The hard, cold rain that had started coming down the night before had eased off considerably by the morning of Friday, May 31. But a thick mist hung in the valley like brushwood smoke and overhead the sky was very dark.
Even before night had ended there had been signs of trouble. At five o’clock a landslide had caved in the stable at Kress’s brewery, and anyone who was awake then could hear the rivers. By six everyone who was up and about knew that Johnstown was in for a bad time. The rivers were rising at better than a foot an hour. They were a threatening yellow-brown color and already full of logs and big pieces of lumber that went bounding along as though competing in some sort of frantic race.
When the seven o’clock shift arrived at the Cambria mills, the men were soon told to go home and look after their families. By ten there was water in most cellars in the lower part of town. School had been let out, and children were splashing about in the streets with wooden boxes, boards, anything that would make a boat.
One of the most distinguished residents of the lower part of town was the Honorable W. Horace Rose, Esquire, former cavalry officer, former state legislator, former district attorney of Cambria County, a founder of Johnstown’s Literary Society, father of five, respected and successful attorney at law. Rose was a Democrat with a large following among Republicans as well as his own party, and including those Republicans who ran the town and Cambria Iron. He was an expert horseman, slender, erect, and full-bearded, with strong blue eyes and a soft voice which he seldom ever raised.
He had been born in a log house that had stood at the corner of Vine and Market. At thirteen he had been orphaned when both parents died of cholera within the same hour and had been on his own ever since, first as a bound boy in a tannery, later as a carpenter. When he was nineteen, John Linton, Johnstown’s leading lawyer, took him into his office to “read law.” Not long after he opened his own office, which he built himself, and got married to Maggie Ramsey of Johnstown. Then came the war, during which he was wounded, captured, and released in time to take part in General Sheridan’s Shenandoah Valley campaign.
The house Horace Rose and his family lived in was downtown, on lower Main Street. He had witnessed nearly every one of Johnstown’s floods over the years, and when he heard that the rivers this particular morning were both coming up rapidly at the same time, something they had not done before, he decided to go out after breakfast and see how things were going.
By the time he and his two youngest sons, Forest and Percy, had finished hitching the team, there was water on the stable floor. Rose took care to use his second-best harness and had one of the boys drive their cow to the hillside, expecting to bring her back down again in a few hours, when the water subsided. Then they climbed into an open wagon and headed down Main, with Rose driving.
His intention was to pick up anyone toward the river who wished to be evacuated. But by now, which was somewhere near nine, the water that far downtown was too deep to get through safely. So he wheeled around and headed back up Main, going as far as Bedford, where he paused to pass the time with his old friend Charles Zimmerman, the livery-stable owner. For a few moments they watched another cow being led to higher ground.
“Charlie,” Rose said, “you and I have scored fifty years, and this is the first time we ever saw a cow drink Stony Creek river water on Main Street.”
“That’s so,” Zimmerman agreed. “But the water two years ago was higher.”
About then the rain started coming down again as hard as it had during the night, heavy and wind-driven. Rose stopped off long enough to buy his sons rubber raincoats, then proceeded over to the end of Franklin to his office, which was less than a hundred feet from the roaring Stony Creek. For another half-hour he and the boys set about placing his papers and other things well above the flood line of 1887, which was about a foot from the floor. Then they started for home, stopping once more on the way to talk to another old friend, John Dibert, the banker, who was also their next-door neighbor.
The situation for property holders in the lower part of town was growing serious, Rose and Dibert agreed. This business of flooded cellars every spring had to be corrected. The solution, as they saw it, was to call a meeting to protest the way the Cambria Iron Company had been filling in the riverbanks next to the mills below town. They recalled that town ordinances had fixed the width of the Stony Creek at 175 feet and the Little Conemaugh at 110 feet. This meant that the combined width of the two was 285 feet; but the Conemaugh, which had to carry all the water from both of them, was now less than 200 feet wide near the mills. Obviously, the rivers were bound to back up when flash floods hit, and obviously the Cambria Iron Company would have to restore the riverbed to its original width. With that settled, the two friends parted.
Rose went directly home, where he found the water now so deep that he was unable to get near his front door. He sent young Forest with the team to a nearby hillside while he and Percy assembled a makeshift raft and floated over to the back porch. Once inside, like nearly everyone else in town, they busied themselves taking up carpets and furniture. Rose also “marked with sadness” that the slowly rising water “with its muddy freight” had already ruined his new wallpaper.
Then everyone moved upstairs where the morning took on the air of a family picnic. Forest had been unable to get back to the house after leaving the horses but had signaled from a window across the street that he was high and dry with the Fishers.
Horace Rose called back and forth to Squire Fisher and joked about their troubles while his wife and the others got a fire going in the grate and made some coffee. After a bit Rose got his rifle, went up to the attic, propped himself in a window, and whiled away the time shooting at rats struggling along the wall of a stable in the adjoining lot.
