Discover your family's story.
Enter a grandparent's name to get started.
JOHNSTOWN, Pa., June 3, 1889.–Innumerable tales of thrilling individual experiences, each one more horrible than the others, are told.
Frank McDonald, a conductor on the Somerset branch of the Baltimore and Ohio, was at the Pennsylvania Railroad depot in this place when the flood came. He says that when he first saw the flood it was thirty feet high and gradually rose to at least forty feet.
“There is no doubt that the South Fork Dam was the cause of the disaster,” said Mr. McDonald. “Fifteen minutes before the flood came Decker, the Pennsylvania Railroad agent read me a telegram that he had just received saying that the South Fork Dam had broken. As soon as he heard this the people in station, numbering six hundred, made a rush for a hill. I certainly think I saw one thousand bodies go over the bridge. The first house that came down struck the bridge and at once took fire, and as fast as the others came down they were consumed.
Saw a Thousand Persons Burn
“I believe I am safe in saying that I saw one thousand bodies burn. It reminded me of a lot of flies on fly paper struggling to get away, with no hope and no chance to save them.
“I have no idea that had the bridge been blown up the loss of life would have been any less. They would have floated a little further with the same certain death. Then, again, it was impossible for any one to have reached the bridge in order to blow it out, for the waters came so fast that no one could have done it.
“I saw fifteen to eighteen bodies go over the bridge at the same time.
“I offered a man $20 to row me across the river, but could get no one to go, and finally had to build a boat and get across that way.”
It required some exercise of acrobatic agility to get into or out of the town. A slide, a series of frightful tosses from side to side, a run and you had crossed the narrow rope bridge which spanned the chasm dug by the waters between the stone bridge and Johnstown. Crossing the bridge was an exciting task. Yet many women accomplished it rather than remain in Johnstown. The bridge pitched like a ship in a storm. Within two inches of your feet rushed the muddy waters of the Conemaugh. There were no ropes to guide one and creeping was more convenient than walking.
One had to cross the Conemaugh at a second point in order to reach Johnstown proper. This was accomplished by a skiff ferry. The ferryman clung to a rope and pulled the load over.
Confusion Worse Confounded
It is impossible to describe the appearance of Main street. Whole houses have been swept down this one street and become lodged. The wreck is piled as high as the second story windows. The reporter could step from the wreck into the auditorium of the Opera House. The ruins consists of parts of houses, trees, saw logs, reels from the wire factory. Many houses have their side walls and roofs torn up, and you can walk directly into what had been second story bedrooms, or go in by way of the top. Further up town a raft of logs lodged in the street and did great damage.
The best way to get an idea of the wreck is to take a number of children’s blocks, place them closely together and draw your hand through them.
At the commencement of the wreckage, which is at the opening of the valley of the Conemaugh, one can look up the valley for miles and not see a house. Nothing stands but an old woolen mill.
As Seen by an Eye-Witness
Charles Luther is the name of the boy who stood on an adjacent elevation and saw the whole flood. He said he heard a grinding noise far up the valley, and looking up he could see a dark line moving slowly toward him. He saw that it was made up of houses. On they came like the hand of a giant clearing off his tables. High in the air would be tossed a log or beam, which fell back with a crash. Down the valley it moved sedately and across the little mountain city. For ten minutes nothing but moving houses were seen, and then the waters came with a roar and a rush. This lasted for two hours, and then it began to flow more steadily.
The pillaging of the houses in Johnstown is something awful to contemplate and describe. It makes one feel almost ashamed to call himself a man and know that others who bear the same name have converted themselves into human vultures, preying on the dead. Men are carrying shotguns and revolvers, and woe betide the stranger who looks even suspiciously at any article. Goods of great value were being sold in town to-day for a drink of whiskey.
A supply store has been established in the Fourth ward in Johnstown. A line of men, women and children, extending for a square, waited patiently to have their wants supplied.
An Improvised Morgue
The school house has been converted into a morgue, and the dead are being buried from this place. A hospital has been opened near by and is full of patients. One of the victims was removed from a piece of wreckage in which he had been imprisoned three days. His leg was broken and his face badly bruised. He was delirious when rescued.
In some places it is said the railroad tracks were scooped out to a depth of twenty feet. A train of cars, all loaded, were run on the Conemaugh bridge. They, with the bridge, now lie in the wreckage at this point. The Pennsylvania Railroad loses thirty-five engines and many cars.
