Education: Johnstown Flood Museum

Johnstown Area Heritage Association
Primary source: Interviews

Pennsylvania Railroad Interview Transcripts

PRR Testimony Describing the Flood

J. P. Wilson, South Fork Coal Mines Supervisor

Q. Describe in your own way, as near as you can, what that wave of water looked like.

A. It was high and wide. It was the full width of the valley (of course, the valley varies in width). When it passed me, I had just got on the hillside above the tower, and it was 190 yards wide about, and the water was from 16 to 20 feet high on the main track at the tower, and if it had been level, it would have been 35 feet above low water mark, but it was in the center, I would suppose, 45 to 50 feet high.

Q. Did it seem to fall off to the sides as it came?

A. Yes, sir, that may appear a little strange that there should be so much difference in height, 15 feet, but the only reason I can give for that, is, that above South Fork the valley is narrow, probably 140 yards wide; then when it came down to where I was, it was about 190 yards wide, and while it was in the narrow place, of course, it would rise, and when it got to the wide place, it would have to spread, and it would be the sides that would spread and fill the valley. I think there was 45 or 50 feet in the channel in the center.

Engineer William Adams

Q. What did it look like?

A. It just looked like a great body of high water, as high as a house, 30 feet, full of timber, logs, trees, and everything.

Q. What became of your train?

A. The engine that we had, we had cut loose to let a passage into the station house; and it was washed down near the furnace, about a quarter of a mile, and the other engine was washed off the track…. I wouldn't have ever dreamed of anything of that kind taking the engine away.

Q. What did your engine weigh?

A. 50 tons, I think they count them; 114,000 pounds, I think.

Q. It carried it a quarter of a mile?

A. Oh yes.

Q. Did the water that swept over these trains pass over into the town of Conemaugh?

A. Yes, sir.

Q. And swept the houses out?

A. Yes, sir.

Conductor S.E. Bell

Q. Now describe it.

A. It looked to me like a wall about thirty feet high; I don't suppose it was that high, but it looked like that to me, and I thought the only salvation was to get to the hill….

Q. State whether or not this wave of water that you saw coming came with great velocity or not?

A. Well, I think it was traveling about 25 miles an hour.

Q. How far could you see it from where you were in the coach?

A. Well, not over 500 yards.…

Q. And this wave of water that swept over the tracks went down into the town?

A. Yes, sir, it took one whole street out there between my train, and the hill.

Q. About how many people do you suppose were swept away in the town of Conemaugh?

A. I don't know how many there were.

Q. Well approximately, how many people and houses were swept out by that rush of water?

A. Well, there must have been forty or fifty houses along there, probably more, all taken away.

Q. And a great many people drowned, were there not?

A. Yes, sir, they had to make good speed to get out, and if they couldn't make it, they were lost; it wouldn't have done to run into the houses, for they were all taken away.

Q. Were there any of your cars swept away?

A. The baggage car and one coach.

Freight Conductor Fred Brantlinger

Q. How far did you see it off?

A. I didn't see it until it was pretty close to me; about a third of the way along the train. It was just where the tower stood. I saw it turn the tower over, and I cut the pusher off and ran it back along the siding.

Q. Did the flood strike you when you were under way?

A. When I jumped off the engine, it wasn't quite at me yet, and I went for the hill, and it was so slippery when I would get up a piece I would slip back; the second time the water got to me, and of course I went back the second time, and then a big wave came right in there, and it raised me right up and I got hold of a limb of a tree, and as the water raised, I went along from one brush to another. It was horrible, I tell you. There was a draught [draft] of very strong air ahead of the water, that I believe was worse than the water, for when that air struck me, it seemed to lift me right off of the ground. A man could see it; it just looked like a blue heat you know. I don't know whether it was imagination or not but I thought I could see things falling before the water got to them. It made a terrible noise; you would think the whole earth was being torn up. The rest of the fellows had all been away from the train, and they got away nice to the hill….

Q. Did you get in a tree and hold on?

A. The hill is all brush and briers there, and I hung on from one to the other until I got where the water stopped….

Q. Did it come up high on that hill?

A. I think the water must have been over a hundred feet high in the middle of that river. The water just appeared to stand in the middle of the river like the roof of the house. The cars of my train stood coupled together for a long while and they got to swinging around like a string of beads, and one would break off and then another one.

