Modern history

Rush of the torrent

1

There were men on the hillsides near the dam who had seen what the force of water could accomplish in mining operations, how a narrow sluice could scour and dig with the strength of a hundred men. Actually anyone who had lived in the area long enough to have seen even the spindliest of the local creeks in April had a fair idea of hydraulics at work. But no one who was on hand that afternoon was prepared for what happened when Lake Conemaugh started for South Fork.

“Oh, it seemed to me as if all the destructive elements of the Creator had been turned loose at once in that awful current of water,” Colonel Unger said.

When the dam let go, the lake seemed to leap into the valley like a living thing, “roaring like a mighty battle,” one eyewitness would say. The water struck the valley treetop high and rushed out through the breach in the dam so fast that, as John Parke noted, “there was a depression of at least ten feet in the surface of the water flowing out, on a line with the inner face of the breast and sloping back to the level of the lake about 150 feet from the breast.”

Parke estimated that it took forty-five minutes for the entire lake to empty, but others said it took less, more in the neighborhood of thirty-six or thirty-seven minutes. In any case, later studies by civil engineers indicated that the water charged into the valley at a velocity and depth comparable to that of the Niagara River as it reaches Niagara Falls. Or to put it another way, the bursting of the South Fork dam was about like turning Niagara Falls into the valley for thirty-six minutes.

A short distance below the dam stood a farmhouse belonging to George Fisher. Fisher, who had been warned that the dam was about to go and had managed to escape from the house with his family only minutes before, saw everything he owned vanish in an instant.

Huge trees were snapped off or uprooted one after another and went plunging off in the torrent. When the flood had passed and the hollow was still again, the hill opposite the dam had been scraped bare for fifty feet up. Every bush, vine, every tree, every blade of grass, had been torn out. All that remained was bare rock and mud.

The water advanced like a tremendous wall. Giant chunks of the dam, fence posts, logs, boulders, whole trees, and the wreckage of the Fisher place were swept before it, driven along like an ugly grinder that kept building higher and higher.

At Lamb’s Bridge, the little bridge itself as well as George Lamb’s home were destroyed as swiftly as everything else. Lamb had been afraid of the dam but had not fled to higher ground until he heard the roar of the flood bearing down on him. He made a frantic effort to save two pigs but gave it up and got to the hillside with his family in time to see his house climb the face of the water, which, because of the narrowness of the valley at that point, was about sixty feet high. He watched the house roll and toss momentarily; then it was flung against the near hill and smashed to splinters.

From where they were the men at the dam could see all this happening as the water raged through the immense gash below them. But just beyond Lamb’s Bridge the valley turns sharply to the right and disappears. So now they could only stand there, the rain beating down, and imagine, as much as that was possible, the things taking place beyond that turn.

The road to South Fork had disappeared, and with most of the dam gone, there was no way back to the clubhouse except the long way, clear around the lake, through flooded woods and fields where the mud would be impossible. So they stayed on, watching the level of the lake sink rapidly down and down, until there was nothing to see but hundreds of acres of dark ooze cut through by a violent yellow stream.

Colonel Unger lasted only a short time after the dam failed. He collapsed and had to be carried to his house and put to bed. His work crew, which had been hanging back nearby, waiting for his next orders, then climbed down to where the lake had been and with blankets and baskets and cold bare hands began scooping up the fish that were flopping about in the muck.

2

Emma Ehrenfeld was sitting with her back to the window in the telegraph tower just down from the South Fork depot. She was talking to H. M. Bennett, engineer of the 1165 freight from Derry, and S. W. Keltz, the conductor. The men had left Derry, halfway to Pittsburgh on the main line, the evening before and had been up all night, delayed first at East Conemaugh until five that morning, then held at South Fork since eight.

Tired, cold, rain-soaked trainmen had been coming in and out of the tower most of the day, climbing the stairs to ask about news from up the line or just warming themselves by the coal stove on the first floor.

Miss Ehrenfeld had held the Chicago Limited west of the bridge, on the other side of the Little Conemaugh, according to the orders she had received that morning; but with all the talk going around about trouble at the dam, the engineer had grown uneasy about his train standing over there, right where the flood might come. There had been a number of opinions on what to do, and then, after noon, the engineer got up and said he was going to bring the Limited across, orders or no orders.

After that there had been more speculating about the bridge. The conductor on the Limited had noticed cracks in one of the piers. The division foreman had been sent for, and when he came down from his house up the tracks and said the piers had looked that way for some time, they cut the Limited’s helper loose and ran it across first, very slowly, just to be sure. The Limited followed after and pulled up past the tower and the depot, a half mile or so. By the time that was done with, it was shortly before three.

Very soon after, Emma Ehrenfeld went downstairs to see about the stove. The men had been firing it up so that her little room upstairs was growing uncomfortably warm. The Limited’s engineer had come in again and was sitting there having a smoke, trying to dry off some. She passed the time with him for a few minutes, banged shut the door, and went back up the stairs to her desk.

From where he was sitting beside her, H. M. Bennett could see the northeastern corner of town neatly framed by the rain-spattered window. In the immediate foreground were the Pennsylvania tracks; just beyond them was Railroad Street, with Stineman’s store to the left and the big Stineman house and Pringle’s drugstore on either side of it. To the right was the turn where Railroad became Lake Street and headed uptown and out of sight, toward the road to the dam. And way over to the right, on the other side of the coal tipple and the planing mill, he could see South Fork Creek, flooding across the lowlands, through the trees, and reaching among the houses nearest its banks.

Suddenly Bennett noticed distant figures racing toward the hill. He jumped up and rushed to the window.

“Look at the people running!” he said. “I wonder what’s wrong?”

The other two went immediately to the window and noticed that several people going by in the street below seemed to be shouting something.

As Miss Ehrenfeld later recalled, Bennett said something about the reservoir and that they ought to get out. Then they saw it coming, spread across the full width of the valley.

