Education: Johnstown Flood Museum

Johnstown Area Heritage Association
Primary source: Survivor stories

Survivors describe the Flood

Rev. Dr. David Beale

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


"When thou passest through the waters, I will be with thee."-ISAIAH 43: 2.


The day preceding the flood was "Decoration Day." Although the sky was overcast and there was a slight rainfall occasionally, this Thursday, upon the whole, was rather pleasant. The citizens of Johnstown were out in their strength and a large number of strangers were present from Altoona, Hollidaysburg, Wilmore, Ebensburg, Somerset, Latrobe and other neighboring towns. The great concourse of people on the sidewalks, the long procession of soldiers and of various secret orders, the numerous bands of music, the display of flags and bunting along the principal streets, the strewing of flowers on the graves of deceased patriots, and Colonel W. D. Moore's eloquent oration in the Opera House, all contributed to make this a red-letter day for Johnstown.

After nightfall the clouds grew heavier, hanging nearer the earth, and at 9 o'clock a gentle drizzling rain set in, which, after 11 o'clock, was followed by an unprecedented outpour. In fact, there seemed to be a series of waterspouts during much of the night. Before 8 o'clock in the morning the banks of both the Conemaugh and the Stoney Creek were full, and the lower parts of the city were slightly covered with water.  By 10 o'clock the flood had reached half way up the First and Second Wards, and by 11 o'clock it had attained a depth of five feet at the corner of Main and Market Streets and at the Cambria Iron Company's store.

It was now frequently remarked that our periodic flood was upon us, and that it was already at a greater altitude than the highest point attained by the flood of June 7th, 1887. But as then, and on other occasions, no lives had been lost by the freshet, so now no one apprehended a different result. In the lower districts of the city, carpets were taken up, as was usual at such seasons of high water, and in some cases pianos and organs were lifted on chairs, that they might go unharmed.  Gradually the streams rose higher, until in the very center of the town the waters of the Stoney Creek mingled with the waters of the Conemaugh. An aged citizen standing on the corner of Main and Market Streets remarked to me that he had seen the Conemaugh as high before, and that he had witnessed as much water in the Stoney Creek, but that he had never before noticed both streams so high at one and the same time. Not one word, however, was uttered by him or by any one else concerning the Conemaugh Lake; and I am persuaded that few, if any, imagined there would be disaster arising from that source.  I remarked that I thought our officers should have called out men to make rafts to remove people from the lower parts of the town, not for a moment supposing that we in the central parts should need them ourselves within a few hours.

Soon we and all others on the pavements sought refuge in our houses, for soon the water filled all the streets, so that by 2 o'clock there were from two to ten feet of water all over Johnstown proper.  Although the water continued to rise, we had no news of any apprehended danger of the bursting of the dam. Nor do I suppose that many of our citizens believed that in the event of the breaking of the reservoir it would greatly increase the volume of the water at our distance from its location.  When one of our leading citizens was asked at this time how much higher he thought the flood would reach, if the Conemaugh Lake or reservoir would give way, his reply was, "About two feet."

From 2 o'clock until 4 o'clock the water seemed to rise slowly; in fact, it was slightly falling, when, at 10 minutes after 4, the great avalanche, rushed upon us.  I had been in my study, on the first floor, preparing for the Sabbath services, when, contrary to my own judgment of the necessity of the case, I was induced to go into my parlor to assist in taking up the carpet. In a moment after I heard a sound as of an approaching railroad train, when all at once the mighty torrent struck our residence. I cried " Upstairs! Upstairs!" and when I saw all my family and Mr. Lloyd and his sisters--neighbors who were present at the time-safely in advance of me, I followed, with the family Bible in my hand, pushed upward by the incoming water.  Mrs. Beale, with great presence of mind, had turned off the natural gas, which we employed for heating purposes, and one of my daughters had seized the canary cage and carried it above stairs.  The water was on the second story sooner than I was, and carried the hatrack with such force as to strike me on the back, just as I reached the head of the stairs, up to my waist in water.  In a moment the family had rushed on to the attic, when a man was washed through a window  beside me as if shot out of a catapult.  I said, in one breath, "Who are you?  Where are you from?"  He did not give his name (although I recognized him as one whom I had frequently seen near the woolen mill), but struggling for breath, he merely replied, "Woodvale."  He had been carried on a roof a mile and a quarter, and was dashed through the window into my second story as the roof on which he had been borne, with a great shock, struck the parsonage.

Soon we were all together on the third floor, and I had found the Forty-sixth Psalm, a part of which I read to our company, consisting of ten persons.  Several of them wished to see and read the passage for themselves, which they did, as the Bible was passed around. The entire company engaged in ejaculatory prayer, and I, also, led them in prayer, renewedly dedicating ourselves to God and our Saviour, expecting in a moment "to be present with the Lord."

One of my little sons, a lad of twelve summers, shouted out "Surely, papa, God will take care of us, for we are His children," and then he prayed aloud in a most touching manner, closing in the language of the Twenty-third Psalm, "Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me. Amen."

