Education: Johnstown Flood Museum

Johnstown Area Heritage Association
Secondary source: 1889 newspaper stories

The Johnstown Horror

A collection of newspaper stories sold as a book

What the Eye Hath Seen

The scenes at Heanemyer’s planing mill at Ninevah, where the dead bodies are lying, are never to be forgotten. The torn, bruised and mutilated bodies of the victims are lying in a row on the floor of the planing mill which looks more like the field of Bull Run after that disastrous battle than a work shop. The majority of the bodies are nude, their clothing having been torn off. All along the river are bits of clothing – a tiny shoe, a baby dress, a mother’s evening wrapper, a father’s coat, and in fact every article of wearing apparel imaginable may be seen hanging to stumps of trees and scattered on the bank.

One of the most piteous sights of this terrible disaster came to my notice this afternoon when the body of a young lady was taken out of the Conemaugh river. The woman was apparently quite young, though her features were terribly disfigured. Nearly all the clothing excepting the shoes was torn off the body. The corpse was that of a mother, for although cold in death she clasped a young male babe, apparently not more than a year old, tightly in her arms. The little one was huddled close up to the face of the mother, who when she realized their terrible fate had evidently raised it to her lips to imprint upon its lips the last kiss it was to receive in this world. The sight forced many a stout heart to shed tears. The limp bodies, with matted hair, some with holes in their heads, eyes knocked out and all bespattered with blood were a ghastly spectacle.

The Johnstown Horror, pages 98-99

Only One Left to Mourn

An utterly wretched woman stood by a muddy pool of water, trying to find some trace of a once happy home. She was half crazed with grief, and her eyes were red and swollen. As I stepped to her side she raised her pale and haggard face, crying:

“They are all gone. Oh God be merciful to them. My husband and my seven deal little children have been swept down with the flood and I am left alone. We were driven by the raging flood into the garret, but the waters followed us there. Inch by inch it kept rising until our heads were crushing against the roof. It was death to remain. So I raised a window and one by one placed my darlings on some drift wood, trusting to the Great Creator. As I liberated the last one, my sweet little boy, he looked at me and said:

“'Mama, you always told me that the Lord would care for me; will he look after me now?’

“I saw him drift away with his loving face turned toward me, and with a prayer on my lips for his deliverance he passed from sight forever. The next moment the roof crashed in and I floated outside to be rescued fifteen hours later from the roof of a house in Kernville. If I could only find one of my darlings, I could bow to the will of God, but they are all gone. I have lost everything on earth now but my life, and I will return to my old Virginia home and lay me down for my last great sleep."

A handsome woman, with hair as black as a raven’s wing, walked through the depot, where a dozen or more bodies were awaiting burial. Passing from one to another, she finally lifted the paper covering from the face of a woman, young and with traces of beauty showing through the stains of muddy water. With a cry of anguish she reeled backward, to be caught by a rugged man who chanced to be passing. In a moment or so she had calmed herself sufficiently to take one more look at the features of her dead. She stood gazing at the unfortunate as if dumb. Finally turning away with another wild burst of grief she said:

“And her beautiful hair matted and her sweet face bruised and stained with mud and water,”

The dead woman was the sister of the mourner. The body was placed in a coffin a few minutes later and sent away to its narrow house.

These incidents are but fair samples of the scenes familiar to every turn in this stricken city.

The Johnstown Horror, pages 71-73

Suicide Brought Relief

From under the large brick school-house 124 bodies were taken last night and to-day; and in every corner and place the bodies are being found and buried as fast as possible. The necessity for speedy burial is becoming manifest, and the stench is sickening. A number of bodies have been found with a bullet hole in them, showing conclusively that in their maddening fright suicide was resorted to by many.

Work was commenced during the day on the south side of town. It is supposed that five hundred or six hundred bodies will be found in that locality.

About twelve o’clock ten bodies were taken out of the wreck near the Cambria library. On account of the bruised and mangled condition, some having faces crushed in, it was impossible to identify them. It is supposed they were guests at the Hurlbert House, which is completely demolished.

Eight bodies were recovered near the Methodist Church at eleven o’clock. It is said that fully one hundred and fifty bodies were found last evening in a sort of pocket below the Pennsylvania Railroad signal tower at Sang Hollow, where it was expected there would be a big find.

The Johnstown Horror, pages 135-13

An Angel in the Mud

The Pennsylvania Railroad Company’s operators at Switch Corner, which is near Sang Hollow, tell thrilling stories of the scenes witnessed by them on Friday afternoon and evening. Said one of them:

“In order to give you any idea of how the tidal wave rose and fell, let me say that I kept a measure and timed the rise and fall of the water, and in forty-eight minutes it fell four and a half feet.

“I believe that when the water goes down about seventy-five children and fifty grown persons will be found among the weeds and bushes in the bend of the river just below the tower.

“There the current was very strong, and we saw dozens of people swept under the trees, and I don’t believe that more than one in twenty came out on the other side.”

“They found a little girl in white just now,” said one of the other operators.

“Good God!” said the chief operator, “she isn’t dead, is she?”

“Yes; they found her in a clump of willow bushes, kneeling on a board, just about the way we saw her when she went down the river.” Turning to me he said:

“That was the saddest thing we saw all day yesterday. Two men came down on a little raft, with a little girl kneeling between them, and her hands raised and praying. She came so close to us that we could see her face, and that she was crying. She had on a white dress and looked like a little angel. She went under that cursed shoot in the willow bushes at the bend like all the rest, but we did hope she would get through alive.”

“And so she was still kneeling,” he said to his companion, who had brought the unwelcome news. "She sat there,” was the reply, “as if she were still praying, and there was a smile on her poor little face, though her mouth was full of mud.”

All agreed in saying that a least one hundred people were drowned below Ninevah.

The Johnstown Horror, pages 190-192

A Dreary Morning

This morning opened dark and dreary. Great drops of rain fell occasionally and another storm seems imminent. Every one feels thankful though that the weather still remains cold, and that the gradual putrefaction of the hundreds of bodies that still line the streams and lie hidden under miles of driftwood and debris is not unduly hastened.

The peculiar stench of decaying human flesh is plainly perceptible to the senses as one ascends the bank of Stony Creek for a half mile along the smoldering ruins of the wreck, and the most skeptical now conceive the worst and realize that hundreds – aye, perhaps thousands – of bodies lie charred and blackened beneath this great funeral pyre. Searchers wander wearily over the smoking mass, and as occasionally a sudden shout comes over the waters, the patient watchers on the hill realize that another ghastly discovery has been added to that long list of revelations that chill every heart and draw tears to the eyes of pessimists.

From the banks, many charred remains of victims of flames and flood are plainly visible to the naked eye, as the retreating waters reluctantly give up their dead. Beneath almost every log or blackened beam a glistening skull or the blanched remnants of ribs or limbs mark all that remains of life’s hopes and dreams.

Since ten o’clock last night the fire engines have been busy. Water has been constantly playing on the burning ruins. At times the fire seems almost extinguished, but fitful flames suddenly break out afresh in some new quarter, and again the water and flames wage fierce combat.

The Johnstown Horror, pages 130-131

From the book The Johnstown Horror, 1889.

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