Fire Still Raging
The cling-cling-clang of the engines has a homelike sound. The fire has spread steadily all day and the upper part of the drift is burning to-night. The fire engine is stationed on the river bank and a line of hose laid far up the track to the coal mine. The flames to-night are higher than ever before, and by its light long lines of the curious can be seen along the banks.
The natural gas has been shut off, owing to the many leaks in Johnstown. No fire is allowed in the city. The walls of many houses are falling. Their crash can be heard across the river, where the newspaper men are located. In the walk through the town to-day the word “danger,” could be noticed, painted by the rescuers on the walls.
One of the Catholic churches in the town was burned on Saturday. A house drifted down against it and set it on fire. A funeral was being held at the church at the time of the flood. The congregation deserted the church and the body was burned with the building. Two large trees passed entirely through a brick Catholic church located near the centre of the town. The building still stands, but is a total wreck.
Colonel Norman M. Smith, of Pittsburgh, while returning from Johnstown after a visit to Adjutant General Hastings, was knocked from the temporary bridge into the river and carried down stream a couple of hundred yards before he was able to swim ashore. He was not hurt.
A Lucky Escape
O.J. Palmer, traveling salesman for a Pittsburgh meat house, was on the ill-fated day express, one car of which was washed away. He narrowly escaped drowning, and tells a horrible tale of his experience on that occasion. The engineer, the fireman and himself, when they saw the flood coming, got upon the top of the car, and when the coach was carried away they caught the driftwood, and fortunately it was carried near the shore and they escaped to the hills. Mr. Palmer walked a distance of twenty miles around the flooded district to a nearby railroad station on this side.
Freaks of the Disaster
A novel scene was witnessed yesterday near Johnstown borough. Some women who managed to escape from the town proper had to wear men’s clothes, as their own had been torn off by the flood.
The force of the flood can be estimated by the fact that it carried three cars a mile and a half and the tender of an engine weighing twelve tons was carried fourteen miles down the river. A team of horses which was standing on Main street just before the flood was found a mile and a quarter below the town yesterday.
The damage to the Cambria Iron Works was not so great as at first reported. The ends of the blooming mill and open hearth furnace buildings were crushed in by the force of the flood. The water rushed through the mill and tore a great pile of machinery from its fastenings and caused other damage. The Bessemer steel mill is almost a ruin. The rolling and wire mills and the six blast furnaces were not much damaged. This morning the company put a large force of men at work and are making strenuous efforts to have at least a portion of the plant in operation within a few weeks. This has given encouragement to the stricken people of Johnstown, and they now seem to have some hope, although so many of their loved ones have met their death. The mill yard, with its numerous railroad tracks, is nothing but a waste. Large piles of pig metal were scattered in every direction. All the loose débris is being gathered into heaps and burned.
Hurled to a Place of Safety
A pitiful sight was that of an old, gray haired man named Norn. He was walking around among the mass of débris, looking for his family. He had just sat down to eat his supper when the crash came, and the whole family, consisting of wife and eight children, were buried beneath the collapsed house. He was carried down the river to the railroad bridge on a plank. Just at the bridge a cross-tie struck him with such force that he was shot clear upon the pier and was safe. But he is a mass of bruises and cuts from head to foot. He refused to go to the hospital until he found the bodies of his loved ones.
Heroism in Bright Relief
A Paul Revere lies somewhere among the dead. Who he is is now known, and his ride will be famous in history. Mounted on a grand, big bay horse, he came riding down the pike which passes through Conemaugh to Johnstown, like some angel of wrath of old, shouting his warning: “Run for your lives to the hills! Run to the hills!”
A Cloud of Ruin
The people crowded out of their houses along the thickly settled streets awe-struck and wondering. No one knew the man, and some thought he was a maniac and laughed. On and on, at a deadly pace, he rode, and shrilly rang out his awful cry. In a few moments, however, there came a cloud of ruin down the broad streets, down the narrow alleys, grinding, twisting, hurling, overturning, crashing–annihilating the weak and the strong. It was the charge of the flood, wearing its coronet of ruin and devastation, which grew at every instant of its progress. Forty feet high, some say, thirty according to others, was this sea, and it travelled with a swiftness like that which lay in the heels of Mercury.