During all this time, and for several minutes after, scores, aye, hundreds of houses and parts of houses, wrecked and ruined structures, were dashing, rocking, grinding, tipping and tumbling past our shattered, broken and twisted parsonage on the right of us, and on the left of us; for, superadded to the water already on our streets, from 16 to 40 feet more, dependent on the width of the valley, rushed down upon us, bearing on its bosom houses, barns, freight cars, city passenger cars, locomotives, tenders, iron bridges, the Gautier plant, trees, lumber, animals and human beings, dead and alive, and all kinds of wreckage, pitching, tossing, banging and smashing to pieces in one indiscriminate mass. We were in the midst of an angry, raging sea.

I recognized J. Q. A. Benshoff, our leading bookseller; Mrs. John Fulton and daughter, Charles Barnes, Mrs. Young, of Park Place, and scores of others as they were dashed past our residence.  I saw two little children alone, and almost nude, clinging to the comb of one roof as it floated by, and three or four young ladies, on another roof, clinging to each other in agonized embrace amidst the swirl and swash of the sweeping waves. I observed that for several squares west and north and south of us nearly every house had been torn from its foundations, and we all were in momentary expectation of a similar disaster.  But it now appeared that the waters flowed less rapidly and in a different direction, for the immense stone bridge on the Pennsylvania Railroad had become the breast of a turbulent sea, which submerged our fair city, and hurled the waters back again.

The houses which first passed our residence were now completely crushed together, with trucks of cars, tons of steel and piles of lumber at the railroad bridge; but those, which came last, were returned near my locality by the backwater.  At this moment, seeing Captain A. N. Hart, his wife, sister and two children struggling among wreckage which had drifted near the parsonage, I descended into the water in the second story and succeeded in getting them into my house through a window.  Now our company numbered fifteen in the parsonage garret.  Soon the wreckage to the west of us began to move off, and our house, which is a large, new frame building, began to shake and rock and sag in the middle.

Captain Hart and Mr. Lloyd insisted that we were in immediate peril, as, in their judgment, the house was giving way.  Finally, after some hurried conference and an unsuccessful attempt to get upon our own roof, we gained egress from the highest window upon a floating roof below.  This was indeed a hazardous alternative.  Seizing a rope at hand, I let Captain Hart out first.  He assured me that the roof was worthy; and then, in quick succession, all the occupants of the attic were passed out of the window, when I followed them.  Just as I was about to pass David and Thomas, our youngest boys, out of the window, they expressed the desire that their dog, which stood by, mutely pleading for his life, should be saved, and accordingly "Guess" was let down upon the roof.  No sooner had he reached it than, true to doggish nature, he and a neighbor's cur engaged in an earnest and free fight for the supremacy.

We had hoped at first to have reached the church, but we soon ascertained that an intervening space of fifty feet or more was entirely uncovered with wreckage, over which we had hoped to have walked; and so we abandoned that attempt, and began a perilous journey to Alma Hall, the largest, strongest building in the city, of four very high stories, half a square distant, walking and jumping from one moving house or roof, or boxcar to another; and sometimes we were on opposite sides of roofs, and therefore out of sight of each other: then, again, we were compelled to bridge over deep watery spaces with loose boards or planks. One of the young ladies, when walking on a piece of scantling, fell into the watery chasm, so that we could see nothing but her hair floating on the surface.  She was rescued by being pulled upon some floating timbers, and just before dark we succeeded in reaching the Hall.  We found that very many from different parts of the city had sought refuge there before our arrival.  Some of our number now went out on the wreckage, taking the rope brought from the parsonage, and succeeded in extricating a number who were either fastened in amongst the timbers, or were too much exhausted to help themselves.

A meeting of the men in the Hall was held on the second staircase, and James M. Walters, Esq., was elected Director of the building, and Dr. W. E. Matthews, Captain A. N. Hart and myself, respectively, were appointed controllers of the three stories now peopled with two hundred and sixty-four rescued ones.  On motion, being requested, I offered, in each room, prayer.  We also gave thanks to Almighty God for His gracious deliverance of those present, and sought sustaining grace for the bereaved ones.  Mr. Walters, who accompanied me, suggested that all should reverently bow their heads during the prayer, which request was complied with. That was, indeed, a solemn and impressive occasion. In this service, Jews and Gentiles, Catholics and Protestants, Africans and Chinamen united.

Orders were given that there should be no lights in the Hall during the night, lest the escaping natural gas explode; and all persons having spirituous liquors were required to give them to the Directors of each hall of the building.  These orders were cheerfully obeyed, and those having pocket flasks willingly surrendered them.

It is doubtful if any one in that entire building on that awful night, the last of May, 1889, refused to pray to his Maker. One can scarcely conceive of an assembly convened under circumstances more affecting than those which massed us together on the floors of Alma Hall. The suppressed moans of the bruised, the agony and dread suspense of separated friends and relatives; the cries of little children for food and water, which could not be supplied; the howlings of terror-stricken brutes; the darkness and confusion throughout the building; the sickening and stifling odors; the dying scenes on the wreckage about us, and in the conflagration at the railroad bridge; and the expressed opinions of contractors present, that the great building would yield to the fearful strain, combined to make that night one of indescribable horror.