Situated as they were, only a few hundred feet from where the creek emptied into the Little Conemaugh, they were in about as good a place as any to see up the valley; but even so, they could not see very far because the abrupt hillside to which the town clung blocked off most of their view. When the water came into sight, it looked very close and enormous.

“It just seemed like a mountain coming,” Emma Ehrenfeld said.

Conductor Keltz described it as more like a large hill rolling over and over. He judged it was about a hundred feet high.

The two men turned and dashed down out of the tower. Miss Ehrenfeld was right behind them (“without waiting to get my hat or anything”). She raced down the tracks, crossed over to the stairs that led to the coal tipple, ran to the top, and from there followed the crowd running toward the back alleys that led to higher ground.

Bennett and Keltz had started for the hill with her, but remembering the fireman and brakeman, who were asleep in the engine of their train on a siding on the other side of the river, they turned and ran for the bridge.

They made it to the engine, cut it loose, and with the little steam they had, came rolling out of the siding and back across the bridge, heading directly toward the oncoming flood with what looked like no better than an even chance of making safe ground only a few hundred yards away where the tracks swung hard to the left past the station.

Contrary to Keltz’s estimate, the wall of water closing down on them was probably no more than forty feet high. It was moving straight for the bridge at a rate of perhaps ten to fifteen miles an hour and was driving before it a mass of debris that now included acres of trees, two or three small bridges, numerous mangled houses, dead animals, and rubbish beyond description.

About 200 yards from the bridge the water claimed its first human life. Michael Mann, an English coal miner and self-styled preacher who was known in South Fork as “The Reverend,” had ignored every warning to leave the shanty he lived in on the banks of South Fork Creek. His body was found a week later, a mile and a half downstream. It was half-buried in mud, stripped of all clothing, and so badly decomposed that it could not be moved. As a result the last remains of the man who would be remembered in the valley as “The First Victim” were put into a hole nearby, covered over, and left unmarked.

The flood crushed right through the planing mill, wrenched the bridge from its piers, bent it as though it had been built with an elbow in the center, and then plowed head on into the mountain on the north side of the Little Conemaugh.

Engineer Bennett’s locomotive meanwhile had escaped just about untouched. It had gotten almost to the station when another escaping freight pulled out of a coal siding and blocked the way. The next thing Bennett knew, a huge tree, evidently an advance fragment of the debris, smashed into his locomotive and pitched it halfway off the track. With the water almost on top of them, Bennett, Keltz, and the two others (they were both very much awake by now) jumped to the ground and scrambled onto the other train just as it started pulling away. Seconds later the full brunt of the flood roared past behind them.

But when it was all over remarkably little damage had been done in South Fork. Stacked on the hillside as it was, the town was almost entirely out of reach of the onslaught. Along with the bridge and the planing mill, some twenty other buildings and houses were destroyed. The bridge, which had been thirty-five feet above the normal water level, was dumped 200 yards up the Little Conemaugh, carried there by the violent backwash created when the water hit the mountainside. There were a few pieces of machinery to be found where the planing mill had been, but that was about all. There was a stone foundation marking where one store had been. A grocery and barbershop went sailing off. J. P. Wilson’s stable containing two mules, a horse, and a cow landed behind the depot with the animals unhurt.

Station agent Dougherty’s house was tossed into a gully, a total wreck. The depot itself had bobbed up several feet and swirled out over the tracks a ways. Then when the water rushed off downstream, it drifted back again and settled down almost precisely where it had been before, secured by a tangle of telegraph wires and only a little out of plumb.

The coal tipple was destroyed and so was the telegraph tower. And that was about the size of it, except that there had been three other deaths.

A young man named Howard Shafer had been helping clear the jam of rubbish that had collected under a small bridge on South Fork Creek. When the water came he was unable to climb the steep bank fast enough.

The other two lost were Thomas Kehoe and Thomas Henderson, another fireman and a brakeman on Bennett’s 1165 Derry freight. They had been asleep in the caboose when Bennett and Keltz had cut the engine loose to make their dash over the bridge. The caboose along with four other freight cars was carried away.

Past South Fork the water raged along the valley of the Little Conemaugh, between sharp, wooded bluffs that sent the riverbed swerving back and forth on its way west. A straight line from South Fork to Johnstown would be nine miles, but by the river route the distance was about four miles farther.

For the first mile or so beyond South Fork the valley runs on a comparatively even line and is nearly 1,000 feet deep. There were no houses, only the railroad, which skirted along the northern banks of the river about forty feet above the normal water level.

The flood ripped the railroad to shreds, tore out ties, twisted steel rails into incredible shapes, and swallowed up whatever equipment happened to be standing along the way.

A mile down from South Fork the valley narrows abruptly. There the rough hillsides squeezed the great mass of water so that its front wall grew to perhaps seventy to seventy-five feet high. Then, a half mile farther still, the river turns sharply south, traveling nearly two miles out of its way to form an oxbow which is only a matter of yards across. It was here, at the end of the oxbow, that the water smashed into its first major obstacle, a tremendous stone viaduct which had been built more than fifty years earlier to take the old Portage Railroad across the Little Conemaugh and which was still used for the main line of the Pennsylvania.

The viaduct was one of the landmarks of the country. It stood seventy-five feet high and bridged the river gap with one single eighty-foot arch. Even the biggest locomotives looked tiny by contrast as they chugged across it on their way up the mountain. Faced with a tawny-colored local sandstone, it was, as one engineer said, “a substantial and imposing piece of masonry,” which had been built by “an honest Scotch stonemason” named John Durno from a design worked out by the same Sylvester Welsh who had picked the site for the reservoir.

The bridge had been built to save running the railroad clear around the oxbow. A cut had been made across the oxbow, a distance of less than a hundred feet, and the tracks had been run through it to the bridge. At the eastern end of the cut, where the river bends off to the south, the tracks were about twenty feet above the normal water level. But at the western end, where the tracks started over the bridge, they were seventy feet above the river. Thus the river’s big two-mile loop to the south accomplished a drop of some fifty feet in elevation, which could have been achieved in less than a hundred feet, if the water were to take the path of the railroad cut.