On and on raced the rider, on and on rushed the wave. Dozens of people took heed of the warning and ran up to the hills.
Poor, faithful rider, it was an unequal contest. Just as he turned to cross the railroad bridge the mighty wall fell upon him, and horse, rider and bridge all went out into chaos together.
A few feet further on several cars of the Pennsylvania Railroad train from Pittsburgh were caught up and hurried into the caldron, and the heart of the town was reached.
The hero had turned neither to right nor left for himself, but rode on to death for his townsmen. He was overwhelmed by the current at the bridge and drowned. A party of searchers found the body of this man and his horse. He was still in the saddle. In a short time the man was identified as Daniel Periton, son of a merchant of Johnstown, a young man of remarkable courage. He is no longer the unknown hero, for the name of Daniel Periton will live in fame as long as the history of this calamity is remembered by the people of this country.
A Devoted Operator
Mrs. Ogle, the manager of the Western Union, who died at her post, will go down in history as a heroine of the highest order. Notwithstanding the repeated notifications which she received to get out of reach of the approaching danger, she stood by the instruments with unflinching loyalty and undaunted courage, sending words of warning to those in danger in the valley below. When every station in the path of the coming torrent had been warned she wired her companion at South Fork, “This is my last message,” and as such it shall always be remembered as her last words on earth, for at that very moment the torrent engulfed her and bore her from her post on earth to her post of honor in the great beyond.
A telegraph operator at the railroad station above Mineral Point, which is just in the gorge a short distance below the dam, and the last telegraph station above Conemaugh, had seen the waters rising, and had heard of the first break in the dam. Two hours before the final break came he sent a message to his wife at Mineral Point to prepare for the flood. It read: “Dress the three children in their best Sunday clothes. Gather together what valuables you can easily carry and leave the house. Go to the stable on the hillside. Stay there until the water reaches it; then run to the mountain. The dam is breaking. The flood is coming. Lose no time.”
His wife showed the message to her friends, but they laughed at her. They even persuaded her to not heed her husband’s command. The wife went home and about her work. Meanwhile the telegraph operator was busy with his ticker. Down to Conemaugh he wired the warning. He also sent it on to Johnstown, then he ticked on, giving each minute bulletins of the break. As the water came down he sent message after message, telling its progress. Finally came the flood. He saw houses and bodies swept past him. His last message was: “The water is all around me; I cannot stay longer, and, for God’s sake, all fly.” Then he jumped out of his tower window and ran up the mountain just in time to save himself. A whole town came past as he turned and looked. Great masses of houses plunged up. He saw people on roofs yelling and crying, and then saw collisions of houses, which caused the buildings to crush and crumble like paper.
Racing with Death
All the time he felt that his family were safe. But it was not so with them. When the roar of approaching water came the people of Mineral Point thought of their warning. The wife gathered her children and started to run. As she went she forgot her husband’s advice to go to the mountain and fled down the street to the lowlands. Suddenly she remembered she had left the key of her home in the door. She took the children and ran back. As she neared the house the water came and forced them up between the two houses. The only outlet was toward the mountain, and she ran that way with her children. The water chased her, but she and the children managed to clamber up far enough to escape. Thus it was that an accident saved their lives. Only three houses and a school-house were saved at Mineral Point.
A Dangerous Venture
One of the most thrilling incidents of the disaster was the performance of A.J. Leonard, whose family reside in Morrellville. He was at work, and hearing that his house had been swept away determined at all hazards to ascertain the fate of his family. The bridges having been carried away he constructed a temporary raft, and clinging to it as close as a cat to the side of a fence, he pushed his frail craft out into the raging torrent and started on a chase which, to all who were watching, seemed to mean an embrace in death.
Heedless of cries “For God’s sake go back, you will be drowned.” “Don’t attempt it,” he persevered. As the raft struck the current he pulled off his coat and in his shirt sleeves braved the stream. Down plunged the boards and down went Leonard, but as it arose he was seen still clinging. A mighty shout arose from the throats of the hundreds on the banks, who were now deeply interested, earnestly hoping he would successfully ford the stream.
Down again went his bark, but nothing, it seemed, could shake Leonard off. The craft shot up in the air apparently ten or twelve feet, and Leonard stuck to it tenaciously. Slowly but surely he worked his boat to the other side of the stream, and after what seemed an awful suspense he finally landed amid ringing cheers of men, women and children.