And so the morning passed on into afternoon; there was nothing much to do but wait it out and make the best of what, after all, was not such an unpleasant situation.
There were hundreds of other families, however, who had seen enough. They began moving out, wading through the streets with bundles of clothing and food precariously balanced on rude rafts, or jammed into half-submerged spring wagons. Here and there a lone rowboat pushed up to a front porch or window ledge to make a clumsy, noisy rescue of women and grandfathers, dogs, cats, and children.
Some people were simply heading for higher ground, without any particular place in mind; others were going to the homes of friends or relatives where they hoped there might not be quite so much water, and where, come nightfall, there might be electricity and a dry kitchen.
A few families went over to the big hotels in the center of town, thinking they would be the safest places of all to ride out the storm. Quite a good many, wherever their destination, went a little sheepishly, dreading the looks and the kidding they would get when they came back home again.
The water by now, from one end of town to the other, was anywhere from two to ten feet deep. It was already higher than the ‘87 flood, making it, by noon at least, Johnstown’s worst flood on record. The Gautier works had closed down at ten, when Fred Krebs, the manager, was reminded by one of the men that the huge barbed-wire plant stood on fill that had been dumped into the old canal basin, and that once upon a time there had been four feet of water right where they were standing. At eleven, or soon after, a log boom burst up the Stony Creek and sent a wild rush of logs stampeding through the valley until they crashed into the stone bridge below town and jammed in among the massive arches.
Not very long after that the Stony Creek ripped out the Poplar Street Bridge; then, within the hour, the Cambria City Bridge went. At St. John’s Catholic Church, which stood far uptown at Jackson and Locust, and so, presumably, well beyond reach of spring floods, the water was so deep that the funeral of Mrs. Mary McNally had to be postponed midway through the service and the casket left in the church.
Worst of all, and unlike any other flood in Johnstown’s history, there had been a tragic death. A teamster named Joseph Ross, a father of four children, had been drowned when he fell into a flooded excavation while helping evacuate a stranded family.
Along Main Street, shopkeepers were working feverishly to move their goods out of reach of the water. In his second-floor office overlooking Franklin and Main, George T. Swank, the cantankerous editor and proprietor of the Tribune, began working on what he planned to be a running log of the day’s events, with the intention of publishing it in the next edition, whenever that might be.
“As we write at noon,” he put down, “Johnstown is again under water, and all about us the tide is rising. Wagons for hours have been passing along the streets carrying people from submerged points to places of safety…From seven o’clock on the water rose. People who were glad they ‘didn’t live downtown’ began to wish they didn’t live in town at all. On the water crept, and on, up one street and out the other…Eighteen inches an hour the Stony Creek rose for a time, and the Conemaugh about as rapidly.”
On the street below his window the current, coming across from the Stony Creek, was rushing by at an estimated six miles an hour.
Across Main, and three doors down Franklin, the Reverend H. L. Chapman was having a slightly unnerving day.
After an early breakfast he had retired to his study to work on his sermon for Sunday. The text he had selected was “But man dieth, and wasteth away: yea, man giveth up the ghost, and where is he?” He had barely begun when he was interrupted by the door-bell. Opening the front door, he found his wife’s cousin, Mrs. A. D. Brinker, standing on the porch looking terribly frightened.
She had crossed the park from her home on the other side. She asked Chapman if he had heard about the high water downtown. He said he had not and that he did not think there would be much of a flood.
“Johnstown is going to be destroyed today,” she said, and then told him that the reservoir would break and all would be swept away.
Chapman was so incredulous he almost laughed in her face, and would have had she not looked so pitifully terror-stricken. It was also not the first time Mrs. Brinker had made just such a forecast.
“Well, Sister Brinker, you have been fearing this for years,” Chapman said with patience, “and it has never yet happened, and I don’t think there is much danger.”
He invited her to step in and stay with them until after the flood had passed, an invitation she gladly accepted, saying that her husband had insisted on staying home, to “hold the fort” as he had put it.
Later, a young student friend named Parker dropped by to see if the Chapmans needed help moving their furniture, but the Reverend told him he expected no trouble, as the new parsonage had a higher foundation than other houses. But the young man stayed on nonetheless.
About noon Chapman happened to look out the window long enough to see one of the town’s most dignified figures standing in the street in water up to his waist. It was Cyrus Elder, who along with being chief counsel for the Iron Company was now Johnstown’s one and only member of the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club, having acquired the Morrell memberships at the time of the old Quaker’s death.
Chapman was puzzled by the whole thing and hurried onto the porch to see what he could do. Elder, though a most solid citizen, seems also to have had a sense of humor.
