Rescues at the signal tower

Hairbreadth Escapes

So vast is the field of destruction that to get an adequate idea from any point level with the town is simply impossible. It must be viewed from a height. From the top of Kernville Mountain just at the east of the town the whole strange panorama can be seen.

Looking down from that height many strange things about the flood that appear inexplicable from below are perfectly plain. How so many houses happened to be so queerly twisted, for instance, as if the water had a whirling instead of a straight motion, was made perfectly clear.

The town was built in an almost equilateral triangle, with one angle pointed squarely up the Conemaugh Valley to the east, from which the flood came. At the northerly angle was the junction of the Conemaugh and Stony creeks. The Southern angle pointed up the Stony Creek Valley. Now about one-half of the triangle, formerly densely covered with buildings, is swept as clean as a platter, except for three or four big brick buildings that stand near the angle which points up the Conemaugh.

Course of the Flood

The course of the flood from the exact point where it issued from the Conemaugh Valley to where it disappeared below in a turn in the river and above by spreading itself over the flat district of five or six miles, is clearly defined. The whole body of water issued straight from the valley in a solid wave and tore across the village of Woodvale and so on to the business part of Johnstown at the lower part of the triangle. Here a cluster of solid brick blocks, aided by the conformation of the land, evidently divided the stream. The greater part turned to the north, swept up the brick block and then mixed with the ruins of the villages above down to the stone arch bridge. The other stream shot across the triangle, was turned southward by the bluffs and went up the valley of Stony Creek. The stone arch bridge in the meantime acted as a dam and turned part of the current back toward the south, where it finished the work of the triangle, turning again to the northward and back to the stone arch bridge. The stream that went up Stony Creek was turned back by the rising ground and then was reinforced by the back water from the bridge again and started south, where it reached a mile and a half and spent its force on a little settlement called Grubbtown.

Work of the Water

The frequent turning of this stream, forced against the buildings and then the bluffs, gave it a regular whirling motion from right to left and made a tremendous eddy, whose centrifugal force twisted everything it touched. This accounts for the comparatively narrow path of the flood through the southern part of the town, where its course through the thickly clustered frame dwelling houses is as plain as a highway. The force of the stream diminished gradually as it went south, for at the place where the currents separated every building is ground to pieces and carried away, and at the end the houses were only turned a little on their foundations. In the middle of the course they are turned over on their sides or upside down. Further down they are not single, but great heaps of ground lumber that look like nothing so much as enormous pith balls.

To the north the work of the waters is of a different sort. It picked up everything except the big buildings that divided the current and piled the fragments down about the stone bridge or swept them over and soon down the river for miles. This left the great yellow, sandy and barren plain so often spoken of in the despatches where stood the best buildings in Johnstown–the opera house, the big hotel, many wholesale warehouses, shops and the finest residences. In this plain there are now only the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad train, a school-house, the Morrell Company’s stores and an adjoining warehouse and the few buildings at the point of the triangle. One big residence, badly shattered, is also standing.

Houses Changed Base

These structures do not relieve the shocking picture of ruin spread out below the mountain, but by contrast making it more striking. That part of the town to the south where the flood tore the narrow path there used to be a separate village which was called Kernville. It is now known as the South Side. Some of the queerest sights of the wreck are there, though few persons have gone to see them. Many of the houses that are there, scattered helter skelter, thrown on their sides and standing on their roofs, were never in that neighborhood nor anywhere near it before. They came down on the breast of the wave from as far up as Franklin, were carried safely by the factories and the bridges, by the big buildings at the dividing line, up and down on the flood and finally settled in their new resting places little injured. A row of them, packed closely together and every one tipped over at about the same angle, is only one of the queer freaks the water played.

I got into one of these houses in my walk through the town to-day. The lower story had been filled with water, and everything in it had been torn out. The carpet had been split into strips on the floor by the sheer force of the rushing tide. Heaps of mud stood in the corners. There was not a vestige of furniture. The walls dripped with moisture. The ceiling was gone, the windows were out, and the cold rain blew in and the only thing that was left intact was one of those worked worsted mottoes that you always expect to find in the homes of working people. It still hung to the wall, and though much awry the glass and frame were unbroken. The motto looked grimly and sadly sarcastic. It was:–

“There is no place like home.”

A melancholy wreck of a home that motto looked down upon.

A Tree in a House

A tree in a house
A tree in a house

I saw a wagon in the middle of a side street sticking tongue, and all, straight up into the air, resting on its tail board, with the hind wheels almost completely buried in the mud. I saw a house standing exactly in the middle of Napoleon street, the side stove in by crashing against some other house and in the hole the coffin of its owner was placed. Some scholar’s library had been strewn over the street in the last stage of the flood, for there was a trail of good books left half sticking in the mud and reaching for over a block. One house had been lifted over two others in some mysterious way and then had settled down between them and there it stuck, high up in the air, so its former occupants might have got into it again with ladders.

Down at the lower end of the course of the stream, where its force was greater, there was a house lying on one corner and held there by being fastened in the deep mud. Through its side the trunk of a tree had been driven like a lance, and there it stayed sticking out straight in the air. In the muck was the case and key board of a square piano, and far down the river, near the débris about the stone bridge, were its legs. An upright piano, with all its inside apparatus cleanly taken out, stood straight up a little way off. What was once a set of costly furniture was strewn all about it, and the house that contained it was nowhere.

The remarkable stories that have been told about people floating a mile up the river and then back two or three times are easily credible after seeing the evidences of the strange course the flood took in this part of the town. People who stood near the ruins of Poplar Bridge saw four women on a roof float up on the stream, turn a short distance above and come back and go past again and once more return. Then they went far down on the current to the lower part of the town and were rescued as they passed the second story window of a school house. A man who was imprisoned in the attic of his house put his wife and two children on a roof that was eddying past and stayed behind to die alone. They floated up the stream and then back and got upon the roof of the very house they had left, and the whole family was saved.

At Grubbtown there is a house that came all the way from Woodvale. On it was a man who lived near Grubbtown, but was working at Woodvale when the flood came. He was carried right past his own house and coolly told the people at the bridge to bid his wife good-bye for him. The house passed the bridge three times, the man carrying on a conversation with the people on shore and giving directions for his burial if his body should be found. The third time the house went up it grounded at Grubbtown, and in an hour or two the man was safe at home. Three girls who went by on a roof crawled into the branches of a tree and had to stay there all night before they could make any one understand where they were. At one time scores of floating houses were wedged in together near the ruins of Poplar street bridge. Four brave men went out from the shore, and, stepping from house roof to house roof, brought in twelve women and children.