The last seen of him he was making his way down a mountain road in the direction of the spot where his house had lately stood. His family consisted of his wife and three children.
A Thrilling Escape
Henry D. Thomas, a well-known dry goods merchant, tells the following story: “I was caught right between a plank and a stone wall and was held in that position for a long time. The water came rushing down and forced the plank against my chest. I felt as if it were going through me, when suddenly the plank gave way, and I fell into the water. I grabbed the plank quickly and in some unaccountable way managed to get the forepart of my body on it, and in that way I was carried down the stream. All around me were people struggling and drowning, while bodies floated like corks on the water. Some were crying for help, others were praying aloud for mercy and a few were singing as if to keep up their courage.
A large raft which went by bore a whole family, and they were singing, ‘Nearer my God to Thee.’ In the midst of their song the raft struck a large tree and went to splinters. There were one or two wild cries and then silence. The horror of that time is with me day and night. It would have driven a weak-minded person crazy.
“The true condition of things that night can never be adequately described in words. The water came down through a narrow gorge, which in places was hardly two hundred feet wide. The broken dam was at an elevation of about five hundred feet above Johnstown. The railroad bridge across the Conemaugh River is at the lower side of Johnstown, and the river is joined there by another mountain stream from the northeast. It was here that the débris collected and caught fire, and I doubt if it will ever be known how many perished there. The water came down with the speed of a locomotive. The people there are absolutely paralyzed–so much so that they speak of their losses in a most indifferent way. I heard two men in conversation. One said: ‘Well, I lost a wife and three children.’ ‘That’s nothing,’ said the other; ‘I lost a wife and six children.'”
The Sudden Break
A man named Maguire was met on his way from South Fork to Johnstown. He said he was standing on the edge of the lake when the walls burst. The waters were rising all day and were on a level with a pile of dirt which he said was above the walls of the dam. All of a sudden it burst with a report like a cannon and the water started down the mountain side, sweeping before it the trees as if they were chips. Bowlders were rolled down as if they were marbles. The roar was deafening. The lake was emptied in an hour.
At the time there were about forty men at work up there, building a new draining system at the lake for Messrs. Parke and Van Buren. They did all they could to try and avert the disaster by digging a sluiceway on one side to ease the pressure on the dam, but their efforts were fruitless.
“It was about half-past two o’clock when the water reached the top of the dam. At first it was just a narrow white stream trickling down the face of the dam, soon its proportions began to grow with alarming rapidity, and in an extremely short space of time a volume of water a foot in thickness was passing over the top of the dam.
“There had been little rain up to dark. Whatever happened in the way of a cloud burst took place during the night. When the workmen woke in the morning the lake was very full and was rising at the rate of a foot an hour.
“When at two o’clock the water began to flow over the dam, the work of undermining began. Men were sent three or four times during the day
To Warn the People
below of their danger. At three o’clock there was a sound like tremendous and continued peals of thunder. The earth seemed to shake and vibrate beneath our feet.
“There was a rush of wind, the trees swayed to and fro, the air was full of fine spray or mist: then looking down just in front of the dam we saw trees, rocks and earth shot up into mid-air in great columns. It seemed as though some great unseen force was at work wantonly destroying everything; then the great wave, foaming, boiling and hissing, dashing clouds of spray hundreds of feet in height as it came against some obstruction in the way of its mad rush, clearing everything away before it, started on its terrible death-dealing mission down the fatal valley.”
Engineer Henry’s Awful Race
Engineer Henry, of the second section of the express train, No. 8, which was caught at Conemaugh, tells a thrilling story. His train was caught in the midst of the wave and were the only cars that were not destroyed. “It was an awful sight,” he said. “I have often seen pictures of flood scenes, and I thought they were exaggerations, but what I witnessed last Friday changes my former belief. To see that immense volume of water, fully fifty feet high, rushing madly down the valley, sweeping everything before it, was a thrilling sight. It is engraved indelibly on my memory. Even now I can see that mad torrent carrying death and destruction before it.