“Doctor,” he called, “have you any fishing tackle?”
Chapman answered that he thought he had.
“Well,” said Elder, “I was in a skiff and it upset and left me here, and I am waiting for a man who has gone after a horse, to take me out, and I might put in my time fishing.”
When the man and horse returned, the hefty Elder, try as he would, was unable to get up on the animal’s slippery back. So the rider went off again and returned next with a wagon. This time they had better luck and started off down Main toward Elder’s home on Walnut Street but had to turn back and head uptown for Elder’s brother’s house; all of which was duly noted with amusement from the window of the Tribune by George Swank, who was also Elder’s brother-in-law.
Elder had arrived back in Johnstown from Chicago just that morning and had been trying for hours to get home to his wife and daughter. From the station platform he had been able to look right across at his house, where, on the front porch, the two women were waving their handkerchiefs at him. They had gestured back and forth about the water and how he might get home, but from then on he had made little progress.
At midday the Chapmans and their guests sat down to dinner, but Mrs. Brinker was still too unstrung to eat anything. Dinner over, they moved to the study, where they sat quietly chatting beside the gas fire. But the Reverend soon grew impatient with the comings and goings of Lizzie Swing, the Chapmans German servant girl, who kept tramping past the study door on her way from the cellar to the attic with armloads of food.
“Why does she do that?” Chapman asked. He was genuinely puzzled by the girl’s obvious state of nerves, since she understood almost no English. The Reverend was having trouble maintaining an intelligent sense of domestic calm.
The train which returned Cyrus Elder to Johnstown had left Chicago the day before at three in the afternoon. It was one of two sections of the Day Express, which had pulled out of Pittsburgh that morning, on time, at 8:10. The two trains arrived at Johnstown about 10:15, and again on time, but were held there for a half-hour or so. The eastbound track on up the valley had washed out. Not until a local mail train came through were the two sections given orders to follow it to East Conemaugh, running east on the westbound track.
During the wait at Johnstown, passengers on board watched in fascination the struggles of the flooded city. They waved back and forth to families hanging out of upstairs windows. Some got out for a few minutes and joined the crowds on the station platform and along the near enbankment to watch the railroad crew that was trying to dislodge the logs and drift from the stone bridge. When the trains began moving again, very slowly, around the blind corner of Prospect Hill and on to the East Conemaugh yards two miles ahead, the passengers could see the ugly yellow-brown surge of the Little Conemaugh to their right, now very near their rain-streaked windows. More and more debris swept by and telegraph poles swayed precariously in the strong wind.
The run to East Conemaugh took about ten minutes, with the mail train in the lead, followed by the first and second Day Express, in that order. At East Conemaugh all trains were stopped and held for further orders. There was trouble up the line at Lilly. Bear Run had risen more than six feet, burst over its banks, and washed out a quarter of a mile of track. Nothing could move east or west. Two earlier eastbound trains, the Chicago Limited and a freight from Derry, had gotten as far as South Fork, where now they too were being held.
The first section of the Day Express was made up of seven cars—five coaches, a baggage car, and one Pullman. On board were some 90 passengers plus crew. The second section had three sleepers, one baggage and two mail cars, and perhaps 50 passengers and crew. The mail train had only three cars, one for the mail, plus two coaches. Most of its passengers were members of the Night Off company, who were on their way to Altoona for their next performance.
East Conemaugh was the main marshaling yard for Johnstown. Eastbound trains picked up their “helpers” there, the extra engines for the climb over the mountain. There was a huge sixteen-stall roundhouse, water towers, four main tracks, sidings, sheds, repair shops, coal tipples, dozens of locomotives, rolling stock of every description. So that the trains now detained there in the driving rain were only part of a whole concentration of equipment set along a broad flat where the Little Conemaugh makes a sweeping curve between the hills.
For the people of the little town set just back from the yards, the morning was turning into a fine show. The river was still within its banks but rising fast. There was every sign that the wooden bridge above the station was about to wash out, and rain or no rain, most of the town had gathered along the riverbank to see it happen.
Sometime between noon and one o’clock a telegraph message came into the East Conemaugh dispatcher’s tower from the next tower up the valley to the east. The message was directed to the yardmaster at East Conemaugh, J. C. Walkinshaw, and to the head of the entire division, Mr. Robert Pitcairn, at Pittsburgh. No one would later recall at exactly what moment the message arrived, and numerous people who should have seen it later claimed that they never did. Nor was there ever agreement on its precise wording, but the consensus was that the message said something close to this:
SOUTH FORK DAM IS LIABLE TO BREAK: NOTIFY THE
PEOPLE OF JOHNSTOWN TO PREPARE FOR THE WORST.
It was signed simply “Operator.”