When the flood hit this dividing point, part of the giant wave rushed through the cut at a depth of about twenty feet and plunged down over the top of the viaduct and into the deep river gully below, sweeping with it tons of debris which piled on top of the bridge or wedged between its huge arch.

Meanwhile, the rest of the water, and by far the greater proportion of it, crashed along the longer and more tortuous course of the river bed, heaped up to a height of perhaps seventy feet by the narrow channel and gathering before it the shredded refuse of two miles’ worth of heavy timber, rock, and mud. Perhaps six or seven minutes passed before it swung around the last big bend before the bridge. When it struck, it was almost as high as the bridge itself.

The bridge held momentarily. There was an awful booming crunch as debris piled against stone and virtually sealed off the already clogged arch, and the water surged back and forth, seething with yellow foam, mounting up and up until it was nearly eighty feet high. And then it started spurting over the top of the bridge, gushing between the boulders and mangled railroad cars, the broken planks, ties, and tree stumps that had been dumped there.

Now, for a brief instant (no one knows exactly how long it lasted), Lake Conemaugh formed again some five and a half miles downstream from its original resting place. It gathered itself together, held now by another dam, which however temporary was nonetheless as high as the first one; and when this second dam let go, it did so even more suddenly and with greater violence than the first one. The bridge collapsed all at once, and the water exploded into the valley with its maximum power now concentrated again by the momentary delay.

A mile or so beyond the bridge was the white frame village of Mineral Point, consisting of some thirty houses set in a row along a single street, Front Street, which ran parallel with the river on the north side of the river. It was a pretty little place, quiet, clean, tucked at the foot of the mountainside.

The river there was quite shallow and filled with rocks. The water was quick and bright, and its steady rushing among the rocks was the first sound people heard when they woke up in the morning and the last they heard as they dropped off to sleep at night. Except for the railroad, which ran along the opposite side of the river well above the roof line of the houses, Mineral Point looked as though it might have been a thousand miles from civilization. The air smelled of the river and of sweet, fresh-cut timber at the sawmill and furniture factory, the town’s sole supporting industry, which stood at the far end of Front Street.

The people who lived in Mineral Point had names like Reighard, Page, Sensebaugh, Gromley, Byers, and Burkhart, and there were perhaps 200 of them, if you counted some of the outlying families that picked up their mail there. The houses all faced the river and had deep lots, running back to where the woods started at the base of the hill. Fruit trees and truck gardens grew wonderfully in the moist soil put down by the river over long geologic ages.

Nothing much out of the ordinary had ever happened in Mineral Point. There had been a murder there once. A woman who was new to town and lived off to herself was killed by another stranger, a miner from over in the hard-coal country named Mickey Moore. The accepted story was that he was one of the Molly Maguires and that was the reason behind the killing. He had to carry out some dark oath. But that had been several years back. Mickey Moore had disappeared and life had gone on about as it always had, except that no child liked to stay out in the woods very long after dark. “Mickey Moore will get you,” they said to each other, “sure as anything.”

Beyond the last house, past the sawmill and around another bend or two in the river, and up on the opposite bank beside the railroad, was Mineral Point tower.

“I was sitting in the tower, and all at once, I heard a roar,” W. H. Pickerell testified later. “I looked up the track, and I seen the trees and water coming. I jumped up and throwed the window up, and climbed out on a tin roof around our office and walked around on it, and I saw the driftwood coming around the curve, and the channel filling up and running over the bank, and I heard voices; I could hear somebody hollowing, but I couldn’t see them, and I walked around until the drift came down, and looked out, and perhaps one third of the distance in the river, I saw a man standing on a house roof. He looked over and seen me and recognized me.

“He says, ‘Mineral Point is all swept away, and the people swept away, and my whole family is gone.’ I says, ‘Is that so?’ and I says, ‘Do you know anything of my family?’, and he says, ‘No, I don’t; I think they were all drowned.’

“Christ Montgomery was his name, and I says, ‘Cheer up, Christ, don’t give up; as long as you’re on top, there’s hope!’

“I didn’t more than have the words out of my mouth until the drift he was riding made a straight shoot for the shore, and struck one hundred or one hundred and fifty yards west of my office where the river made a short turn, and went all to pieces; shingles flew right up in the air.

“He got out all right. He grabbed into the bushes just about the time it struck and I didn’t see anything of him for a breath, and then he crawled up out of the bushes. After I cheered him up, and told him not to give up, that there was hope for him as long as he was on top; I turned around to walk into my office on this tin roof. I didn’t have more than fifteen feet to walk, but I almost fainted when he told me my whole family was drowned. I turned right around to come in the office, and as I climbed toward the window, I looked and saw the house roof striking shore and seen him light, and saw him crawl up on his hands and knees, and saw he was saved, and when I looked above, there was a regular mountain of water coming. He was probably ahead of the main body of water a little.

“I started without coat or hat, and as it was pouring down raining at the time, I turned around to get my coat and hat, and ran with them in my hand onto the opposite side of the track onto a high bank, and when I looked up the track, the wave wasn’t more than a hundred yards off, and I beckoned for this man to get off the track. He wasn’t looking for it to come down the track, and he got out on the track ahead of it, and came pretty near getting caught the second time.”

Pickerell did not get caught at all nor, as things turned out, did any of his family, which was true of almost everyone else in Mineral Point.

The water had been coming up so fast that morning and during the early afternoon that most families had long since pulled out to higher ground by the time the flood fell on Front Street. First floors had been part way under water from about noon on, and there was no seeing the street or the riverbank. Picket fences, chicken coops, and backhouses had been drowned or had floated away as early as dinnertime.

But when the flood came, the wall of water swept through in such a way that it left almost nothing to suggest that there had ever been such a place as Mineral Point. The town was simply shaved off, right down to the bare rock.

