The Paul Revere of Johnstown: True or False?
This is the title of the following story, which was printed in the book The Johnstown Horror, or, Valley of death being a complete and thrilling account of the awful floods and their appalling ruin. (The Johnstown Horror has been scanned by Penn State's Digital Bookshelf and is available to download.)
Stories like these--true or not--lead some people to believe that Johnstown had had plenty of warning that the South Fork Dam was about to break, but its citizens ignored the warnings. Rev. David Beale, a survivor of the flood, set out to disprove this story in his book, Through the Johnstown Flood.
From The Johnstown Horror, 1889
A Paul Revere lies somewhere among the dead. Who he is is now known, and his ride will be famous in history. Mounted on a grand, big horse, he came riding down the pike which passes through Conemaugh to Johnstown, like some angel of wrath of old, shouting his warning: “Run for your lives to the hills! Run to the hills!”
The people crowded out of their houses along the thickly settled streets awestruck and wondering. No one knew the man, and some thought he was a maniac and laughed. On and on, at a deadly pace, he rode, and shrilly rang out his awful cry. In a few moments, however, there came a cloud of ruin down the broad street, down the narrow alleys, grinding, twisting, hurling, overturning, crashing -- annihilating the weak and the strong. It was the charge of the flood, wearing its coronet of ruin and devastation, which grew at every instant of its progress. Forty feet high, some say, thirty according to others, was this sea, and it traveled with a swiftness like that which lay in the heels of Mercury.
On and on raced the rider, on and on rushed the wave. Dozens of people took heed of the warning and ran up to the hills.
Poor, faithful rider, it was an unequal contest. Just as he turned to cross the railroad bridge the mighty wall fell upon him, and horse, rider and bridge all went out into chaos together.
A few feet further on several cars of the Pennsylvania Railroad train from Pittsburgh were caught up and hurried into the caldron, and the heart of the town was reached.
The hero had turned neither to right or left for himself, but rode on to death for his townsmen. He was overwhelmed by the current at the bridge and drowned. A party of searchers found the body of this man and his horse. He was still in the saddle. In a short time the man was identified as Daniel Periton, son of a merchant of Johnstown, a young man of remarkable courage. He is no longer the unknown hero, for the name of Daniel Periton will live in fame as long as the history of this calamity is remembered by the people of this country.
The Johnstown Horror, pp. 190-192
From Through the Johnstown Flood, Rev. David Beale, 1890
It may not be always desirable to disenchant the mind of illusions or to refute apocryphal stories of heroic achievement. When their purpose is to please the fancy, or incite to noble deed, they may be allowed to stand. We do not even in this prosaic age moot the question whether the exploits of William Tell, or Arnold von Winkelried, or Joan of Arc, or Robin Hood and his merry men were historical, or only mythical, inspired by the spirit of resistance to tyranny and the desire to infuse the love of liberty into the breasts of men.
In times of war there are nearly always some who develop heroic traits and make the “circumstances of war” the occasion of come splendid deed.
In times of calamity there are those whose nature is so heroic as to forget their own peril in the desire to save others. Regardless of personal safety, they fly to the rescue. Some of these supreme ones have become immortalized in art and epic verse, but best of all in the hearts of mankind. Conemaugh Valley furnished many who will never be immortalized in song and story.
When a newspaper employs a correspondent, or the correspondent undertakes to manufacture a hero for a stipulated price, those who know of the fraud should expose it -- especially if the conclusions, which will be inevitably drawn from it, reflect upon the common sense of the sufferers in the calamity.
A story was published in a leading daily and reprinted over the world of an alleged young hero who is said to have seized a horse and rode with speed through the valley and the street of Johnstown, warning the people of the coming flood, crying, “To the hills: the dam has broken.” It was said he did not leave the lowlands until he had completed the circuit of the city, and with the leaping, rolling flood fast upon his track sought to reach the hills, but was overwhelmed and drowned. I give my readers a part of this story from one of the books, as a specimen of imaginative heroism: “At last he completed the circuit of the city, and started in search of a place of safety for himself. To the hills he urged his noble steed. Tired out from its awful ride, the animal became slower and slower at every stride, while the water continued to came faster and faster in pursuit. Like an assassin upon the trail of its victim, it gained step by step upon the intrepid rider. But the hills are in sight. Yes, he will gain them in safety. No, he is doomed; for at that moment a mighty wave, blacker and angrier than the rest, overtook horse and rider, and drew both back into the outstretched arms of death.” This fate was very necessary to the story, as it rendered an interview of the hero by another impossible.
He was called the “Paul Revere of Johnstown.” The name of the imaginary hero was Daniel Peyton. Everybody outside of Conemaugh believed the story. Consequently, great surprise was expressed that the people did not heed the warning and escape to the hills – that they could be so deaf to it thus publicly and heroically given. We were condemned for our supposed heedlessness or unbelief.
The answer which we make to this is, that there is not one word of truth in the story from beginning to end. There was not a single incident which could authorize or justify the tragic story. The great daily that published it was either imposed upon, or committed a gross fraud upon the world and perpetuated a cruel myth upon our people. Close investigation has not been able to locate Daniel Peyton anywhere in Conemaugh Valley. The circumstances were all against the possibility of such an occurrence.
The South Fork dam and lake are nine miles in a straight line from Johnstown, and over fourteen miles by the turnpike. This road is the only way by which it is possible to ride from the lake to the city. The greatest speed of a horse for that distance would not accomplish the ride in less than an hour. Then the ride through the streets of Johnstown, provided man and horse were not exhausted, would occupy fifteen minutes more. Now, after the dam broke, the flood traveled as fast as the horse could run. The time of its passage was about twenty-five minutes, and the entire destruction occupied not more than half an hour. But the streets of Johnstown, besides the greater part of the Valley road, were under water. During the hours when this famous hero is said to have galloped through them, there were from four to six feet of water in all our streets; and the housekeepers were engaged in removing carpets and furniture from their lower floors. The impossibility of a horse galloping through Johnstown between noon and 4 o’clock is at once apparent.
The fact is, that while there had been for years uneasiness in the public mind concerning the South Fork dam, when the flood came it was as sudden as an earthquake. The narratives of our most calm and intelligent citizens which this book contains show this. It was, as they all describe it, “One moment life, the next one death.”
Through the Johnstown Flood , pp. 405-408