Starvation Overcomes Modesty

Some women crawled from roofs into the attics of houses. In their struggles with the flood most of their clothes had been torn from them, and rather than appear on the streets they stayed where they were until hunger forced them to shout out of the windows for help. At this stage of the flood more persons were lost by being crushed to death than by drowning. As they floated by on roofs or doors the toppling houses fell over upon them and killed them.

Nineveh was Spared

The valley of death, twenty-three miles long, practically ends at Nineveh. It begins at Woodvale, where the dam broke, and for the entire distance to this point the mountains make a canyon–a water trap, from which escape was impossible. The first intimation this city had of the impending destruction was at noon on Friday, when Station Agent Nunamaker got this despatch:–

“We just received word from South Fork that water is coming over dam at Conemaugh Lake, and is liable to burst at any moment. Notify people to look out.”

“J.C. WAUKEMSHAW, Despatcher at Conemaugh.”

Nunamaker started on a dead run to the water front, along which most of the houses are situated, crying:–

“The dam is breaking. Run for your lives!”

Every spring, the station agent tells me, there have been a score of such alarms, and when the people heard Nunamaker they laughed and called him an old fogy for his pains. They had run too often to the mountains to escape some imaginary flood to be scared by anything less than the actual din of the torrent in their ears. Two hours and a half later a despatch came saying that the dam had indeed broken.

Again the station agent went on a trot to the residential part of the town. That same despatch had gone thundering down the whole valley. Johnstown heard the news and so did Conemaugh. No one believed it. It was what they called “a chestnut.” But the cry had put the people a little on the alert. One hour after the despatch came the first warning note of the disaster. Mr. Nunamaker tells me that it took really more than that time for the head of the leaping cataract to travel the twenty-three miles. If that is so the people of Johnstown must have had half an hour’s warning at least, for Johnstown is half way between here and the fatal dam.

Nineveh is very flat on the river side where the people live, though, fortunately, the main force of the current was not directed on this side of the stream. In a second the river rose two feet at a jump. It then reared up like a thing of life, then it steadily rose inches at a time, flooding the whole town. But the people had had warning and saved themselves. Pitiful cries were heard soon from the river. People were floating down on barrels, roofs, beds, anything that was handy. There were pitiful shrieks from despairing women. The people of Nineveh could do nothing. No boat could have stemmed the cataract. During the night there were shrieks heard from the flooded meadows. Next morning at nine o’clock the flood had fallen three feet. Bodies could be seen on the trees by the Nineveh people, who stayed up all night in the hope of being able to do some act of humanity.

Only twenty-five were taken alive from the trees and drift on this side. Across the stream a score were secured and forty-seven corpses taken out. This, with the 200 corpses here, makes a total of 300 people who are known to have come down to this point. There are perhaps a hundred and fifty bodies within a mile. Only a few were actually taken from the river bed. They sank in deep water. It is only when they have swollen by the effect of the water that they rise to the surface. Most of those recovered were found almost on dry land or buried in drift. There are tons of wood, furniture, trees, trunks, and everything that is ever likely to float in a river, that must be “dug over.” It will be work of the hardest kind to get at the remaining corpses. I went over the whole ground along the river bank between here and Johnstown to-day.

The trees on the banks were leveled as if by battering rams, telegraph poles were snapped off as a boy breaks a sugar stick, and parts of the Pennsylvania Railroad track were wrenched, torn and destroyed.

Jerry McNeilly, of this place, says he was at the Johnstown station when the flood came down, preceded by a sort of cloud or fog. He saw people smoking at their windows up to the last moment, and even when the water flooded their floors they laughed and seemed to think that the river had risen a few feet and that was all. Jerry, however, ran to the hills and saved himself while the water rose and did its awful work. Some houses were bowled over like ninepins. Some floated to the surface and started with the flood; others stood their ground and were submerged inch by inch, the occupants climbing from story to story, from the top story to the roof, only to be swept away from their foothold sooner or later.

The Dam’s History

I asked a gathering of men here in what light they had been accustomed to look upon the dam. They say that from the time it was built, somewhere about 1831, by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania to collect water for the canals, it has been the “bogie” of the district. Babies were frightened when naughty by being told the dam would break. Time and time again the people of Nineveh have risen from their beds in the night and perched upon the mountains through fear. A body of water seven miles or more long, from eighty to one hundred and twenty feet deep, and about a mile wide, was indeed something to be dreaded. This lake had a circumference of about eighteen miles, which gives some idea of the volume of water that menaced the population. The dam was thick enough for two carriages to drive abreast on its top, but the people always doubted the stability of that pile of masonry and earth.

Morrellville was for a few days in a state of starvation, but Sheridan, Sang Hollow and this town are in no distress.

Nineveh has lost no life, although wild rumors said it had. Though the damage to property is very great, the Huns have been kept away, and robbers and marauders find nothing to tempt them.

What “Chal” Dick Saw

“I’ll kill the first man that dares to cross the bridge.”

“Chal” Dick, lawyer, burgess and deputy sheriff and sportsman, sat upon his horse with a Winchester rifle across his saddle and a thousand or two of fiends dancing a war dance in his eyes. Down in Johnstown proper they think “Chal” Dick is either drunk or crazy. Two newspaper men bunked with him last night and found he was not afflicted in either sense. He is the only recognized head in the borough of Kernville, where every man, woman and child know him as “Chal,” and greet him as he passes by.

“Yes,” he said to me last night, “I saw it all. My house was on Somerset street. On Thursday night it rained very hard. My wife woke me and called my attention to the way the water was coming down. I said nothing, but I got up about five o’clock and took a look around. In a little while Stony Creek had risen three feet. I then knew that we were going to have a flood, but I did not apprehend any danger. The water soon flooded the streets, and boards and logs began coming down.