At Johnstown the message was received at the telegraph office at the depot only a few minutes later. The freight agent, Frank Deckert, was told it had come in; he glanced at it, but he did not stop to read it. As he said later, he knew that “it was in regard to the dam; that there was some danger of it breaking.” But it created no alarm in his mind. He had heard such warnings before. When he passed the word along to the few people who happened to be about the station, their response was the same as his, with only one or two exceptions. Two men who were shown the message by Charles Moore, the assistant ticket agent, read it and laughed out loud.
Deckert made no further effort to spread the warning. He did not move his family from their home just down from the station, nor did he bother to send the message over to the central part of town.
No one on the mountain could remember there ever being a night like it.
John Lovett, who was seventy-one and had a sawmill on South Fork Creek a quarter of a mile from the head of Lake Conemaugh, said it was the hardest rain he had ever heard. He could not see it, he said, but he could hear it all right, and the creeks got so vicious they carried off logs that had been on his place for forty years. William Hank and Sam Peblin, who had farms farther up the mountain, at the headwaters of South Fork Creek, said much the same thing. Sylvester Reynolds, another farmer, reported that Otto Run, which feeds into Yellow Run, was running four feet deep, compared to its normal depth of two inches. F. N. George, Justice of the Peace at Lilly, said he had never known a cloudburst like it in fifty years. At Wilmore, H. W. Plotner, a druggist who was nearly seventy, said he could recall no worse storm. Dan Sipe, who owned the flour mill on the Little Conemaugh at Summerhill, Sheriff George Stineman, the coal operator at South Fork, and Mrs. Leap, who kept the general store at Bens Creek, all agreed it was the mightiest downpour and the highest water ever in their memories.
There were also “weird and unnatural occurrences” reported. One family by the name of Heidenfelter later described how they had been suddenly awakened and badly frightened by a “rumbling, roaring sound” that seemed to come from some indefinable object not far from their house. It was then followed by a terrific downpour, which, according to Mrs. Heidenfelter, sounded as if a gigantic tank had opened at the bottom and all the water dumped out at once.
“Indeed I thought the last day had come,” she later told a newspaper reporter. “I never heard anything like it in my life. I wanted my husband to get up and see what the matter was, but it was dark and he could have done no good. In the morning, as soon as we could see, the fields were covered with water four or five feet deep…. People say the noise we heard was a waterspout, but I’ve never seen one and don’t know how they act.”
Apparently the storm did tear big holes in the ground near the Heidenfelter farm, and other families close by the lake reported hearing sounds much like thunder but which they were certain were not thunder.
In any case it was a wild night on the mountain, and when morning came virtually every farm in the area had swamped cellars and pastures. Freshly plowed fields were sliced through with gullies that carried water as much as three feet deep. Acres of winter wheat and corn planted a few weeks earlier had been washed away. Every backwoods road had turned into a creek; every little mountain spring, run, creek, and stream was on a rampage. The earth could not absorb any more water.
It was about six thirty that morning when young John Parke awoke in his high-ceilinged room upstairs at the clubhouse on the shore of Lake Conemaugh. He had awakened once before, about an hour earlier, and had heard the rain hammering against the big frame building, but thinking nothing of it, had dropped off to sleep again. Now, outside his window, there was little to be seen but a heavy, white mist that had closed down over the trees and water.
Parke dressed quickly, went downstairs, crossed through the main living room, out the porch door into the cold morning, where, for the first time, he heard what he would later describe as a “terrible roaring as of a cataract” coming from the head of the lake to the south. He also noticed that during the night the lake had risen what looked to be perhaps two feet. Yesterday the water had been at its usual level, which, he reckoned, was about four to six feet below the crest of the dam. Now, it might be no more than two or three feet from the crest. What he could not tell was how much water was still coming in, and that he knew would be the crucial factor for the next several hours. But the sound from the head of the lake was far from encouraging.
He went inside again, had breakfast, then, along with a young workman who had been helping on the sewer project, he got hold of a rowboat and started off to have a look at the incoming creeks.
“I found that the upper one-quarter of the lake was thickly covered with debris, logs, slabs from sawmill, plank, etc.,” he wrote afterward, “but this matter was scarcely moving on the lake, and what movement there was, carried it into an arm or eddy in the lake, caused by the force of the two streams flowing in and forming a stream for a long distance out into the lake.”
As he and his companion neared the far end, he was astonished to discover that they were rowing over the top of a four-strand barbed-wire fence which stood well back from the normal shore line. Then, rowing against the strong current, they proceeded to cover another hundred yards or more across what was normally a cow pasture. They passed by the place where Muddy Run emptied into the lake and went on to South Fork Creek, which Parke described as “a perfect torrent, sweeping through the woods in the most direct course, scarcely following its natural bed, and stripping branches and leaves from the trees five and six feet from the ground.”