At break of day, the waters had somewhat subsided, having forced a way through the wreckage under the arches of the great bridge, and formed a partial outlet by washing away the roadbed between the station and the stone railroad bridge; and yet the wreckage on many of the streets was almost as high as the few remaining buildings.

Except those who had broken bones, or were otherwise disabled, nearly all sought an early opportunity to leave Alma Hall. We departed from the building through a window on Main Street, the whole length of which to Adam--nearly five blocks away--was filled with rubbish, such as cars, houses, bridges, trees and furniture, together with dead bodies, the mass piled up fifteen or twenty feet, over which we walked and crawled the entire distance.  We of Alma Hall, with a large company of others, rescued elsewhere, made our way over this rubbish with great difficulty, until we reached the hill at the foot of Frankstown Road, beyond the line reached by the waters of the flood.

There were here gathered at least three thousand persons of all ages, and of every condition, many of -them stripped of nearly all their clothing, and all chilled, haggard and quite distracted by the dreadful experience of the night.  Our first thought was to find some refuge for our wives and children and those who were too feeble to care for themselves. With my family I climbed Singer hill to the house of Mr. Cover, and, leaving them there, hastened back to the multitude, with the purpose of aiding others and effecting something like order out of the confusion.

It is wholly impossible to give any conception of the scene presented at that spot. Every one of the vast crowd was either injured in some form, or had been bereft of their kin and loved ones.  Their agony was so intense as to be oppressive, and held expression as with the grasp of a vise, so that no one was seen to shed a tear.  As fast as possible, the women and children were distributed in the homes and shelters on the hills, which were kindly offered by theoccupants.  These being few, and for the most part small, were taxed to the utmost.  In one, thirteen families were located; on a floor in another, nineteen persons had to sleep, without change of clothing.

For ten days, such was our need, and I was so occupied with the dead and living, that I wore without change the clothes with which I came out of the flood, and went without food for twenty-four or thirty hours, having turned over that which was sent to me to children and ladies who, I knew, could not endure the fast as well as I. Perhaps the constant labor and anxiety which were upon me enabled me the better to endure it.

As from this point we gazed back upon our city, or where our city was, our hearts sank within us.  To the right stood the blackened walls of St. John's Roman Catholic Church, which had burned during the horrid night, its rafters still smoking.  Here and there above or beyond the massed piles of bricks in the city there were a few houses standing, some of them out of plumb.  The spires of churches once our pride were gone; the most of our homes destroyed, and their fragments scattered over the wide vale below.  It were vain to undertake to tell the world how or what we felt, when, shoeless, hatless, and many of us almost naked, some bruised and broken, we stood there and looked upon that scene of death and desolation.  This was not the time for yielding to emotion; and with the recollection of the fact that Paris was overrun with thieves the day of its capitulation to the German army, I ran to a little boy who was passing on horseback, and, giving him some money which I had in my pocket, ordered him to telegraph immediately to Governor Beaver, to send the military to us at once. The boy did as bidden, and the practical response soon came.

Everything about us was in inextricable confusion, showing the effects of the terrific convulsion through which nature and humanity had passed.  Here were uprooted trees, houses upturned or demolished, furniture of every description--hardware, woodenware, parlor ornaments and kitchen utensils, mattresses, bodies of horses, cattle and swine, corpses of men, women and children, railroad cars and locomotives--overturned or on end, and pressing down upon the half-buried bodies of the drowned.

As I was climbing over the debris a young man, whom I did not know, recognizing me, handed me a handsome gold-headed cane, saying, " Dr. Beale, here is a valuable cane which I picked up amid the wreckage."  After several weeks I found the owner, Mr. C. W. Lewis, to whom I returned it.  Another person, whom also I did not know, handed me a watch and several gold chains.  These I committed to my wife's care, after we had reached our place of refuge, Mr. Cover's.  Two months afterward the owner was found, a Mrs. Rosensteel, to whom they were delivered. These. acts are but samples of many occurring in those days of misery.

Alexander N. Hart wrote about Rev. Beale:

“I cannot end this account without paying tribute to Dr. David J. Beale, the pastor of the Presbyterian Church. During the whole time of the flood and afterward, he forgot himself in his care and ministering to us and our suffering people. Throughout that dreadful night in Alma Hall, he was incessant in his attentions, though his own wife and children were among the suffering multitude. By his kind, consoling words, by his calmness and self-control, by his fervent prayers, directing us to our only help in this time of trouble, he made it possible for us to endure the horrors of that night. During the following weeks his work and services in the morgues and among the survivors have laid our citizens under obligations they can never fully discharge.”

From Rev. Dr. David Beale's book Through the Johnstown Flood, pp. 348.

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