“A lot of us turned in to have some sport. I gave my watch and what money I had to a neighbor and began riding logs down the stream. I had lots of company. Old men acted like boys, and shouted and shouted and splashed about in the water like mad. Finally the water began to rise so rapidly that I became alarmed. I went home and told my wife that it was full time to get out. She was somewhat incredulous, but I made her get ready, and we took the children and we went to the house of Mr. Bergman, on Napoleon street, just on the rise of Kernville. I got wet from head to foot fooling in the water, and when I got to Bergman’s I took a chill. I undressed and went to bed and fell asleep. The first thing I knew I was pulled out of bed on to the floor, by Mr. Bergman, who yelled, ‘the dam has burst.’ I got up, pulled on my pantaloons and rushed down stairs. I got my youngest child and told my wife to follow with the two others. This time the water was three feet in the house and rising rapidly. We waded up to our waists out through it, up the hill, far beyond the reach of danger.

“From the time I left Bergman’s till I stopped is a blank. I remember nothing. I turned and looked, and may my eyes never rest on another such sight. The water was above the houses from the direction of the railroad bridge. There came a wave that appeared to be about twelve feet high. It was perpendicular in its face and moved in a mist. I have heard them speak of the death mist, but I then first appreciated what the phrase meant. It came on up Stony Creek carrying on its surface house after house and moving along faster than any horse could go. In the water there bobbed up and down and twisted and twirled the heads of people making ripples after the manner of shot dropped into the water. The wave struck houses not yet submerged and cut them down. The frames rose to the surface, but the bricks, of course, were lost to sight. When the force of the water spent itself and began retracing its course, then the awfulness of the scene increased in intensity. I have a little nerve, but my heart broke at the sight. Houses, going and coming, crashed up against each other and began grinding each other to pieces. The buildings creaked and groaned as they let go their fastenings and fairly melted.

“At the windows of the dwellings there appeared the faces of people equally as ill-fated as the rest. God forbid that I should ever again look upon such intensity of anguish. Oh, how white and horror-stricken those faces were, and such appeals for help that could not come. The woman wrung their hands in their despair and prayed aloud for deliverance. Down stream went houses and people at the rate of twenty-five miles an hour and stopped, a conglomerate mass, at the stone abutment of the railroad bridge. The first buildings that struck the bridge took fire, and those that came after were swept into a sea of flame. I thought I had already witnessed the greatest possible climax of anguish, but the scene that followed exceeded in awfulness anything I had before looked upon. The flames grew, hundreds of people were wedged in the driftwood and imprisoned in the houses. Rapidly the fire approached them, and then they began to cry for aid, and hundreds of others stood on the bank, powerless to extend a single comfort.

“As the fire licked up house after house and pile after pile, I could see men and women bid each other good-by, and fathers and mothers kiss their children. The flames swallowed them up and hid them from my view, but I could hear their shrieks as they roasted alive. The shrieks mellowed into groans, and the groans into silence, only to be followed by more shrieks, more groans and more silence, as the fire caught up and destroyed its victims. Heavens! but I was glad when the end came. My only anxiety was to have it come quickly, and I prayed that it might come, oh! so quick! It was a splendid realization of the judgment day. It was a magnificent realization of the impotency of man in a battle with such a combination of fire and flood.”

Some Have Cause for Joy

In the midst of the confusion of the disaster and the strain of excitement which followed it was but natural that every one who could not readily be found was reported dead. Amid the throng of mourners now an occasional soul is made happy by finding that some loved one has escaped death. To-day a few of the living had time to notify their friends throughout the country of their safety.

General Lew Wallace, now at West Point, telegraphed President Harrison, in response to an inquiry last night, that his wife was “coming out of the great calamity at Johnstown safe.” Several reports have been sent out from Johnstown, one as late as last night, to the effect that Mrs. Wallace was believed to be among the victims of the disaster. Private Secretary Halford received a telegram this afternoon from his wife at Altoona, announcing that Mrs. Lew Wallace was with her and safe.

A dispatch from Carthage, Ill., says:–“Mrs. M.J. Smith, a traveling saleslady for a book concern in New York city, was at Johnstown at the time of the flood and was swept away with others. Her brothers, Lieutenant P. and James McKee, received the following telegram at Carthage yesterday from Johnstown:

“Escaped with my life on housetop; am all right.


“The lady is well known in this county.”

Rich Made Poor.

John Kelly, the prominent Odd Fellow of Conemaugh, who was supposed to be lost, escaped with his entire family, though his house and store were swept down the river.

John Rowley, who stands high among the Masons and Odd Fellows, tells me that out of $65,000 worth of property which he could call his own on Friday last he found just two bricks on the site of his residence this morning. He counts himself wealthy, however, in the possession of his wife and children who were all saved. His wife, who was very ill, was dragged through the water in her nightclothes. She is now in a critical condition, but has the best of medical attendance and may pull through.

In a frame house which stood at No. 121 Union street, Johnstown, were Mrs. O.W. Byrose, her daughters Elsie, Bessie and Emma, and sons Samuel and Ray. When the flood struck the house they ran to the attic. The house was washed from its foundation and carried with the rushing waters. Mrs. Byrose and her children then clung to each other, expecting every minute to meet death. As the house was borne along the chimney fell and crashed through the floors, and the bricks were strewn along the course of the river. The house was caught in the jam and held about two hundred feet above the bridge and one hundred and fifty feet from the shore. The terrified inmates did not lose all presence of mind, and they made their escape to the hole made by the fallen chimney. They were seen by those on shore, and after much difficulty each was rescued. A few minutes later the house caught fire from the burning buildings, and was soon consumed.


Swept from His Side

The lists of dead and missing
The lists of dead and missing

At ten o’clock this morning an old gray bearded man stood amid the blackened logs and ashes through which the polluted water of the Conemaugh made its way, wringing his hands and moaning in a way that brought tears to the eyes of all about him. He was W.J. Gilmore, whose residence had stood at the corner of Conemaugh and Main streets. Being on low ground the house was flooded by the first rush of water and the family, consisting of Mr. Gilmore, his brother Abraham, his wife, four children and mother-in-law, ran to the second story, where they were joined by Frances, the little daughter of Samuel Fields, and Grandmother Maria Prosser. When the torrent from South Fork rushed through the town the side of the house was torn out and the water poured into the second floor. Mr. Gilmore scrambled upon some floating débris, and his brother attempted to pass the women and children out to him. Before he could do so, however, the building sank and Mr. Gilmore’s family was swept from his side. His brother disappeared for a moment under the water, but came to the surface and was hauled upon the roof. The brothers then strove frantically to tear a hole in the roof of the house with their bare hands, but their efforts were, of course, unavailing, and they were soon struggling for their own lives in the wreck at the viaduct. Both finally reached the shore. The body of Mrs. Gilmore, when taken from the ruins this morning, was but little mutilated, although her body was bloated by the water. Two of the children had been almost burned to cinders, their arms and legs alone being something like their original shape.