Q. What became of that engine that you had been running?

A. It floated around for a good while, and got fast on the bank some way, and turned over on its side. It didn't hurt that engine much. They got her on very soon.

I wouldn't have cared myself for the water if it hadn't been so much drift. A man didn't have any show in that on account of the drift. It took a good many houses at South Fork and they were all in it.

Engineer P. Doran

Q. Describe what the volume of water, or wave, looked like, when it came down, and you saw it.

A. It looked just like a rolling body of water, shooting out a great deal of rubbish, trees and heavy timbers. Every now and then, they would be thrown clear out of the water, trees turning roots over top clear out of the top of the water.

Q. How high was it?

A. I thought it looked about 20 feet high…

… Just after the whistle was sounded, I was looking ahead to see it; and there were some trees up along the river, and they just turned over as if they were pushed down, and exposed the water coming …

Q. It did lift a number of the engines off the tracks, and turn them over?

A. Yes, sir; some of them from the round house were washed down; well, one of them was washed down a half-mile fully….

South Fork Agent C. P. Dougherty

Q. Well, now, just describe in your own way, what the effect of the dam breaking was at South Fork?

A. Well, while I was running that distance, only 6 or 7 hundred feet, it came in view, and when I got to the station, I could see it.

Q. What did it look like?

A. It had the appearance to me of being about 40 feet higher than the level of the roadbed; I mean the current coming down the South Fork stream.

Q. Did it fill the valley from one side to the other?

A. It first gorged the valley of the Conemaugh west of the point where the two streams unite, and then struck directly across to the opposite side, and seemed to form a swirl from the opposite side of the mountain, and ran up the North Fork at a rapid gait, and continued on up a considerable distance before it backed the water up at the station…. The way I understood it, the amount of stuff the water was pushing when it came down the South Fork, large timber, and big hemlock trees end over end, and the force it struck the mountain with, gave it that surge up the North Fork, and it apparently passed this locality where those buildings were, and the station, before it overflowed that district.

Q. How fast do you think it was traveling?

A. In my judgment, it was traveling at least 15 miles an hour.

South Fork Telegraph Operator Emma Ehrenfeld

About 3 o'clock or probably a minute or two after, as I was sitting there, of course we were waiting for it, and the engineer and the conductor of the 1165 were in the office at the time, and it seems were looking out of the window; I was sitting with my back to the window; and they said, "Look at the people running! I wonder what's wrong." I looked up and went to the window, and just then, it seemed the cry arose that it was coming, and he looked out of the window and said something about the reservoir going, and he and the conductor started down stairs. I then went to the window and looked out and saw people running, and some were screaming, and some hollowed for me to come, and I looked out of the window on the side of the river, and saw it coming. Of course, I can't describe it to you---

Q. Well, as near as you can, what did it look like?

A. It just seemed like a mountain coming, and it seemed close; of course, I don't know just how close it was, but I knew I must go if I wanted to get out, and I started and ran down the stairs without waiting to get my hat or anything; and there is a coal tipple about opposite the office, and I ran down across the track, and up those steps. It was a very short time, not more than two minutes until the office was taken.

Q. That is the tower you were in?

A. Yes, sir, the telegraph office… went, and was carried away by the water.

Division Supervisor W. M. Hayes

In the mean time, Johnstown Lumber Company's boom had broken up on Stony Creek, up above Johnstown, and the drift was coming down very rapidly, and we with our force were trying to keep the bridge clear; -- that is, the stone bridge west of Johnstown, and we worked away there until about 4.10. The water had receded, we believe, about two inches. About 4.10, our attention was attracted by people shouting, and I saw this bank of water and drift coming down the Conemaugh, almost like a wall. About 4.10, it crossed the town before it reached our bridge, and went up into what is called Kernville, a suburb of Johnstown, on Stony Creek, then after it got level there, it came down to our bridge. It was a very short time, but we saw the course of it.

The houses were packed so close together that you could scarcely see the water. There were a few houses went under the arches of our bridge, only a few and then it stopped, but it ran over the bridge, over the coping a foot or more deep for fifteen or twenty minutes. Then it broke through the approach east of the bridge and carried that away. I was at the west end of the bridge when I saw the wall of water coming. It seemed to me it couldn't be less than twenty feet, and I don't doubt it was thirty feet deep. It spread out from one side of the hill to the other, and came crushing and dashing ahead.

