Modern history

A message from Mr. Pitcairn

Mr. Robert Pitcairn’s private car had been attached to eastbound passenger train Number 18 shortly before noon that morning and rolled out of Pittsburgh’s Union Station about an hour later. Mr. Pitcairn was on his way to Lilly to see how serious the storm damage was there, and to look things over at Johnstown and South Fork on the way.

Messages about trouble along the line had been coming in to his office since early morning, including one about the dam. Pitcairn had read it and thought little more of it. First of all, he could not quite understand how Colonel Unger could be sending such warnings, since he knew perfectly well that Colonel Unger had no telegraph wire at the club and that the telephone line was not open yet. And secondly, as he would say later, he simply “paid little attention to any reports about the South Fork dam, as they had been made perhaps nearly every year.”

When later messages came in from South Fork, from agent Dougherty and Pitcairn’s old friend J. P. Wilson, Pitcairn was already on his way east.

Pitcairn’s knowledge of the dam went back more than thirty years, to the time when the Pennsylvania had first bought it. His old boyhood friend Andy Carnegie had gotten him a job on the railroad, as a ticket agent at Cresson, not long before that. He and Carnegie had been telegraph operators together in Pittsburgh; then they went with the Pennsylvania. Later on, when Andy quit his job as head of the Pittsburgh Division to go into business for himself, Pitcairn had been named to replace him.

But his first real interest in the dam began when it broke in 1862 and wrecked a lot of railroad property in South Fork. Then nearly twenty years later, when the South Fork club finished its restoration and there was talk in the valley about leaks at the base of the dam, Pitcairn had gone up to see for himself, taking along several of his own people from South Fork. They had given the dam what he felt was a thorough enough going-over. Benjamin Ruff had walked with them, saying that what everyone called leaks were actually springs that came from near the ends of the dam. Ruff also promised that he would strengthen things some, and then they all shook hands and went home.

“The only point we were afraid of,” Pitcairn said later, “was the leaks at the bottom of the dam increasing.” And he was evidently afraid (or cautious) enough to ask Wilson and others in the area to keep an eye out for him. Whether his subsequent membership in the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club was, even in part, his way of keeping his own eye out, is not known. Though it seems highly doubtful, since, unlike Daniel J. Morrell, he had every sort of social and business reason for wishing to be there.

Now his train headed out of Pittsburgh along the muddy Monongahela, past the towering black Edgar Thomson works at Braddock, where the British general by the same name had suffered his famous defeat; then on through one little town after another, East McKeesport, Irwin, Jeannette, Greensburg, and out into open hill country. He had been over the route maybe a thousand times during his years with the railroad. He knew every bend, bridge, siding, every water tower, coal tipple, every depot, every barn and farmhouse along the horizon. He could not claim to know all the men, that would be impossible, but he knew the good part of them, and certainly every last one of them knew him. He was their supreme commander. His word was law from Altoona to Pittsburgh, and the portly frame, the bullet head, the pince-nez glasses and walrus mustache were far better-known among them than the rather inconspicuous features of the man who was then President of the United States. And if it were a question as to which one wielded the most authority, there would have been some debate.

Men who had been with the Pennsylvania for a dozen years or more still talked about Pitcairn during the “Great Strike” of ’77. A lot of them felt that he had been the chief cause for what happened in Pittsburgh. The strike had begun on the B & O in Baltimore and had been spreading fast. Times were hard, and wages had been cut. But Pitcairn had chosen that particular moment to institute new practices on the division which would have meant increased work loads and even more layoffs. “The men were always complaining about something,” he would say later. When it was all over, a pitched battle had been fought between militia and a mob of strikers and unemployed, a good part of downtown Pittsburgh had been burned to the ground, and fifty-seven people had been killed. The men had gone back to work, having gained nothing. And Robert Pitcairn’s hold on them was stronger than ever.

He liked to say that the railroads (by which he really meant his railroad) were “the heart, blood, veins, and arteries of Pittsburgh,” which, of course, put him in a most important position indeed.

Pitcairn was in his mid-fifties. He was an elder of the fashionable new Shady Side Presbyterian Church and a man of considerable financial means. For aside from his earnings on the railroad, he had also managed to put together a good-sized fortune on the side, largely by backing his inventive friend George Westinghouse. Slabtown and the squalid back streets where he and Carnegie and Phipps had grown up were far, far behind him now.

Sitting in the upholstered splendor of his private car, he looked appropriately substantial, and quite tired. He had been up late the night before at the telegraph instrument in his home making inquiries about the weather between Pittsburgh and Altoona. Then he had gone off to town earlier than usual that morning, and with the news of the storm growing worse every hour, it had been a difficult day ever since. But now, watching the landscape sweep past his window, he began to realize just how serious things were.