“The second section of No. 8, on which I was, was due at Johnstown about 10.15 in the morning. We arrived there safely, and were told to follow the first section. When we arrived at Conemaugh the first section and the mail were there. Washouts further up the mountain prevented our going, so we could do nothing but sit around and discuss the situation. The creek at Conemaugh was swollen high, almost overflowing. The heavens were pouring rain, but this did not prevent nearly all the inhabitants of the town from gathering along its banks. They watched the waters go dashing by and wondered whether the creek could get much higher. But a few inches more and it would overflow its banks. There seemed to be a feeling of uneasiness among the people. They seemed to fear that something awful was going to happen. Their suspicions were strengthened by the fact that warning had come down the valley for the people to be on the lookout. The rains had swelled everything to the bursting point. The day passed slowly, however.
“Noon came and went, and still nothing happened. We could not proceed, nor could we go back, as the tracks about a mile below Conemaugh had been washed away, so there was nothing for us to do but to wait and see what would come next.
“Some time after 3 o’clock Friday afternoon I went into the train despatcher’s office to learn the latest news. I had not been there long when I heard a fierce whistling from an engine away up the mountain. Rushing out I found dozens of men standing around. Fear had blanched every cheek. The loud and continued whistling had made every one feel that something serious was going to happen. In a few moments I could hear a train rattling down the mountain. About five hundred yards above Conemaugh the tracks make a slight curve and we could not see beyond this. The suspense was something awful. We did not know what was coming, but no one could get rid of the thought that something was wrong at the dam.
“Our suspense was not very long, however. Nearer and nearer the train came, the thundering sound still accompanying it. There seemed to be something behind the train, as there was a dull, rumbling sound which I knew did not come from the train. Nearer and nearer it came; a moment more and it would reach the curve. The next instant there burst upon our eyes a sight that made every heart stand still. Rushing around the curve, snorting and tearing, came an engine and several gravel cars. The train appeared to be putting forth every effort to go faster. Nearer it came, belching forth smoke and whistling long and loud. But the most terribe sight was to follow. Twenty feet behind came surging along a mad rush of water fully fifty feet high. Like the train, it seemed to be putting forth every effort to push along faster. Such an awful race we never before witnessed. For an instant the people seemed paralyzed with horror. They knew not what to do, but in a moment they realized that a second’s delay meant death to them. With one accord they rushed to the high lands a few hundred feet away. Most of them succeeded in reaching that place and were safe.
“I thought of the passengers in my train. The second section of No. 8 had three sleepers. In these three cars were about thirty people, who rushed through the train crying to the others ‘Save yourselves!’ Then came a scene of the wildest confusion. Ladies and children shrieked and the men seemed terror-stricken. I succeeded in helping some ladies and children off the train and up to the highlands. Running back, I caught up two children and ran for my life to a higher place. Thank God, I was quicker than the flood! I deposited my load in safety on the high land just as it swept past us.
“For nearly an hour we stood watching the mad flood go rushing by. The water was full of débris. When the flood caught Conemaugh it dashed against the little town with a mighty crash. The water did not lift the houses up and carry them off, but crushed them one against the other and broke them up like so many egg shells. Before the flood came there was a pretty little town. When the waters passed on there was nothing but
Few Broken Boards
to mark the central portion of the city. It was swept as clean as a newly brushed floor. When the flood passed onward down the valley I went over to my train. It had been moved back about twenty yards, but it was not damaged. About fifty persons had remained in the train and they were safe. Of the three trains ours was the luckiest. The engines of both the others had been swept off the track and one or two cars in each train had met the same fate.
“What saved our train was the fact that just at the curve which I mentioned the valley spread out. The valley is six or seven hundred yards broad where our train was standing. This, of course, let the floods pass out. It was only twenty feet high when it struck our train, which was about in the middle of the valley.
“This fact, together with the elevation of the track, was all that saved us. We stayed that night in the houses in Conemaugh that had not been destroyed. The next morning I started down the valley and by 4 o’clock in the afternoon had reached Conemaugh furnace, eight miles west of Johnstown. Then I got a team and came home.
“In my tramp down the valley I saw some awful sights. On the tree branches hung shreds of clothing torn from the unfortunates as they were whirled along in the terrible rush of the torrent. Dead bodies were lying by scores along the banks of the creeks. One woman I helped drag from the mud had tightly clutched in her hand a paper. We tore it out of her hand and found it to be a badly water-soaked photograph. It was probably a picture of the drowned woman.”
