Education: Johnstown Flood Museum

Johnstown Area Heritage Association
Secondary sources

Were There Warnings?

Hettie Ogle's "Last Message" telegram

Many versions grew up of the story of Hettie Ogle, a telegraph operator who kept at her post to send out river gauge reports (even after the gauge was swept away by rising floodwaters!). The last telegram read: "This is my last message," which was much truer than she probably imagined at the time. She and her assistants all perished in the flood, but her story lived on, often exaggerated. There was even a song written about her called "My Last Message." Here are several versions of the story in chronological order.

From The Johnstown Horror, 1889

A Devoted Operator

Mrs. Ogle, the manager of the Western Union, who died at her post, will go down in history as a heroine of the highest order. Notwithstanding the repeated notifications which she received to get out of reach of the approaching danger, she stood by the instruments with unflinching loyalty and undaunted courage, sending words of warning to those in danger in the valley below. When every station in the path of the coming torrent had been warned she wired her companion at South Fork, “This is my last message,” and as such it shall always be remember as her last words on earth, for at that very moment the torrent engulfed her and bore her from her post on earth to her post of honor in the great beyond.

The Johnstown Horror, pp. 190-192

From Rev. David Beale's book Through the Johnstown Flood, 1890

Mrs. Hettie M. Ogle and Miss Minnie, her daughter, with four other young ladies, Master Willie Gaither and line repairer Jackson were imprisoned in the Western Union telegraph office by the deep water before the furious torrent struck them. Mrs. Ogle’s son telephoned her until she was driven above the stairs. The telegraph line had been destroyed before the torrent came. Mr. Charles Ogle is satisfied that his mother and those with her knew nothing of the supreme danger until they saw the approach of the avalanche. They were all lost in the flood. The ladies not mentioned above were Misses Mary Walters, Minnie Linton, Grace Garman and Jane Kush.

Beale, Through the Johnstown Flood, p. 366

From Nathan Shappee's PhD dissertation, 1940

Dr. Shappe pieces together the story from several stories to try to come as close to the truth as he can. This is the advantage of secondary sources.

At the Western Union office on Washington Street, Mrs. Hettie M. Ogle and her assistants had risen early to send out the river readings. The reading at 7:44 a.m. recorded fourteen feet of water in the Conemaugh – a rise of twelve feet in twenty-four hours. At 10:44 a.m. Mrs. Ogle telegraphed that the gauge showed twenty feet in the channel, and that two inches of rain had fallen. Shortly after the report was sent, the flood in the Conemaugh carried away the river gauge. At 12:14 p.m., she telegraphed, “Water higher than ever known, can’t give exact measurement.44

At 1 p.m. Mrs. Ogle and her assistants moved the instruments to the second story. Up to that time, she had received forty-one messages but only two had been delivered. For a while after she had set up office in the upper floor of her building she continued to send messages. The telephone in the first floor continued to ring but no one descended into the water to answer it. After 3 p.m. Mrs. Ogle could send no more messages; the floodwater had pulled the telegraph poles into the overflowing channels.45

  • 44 T. Russell, “The Johnstown Flood” Monthly Weather Review, May, 1889, 117-118.
  • 45Johnstown Tribune, June 19, 1889; Walker, op. Cit., 387-388.

Excerpt from Nathan Daniel Shappee, History of Johnstown, Unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of Pittsburgh, 1940. Pages 202 –203.

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