The rain was coming down in wild, silvery sheets. The whole countryside was awash. Hillsides were mortally veined with angry little creeks. Fields were covered with water that looked to be a foot deep or more. At Latrobe, at the foot of Chestnut Ridge, the Loyalhanna was twice its normal size and well over its banks. Ten miles farther, he saw the Conemaugh for the first time and knew he was up against something unlike anything he had ever experienced. His train was moving very slowly by this time, following the course of the river where it cut through the ridge. On the other side of the ridge, at the village of Bolivar, people were out along the riverbanks watching the torrent rush by. At New Florence the water had spilled through the lowlands, flooding miles of woods and meadows. Pitcairn thought he could actually see the water rising, it was coming up so fast.

After New Florence the train pulled through little Nineveh, where men and boys in gum coats, their collars turned up against the biting wind, their hats dripping with rain, stood beside the track watching the cars clack by.

Then the train started into the breath-takingly beautiful Conemaugh Gap, or Packsaddle, the one pass through Laurel Hill to Johnstown. The railroad ran well above the river here, even with the river in its present condition, but above the tracks the mountainside loomed up another 1,500 feet.

Several miles farther on in the gorge, at a place called Sang Hollow, about four miles from Johnstown, they stopped. The time by now was about five after four.

Pitcairn climbed down from his car and went up to the tower to find out what the trouble was. The operator told him the lines east had gone dead; they tried again several times to get Johnstown, but it was no use. The operator said he could not let them through without clearance, which, according to the rules, was exactly what he was meant to say, even to Pitcairn.

“I was about making up my mind to proceed cautiously, running carefully, to find the trouble,” Pitcairn said later, “when looking east, I saw some debris. The water before this had been muddy, but very little drift. The debris attracted my attention from its singular appearance, being broken up wood entirely, and in very small pieces. In a short time, the telegraph poles commenced to break down, and threatened to take the tower down with it.”

Then they saw a man coming down the river on some debris, moving very fast. Pitcairn thought the water must have been going by at about fifteen miles an hour. They saw more people coming, hanging on to telegraph poles or what appeared to be parts of buildings or just being swept along and trying desperately and futilely to swim. Pitcairn and the others rushed out to do what they could to save them, but the river carried them off and out of sight.

“I returned to the telegraph office to see what word I could get, when the people came down by the scores; the water rising very rapidly, and men, women, and children on the drift, and we perfectly helpless.”

By this time most of the male passengers on board the train were out on the riverbanks doing everything possible to help. They got hold of long poles and big limbs and held them out over the current as far as they could, hoping maybe the people going by could reach them. They threw ropes, and at one point, one of them actually stripped off his coat and jumped into the water to save a mother and her small child.

He was a rugged, seventeen-year-old Pittsburgh boy named Bill Heppenstall, who was on his way back to school at Bellefonte, Pennsylvania, after being home ill. A small house had lodged momentarily in some overhanging trees. The men heard a baby crying, but the house was too far out to reach. Heppenstall decided he would go in and get the child. The others tried to talk him out of it, but he got the bell cord out of one of the cars, tied it around him, and swam out to the house. In no time he was back with the child. There were great cheers from the crowd. But he then told them the mother was still back there and started into the water again, this time taking a railroad tie along with him to help hold her up. Just as he got her to shore the house tore loose from the trees and went spinning off downstream.

By the time it began getting dark, the operator at Sang Hollow had counted 119 people going by, dead and alive. Despite everything they had tried, the men on the riverbank had been able to rescue only seven.

About six o’clock Pitcairn ordered the train back down to New Florence. The water was still high, but it did not seem to be getting any higher. He had decided to take the passengers back to Pittsburgh, giving them the option to stop off at New Florence if there were any accommodations to be had.

But before leaving, Pitcairn got off a message to Pittsburgh. It was directed to the editors of the morning papers, and its exact wording remains unclear. But sometime between five thirty and six the news was out and on the wire. A dam had failed at South Fork and caused a disastrous flood at Johnstown. By then Pitcairn had faced up to the awful realization of what had gone wrong.

His train rolled ever so slowly back through the gorge, reaching New Florence by perhaps six thirty. The first thing he did there was to write out a still longer and more detailed message, which he then put aside, in the hope that some further word might come in from Johnstown itself. So for the next several hours they sat and waited. The rain hammered down outside; men kept coming in and out talking of more bodies found or the few half-drowned souls they had been able to drag ashore.

The village sat well back from the river, on high, dry ground. Only a few houses near the river were under water, and few citizens were suffering any serious discomforts. As a result the streets were filled with people going to and from the river, standing in doorways, talking to passengers from Pitcairn’s train, or gathered in groups looking at the dull, red glow in the sky to the east.

About ten o’clock Pitcairn received word from Johnstown by way of Sang Hollow. One of his men in Johnstown, a W. N. Hays, had managed to get from Johnstown to Sang Hollow on foot. Apparently he had been on the hillside above the west end of the bridge and was able to make his way down the tracks above the rampaging river. Once he reached Sang Hollow, the message was put on the wire to New Florence.

Pitcairn was told how things were at Johnstown, and he then sent a second message to Pittsburgh, which would be quoted in the papers there at some length. He reported the number of bodies that had been counted going by at Sang Hollow. He said there was no way clear to Johnstown, but that his information was that the city was “literally wiped out.” He said that the debris at the stone bridge was reported to be forty feet high and that it was burning.