The two of them pulled their boat onto what seemed the driest spot in sight and started up along the creek by foot. For half a mile the woods boiled with water. The trees dripped water, their drenched trunks black against the mist. The very air itself seemed better than half water.
When they returned for their boat, they found that the lake had come up enough in that short time to set it slightly adrift. From there they struck out straight for the clubhouse. From what he had seen, Parke knew that the situation at the dam must be growing very serious and that an appreciable letup in the volume of water pouring into the lake was most unlikely.
As near as he could tell, the lake was rising about an inch every ten minutes. If this were so, it would be only a matter of hours until the water started over the top of the dam, unless something could be done to release more water than the spillway was handling.
At the clubhouse Parke was told that he was needed at the dam immediately. He went to the stable for his horse and within minutes was galloping off through the cold rain.
There were close to fifty people at the dam when he came riding out of the woods. There was a clump of bystanders, South Fork men and boys mostly, under the trees over at the far side, next to the spillway. Along the road that crossed over the dam itself, a dozen or so of the Italian sewer diggers were working with picks and shovels, trying, without much success, to throw up a small ridge of earth to heighten the dam. Bill Showers, Colonel Unger’s hired man, was also making little progress with a horse and plow. Despite all the rain, the road was so hard packed that thus far they had managed to make only a slight strip of loose earth across the center of the dam hardly more than a foot high.
At the center of the dam the water level was only two feet or so from the top.
At the west end another ten or twelve men were trying to cut a new spillway through the tough shale of the hillside but were able to dig down no more than about knee-deep, and the width of their trench was only two feet or so.
Also among the onlookers were several of the clubmen who had come up from Pittsburgh for the Memorial Day weekend. But the man who was directing things, and deciding what ought to be done as the water advanced steadily toward the crest, was Colonel Elias J. Unger, who had retired from business in Pittsburgh the year before and had only recently been named the club’s president and over-all manager. He was living at the lake the year around now, in a modest farmhouse just beyond the spillway.
The Colonel had started life on another farm in Dauphin County, in the eastern part of the state. His father was a Pennsylvania German, as was his mother, who came from the big and well-known Eisenhower family. At twenty he got a job on the railroad and managed to work himself up from brakeman to conductor to superintendent of the Pennsylvania’s hotels, from Pittsburgh to Jersey City, including the one at Cresson, where he was manager for a time and so got to know Carnegie and the others.
About the time the South Fork club was being organized, he had gone into the hotel business on his own in Pittsburgh and made even more of a name for himself. By 1888 he was well enough situated to buy the place on Lake Conemaugh and settle down to a quiet retirement in a glorious setting where there was also the added interest of a not very taxing job to keep him occupied, plus, in the summer months at least, the chance to keep up with his Pittsburgh friendships.
Unger had come a long way from Dauphin County. But even so, socially and financially, he was a noticeable cut below the other members of the South Fork fishing and hunting organization. His experience in hotel management, it would appear, had something to do with his position in the club.
The Colonel had returned home only the night before, after visiting friends in Harrisburg. When he got out of bed that morning at six, it looked to him, he later said, as though the whole valley below was under water, and he was baffled as to what it all meant. He put on his gum coat and boots and walked down the hill in front of the house, crossed the wooden bridge over the spillway and walked out onto the dam, where he began taking measurements of the rising water.
About eight thirty Unger’s caretaker over at the club grounds, a man by the name of Boyer, came by in a spring wagon with D. W. C. Bidwell, who was on his way to South Fork intending to catch the 9:15 train to Pittsburgh. Bidwell, who evidently had had enough of the soaking weekend at the lake, stopped to ask Unger how things were going.
“Serious,” answered Unger, who later that morning was heard to say that if the dam survived the day, he would see that major changes were made to insure that this sort of thing never happened again.
When Boyer got back from South Fork, which was sometime near ten, Unger sent him off to bring the Italian work crew down to the dam. He had decided to try digging another spillway at the western end, where he thought the hillside would be solid enough to keep the water from cutting through it too rapidly. There was brief disagreement over the idea, with some of the men protesting that the water would rip through any new wasteway so fast that the dam would quickly fail.
“It won’t matter much,” Unger said, “it will be ruined anyhow if I can’t get rid of this water.”
When it became clear that even the shallowest sort of ditch could barely be cut through the rocky hillside, Unger then set several of his men to work trying to clear away the debris which by now was clogging the iron fish screens in the main spillway and seriously reducing its capacity.
Among the bystanders taking all this in was a small fourteen-year-old boy with the big name of U. Ed Schwartzentruver, who, with some of his friends, had been there all morning in the rain watching the excitement. Seventy-six years later, sitting on his porch on Grant Street in South Fork, not quite ninety and nearly blind, he would talk about what he had seen that morning as though it had happened the day before.