Engineer N. B. Henry

Q. Then, from that fact, you judged that even if the dam did break, that the water couldn't reach your train, where it was?

A. No, sir, I thought it couldn't do any damage where it was; I hadn't any idea of the whole mountain coming down, trees and all.…

Q. Just describe to me, in your own way, what the appearance of this volume was.

A. Well, it looked more like a forest coming than water, at first. All the rubbish, trees, and everything were coming right ahead of it.

Q. How high did it look to you?

A. Well, when it came out of the mouth of the mountains there, it looked to me to be about thirty feet high, or very near.

Q. Did it stretch across the valley?
A. Yes, sir.

Q. How far did it come up on your locomotive?
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Q. Did it sweep the viaduct away clean and clear?

A. Yes, sir, all but a small part of the foundation.

Q. About how high was the viaduct?

A. About 70 feet from the water.

Q. How many spans?

A. One.

Brakeman C. H. McGuigan

Q. Now, when you heard that alarm whistle, and looked out, what did this wave look like?

A. My opinion was, when I first saw it coming, that it looked more like a hill of rubbish than anything else; I couldn't see any water in front of it: … nothing but trees and rubbish of all description.

Q. How fast do you think it was coming?

A. I didn't think it was coming so very fast; I judge it was going about 8 or 9, probably 10 miles an hour.

Q. How high did it seem to be?

A. It seemed to be about 20 or 30 feet high; trees, logs, brush, and debris and everything seemed to be coming in a great broad wave, taking everything right in front of it.

Fireman Isaac Miller

Q. How fast did that volume of water from the dam seem to be coming toward you?

A. Well, it seemed to be coming about twenty or twenty five miles an hour.

Q. How far was it from your engine until you get to the hill where you were safe?

A. About fifty yards.

Q. And you went over that fifty yards after you saw the flood coming?

A. Yes, sir. That is, after the first wave came. There was first a wave of about four feet came along, and then the big wave came.

Q. What did it look like to you?

A. It looked like a big sand hill coming. It was full of drift wood, trees, railroad ties, rails, and everything; it was just black with drift. The water was just as high as the brick wall in the round house. It just swept the walls out, and the roof caved down in.

Conemaugh Telegraph Operator D. M. Montgomery

Q. Now, state what appearance it had to you when you first saw it. What did it look like?

A. Well, it was just a mountain of water coming down, full of trees, houses, and everything; and the water seemed to be rolling over and over, and just crushing everything in front of it. If it struck anything, you never saw it after that.

Tower worker P. N. Pickerell

Q. Did you stay there all the time?

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The thing got so terrific that we began to hunt a hill for ourselves. We got on the track near a hill where we could get up easily. The water commenced to hit the trees and snap them off, the telegraph poles were twisting the wires in every direction. We then moved on up toward bridge 6, and we noticed the water running through the deep cut from 15 to 20 feet high before the bridge went out. Then I heard Mr. Wierman and Mr. Webb call out that the bridge had gone. They got there in time to see it go. After that, there came a wave along that seemed to be six or eight feet high, and then the water kept about the same level; finally another wave came down; this final wave seemed to be about ten to twelve feet high above the other water. Then, after this wave, the water seemed stationary for a while, and finally receded.

Conductor C. A. Warthen

Q. Did you see the wave coming?

A. Yes, sir.

Q. What did it look like to you?

A. I don't think I could hardly tell you. I suppose that it was as least 25 feet high anyhow, and it was taking everything before it, trees, houses, logs, and everything else shooting up out of it; it looked fearful frightful.

East Conemaugh Yard Master J. C. Walkinshaw

...I had just sat down about a minute, I heard a whistle blow…. She gave four or five long blasts. That meant to me that there was danger. I jumped off of my chair, and as soon as I heard the second blast, I 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 at that minute, I saw a large wave come around the hill. When I saw it, it was a body of water in a swell, apparently to me about four feet higher than the track where I was standing. As soon as I saw it come every person was making for the hill, and the distance I had to go, I started to save myself…

Q. Well, Mr. Walkinshaw, how long did it take for that immense column or volume of water, or wave, to pass this place where you were?

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