The number of deaths came to sixteen, and quite a few people, like Christ Montgomery, went racing off on wild downstream rides astride their own rooftops. Christopher Gromley and his son traveled four miles before they were able to leap safely to shore; and three hours later, when they finally made it back to where Mineral Point had been, they found that all the other members of their family, Mrs. Gromley and six more children, were dead.

The water moved straight on down the valley, picking up a little speed wherever there were fewer turns to eat up its momentum and slowing down wherever the course began twisting again.

Estimates are that, in some places, it may have been moving as much as forty miles an hour. Theoretically, if its weight and the average decline in elevation (thirty-three feet per mile) are taken into account, it had a speed of nearly ninety miles per hour. But the friction created by the rough terrain and the rubbish it pushed before it cut that speed drastically. What is more, its over-all rate of advance was extremely fitul. The wall of debris and water came on not steadily but in an irregular series of thunderous cheks and rushes.

At times, eyewitnesses said later, the debris would even clog the path enough to bring the whole thing to a mementary standstill. All the crushed and tangled sweepings from the dam down would lock clear across the valley, seeming almost more than the millions of tons of pressure from behind could budge.

But then the whole seething mass would burst apart, with trees and telegraph poles flying into the air, as though blasted by dynamite, and the water would rush forward again, even faster. And as it moved on, the water kept on tossing logs and roots above its surface, as though the whole mass were full of life.

The friction set up by the terrain and the debris also caused the bottom of the mass of water to move much slower than the top. As a result the top was continually sliding over the bottom and down the front of the advancing wall, like a cake of ice across a slick board. The water, in other words, was rolling over itself all the time it was passing forward, and this caused a violent downward smashing, like a monstrous surf falling on a beach, that could crush almost anything in its path. A man caught under it had no chance at all. In fact, one of the major problems later on would be finding the bodies that had been pounded deep down into the mud.

Work train Number Two out of East Conemaugh was standing on the track nearest the hillside about a half mile upstream from the Conemaugh yards, at a place called Buttermilk Falls. The engineer sitting inside the rain-soaked cab was a friendly looking man with a round face and a dashing set of muttonchop whiskers. His name was John Hess.

Normally he never worked east of the yards. His division ran west from Conemaugh, as far as Sang Hollow, which was three miles below Johnstown. But today, with trouble almost everywhere along the line, help was being sent wherever it was needed.

Hess had gone to his regular engine as usual that morning and had been told to take a work crew down to Cambria City to clear a slide. His conductor was R. C. Liggett, his fireman, J. B. Plummer.

They had gotten through to Cambria City without any problems and worked there until nearly eleven, when an order came through to go clear up the valley to a landslide at Wilmore, on the far side of south Fork. At Johnstown and East Conemaugh there had been delays of twenty minutes and more, but sometime between noon and one they had started out of the yards, running east along the Little Conemaugh on the track farthest back from the water against the hillside. Less than a mile out they passed a place where a good hundred feet of track on the right had fallen off into the river. Beyond “AO” tower they came up on a flagman.

“I stopped to let him on,” Hess recalled later, “and he says, ‘You can’t go any further.’ And I asked him why, and he says, ‘The north track is in the river and I don’t believe the one you’re on is safe,’ and I says, ‘Whereabouts? and he says, ‘Right through the big cut.’ We went through the big cut to where the washout was, and seen it was badly washed, and I says to the conductor, ‘I guess we’ll have to take it afoot from here, and see where it is safe.’ The conductor is an old experienced man, and he looked at the track we were on, and he says, ‘It isn’t safe, I won’t run over that.’ It was washed up to the ends of the ties and underneath the track, and undermined it; the ballast was still sticking to the ties; the ties seemed to be holding it up. He says, ‘That isn’t safe at all,’ and we walked on up to Mineral Point, the next tower, and were going to report there but the operator told us he had no communication except with South Fork.”

The operator, W. H. Pickerell, also told them about the messages which had been coming through from South Fork concerning the dam.

The men tramped back down the tracks to “AO” tower, where they took time out to eat. When the finished, it was about two o’clock and there was another message from East Conemaugh about a slide at Buttermilk Falls.

“We came down there,” Hess said, “and found the track that we had went up on. The conductor thought at first it was unsafe, and we walked down over it and left the engine above it, and he suggested to cut couple cars off—we had seven empty flats and the cabin ahead of our engine, and he suggested to cut off a couple cars and run them over to see whether it was safe, and probably we could bring the rest over. So we sent a man with two cars down over this dangerous place, and the bank didn’t appear to slip much, and I brought the engine and rest of the train over. That left us on the Conemaugh side of this washout. I went down and the brakeman coupled up those cars that they had sent down ahead, and the conductor took the men with their shovels and went back to the slide about one hundred yards back of where we were laying.

“I don’t suppose we had laid there more than twenty minutes until we heard the flood coming. We didn’t see it but we heard the noise of it coming. It was like a hurricane through wooded country.”

Conductor Liggett heard the sound and thought he saw the tops of the trees bend on the flat upstream between the railroad and the river.

“And I says to the men, ‘We’ll get away from here,’ and I still looked, and then I was satisfied there was something coming. I couldn’t see any rubbish or drift, but I saw there was a commotion among the green timber.”

He shouted at the men to run. They dropped their tools and started down the tracks looking for a place where they could climb out of the way. But the rocks were too steep. They had to keep running, 200, 300, nearly 400 yards before they found a path.

Hess and Plummer still could see nothing, but according to Plummer, Hess said, “The lake’s broke,” and with that he put on steam, tied down the whistle, and with their gravel cars clattering along in front, they went shrieking toward East Conemaugh and the railroad yards where the two sections of the Day Express stood waiting.

The Hess ride into Conemaugh would be talked about and described in books and magazine articles for years to come, with Hess in his engine (Number 1124), blazing down the valley, the water practically on top of him, in an incredibly heroic dash to sound the alarm.

Hess himself said afterward, “I didn’t know what else to do. I didn’t see what else I could do.”