“When this high water come down, there was all kinds of debris, stumps, pieces of logs, and underbrush and it started to jam up those screens under the bridge. The bridge was well constructed of heavy timber. There was a man named Bucannon up there, John Bucannon, who lived in South Fork. Well he kept telling Colonel Unger to tear out that bridge and pull out that big iron screen.
“But Colonel Unger wouldn’t do it. And then when he said he would do it, it was too late. The screens wouldn’t budge, they were so jammed in by all that debris.”
When John Parke came up onto the dam on horseback, he did what he could to exhort Unger’s men to dig harder and faster, riding back and forth along the breast, shouting orders and moving men from one place to another when he thought it would do some good. But by eleven o’clock it was apparent to everyone that the lake was still advancing as fast as ever before. In fact, by eleven, the water was about level with the top of the dam and had already started to eat into what little had been thrown up by the plow and shovels. On the outer face, near the base of the dam, it looked as though several serious leaks had developed.
At this point, Colonel Unger decided that perhaps something ought to be done to warn the people in the valley below. The only way was to send a man down. There was a telephone line from the clubhouse to South Fork, but it was used only during the summer season and had not as yet been put in working order.
With all the rain there had been, the road to South Fork was in very bad shape, but John Parke made the ride in about ten minutes. Parke’s relative youth, and the fact that he was not well known in the area, may account for the marginal success of his mission.
Furthermore, the first people to come from the dam to South Fork that morning, Boyer and Bidwell, had already told everyone that there was no danger of the water running over the top. So when Parke came splashing up Railroad Street with his warning, the news was both unexpected and perhaps seemed somewhat questionable. According to testimony made later by Bidwell, Parke stopped in front of George Stineman’s supply store, which was across the street from the depot, and where a small crowd had gathered.
“I saw him come down there,” Bidwell said, “and make a statement to the people standing about that the water was then running over the top of the dam, and there was very great danger of it giving way.” Parke also told two men to go to the railroad’s telegraph tower next to the depot and tell the operator to alert Johnstown. But soon after they left, Bidwell, according to one witness, began telling everyone that there was really nothing to get excited about.
The operator at South Fork that Friday morning was Miss Emma Ehrenfeld. She had come on duty at seven o’clock. It was about noon, she would later estimate, that a man came up into the tower “very much excited.”
“Notify Johnstown right away about the dam,” he said. “It’s raising very fast and there’s danger of the reservoir breaking.”
“Who told you all this?” she asked.
“There’s a man came from the lake,” he said.
Emma was not quite sure how much to believe of his story. She had seen the man around town and thought his name was Wertzengreist, though she was uncertain about that too. But she said later, “He is a man that people generally don’t have much confidence in, and for that reason, I scarcely knew what to do under the circumstances.”
She was also hampered by the fact that her lines west were open only as far as the next tower, four miles down the river at Mineral Point. Beyond Mineral Point there seemed to be a break somewhere and so she had no direct contact with Johnstown.
The operator at Mineral Point, W. H. Pickerell, was an old hand along the Little Conemaugh, having been there at that same tower for some fifteen years. Emma decided to “talk” it over with him on the one good wire she had. She tapped out her problem and waited for an answer. Pickerell told her that the break to the west was caused by the poles falling into the river, and that though he had no way of getting Johnstown, he thought “it was a thing that there oughtn’t to be any risks taken on.” He said he would take the message and send it on to East Conemaugh by foot if someone should happen along the tracks below his tower.
So the two of them worked out a message addressed to the yardmaster at Conemaugh and to Robert Pitcairn in Pittsburgh.
“I wrote the message up,” Pickerell declared weeks after, “and repeated it to her and asked her if that would do, and she said that was splendid—to send it that way. I doubled the message and waited and waited.”
After a while a trackman came by. He had been sent from East Conemaugh to flag a landslide at Buttermilk Falls, to the west of Pickerell’s tower. Pickerell gave him the folded message and sent him on his way back down the tracks. At Buttermilk Falls, the man, whose name was William Reichard, turned the message over to his boss, the foreman of the division, L. L. Rusher, who set out for East Conemaugh after telling Reichard to go on back up to Mineral Point, in case there should be any more messages.
As it turned out, Rusher had only to go as far as what was known as “AO” tower, which was about a mile and half from Mineral Point and better than a mile upriver from East Conemaugh. From “AO” tower west the lines were still clear. Rusher gave the message to operator R. W, Shade, who sent it on immediately. And it was his message which was received by J. C. Walkinshaw at East Conemaugh and by agent Deckert in Johnstown sometime between noon and one o’clock.
In Pittsburgh, operator Charles Culp, at the Union depot later said he was the one who had received the message there and that he took it right over “and laid it on Mr. Pitcairn’s table in front of him.” Within an hour Robert Pitcairn, who had a special interest in the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club, as well as the Pennsylvania Railroad, was sitting in his private railroad car on his way to Johnstown.