Statue of the Virgin

St. Mary’s German Catholic Church, which is badly wrecked, was temporarily used as a morgue, but a singular circumstance connected with the wrecking having been noticed, the duty of becoming a receptacle for the dead is transferred to the Church of St. Columba. The windows of St. Mary’s are all destroyed. The floor for one-third of its extent on St. Mary’s side is torn up to the chancel rail in one piece by the water and raised toward the wall. One-half the chancel rail is gone, the mud is eighteen inches deep on the floor, St. Joseph’s altar is displaced and the statue gone. The main altar, with its furniture for Easter, is covered with mud, and some fine potted flowers are destroyed. Nearly all the other ornaments are in place, even to the candlesticks. Strange to relate, the statue of the Virgin in her attire is unsoiled; the white vestments with silken embroidery are untarnished. This discovery led to the change of morgue. The matter being bruited abroad the desolated women of Cambria and Johnstown, as well as those who had not been sufferers from the flood, visited the church, and with most affecting devoutness adored the shrine. Some men also were among the devout, and not one of those who offered their prayers but did it in tears. For several hours this continued to be the wonder of the parishioners of the Catholic churches.

The entire family of Mr. Howe, the wealthiest man in Cambria, with some visitors from Pittsburgh and Ohio, were hurried to death by the collapse of their residence on that fatal Friday night.

In the rubbish heaped high on the shore near the stone arch bridge is a flat freight car banged and shattered and with a hole stove in its side. One of the workmen who were examining the débris to-day got into the car and found a framed and glazed picture of the Saviour. It was resting against the side of the car, right side up. Neither frame nor glass were injured. When this incident got noised about among the workmen they dropped their pickaxes and ran to look at the wonderful sight with their hats off.

Saved His Mother and Sister

A man who came up from Lockport to-day told this:–“On the roof of a house were a young man, his mother and a young girl apparently his sister. As they passed the Lockport bridge, where the youth hung in an eddy for a moment, the men on the bridge threw them a rope. The young man on the house caught and tried to make it fast around his mother and then around his sister. They were afraid to use it or they were unwilling to leave him, for they would not take the rope. They tried to make him take it, but he threw it away and stayed on the roof with them. The house was swept onward and in another moment was lodged against a tree. The youth seized his mother and sister and placed them in safety among the branches. The next instant the house started again. The young man’s foot slipped. He fell into the water and was not seen again.”

Where Death Lay In Wait

A great deal has been written and published about the terrible disaster, but in all the accounts nothing has been said about South Fork, where in proportion to its size as much damage has been done as at any other point.

For the purpose of ascertaining how the place looked which in the annals of history will always be referred to as the starting point of this great calamity, I came here from Johnstown. I left on Monday morning at half-past six, and being unable to secure a conveyance of any character was compelled to walk the entire distance. Thinking the people of Johnstown knew whereof they spoke, I started over the Edensburg turnpike, and tramped, as a result, six more miles than was absolutely necessary. After I left Johnstown it began raining and continued until I reached South Fork.

Two miles out from Johnstown I passed the Altoona Relief Committee in carriages, with their supply train following, and from that until I reached Fair View, where I turned off toward the Conemaugh river, it was a continuous line of vehicles of all kinds, some containing supplies, others passengers, many of whom were ladies. I followed a cow-path along the mountain until I reached Mineral Point. Here is where the flood did its first bad work after leaving South Fork. There had been thirty-three dwelling houses, a store and a large sawmill in the village, and in less than one minute after the flood struck the head of the place there were twenty-nine of these buildings wiped out; and so sudden had been the coming of the water that but a few of the residents succeeded in getting away.

As a Boy would Marbles

Jacob Kohler, one of the residents of the place, said he had received a telegram stating that the flood was coming, but paid no attention to it as they did not understand its significance. “I saw it coming,” he said, “with the water reaching a height of at least twenty-five feet, tearing trees up by the roots and dashing big rocks about as a boy would marbles. I hardly had time to grab a child and run for the hills when it was upon us, and in less time than it takes for me to tell it our village was entirely wiped out and the inhabitants were struggling in the water and were soon out of sight. I never want to see such a sight again.”

From Mineral Point another cow-path was taken over the mountains. I came just below the viaduct within about one mile of South Fork, and here the work of destruction had been as complete as it was possible for it to be. The entire road-bed of the Pennsylvania Railroad had been washed away.

At this point a freight train had been caught and all the men on it perished, but the names could not be learned. The engine was turned completely upside down and the box cars were lifted off the track and carried two hundred feet to the side of the hill. Fifteen of them are there with the trucks, about one hundred feet from the old road-bed, and turned completely upside down.

Another freight train just ahead of it was also swept away in the same manner, all excepting two cars and the engine. One of the cars was loaded with two heavy boilers from the works of James Witherow, Newcastle.

Rails Twisted Double

Coming in to South Fork the work of destruction on the railroad was found to be even greater, the rails being almost bent double. The large iron bridge over the river at this point is gone, as is also one of the piers. The lower portion of this place is completely wiped out, and two men were lost. This is all the loss of life here, excepting two Italians who were working at the lake proper. The loss in individual property to the people of this place will reach $75,000, and at Mineral Point $50,000.

For the purpose of seeing how the lake looked after all the water was out of it, a trip was taken to it, fully three miles distant. The driveway around it is fully thirty-five feet wide, and that was the width at the point of the dam where the break occurred.

Like a Thunderbolt

Imagine, if you can, a solid piece of ground, thirty-five feet wide and over one hundred feet high, and then, again, that a space of two hundred feet is cut out of it, through which is rushing over seven hundred acres of water, and you can have only a faint conception of the terrible force of the blow that came upon the people of this vicinity like a clap of thunder out of a clear sky. It was irresistible in its power and carried everything before it. After seeing the lake and the opening through the dam it can be readily understood how that outbreak came to be so destructive in its character.