He also said that he never did see any water, never waited around that long. Moreover, Plummer estimated that their top speed as they rounded the bend into the yards was no more than twelve miles an hour, which, he said, was the best they could do considering the load they were pushing, the condition of the tracks, and the fact that they had no idea which way the waiting trains on the other side of the blind turn might have been rearranged in their absence.

It was Hess’s intention to keep right on going through the yards, clear to Johnstown, if the track was clear. But it was not. Plummer’s guess was that no more than two minutes passed after they had pulled to a stop until the flood came.

“My brother was up on the bank and saw it coming,” Plummer said. “I didn’t see it coming at all; he saw it coming though and saw where it was, and he ran down and grabbed hold of me and gouged Hess with his umbrella, and told us to run.”

With their whistle still screaming the two men jumped from the cab and started for the hillside.

A locomotive whistle was a matter of some personal importance to a railroad engineer. It was tuned and worked (even “played”) according to his own particular choosing. The whistle was part of the make-up of the man; he was known for it as much as he was known for the engine he drove. And aside from its utilitarian functions, it could also be an instrument of no little amusement. Many an engineer could get a simple tune out of his whistle, and for those less musical it could be used to aggravate a cranky preacher in the middle of his Sunday sermon or to signal hello through the night to a wife or lady friend. But there was no horseplay about tying down the cord. A locomotive whistle going without letup meant one thing on the railroad, and to everyone who lived near the railroad. It meant there was something very wrong.

The whistle of John Hess’s engine had been going now for maybe five minutes at most. It was not on long, but it was the only warning anyone was to hear, and nearly everyone in East Conemaugh heard it and understood almost instantly what it meant.

3

For the passengers on board the eastbound sections of the Day Express, the delay in East Conemaugh had been a dreary, monotonous affair. It was going on five hours now since the two trains had pulled to a stop between the river and the little town.

The first few hours had not been entirely uninteresting. A number of passengers had gone out to look things over. They went walking about in the rain, up and down the tracks, over to the depot or the telegraph tower to see if there was any word on how long they would be held there. Or they picked their way across the tracks to the riverbank where the crowds were gathered and several local men were making great sport of spearing things of interest out of the racing current. And on the other side of the tower, the township bridge looked as though it would go almost any time.

But when dinnertime had passed and there still seemed no end to the rain and any chance of moving on seemed even less likely, whatever spirit of adventure there had been faded rapidly. The passengers had nearly all returned to the trains. They passed the time as best they could in the dim afternoon light, with the sound of the pelting rain all around them.

Elizabeth Bryan of Philadelphia sat looking out the window, while beside her, her friend Jennie Paulson of Pittsburgh read a novel titled Miss Lou. The girls had been to a wedding in Pittsburgh the day before and were on their way to New York, each wearing a small corsage of roses. Another passenger, the Reverend T. H. Robinson, a professor at the Western Theological Seminary in Allegheny, was busy writing a diary of the day’s events for his wife.

Others were doing what they could to amuse their children. Some slept. One elderly gentleman, feeling slightly ill, had had his berth made up and retired for the day. Still others gathered in small clusters along the aisles to talk about the storm and the rising river, service on the Pennsylvania, the dismal prospect of the night ahead, or the possibility of getting a decent meal somewhere.

There was talk too about the dam farther up the mountain that everyone had been hearing about. But there was not much concern about it.

“The possibility of the dam giving way had been often discussed by passengers in my presence,” one man, a bank teller from New Jersey, was later quoted, “and everybody supposed that the utmost danger it would do when it broke, as everybody believed it sometime would, would be to swell a little higher the current that tore down through Conemaugh Valley. Such a possibility as the carrying away of a train of cars on the great Pennsylvania Railroad was never seriously entertained by anybody.”

Another passenger said that though many people may have been uneasy and were keeping “a pretty good lookout for information,” the porters comforted them “with the assurance that the Pennsylvania Railroad Company always took care of its patrons.”

So far whoever was directing things in the yard had chosen to move them twice. Twice they had watched the river working in on the tracks where the two trains stood, twice they had been moved forward and toward the hill, to be farther away from the river, and both times they had seen the tracks fall off into the water very soon after.

Now they were on the last sidings next to town, as far from the river as it was possible to be. The second section was on the track beside the depot and closest to town. Then came the first section, on the next track toward the river; and on the other side of it, four tracks over, was the local mail train. The Day Express engines were standing about even with the depot, with Section Two a few cars farther forward. The last cars were nearly on line with the telegraph tower, which stood on the river side of the tracks.

In the caboose of the mail train, which was nearest of the three to the tower, a fire was going in the stove and the conductors and others of the train crews were sitting about keeping warm between turns at checking in at the tower.

Messages had been coming in and going out of the tower steadily since early morning, and included those from South Fork. One operator, D. M. Montgomery, was later quoted as saying that the South Fork warning was generally well known. “But of course,” he added, “nobody paid any more attention to it than if there hadn’t been one at all. I know I didn’t for one. It seemed like a rumor and they didn’t take any belief in it.”

Charles Haak, another operator in the tower, and the one who had passed along the first message from South Fork to the yardmaster’s office downstairs, said he did not pay much attention to the warnings either.

“I was a stranger there,” Haak said. “I had only been there but eight months, and of course, I listened to other people around there, residents there, and there was talk about the dam breaking, and they said there had been rumors but it never came, and so I thought that was how it would be this time.”

As for the decisions on which trains to put where, they were being made by J. C. Walkinshaw, the yardmaster, who had been on duty since six that morning.

Walkinshaw was forty-nine years old, a widower with five children. He had worked for the Pennsylvania since he was seventeen and had been in charge of the East Conemaugh yards for twenty-three years. In a book of short biographical sketches of long-time company employees published later by the railroad, Walkinshaw peers out of a small photograph with wide eyes framed by white hair and whiskers, looking rather astonished and not especially bright. Robert Pitcairn later said that though Walkinshaw suffered from consumption, and so was “not very efficient” as yardmaster and “not very able to stand the physical strain,” he, Pitcairn, nonetheless considered him amply qualified to look after the company’s interest.