But the telegram drafted by operator Pickerell and Emma Ehrenfeld was only the first of three warnings sent down the valley by way of the Pennsylvania’s telegraph system.
About twelve thirty, or sometime very shortly after John Parke reined up in front of Stineman’s store, another rider was sent from South Fork to check the condition of the dam. His name was Dan Siebert. He worked for J. P. Wilson, who was superintendent of the Argyle Coal Company in South Fork and an old friend of Robert Pitcairn’s. Wilson had been asked by Pitcairn some three years earlier to notify him at once if ever he saw any signs of danger at the dam.
Siebert borrowed Wilson’s horse and was up and back from the dam inside of twenty-five minutes. He had stayed only long enough to see that near the center of the dam a glassy sheet of water, fifty to sixty feet wide, had started over the top. But Siebert did not seem especially concerned over what he had seen. He was, in fact, according to one witness, “perfectly cool about it.”
Wilson, however, on hearing Siebert’s report, turned to C. P. Dougherty, the Pennsylvania’s ticket agent in South Fork, and asked him if he did not think that Mr. Pitcairn should be notified. When Dougherty hesitated, saying there was trouble with the wires downriver, Wilson took it to mean that Dougherty was reluctant to assume the responsibility of such a message and told him to sign his, Wilson’s, name.
Whereupon Dougherty went over to the tower, taking along another operator, Elmer Paul, who was more experienced than Miss Ehrenfeld and who Dougherty thought might have better luck getting a circuit. Paul tried the wire for a few minutes but without success.
So again a message was sent as far as Mineral Point, where it was received at 1:52 by operator Pickerell, who gave it to William Reichard, who walked it down the tracks to “AO” tower. From there it was put on the wire to East Conemaugh, Johnstown, and Pittsburgh. The message read:
SOUTH FORK, MAY 31, 1889
R.P. O.D. VIA MP & AO
THE WATER IS RUNNING OVER THE BREAST OF LAKE DAM, IN CENTER AND WEST SIDE AND IS BECOMING DANGEROUS.
C. P. DOUGHERTY
It was no more than thirty minutes later that J. P. Wilson came up to the tower himself to have Emma Ehrenfeld send still another warning. The rain was beating down terribly hard by then, and outside they could see the water of the Little Conemaugh and South Fork Creek raging across the flats just below the station. Over near Lake Street, South Fork Creek had flooded the first floors of several houses and the aspens along the banks were whipping about wildly in the wind.
Wilson had just heard that a young South Fork boy named John Baker had ridden down from the lake and said that the water had now cut a notch in the center of the dam. Without taking time to write anything down, Wilson dictated a message to Pitcairn which Emma Ehrenfeld put right on the wire.
SOUTH FORK, MAY 31, 1889
THE DAM IS BECOMING DANGEROUS AND MAY POSSIBLY GO.
J. P. WILSON
Wilson waited in the tower long enough to be sure the message had gotten at least as far as Mineral Point; then he warned Miss Ehrenfeld to be on the lookout up South Fork Creek and went out the door
The time was 2:25. By 2:33 the message had reached East Conemaugh. For some unknown reason, Pickerell this time had been able to get a circuit. Apparently, a wire that had fallen into the river lifted out somehow, and as Pickerell said, “All at once the wire came all right.”
The message was through to East Conemaugh in a matter of minutes, and on to Johnstown and Pittsburgh. Agent Deckert in Johnstown would later state that he had received this particular message sometime near 2:45. He also concluded upon reading it that this time he had best telephone its contents across the way to Hettie Ogle, who ran the central telephone switchboard and Western Union office, just across the river at the corner of Washington and Walnut.
Mrs. Hettie Ogle was a Civil War widow who had been with Western Union for some twenty-eight years. At one o’clock the rising water had forced her to move, with her daughter, Minnie, to the second floor of the two-story frame building. Sometime near three she notified her Pittsburgh office of the condition of the dam as reported by Deckert and said that that would be her last message, meaning that the rising water was about to ground her wires. Then she put through a call to the Tribune, where editor Swank was still keeping up his running account of the day’s events.
“At three o’clock,” he wrote, “the town sat down with its hands in its pockets to make the best of a very dreary situation. All that had got out of reach of the flood that could, and there was nothing to do but wait; and what impatient waiting it was anyone who has ever been penned in by a flood and has watched the water rising, and night coming on, can imagine….”
He described how the Stony Creek carried a live cow down from some point above Moxham and how she struck against a pier of the dislodged Poplar Street Bridge, where she managed to get a foothold for a while but finally, making a misstep, fell into the current and was carried off.