The lake had been leaking, and a couple of Italians were at work just over the point where the break occurred, and in an instant, without warning, it gave way, and they were down in the whirling mass of water and were swept into eternity. The people of this place had been told by some of those who had been to the lake that it was leaking, but paid no attention any more than to send telegrams to Johnstown and Mineral Point.

Here’s Another Paul Revere

Rescues at the signal tower
Rescues at the signal tower

The first intimation the people had of the approach of the water was from the seventeen-year-old son of John Baker. He was on the road on horseback and noticed the water coming out of a cavity about five feet in diameter, and not waiting to see any more he put spurs to his horse and dashed for the town at breakneck speed. Some of the people of this place saw him coming at great speed, waving his hat, and knowing something was wrong at once gave the alarm, and grabbing their children started for the high parts. When he arrived almost at Railroad street, his own home, the water was already in the roadway, and in less than one minute its whole bulk was coming, twisting trees and rolling rocks before it.

In just eight minutes from the time he first saw it the water had carried away the bridge and was on its career of death and destruction. A train of Pullman cars for the East, due at South Fork at 2.55, was standing on the track on the west side of the bridge waiting to pull into the station. At first the engineer paid no attention to the wild gesticulations of the station agent, but finally started out, pulling slowly into the station, and not one moment too soon, for had he remained where he was a minute longer all would have been swept away.

Thrilling Escapes

A local freight train with a passenger coach attached, standing on the east side of the track, was compelled to run into the rear end of the passenger train so as to get out of the way of the flood. A young man who was on the rear end of the train grabbed a young lady who was floating by and thus saved her life. The house of an old man, eighty-two years of age, was caught in the whirlpool, and he and his aged wife climbed on the roof for safety. They were floating down the railroad track to certain death, when their son-in-law, from the roof of the Pennsylvania Railroad station-house, pulled them off and saved their lives as the house was dashed to pieces.

Mr. Brown, a resident of this place, said: “I was just about opposite the mouth of the lake when it broke. When I first saw it the water was dashing over the top of the road just where it broke about a foot high, and not eight or ten feet, as has been stated, and I told Mr. Fisher, who lived there, that he had better get his family out at once, which he did, going to the hillside, and it was lucky for him that he did, because in a half minute after it broke his home was wiped away.”

No Safety Outlet

Mr. Burnett, who was born and raised a mile from the lake, and is now a resident of Hazelwood, and who was at South Fork, said: “When the State owned this lake they had a tower over the portion that gave way and a number of pipes by which they were enabled to drive off the surplus water, and had the present owners had an arrangement of that kind this accident would not have occurred. The only outlet there was for the water was a small waterway around to the right of the lake, which is totally inadequate. The people of this valley have always been afraid of this thing, and now that it is here it shows that they had every reason for their fears.”

In company with Mr. Burnett I walked all over the place, and am free to confess that it looks strong, but experience shows the contrary.

Mr. Moore, who has done nearly all the hauling for the people who lived at the lake in summer, said:–“About eight years ago this dam broke, but there was not as much water in it as now, and when it broke they were working at it and hauled cart load after cart load of dirt, stone and logs, and finally about ten tons of hay, and by that means any further damage was prevented. That was the time when they should have put forth strenuous efforts to have that part strengthened where the break occurred. This lake is about three miles long and about a mile wide and fully ninety feet deep, and of course when an opening of any kind was forced it was impossible to stop it.

Thirsting for Vengeance

“The indignation here against the people who owned that place is intense. I was afraid that if the people here were to hear that you were from Pittsburgh they would jump to the conclusion that you were connected with the association, and I was afraid they would pull you from the carriage and kill you. That is the feeling that predominates here, and we all believe justly.”

Mr. Ferguson, of the firm of J.P. Stevenson & Co., said: “It is a terrible affair, and shows the absolute necessity of people not fooling with matters of that kind. We sent telegrams to Mineral Point, Johnstown and Conemaugh, notifying them that the lake was leaking and the water rising and we were liable to have trouble, and two minutes before the flood reached here a telegram was sent to Mineral Point that the dam had broken. But you see for the past five years so many alarms of that kind have been sent that the people have not believed them.”

Broke Forty-one Years Ago

Mrs. McDonald, who lives between Johnstown and South Fork, said: “I am an old woman and lived in Johnstown forty-two year ago, when there but two or three houses here. I have always contended, ever since this club of dudes took charge of this place, that it would end in a terrible loss of life. It broke about forty-one years ago, and I was in my house washing and it actually took my tub away and I only saved myself after a desperate struggle. At that time there were no lives lost. On Friday night, when it was raining so hard, I told my son not to go near Johnstown, as it was sure, from the telegrams I heard of, which had come in the afternoon, that there would be a terrible disaster.

“I was told that when the viaduct went a loud report was heard just as a couple of freight cars were dashing against it, and the people say that they were loaded with dynamite.”

The Pennsylvania Railroad officials are rushing in all the men at this point possible to repair the road and are working day and night, having electric lights all along the road; but with all of that it looks as though it will be utterly impossible to have even a single track ready for business before ten days or two weeks, as there is not the slightest vestige of a railroad track to be seen. The railroad people around here are of the opinion that it will take as long as that. The railroad men say that it is the most complete destruction of the kind that they have ever witnessed.

Wealth Borne Away

I had an interview to-night with Colonel James A. McMillan, the consulting director and principal owner of the Cambria Iron Works. He said:–

“What will be the total loss sustained by the Cambria Company is rather hard to state with perfect accuracy just yet, but from the examinations already made of our works I would place our loss at from $3,000,000 to $4,000,000. That includes, of course, the loss of our Gautier Steel Department, above Johnstown, which is completely swept away.

“Day before yesterday I took the liberty of determining the action which the company will pursue in the matter of reconstruction and repairs. I accordingly telegraphed for Mr. Lockhart, the secretary of the company. He arrived here to-day and said to me: ‘McMillan, I’m glad to see you intend to stand by the company and push the work of repairs at once.’

“I think his words voice the sentiment of all the stockholders of the company.