With circumstances as they were, Walkinshaw was left with little choice on what to do with the trains. He could not send them to the east, up the valley, because of the washouts at Buttermilk Falls and farther on. Nor could he send them back down the line toward Johnstown, as there were now reports of washouts in that direction as well.

About all he could do was to keep moving them back from the river, which is what he did. But once he had them on the northernmost siding, he concluded that he had taken “every reasonable precaution” under the circumstances.

One other very possible choice, of course, was to move the passengers out of the trains to higher ground. But to ask that many people to go out into the cold wind and rain, into the muddy little town where there might well be problems finding enough shelter for everyone, seemed more than Walkinshaw was willing to do, even though he had full knowledge of the trouble at Lake Conemaugh and was heard by at least one witness to say that if the dam ever broke it would “sweep the valley.”

Walkinshaw had been out several times, checking equipment, giving orders, looking at the river. From two o’clock to three there seemed to be no change in the water level. Apparently the worst was over. But then about 3:15 the bridge below the telegraph tower went, causing a great stir among the crowd. Hour by hour the current had eaten away at its foundations, until they let go and the whole thing just dropped down into the water. Sometime shortly after, Walkinshaw went into his office where his son handed him another message about the dam. Then, about a quarter to four, Walkinshaw decided to take a brief rest.

“I sat down and wasn’t in the chair more than a minute until I heard a whistle blow,” he recalled later.

“I jumped off my chair, and ran out and hollowed for every person to go away off the road and get on high ground, and I started up the track.

“Just as I left the office, I saw the rear end of this work train backing around the curve. I started up toward the train, and the minute I saw the train stop, I saw the engineer jump off and run for the hill. Just that minute, I saw a large wave come around the hill.”

Inside the trains there was considerable commotion when the whistle started blasting. People stood up and began asking what the trouble was. Two Negro porters came through, both looking very excited and when asked if this meant that the dam had broken, the first one said he did not know, and the second said he thought it had. Outside, a conductor ran along between the trains shouting, “Get to the hill! Get to the hill!”

The Reverend Robinson said that no one knew what was going on, but that he remembered telling a woman next to him that he thought there was no danger. Then he looked out of the window and saw the wave coming. It appeared to be about 300 yards away, but there was no water to be seen. As one man said, it looked more like a hill of rubbish than anything else. Some people said it looked to be fifty feet high and it was taking everything in front of it. Everyone started for the door.

On Section One, the train standing between the mail train and Section Two, nearly every passenger got through the doors as fast as possible, but several of them, seeing the mud and rain, turned back. Jennie Paulson and her friend Elizabeth Bryan decided to go back for their overshoes. An old minister from Kalamazoo, Michigan, and his wife saw the flood bearing down and returned to their seats inside. But most people jumped and ran.

“It was every man for himself and God for us all,” a New Haven, Connecticut, man named Wilmot said later.

Once they had clambered out into the rain, the passengers from Section One were faced with an immediate problem. On the next track, directly between them and high ground, stood Section Two.

“I saw three ways before me,” the Reverend Robinson wrote afterward, “climb over section No. 2 or crawl under it, or run down the track with the flood four car lengths and around the train. I instantly chose the latter. No one else followed me so far as I saw, but all attempted the other courses.”

Robinson made it safely around the train, but between him and the town and the streets which climbed to high ground was a ditch running parallel with the last track. It was about ten feet wide and perhaps five feet deep and rushing with water the color of heavily creamed coffee. Fortunately for him, Robinson arrived at the ditch at a place where a big plank had been laid across it. He was over in seconds and on his way up a steep, mud-slick embankment toward the town.

But others hesitated at the ditch, or leaped, or fell in and floundered about desperately, panicked. A number of men stopped, then moved back several steps, got a start, and jumped across. George Graham, a doctor from Port Royal, Pennsylvania, made it over this way; then, feeling that he still had time to spare, turned back to see if he could help some of the others.

“Just to my left, into the ditch, armpit deep, I saw nine women and girls tumble. I instantly grabbed the hand of the first and quickly pulled her out; the meanwhile all the others reached for me at once. I succeeded in saving them all except one old lady.” Wilmot, the New Haven man, also cleared the ditch, carrying his child in his arms. When he looked back to find out what had become of his wife, he saw her hesitating on the other side, while a man beside her shouted, “Jump, jump!” She jumped and made it, and they ran on.

Cyrus Schick, a prominent Reading businessman who, with his wife and her sister, had been on his way home from a long health tour in the west, fell headlong into the ditch, as did his sister-in-law, Eliza Stinson. Schick’s wife saw him bob up out of the water but then lost sight of him in all the confusion. His body and that of Miss Stinson were not found for ten days.

On the other side of the ditch the streets were full of running, shouting people. One local girl, a pretty young schoolteacher named Kate Giffen, who lived with her family on Front Street, would later describe racing to her house to pick up a child and seeing the woman who lived next door standing out on her porch screaming. She was the wife of John Hess, and she was screaming that the locomotive whistle still blasting away in the yards below was her husband’s.

The Reverend Robinson found himself all alone, pressing up a back alley.

“I ran to the second street, and, hoping I might be safe, I turned and looked. The houses were floating away behind me, and the flood was getting round above me. I ran on to the third street and turned again; the water was close behind me, houses were toppling over, and the torrent again pushing round as if to head me off.”

He kept on running, and when he turned again, he was high enough to see most of the town and the river valley. He watched a railroad car break loose and bound off in the plunging water, with two men on top trying desperately to keep their balance, moving first to one side then to another, as they headed toward Johnstown. How many passengers there might have been inside he could not tell. Everywhere people were rushing this way and that, some ducking inside doorways, some going for higher ground, stumbling and falling in the muddy streets. As the wave hit Front Street, buildings began falling, one on top of another; some seemed to bounce and roll before they were swept downstream. Locomotives from the roundhouse went swirling about like logs in a millrace.

