. Bluebeard matinee
alone. He was not quoted in testimony at
the coroner's inquest as using
the pronoun "we" that would have indicated a
companion, such as his wife, Lizzie.
In the early years
A native of Massachusetts, Joseph was the oldest of
six children born to Maine natives, Joseph Atherton
Bruce Sr and Rozina Young Bruce. He grew up in
Charlestown and Somerville, Massachusetts.
followed in his father's footsteps and worked in the
jewelry trade as a young man, employed in the "jewelry
capital of the world," Attleboro, Massachusetts.
At age twenty-two he married Elizabeth Barron Graves
Bruce and their daughter, Iola Bruce (1867-1940), was born
in Virginia five years
The pull of the west was strong
for the Bruce family. Joseph, Lizzie and
toddler Iola followed
his father, uncle, and brother – Joseph sr,
Miner and Orin Bruce – from Massachusetts to Chicago
on to Omaha in 1870 and to Knox county Nebraska in
1871. There they joined with a handful of other
pioneers to found the Bruce Colony about 200 miles northwest of Omaha,
today a one and a half to two hour drive from larger
cities. The colony would be named after John Creighton,
founder of Omaha's Creighton University.
Snow, grasshoppers and
Nebraska families endured substantial adversity in
the early years. The first winter, spent in sod
houses, included a
snowstorm that lasted fifty days and left them isolated
from food-merchant traders. Some
families were forced to survive on flour - driven to $5
per sack ($110 with inflation) by opportunistic
(Remember the prairie mercenary of TV,
Mrs. Oleson on Little House on the Prairie?) In
1874 came a plague of locusts that decimated crops,
depleted food supplies
and brought starvation the following winter. (Read a
sobering account of the
Year of the Locust.)
A period biographical sketch made note that Lizzie
was the second white woman to settle in Creighton,
reminding me of Willa Cather's classic, My
Antonia, set in a fictional Nebraska prairie town
during the same period. I don't know if
today's Creighton, Nebraska history buffs would
concur with that characterization, though; has been
forty years since I read Cather's triology.
Time to revisit.
Though the community's
founder, Joseph Bruce Sr., did not live to see
it happen, passing during the summer of 1875, things
got progressively better for Creighton, Nebraska
after that. Joseph and Lizzie built a home
in 1877 and Joseph operated a furniture store.
He served as postmaster and in 1881 helped persuade
the Sioux City & Pacific Railroad to build a depot
there in Creighton. By 1883 land sold for $5-10/acre
and farms were said to have doubled in value over
the prior year.
Left behind a thriving city
Creighton then could boast of
having a restaurant and a hotel, a dry goods store
and a feed store, a newspaper edited by the town
barber and a drugstore operated by the town doctor.
Stage lines ran between Creighton and Yankton and
I failed to find an
explanation for Joseph and his family leaving
Creighton. He was ambitious, I suspect, maybe
needed a bigger pond, or may have inherited his
father's restless streak. Daughter Iola
was twenty-one and husband prospects in Creighton
may have been limited. (She married in Chicago
eight years after their relocation.) Whatever
the reason, he had cause to feel proud of his
family's contribution to the Nebraska prairie. When he left for
Chicago around 1888, seventeen years after the Bruce
Colony was founded, Creighton's population had grown
to over 900.
Read more about the founding of Creighton.
Joseph in the big city
In Chicago Joseph sold real estate
and operated a publishing company for a time.
In May 1903 he founded a new company, incorporated
in South Dakota,
The Combined Liquid Tank and Freight Car Company.
aspired to become the next Pullman by building railroad cars using a
system he invented to transport cattle.** A corporate office was set up at 80 Dearborn St. in
Chicago, stock was offered for $.15 per share and
fifty acres were purchased in nearby Gary, Indiana
on which to build a plant expected to employ 500 to
Death brought an end to
Joseph's dreams of railroad wealth the summer of
1908. He was buried in the Forest Home Cemetery in
Forest Park, Illinois near Chicago.
You can read his obituary online. Back in
mother died two months later.
In April, 1862 Joseph sold jewelry in Chicago before
heading west to Omaha.