Reconstruction Begun

“All day we have had at least eight hundred men cleaning away the débris about our works, and we have made so much progress that you can say we will have our entire clerical force at work to-morrow evening. Our large pieces of machinery are uninjured, and we will have to send away for only the smaller pieces of our machines and smaller pipes, which compose an enormous system of pipe connections through the works. In from ten to twelve days we will have our works in operation, and I feel confident that we will be making rails at our works inside of fifty days. As we employ about five thousand men, I think our renewal of operations will give the people more encouragement than can be imagined. Besides, we have half the amount of cash needed on deposit in our local bank here, which was brought over by the Adams Express Company on Monday to pay our men. This will be paid them as soon as we can get access to the bank.

“Our immediate work of reconstruction and repair will, of course, be confined to the company’s Cambria iron works proper, and not extended to the Gautier steel works above.”

Twelve Millions More

The Colonel was then asked his estimate of the total loss sustained by the towns of Mineral Point, Franklin borough, Woodvale, Conemaugh, Johnstown, Cambria City, Coopersdale and Morrellville. He said:

“I should place it at nothing lower than $12,000,000, besides the loss sustained by our company. That is only an estimate, but when you take the different towns as they were before the flood, and knowing them as I do, you could not fail to see that this is a very reasonable estimate of the loss.”

As to the South Fork dam, he said: “For the present I don’t care to be interviewed on that question as representing any one but myself. Personally, I have always considered it a dangerous trap, which was likely at any time to wipe us out. For the last ten years I have not hesitated to express this opinion in regard to the dam, and I guess it is pretty well understood that all of our leading citizens held similar views. There is not a man in Johnstown who will deny that he has lived for years in constant dread of its bursting down on us.”

Fifteen Years to Recover

“What do you think will be the time required for the Conemaugh Valley to recover from the shock of the flood?”

“At least fifteen years, and vigilant efforts will be required at that. I speak now from a financial stand-point. Of course we will never recover fully from the terrible loss of life which is now being revealed in its dreadful entirety.”

Survivors in Camp

There are two camps on the hillside to the north of Johnstown, and they are almost side by side. One is a camp for the living, for the most woebegone and unfortunate of the refugees from the Conemaugh Valley of the shadow of death, and the other is for the dead. The camp of the living is Camp Hastings and the ministering spirits are members of the Americus Republican Club of Pittsburgh. The camp for the dead is the new potters’ field that was laid out on Monday for the bodies of unknown victims. The former is populous and stirring, but the latter has more mounds already than the other has living souls. The refugees are widely scattered; some are in the hospital, some are packed as closely as the logs and dead bodies at the stone bridge in the houses yet tenable, and the rest are at Camp Hastings.

In the despairing panic and confusion of Saturday the first thought that presented itself to those who were hurried in to give relief was to prepare shelter for the survivors. The camp has been in operation ever since, and will be for days and may be weeks to come.

Gloomy Pictures of Despair

It looked desolate enough to-day after the soaking downpour of last night, and groups of shivering mothers, with their little ones, stood around a smoky fire at either end of the streets. The members of the Americus Committee, for the time being cooks, waiters, grocery dealers and dry goods men, were in striking contrast to their usual appearance at home. Major W. Coffey, one of the refugees, who was washed seven miles down the Conemaugh, was acting as officer of the guard, and limped up and down on his wooden leg, which had been badly damaged by the flood.

Palefaced women looked out through the flaps of tents on the scene, and the only object that seemed to be taking things easy was a lean, black dog, asleep in front of one of the fires.

In one of the tents a baby was born last night. The mother, whose husband was lost in the flood, was herself rescued by being drawn up on the roof of the Union Schoolhouse. One of the doctors of the Altoona Relief Corps at the Cambria Hospital attended her, and mother and babe are doing better than thousands of the flood sufferers who are elsewhere. There are other babies in Camp Hastings, but none of them receive half of the attention from the people in the camp that is bestowed upon this little tot, whose life began just as so many lives were ended. The baby will probably be named Johnstown Camp O’Connor.

The refugees who are living along the road get their supplies from the camp. They pour into the wretched city of tents in a steady stream, bearing baskets and buckets of food.

He Wanted Tobacco or Nothing

An old Irishman walked up to the tent early in the day. “Well, what can we do for you?” was asked.

“Have yez any tobaccy?”

“No, tobacco don’t go here.”

“I want tobaccy or nothin’. This is no relief to a mon at all, at all.”

The aged refugee walked away in high dudgeon.

Just down the row from the clothing tent are located two little girls, named Johnson, who lost both father and mother. They had a terrible experience in the flood, and were two of the forty-three people pulled in on the roof of the house of the late General Campbell and his two sons, James and Curt.

“How do you fare?” one of the little girls was asked.

“Oh, very well, sir; only we are afraid of catching the measles,” she answered; and with a grimace she tossed her head toward a tent on the other side and further up. A baby in the tent indicated has a slight attack of the measles, but is getting better, and is next door to a tent in which is a young woman shaking with the ague.

A Multitude to be Fed

In the houses along the road above the camp are several hundreds of refugees. In one of them are thirty or forty people rendered homeless by the flood. These are all supplied with food from the camp. Some idea of the number of people who have to be fed can be gathered from the fact that 350 pounds of coffee have been given out since yesterday. In the hills back of Cambria there are many hundreds of survivors. Dr. Findley, of the Altoona Relief Corps, went there to-day and found that they were without a physician. One from Baltimore had been there, but had gone away. He found many people needing medical care, and they will be looked after from day to day.

“Wherever we go,” said one of the doctors yesterday, “we find that there is an alarming spread of pneumonia.” Of the refugees at the Cambria Hospital but two have died.

Bayonets in Control

Encampment of relief parties
Encampment of relief parties

The ruined city lies to-night within a girdle of steel–the bayonets of the 14th regiment. The militia has captured Johnstown and to-night over the desolate plain where the city proper stood, through the towering wrecks and by the river passes, marches the patrol, crying “Halt” and challenging vagabonds, vandals and ghouls, who cross their path. General Hastings, being the highest officer in rank, is in command, and when the survivors of the flood awake to-morrow morning, when the weary pickets are relieved at sunrise a brigade headquarters will be fully established on the slope of Prospect Hill overlooking the hundreds of white tents of the regiments that will lie down below by the German Catholic Church.

First this afternoon arrived Governor Beaver’s staff, mostly by way of Harper’s Ferry on the Baltimore and Ohio. All the officers in brilliant uniform and trappings reported to General Hastings. They found their commander in a slouch hat, a rough-looking cutaway and rubber boots.