The big, brick roundhouse had some nine engines in it when the flood struck. There were also another nineteen or twenty engines elsewhere in the yards, machine shops, a lot of rolling stock, a coal shed, and the three passenger trains. When the wave struck, it was probably about twenty-eight to thirty feet high, though, understandably, it looked a great deal higher to anyone caught in its path. The roundhouse was crushed, as one onlooker said, “like a toy in the hands of a giant.” The passenger trains were swamped in an instant. Section One was ripped apart and the baggage car and one coach were flung downstream and its Pullman coach caught fire. Yard engines went spinning off, one after another.

Section Two and the mail train both miraculously survived. Section Two had been standing on an embankment five to six feet high, which certainly had something to do with its good fortune. There were also some freight cars in front of it and a coal shed that toppled across the tracks and helped deflect some of the onrush. But it was the roundhouse which almost certainly did most of the deflecting, and the fact that the valley both curves sharply and broadens out at that particular point along the river undoubtedly contributed to the inconsistent behavior of the oncoming wave.

The destruction all around the trains was fearful. Forty houses along Front Street were taken away. The Eagle Hotel, the Central Hotel, the post office, the railroad station, several stores, at least half the town was destroyed. The only railroad track left was that under Section Two, the mail train, and a few other pieces of equipment that, for one quirk of fate or another, happened to survive.

Thirty locomotives, some weighing as much as eighty tons, were scattered anywhere from a hundred yards to a mile from where they had been standing. One locomotive boiler would be carried all the way to Johnstown. How many lives were lost was never determined exactly. But at least twenty-two passengers from the Day Express sections were killed, including Cyrus Shick and his sister-in-law, Jennie Paulson and Elizabeth Bryan, the minister’s wife from Kalamazoo, and F. Phillips, one of the Negro porters.

In East Conemaugh and Franklin, which was the name of the cluster of houses across the river from the yards, the known death toll came to twenty-eight.

But when the flood had passed, the engine and tender and six cars of the second section were almost at the exact same place they had been since before noon. They had been shoved along the track some, maybe twenty yards downstream. There was debris jammed in around them; but the sixteen people inside, who out of fear or indecision or dumb luck had stayed on board, were as safe and sound as though virtually nothing had happened. The water had come up over the seats in several cars and the passengers were soaked to the skin and badly shaken by the experience, but the only fatalities from their cars were among those who had tried to make a run for it.

One such passenger was John Ross of New Jersey, who, it was said later, was about thirty-three years old and a cripple. He had been traveling in one of the sleepers of Section Two, a car in which no one had chosen to hang back. Ross struggled out with the rest and was having a terribly difficult time until one of the train crew, a brakeman named J. G. Miller, came running along, picked him up, and managed to carry Ross some fifty yards or more before he dropped him.

“I had to drop him,” Miller said later, “to save myself. I saw it was either life or death with me, and I dropped him, and went for the hill.”

The mail train, which had been standing on an even lower track and within no more than a hundred yards from the river, was also still intact, though it too had been shoved downstream quite a way. Like Section Two, the mail train had been partly sheltered by the roundhouse, but what seems to have saved it was the telegraph tower which fell right onto the engine just as it was being pushed past underneath, and pinned it down there until the water had passed. But unlike any of the other trains, there were no fatalities among its passengers. Everyone got off and onto the hill in time, thanks to the good sense of the crew and, perhaps in part, to the particular nature of the passengers themselves.

Like all the others milling about the yards that morning, the eighteen or so passengers on board the mail train had heard mixed reports about the dam. They were told that if it ever broke it would drown the valley, and they were told that it would raise the level of the river maybe a foot or two. They were told it would take the water one hour to get from the lake to East Conemaugh, and they were told that it would take three hours. But mostly they were told that the dam was an old chestnut and not to think any more of it.

But their conductor, Charles Warthen, decided to tell them everything he knew, which was not a whole lot more, but he at least made it sound serious. He also told them to get ready to move out at the slightest notice, which was something neither of the conductors of the other trains had chosen to do.

The trainmen had been sitting in the last car of the mail train, talking about the situation, but for some reason or other, S. E. Bell, who was conductor on Section One, and Levi Easton, conductor on Section Two, made no effort to warn their passengers. The likeliest explanation seems to be that they, like so many others, had no real fear of anything happening.

All but one or two of Warthen’s passengers were from the Night Off company. When they were told what might be expected of them, they quietly went to work rounding up their belongings, and the women began pinning up their skirts.

About two o’clock C. J. McGuigan, brakeman on the mail train, had gone to the tower to ask if there was any further news, and the operator (which one it was he did not recall) said, “Nothing, only another message that the dam is in a very dangerous condition.” Not knowing anything about the dam, McGuigan asked him what the consequences might be if the dam broke.

“He kind of smiled,” McGuigan told the story later, “and said, ‘It would cover this whole valley from hill to hill with water.’ I got kind of frightened myself then, and I came right down, and told the passengers the second time to be on the lookout…. The ladies got frightened, and one of them wanted to know if they should not better go to the hills now, but the manager of the troupe said ‘No, there is no danger yet’…seemed to be ready for it…I think they were very sensible people.”

McGuigan then went back to the last car to the other crewmen. When the whistle began blowing, he ran to the passenger coach, shouting that the flood was coming, while conductors Bell and Easton took off for their trains, shouting the same thing.

“The women were sitting down, and the men were standing up, and they all had their grips and valises in their hands, and the men ran to the upper end of the car, and the ladies to the west end where I was.

“I assisted them out, and got up and looked through the train, and I couldn’t see anybody on the train, and then I ran with two of the ladies, caught hold of their hands, and ran until we came to the ditch…and Miss Eberly, she refused to go into the ditch, and I threw her into it, and jumped down and assisted her up on the other side, and ran up the hill.”