Over the Bridge
Frank McDonald, a railroad conductor, says: “I certainly think I saw 1,000 bodies go over the bridge. The first house that came down struck the bridge and at once took fire, and as fast as they came down they were consumed. I believe I am safe in saying I saw 1,000 bodies burn. It reminded me of a lot of flies on fly-paper struggling to get away, with no hope and no chance to save them. I have no idea that had the bridge been blown up the loss of life would have been any less. They would have floated a little further with the same certain death. Then, again, it was impossible for any one to have reached the bridge in order to blow it up, for the waters came so fast that no one could have done it. I saw fifteen to eighteen bodies go over the bridge. At the same time I offered a man twenty dollars to row me across the river, but could get no one to go, and I finally had to build a boat and get across that way.”
Nothing seems to have withstood the merciless sweep of the mighty on-rush of pent-up Conemaugh. As for the houses of the town a thousand of them lie piled up in a smouldering mass to the right of Conemaugh bridge.
At the present moment, away down in its terrible depths, this mass of torn and twisted timbers and dead humanity is slowly burning, and the light curling smoke that rises as high almost as the mountain, and the sickening smell that comes from the centre of this fearful funeral pile tell that the unseen fire is feeding on other fuel than the rafters and roofs that once sheltered the population of Johnstown.
A Ghastly Scene
The mind is filled with horror at the supreme desolation that pervades the whole scene. It is small wonder that the pen cannot in the hands of the most skillful even pretend to convey one-hundredth part of what is seen and heard every hour in the day in this fearful place. At the present moment firemen and others are out on that ghastly aggregation of woodwork and human kind jammed against the unyielding mass of arched masonry.
Round them curls the white smoke from the smouldering interior of the heaped up houses of Johnstown. Every now and then the gleam of an axe and a group of stooping forms tell that another ghastly find has been made, and a whisper goes round among the hundreds of watchers that other bodies are being brought to light.
How many hundreds or thousands there are who found death by fire at this awful spot will never be known, and the people are already giving up hopes of ever reaching the knowledge of how their loved and lost ones met their doom, whether in the fierce, angry embrace of the waters of Conemaugh, or in the deadly grip of the fire fiend, who claimed the homes of Johnstown for his own above the fatal bridge.
Every hour it becomes more and more apparent that the exact number of lives lost will never be known. Up to the present time the disposition has been to under rather than overestimate the number of lives sacrificed.
A Mother Rescued by Her Daughter
A daughter of John Duncan, superintendent of the Johnstown Street Car Company, had an awful struggle in rescuing her mother and baby sister. Mrs. Duncan and family had taken refuge on a roof, when a large log came floating down the river, striking the house with immense force, knocking Mrs. Duncan and daughter into the fast running river. Seeing what had happened, Alvania, her fifteen-year-old daughter, leaped into the water, and after a hard struggle landed both on the roof of the house.
The members of the Cambria Club tell of their battle for life in the following manner: They were about to sit down to dinner when they heard the crash, and knowing what had occurred they started for the attic just as the flood was upon them. When the members were assured of their safety they at once commenced saving others by grasping them as they floated by on tree tops, houses, etc. In this manner they saved seventy persons from death.
The Clock Stopped at 5.20
One of the queerest sights in the centre of the town is a three-story brick residence standing with one wall, the others having disappeared completely, leaving the floors supported by the partitions. In one of the upper rooms can be seen a mantel with a lambrequin on it and a clock stopped at twenty minutes after five. In front of the clock is a lady’s fan, though from the marks on the wall-paper the water has been over all these things.
In the upper part of the town, where the back water from the flood went into the valley with diminished force, there are many strange scenes. There the houses were toppled over one after another in a row, and left where they lay. One of them was turned completely over and stands with its roof on the foundations of another house and its base in the air. The owner came back, and getting into his house through the windows walked about on his ceiling. Out of this house a woman and her two children escaped safely and were but little hurt, although they were stood on their heads in the whirl. Every house has its own story. From one a woman shut up in her garret escaped by chopping a hole in the roof. From another a Hungarian named Grevins leaped to the shore as it went whirling past and fell twenty-five feet upon a pile of metal and escaped with a broken leg. Another is said to have come all the way from very near the start of the flood and to have circled around with the back water and finally landed on the flats at the city site, where it is still pointed out.