The 14th Regiment, reinforced this morning until it is now 600 strong, is still camped in freight cars beyond the depot, opposite the late city proper. Space is being rapidly cleared for its tents, however, over by the German Catholic Church, and near the ruins of the Irish Catholic Church, which was on fire when the deluge came.

Early this morning the 14th Regiment went into service, but it was a volunteer service of two young officers and three privates when at noon they dragged gently from the rushing Conemaugh the body of a beautiful young girl. She was tenderly borne through the lines by regimental headquarters to the church house morgue, while the sentinels stood aside with their bayonets and the corporal ordered “Halt!” Guards were placed at the Johnstown stations and all the morgues.

Marched out of Camp

During the day many people of questionable character, indeed all who were challenged and could not satisfactorily explain their business here, had a military escort to the city limits, where they were ordered not to return. Every now and then two of the National Guard could be seen marching along with a rough fellow between them to the post where such beings are made exiles from the scene of desolation. To-night the picket lines stretch from brigade headquarters down Prospect Hill past General Hastings’ quarters even to the river. The patrol across the river is keeping sharp vigilance in town. At the eastern end of the Pennsylvania Railroad’s stone bridge you must stop and give the countersign. If you don’t no man can answer for your safety.

A Lieutenant’s Disgrace

Down the Cambria Road, past which the dead of the River Conemaugh swept into Nineveh in awful numbers, was another scene to-day–that of a young officer of the National Guard in full uniform and a poor deputy sheriff, who had lost home, wife, children and all, clinched like madmen and struggling for the former’s revolver. If the officer of the Guard had won, there might have been a tragedy, for he was drunk. The homeless deputy sheriff with his wife and babies swept to death past the place where they struggled was sober and in the right.

The officer of the National Guard came with his regiment into this valley of distress to protect survivors from ruffianism and maintain the peace and dignity of the State. The man with whom he fought for the weapon was Peter Fitzpatrick, almost crazy in his own woe, but singularly cool and self-possessed regarding the safety of those left living.

A Man who had Suffered

It was one o’clock this afternoon when I noticed on the Cambria road the young officer with his long military coat cut open leaning heavily for support upon two privates of Company G, Hawthorn and Stewart (boys). He was crying in a maudlin way, “You just take me to a place and I’ll drink soft stuff.” They entreated him to return at once to the regimental quarters, even begged him, but he cast them aside and went staggering down the road to the line, where he met the grave-faced deputy face to face. The latter looked in the white of his eyes and said: “You can’t pass here, sir.”

“Can’t pass here?” he cried, waving his arms. “You challenge an officer? Stand aside!”

“You can’t pass here,” this time quietly, but firmly; “not while you’re drunk.”

“Stand aside,” yelled the Lieutenant. “Do you you know who I am? You talk to an officer of the National Guard.”

“Yes; and listen,” said the man in front of him so impatiently that it hushed his antagonist’s tirade; “I talk to an ‘officer’ of the National Guard–I, who have lost my wife, my children and all in this flood no man has yet described; we, who have seen our dead with their bodies mutilated and their fingers cut from their hands by dirty foreigners for a little gold, are not afraid to talk for what is right, even to an officer of the National Guard.”

A Big Man’s Honest Rage

While he spoke another great, dark, stout man, who looked as if he had suffered, came up, and upon taking in the situation every vein in his forehead swelled purple with rage.

“You dirty cur,” he cried to the officer; “you dirty, drunken cur, if it was not for the sake of peace I’d lay you out where you stand.”

“Come on,” yelled the Lieutenant, with an oath.

The big man sent out a terrible blow that would have left the Lieutenant senseless had not one of the privates dashed in between, receiving part of it and warding it off. The Lieutenant got out of his military coat. The privates seized the big man and with another, who ran to the scene, held him back. The Lieutenant put his hand to his pistol pocket, the deputy Fitzpatrick seized him and the struggle for the weapon began. For a moment it was fierce and desperate, then another private came to the deputy’s assistance. The revolver was wrested from the drunken officer and he himself was pushed back panting to the ground.

The Victor was Magnanimous

Deputy Fitzpatrick seized the military coat he had thrown on the ground, and with it and the weapon started to the regimental headquarters. Then the privates got around him and begged him, one of them with tears in his eyes, not to report their officer, saying that he was a good man when he was sober. He studied a long while, standing in the road, while the officer slunk away over the hill. Then he threw the disgraced uniform to them, and said: “Here, give them to him; and, mind you, if he does not go at once to his quarters, I’ll take him there, dead or alive.”

Sanitarians at Work

Dr. Benjamin Lee, secretary of the State Board of Health, has taken hold with a grip upon the handle. When he surveyed the ground to-day he found that there were no disinfectants in town, and no utensils in which to distribute them had there been any disinfectants, so he sent a squad across the river to the supply train, below the viaduct, and had all the copperas and chloride of lime to be had carried across the bridges in buckets. He sent another squad hunting the ruins for utensils, and in the wreck of a general store on Main street they discovered pails, sprinkling pots and kettles. The copperas and chloride were promptly set heating in the kettles over the streets and in a short time a squad was out sprinkling the débris which chokes Main street almost to the housetops for three squares.

The reason of this was that a brief inspection had satisfied Dr. Lee that under the wreckage were piled the bodies of scores of dead horses. Meantime other men were at work collecting the bodies of other dead horses, which were hauled to the fire and with the aid of rosin burned to the number of sixty. A large number of dead horses were buried yesterday, but this course did not meet the State Board’s approval and Dr. Lee has ordered their exhumation for burning.

Dr. R. Lowrie Sibbett, of Carlisle, was made medical inspector and sent up through the boroughs up the river. To-morrow a house-to-house inspection will be made of the remaining and inhabited portion of the cities and boroughs. The overcrowding makes this necessary.

“It will take weeks of unremitting labor and thousands of men,” said Dr. Lee, “to remove the sources of danger to the public health which now exist. The principal danger to people living here is, of course, from the contamination of putrifying flesh. They have an excellent water-supply from the hills, but there is a very grave danger to the health of all the people who use the Allegheny river as a water-supply. It is in the débris above the viaduct, which is full of decomposing animal matter. Every ripple of water that passes through or under it carries the germs of possible disease with it.”