No one was lost, not even the baggagemaster, J. W. Grove, who decided to jump onto one of the yard engines standing about instead of trying for the hill. Every other loose engine in East Conemaugh was dumped over, driven into the hillside, or swept off with the flood, except the one he picked.

Brakeman McGuigan went about for some time after carrying a picture of Miss Eberly, who was the pretty, young star of the company and actually Mrs. Eberly. She in turn was quoted widely when she returned to New York and described the bravery of the trainmen.

Later the Pennsylvania Railroad, in an effort to establish exactly what had happened at East Conemaugh, conducted its own investigation, which would provide the one full account of the whereabouts of several dozen employees, the official decisions made before the water struck, and the personal decisions made when it was seen rounding the bend behind the Hess train. The study revealed several cases such as that of brakeman McGuigan, but it included many more where the reaction had been a good deal less coolheaded and quite a lot more human.

Samuel S. Miller, for example, was also a brakeman, on the first section of the Day Express, the one on which most of the fatalities occurred. Part of his testimony went as follows:

Q. Where were you when the big wave came?

A. I was partly up on the hill.

Q. What were you doing up there?

A. Well, I was told that it was coming, and I got up on the hill for my own safety. I had gone to the Agent at Conemaugh, he was in the office at Conemaugh station—

Q. Who is he?

A. E. R. Stewart—and I borrowed the key from him for the water closet at the station, and I went in the water closet, and I think I was reading a Commercial-Gazette at the time when I heard the big whistle, and not knowing of any freight moving, I first thought probably it might be a freight engine that was to assist first Day Express up the mountain; I thought maybe they were alarming the passengers to get on the train and wondered why it wasn’t a passenger engine whistle. The next thought that came to me was that South Fork dam had broken. I made a hasty exit, and when I got outside, a young fellow came along and said that was what was wrong. He seemed to be in a great hurry, and I asked him if South Fork dam had broken, and he replied, “Yes, so people say,” and it seems to me, I told him to run, and I ran too.

Q. You broke for the hill?

A. Yes, sir, I broke for the hill.

Q. You didn’t go to your train?

A. No, sir; I got up on the hill probably 110 yards from the station, and looked back, and could see that the water had come. I could see that the water was between the houses at that time. I concluded I wasn’t high enough, and I went up onto still higher ground.

Q. You didn’t climb a tree?

A. No, sir.

Q. Why didn’t you go to your train and help get your passengers out?

A. Well, for my own safety. From the descriptions I had heard, I concluded I had better be on the hill.

Q. You might have gone to your train if you had tried?

A. I could have, but the question was whether I could then have gone to the hill or not.

Q. You believed your life was in danger, did you?

A. Yes, sir.

Now several hundred freight cars, a dozen or more locomotives, passenger cars, nearly a hundred more houses, and quite a few human corpses were part of the tidal wave that surged on down the valley.

Before it had plowed through East Conemaugh, the water had cut along the valley below Mineral Point, crashing back and forth against the mountainsides as the river channel swung this way and that. A mile or so above East Conemaugh, at the place the railroad men called “the big cut,” the Pennsylvania tracks again left the riverbank to take a short cut across another oxbow. Here again the flood had divided briefly, with part of it rushing headlong through the cut, while the rest went with the river on its two-mile loop off to the north. It was a course which sapped much of the wave’s potential speed and energy. But from East Conemaugh on to Johnstown the valley opened up considerably and the river headed directly for its meeting with the Stony Creek. Past East Conemaugh the flood was on a straightaway, and there it began to gather speed.

Woodvale got it next. Woodvale was somewhat bigger than East Conemaugh, prosperous, new, and the pride of the Cambria Iron Company. It was a sort of model town, built by the company, and with its clean white houses it looked, as one man said, more like a New England town. It was connected to Johnstown by a streetcar line that ran along its main thoroughfare, Maple Avenue, which was far and away the prettiest street in the valley. Maple Avenue was nearly a mile long and looked like a green tunnel that May. The trees reached over the tracks where the little yellow streetcars rattled by, their horses heading for the stable. When the flood had passed, there would be no trace of Maple Avenue.

About 1,000 people lived in Woodvale. There was a woolen mill, built by Cambria Iron, which employed several hundred women. There was the Rosensteel tannery, two schoolhouses, some churches, and no saloons (they evidently were contrary to the Iron Company’s idea of a model town).

Unlike East Conemaugh, Woodvale got no warning. It was all over in about five minutes. The only building left standing was the woolen mill, and there was only part of that. At the western end of the town, the end almost touching Johnstown, stood the Gautier works, part of it in Woodvale, part in Conemaugh borough. The huge works sent up a terrific geyser of steam when the water hit its boilers, and then the whole of it seemed simply to lift up and slide off with the water. The tannery went and so did the streetcar shed, along with eighty-nine horses and about thirty tons of hay. When the water had passed, the town was nothing but a mud flat strewn with bits of wreckage. There was only a tiny fringe of houses left along the edges, on the foothills. There was not a tree, not a telegraph pole, not a sign of where the railroad had been. Two hundred and fifty-five houses had been taken off, and there was no way of telling where they had been.

The official figure for Woodvale’s dead would later be set at 314, which means that about one out of every three people in town had been killed.

A number of people had tried to crawl under a freight train that was blocking their way to the hill and had been crushed when the water hit the train and it started moving. Dozens of others had never made it out of their houses. At the woolen mill three men had kept retreating to different rooms and higher floors as the big brick building caved in piece by piece, all around them, until there was only that small part which miraculously withstood everything that was thrown against it.

When the wireworks broke up it contributed miles and miles of barbed wire to the mountain of wreckage and water that, once past the wireworks, had only a few hundred yards to go until it struck Johnstown.

It was now not quite an hour since the dam had given way. The rain was still coming down, but not so hard as before, and the sky overhead was noticeably brighter.

In Johnstown the water in the streets seemed actually to be going down some. It had been a long, tiresome day in Johnstown, and the prospects for a night without gas or electricity were not especially cheerful, but by the looks of the water and the sky, the worst of it had passed.

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