“At 3:15 the Central Telephone office called the Tribune up to say it had been informed by Agent Deckert, of the Pennsylvania Railroad freight station, that the South Fork Reservoir was getting worse all the time and that the danger of its breaking was increasing momentarily. It is idle to speculate what would be the result if this tremendous body of water—three miles long, a mile wide in places, and sixty feet deep at the breast at its normal stage—should be thrown into the already submerged Valley of the Conemaugh.”
But by 3:15 Lake Conemaugh was already on its way to Johnstown.
When John Parke had arrived back at the dam from his dash to South Fork, he was confident that his warning had been sent on down the valley. Along the way from South Fork he had passed two men struggling through the mud with a sewing machine, and one of them shouted to him, “We got the sewing machine out, if nothing else,” which Parke took to be a very good sign. At the dam he found the water had already started sliding over the top, at the center, right above where the old culvert had been. It had taken no time for the water to wash across the little earth ridge that had been thrown up. Now, as he rode his horse out along the breast, the water crossing over the road there was a good six inches deep and getting stronger every minute. Within minutes the sheet of water was a hundred yards wide. But it was all concentrated at the center, clearly illustrating, Parke noted, that the dam dished a little.
It was now shortly after noon. At the western end the emergency spillway was running about twenty-five feet wide, but only slightly deeper than before. At the main spillway, where the water was roaring through six feet deep or more, the men had started to tear up the floor boards of the bridge and were attempting to remove a V-shaped floating drift made of logs with nails sticking out of them, which had been set out in the water twenty feet or so before the spillway to deter the fish even from venturing toward the screens.
The men were afraid to go out on the dam now, and so Parke rode across the breast alone, studying the effects of the overflowing water on the face of the dam. He saw that little gullies had already been cut between the riprap, but the damage was not as bad as he thought it would be.
For a brief moment he gave serious thought to the possibility of cutting another spillway through the dam proper, where there would be no problem digging deep and where the water would do quite a lot of the digging for them. It would have meant the end of the dam, of course; the water, he knew, would bore through any such cut, ripping the dam in two in no time. But by making such a cut near one of the ends, where the pressure was far less than at the center, the water, as fast as it might escape, would still go out a far sight slower than if the whole dam gave way all at once at the middle. It would have meant the certain destruction of the dam, but also far less damage below, he figured.
It would have been a terribly bold decision, and one which Parke alone would have been in no position to make. It would also be, he concluded, a foolhardy decision. Frightful damage would be caused for certain, and they would be responsible; furthermore, there would then be no way to prove that the dam had been about to break and that they had been left with no other choice. Indeed, Parke decided, there was no certainty at all that the dam was going to break. At which point he hurried to the clubhouse for his dinner.
When he returned to the dam, Parke found things had taken a decided turn for the worse.
Several big rocks on the outer face had washed away, and the water pouring across the top had cut a hole into the face about ten feet wide and four feet deep. As the water kept pounding down into this hole, he could see it slicing away at the face, a little more every minute, so that the hole began to take the form of a huge step.
There was absolutely nothing anyone could do now but watch and wait and hope. Parke, Unger, all of them, just stood there looking at the water and the valley stretching away below.
The rain-drenched crowd gathered on both hillsides had grown considerably since early morning. The news of trouble had spread fast and wide.
Some men had more or less smelled trouble hours before. George Gramling, who had a sawmill on Sandy Run, started off for the dam about eight in the morning, along with Jacob Baumgardner and Sam Helman. The Gramling mill was operated by a small dam which had broken about seven. If a small dam washed out that early, the men reasoned, what might a big dam do later on? But mostly people were just curious. The Reverend G. W. Brown, pastor of the South Fork United Brethren Church, for example, like nearly everyone else in the neighborhood, had heard rumors of trouble all day and decided finally to go up to see for himself. When he arrived at the dam it was about ten minutes to three. There was no one actually out on the dam then, just at the ends, and the water was pouring over the breast.
Minutes later he saw the first break. He said it was “about large enough to admit the passage of a train of cars.”
John Parke said that the break came after the huge “step” had been gouged back into the face so near to the water that the pressure caved in the wall.
Ed Schwartzentruver called the first break “a big notch.”
“It run over a short spell,” he said, “and then about half of the roadway just fell down over the dam.
“And then it just cut through like a knife.”
Colonel Unger said the water worked its way down “little by little, until it got a headway, and when it got cut through, it just went like a flash.”
Unger’s man Boyer said, “It run over the top until it cut a channel, and then it ran out as fast as it could get out. It went out very fast, but it didn’t burst out.”
John Parke said, “It is an erroneous opinion that the dam burst. It simply moved away.”
According to Ed Schwartzentruver, “The whole dam seemed to push out all at once. No, not a break, just one big push.”
The time was ten after three.