At the Schoolhouse Morgue

Away from the devastation in the valley and the gloomy scenes along the river, on Prospect Hill, stands the school-house, the morgue of the unidentified dead. People do not go there unless they are hunting for a friend or relative. They treat it as a pest house. They have seen enough white faces in the valley and the living feel like fleeing from the dead.

This afternoon at sunset every desk in every classroom supported a coffin. Each coffin was numbered and each lid turned to show the face within. On the blackboard in one of the rooms, between the pretty drawing and neat writing of the school children, was scrawled the bulletin “Hold No. ’59’ as long as possible; supposed to be Mrs. Paulson, of Pittsburgh.” “But ’59’ wasn’t Mrs. Paulson,” said a little white-faced woman. “It is Miss Frances Wagner, of Market street, Johnstown.” Her brother found her here. “Fifty-nine” has gone–one of the few identified to-day, and others had come to take its place.

Strongly appealing to the sympathies of even those looking for friends and relatives was the difference in the size of the coffins. There were some no larger than a violin case hidden below large boxes, telling of the unknown babies perished, and there were coffins of children of all years. On the blackboards were written such sentences as “Home sweet home;” “Peace on earth, good will toward men.” For all the people who looked at their young faces knew, they might have stood by the coffin of the child who helped to write them.

The bodies found each day are kept as long as possible and then are sent away for burial with their numbers, where their names should be, on rough boards, their only tombstones.

Just as a black storm-cloud was driving hard from the West over the slope of the hills yesterday the body of young Henry G. Rose, the district attorney of Cambria County, was lowered into a temporary grave beside unknown victims. Three people attended his burial–his father-in-law, James A. Lane, who saw him lost while he himself was struggling for life in their floating house; the Rev. Dr. H.L. Chapman, of the Methodist Episcopal Church, and the Rev. L. Maguire. Dr. Chapman read the funeral services, and while he prayed the thunder rumbled and the cloud darkened the scene. The coffins are taken there in wagonloads, lowered quickly and hidden from sight.

Miss Nina Speck, daughter of Rev. David Speck, pastor of the First United Brethren Church of Chambersburg, was in Johnstown visiting her brother last week and narrowly escaped death in the flood.

She arrived to-day clad in nondescript clothing, which had been furnished by an old colored washer-woman and told the following story of the flood:

“Our house was in Kernville, a part of Johnstown, through which Stony Creek ran. Although we were a square from the creek, the backwater from the stream had flooded the streets in the morning and was up to our front porch. At 4 o’clock on Friday afternoon we were sitting on the front porch watching the flood, when we heard a roar as of a tornado or mighty conflagration.

“We rushed upstairs and got out upon the bay-window. There an awful sight met our eyes. Down the Conemaugh Valley was advancing a mighty wall of flame and mist with a terrible roar. Before it were rolling houses and buildings of all kinds, tossing over and over. We thought it was a cyclone, the roar sounding like a tempest among forest trees. At first we could see no water at all, but back of the mist and flames came a mighty wall of water. We started downstairs and through the rear of the house to escape to the hillside nearby. But before we could get there the water was up to our necks and we could make no progress. We turned back and were literally dashed by the current into the house, which began to move off as soon as we were in it again. From the second-story window I saw a young man drifting toward us. I broke the glass from the frames with my hands and helped him in, and in a few moments more I pulled in an old man, a neighbor, who had been sick.

Miraculous Escape

“Our house moved rapidly down the stream and fortunately lodged against a strong building. The water forced us out of the second story up into the attic. Then we heard a lot of people on our roof begging us for God’s sake to let them in. I broke through the roof with a bed slat and pulled them in. Soon we had thirteen in all crouched in the attic.

“Our house was rocking, and every now and then a building would crash against us. Every moment we thought we would go down. The roofs of all the houses drifting by us were covered with people, nearly all praying and some singing hymns, and now and then a house would break apart and all would go down. On Saturday at noon we were rescued, making our way from one building to the next by crawling on narrow planks. I counted hundreds of bodies lying in the débris, most of them covered over with earth and showing only the outlines of the form.”

A Sad Hospital Story

Carrying supplies over the river
Carrying supplies over the river

On a cot in the hospital on Prospect Hill there lies at present a man injured almost to death, but whose mental sufferings are far keener than his bodily pains. His name is Vering. He has lost in the flood his whole family–wife and five children. In an interview he said:

“I was at home with my wife and children when the alarm came. We hurried from the house, leaving everything behind us. As we reached the door a gentleman friend was running by. He grasped the two smaller children, one under each arm, and hurried on ahead of us. I had my arm around my wife, supporting her. Behind us we could hear the flood rushing upon us. In one hurried glance, as I passed a corner, I could see the fearful crunching and hear the crackling of the houses in its fearful grasp. I then could see that there was no possibility of our escape, as we were too far away from the hillside. In a few moments it was upon us. In a flash I saw the three dear children licked up by it and they disappeared from sight as I and my wife were thrown into the air by the vanguard of the rushing ruins. We found ourselves in a lot of drift, driving along with the speed of a race-horse. In a moment or two we were thrown with a crash against a frame building whose walls gave way before the flood as easily as if they were made of pie-crust, and the timbers began to fall about us in all directions.

“Up to this time I had retained a firm hold upon my wife, but as I found myself pinned between two heavy timbers the agony caused my senses to leave me momentarily. I recovered instantly in time to see my wife’s head just disappearing under the water. Like lightning I grasped her by the hair and as best I could, pinioned as I was above the water by the timber, I raised her above it. The weight proved too much and she sank again. Again I pulled her to the surface and again she sank. This I did again and again with no avail. She drowned in my very grasp, and at last she dropped from my nerveless hands to leave my sight forever. As if I had not suffered enough, a few moments after I saw some objects whirling around in an eddy which circled around, until, reaching the current again, they floated past me. My God, man, would you believe me? it was three of my children, dead. Their dear little faces are before me now, distorted in a look of agony that, no matter what I do, haunts me. O, if I could only have released myself at that time I would have willingly died with them. I was rescued some time after, and have been here ever since. I have since learned that my friend who so bravely endeavored to save two of the children was lost with them.”

Walker, James Herbert. The Johnstown Horror! or Valley of Death: being A Complete and Thrilling Account of the Awful Floods and Their Appalling Ruin. H. J. Smith & Co. 1889.

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