Then he said, “I fear there will be terrible suffering among those saved which should be relieved as soon as possible. In the interest of humanity I think a public meeting should be called early tomorrow to send food, clothing, etc. to those poor people which we will be glad to forward to Johnstown…as soon as we can get a clear track there.”

This message, like the one before it, went right on the wire. Before midnight the story was across the country:

Pittsburgh, Penn. May 31—A rumor, loaded with horror, holds this city in dreadful expectancy tonight. It is said that the bursting of a reservoir, just above Johnstown, a flourishing place in Cambria County, had flooded the town and swept at least 200 of her citizens to death. The news is of a very uncertain character, there being no communication with the district were the flood is reported to have occurred, all the wires being down…There is no way to get to the scene of the disaster and full particulars are not expected tonight.

But the fact was that the rush to Johnstown had already begun hours before. Two trains had been chartered by five Pittsburgh newspapers, and the first of them, the one with the Dispatch and Times men on board, started out from Union Station a few minutes after seven. The second, chartered by the Post, the Commercial-Gazette, and the Chronicle-Telegraph, followed almost immediately after. In New York, Philadelphia, Boston, in Chicago, Cleveland, and St. Louis, reporters picked up their hats and coats and went directly to the nearest depot, taking no time to pack or anything else. Some of them were still in evening clothes after a night at the theater.

The trains from Pittsburgh got no farther than Bolivar, where the men piled out into the rain and moved among the crowds gathered at the station and along the dark edge of the river. They picked up stories of the bodies and wreckage that had been washing past, about the few rescues that had been made, and the horrid things people had seen happen.

Not long before dark a man and two women had been seen rounding the bend upstream. They were on a raft of some sort, a barn roof most people thought it was, and they were coming on fast, the women down on their knees, the man with his arms around them and looking about for something to grab on to. That had been before the bridges went, and the men on the bridges had been hanging ropes down for the people in the river to get hold of. When the raft shot by under the first bridge, the man reached out for the rope but missed. Then he and the two women were heading for the second bridge, and everyone along the shore line was rooting for them as they watched him telling the women to try for the next rope. As they came under the second bridge, he made a lunge for the rope, got it, and was jerked violently off balance; but seeing that the women had missed, he let go and fell, back down on the raft again. The current then swept them toward the bank, where he was able to catch hold of a tree. With an immense effort he managed to pull the two women into the tree with him, but at almost the same instant a large section of the bridge upstream let go with a sudden crash. It came careening down the river, smashed into the tree, carried it away, and drowned the man and the two women.

Everyone in Bolivar had seen the whole thing and they wanted to tell exactly how it happened. Some people in the crowd said they knew the man and said his name was Young. Others said they thought the women looked like mother and daughter, and that they could be heard praying as they went by. The newspapermen wrote it all down, asking questions, taking names.

It was too dark to see much by the river, but the rush of the water could still be heard plain enough, and tiny, dim specks of light could be seen moving through the trees along the shore where men with lanterns were still watching for possible signs of life.

Johnstown was still twenty miles away. Among the newspapermen there was talk about what to do next. The tracks from Bolivar on were under water and not safe enough to take the train any farther. Most of the men decided to push on in the direction of New Florence, some by foot and some in wagons. The ride up from Pittsburgh had taken quite a long while, with conditions what they were. It was ten thirty when they had pulled into Bolivar. By the time they had slogged through the rain and dark to New Florence, it was getting on toward three in the morning.

Mud-spattered, dead-tired, cold, wringing-wet, they moved into whatever dry space there was left in the little town and began interviewing everyone who was willing to talk, which was just about everyone. Several of them got hold of wires to Pittsburgh and started filing their stories.

At that point about all they could say was that every sign was that “hundreds if not thousands” of people had been killed in “an appalling catastrophe.” They reported rumors of panic-stricken people fleeing through the woods from the scene of the disaster and of the number of people who had been seen going by in the river at New Florence (counts varied, but eighty-five seems about average). And they sent back what information they could pick up concerning the dam, a good deal of which was inaccurate. Several reporters had the dam 110 feet high and the lake as much as eight miles long and three miles wide. But they did have the name of the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club by then, reported it accurately, and added that the Pennsylvania Railroad’s engineers had inspected the dam once a month, which suggests that Pitcairn was also, by then, doing some talking himself. “Investigations showed that nothing less than some convulsion of nature would tear the the barrier away and loosen the weapon of death,” one reporter put on the wire.

About four o’clock there was great excitement when a man from Johnstown, a carpenter named McCartney, and his wife came staggering out of the night. He said they had left Johnstown right after the flood struck and had been walking ever since. He told them there was hardly a building left standing in Johnstown, and, in general, substantiated the wildest of the rumors that had been circulating since the night began.

Sometime soon after four Pitcairn decided that there was no use staying in New Florence any longer. He boarded his private car, and with the passengers back on board again, his train started for Pittsburgh. It was also about the same time that several of the newspapermen decided that if the McCartneys could make it across the mountain on foot, they could too, and they set off through the woods. With luck, they figured, they could be on the hill above the city by daybreak.

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