Education: Johnstown Flood Museum

Johnstown Area Heritage Association
Primary source: Survivor stories

Survivors describe the Flood

Mr. and Mrs. John Fenn’s story

The circumstances attending the death of Mr. John Fenn are peculiarly sad and touching. He was one of the best and most enterprising of Johnstown’s citizens – an honest man and sincere Christian. By honorable and persistent industry he had built up a successful stove and tinware business, and had in the home he was enabled to maintain a happy family group in his wife and seven lovely children.

He was at the store when the waters arose to an unusual height, and, becoming alarmed for his loved ones, started for his home. He was overtaken by the fearful wave. He took refuge in the house of the editor of the Johnstown Democrat. Soon, however, that house was knocked to pieces, and he was thrown into the flood. Seeing that he must perish, he called to Mr. Henry Derritt to bid his wife and children farewell, and then was swept out of sight.

His own house, at the same time, with Mrs. Fenn and the children, was hurled away and demolished. The children all perished; Mrs. Fenn was saved in a wondrous way. She was unable for weeks by reason of sickness to obtain any clue to their remains. But finally the bodies of little Bismarck and Genevieve were identified, and later the grave of her husband in Prospect Cemetery, by a keyring and pocketbook which had been preserved in the Presbyterian Morgue and numbered correspondingly with the grave. The picture of the Fenn group in another part of this book emphasizes the sad story of the destruction of Mr. Fenn’s home, and of the lonely and childless widow.

...While Rev. Drs. W. C. Cattell and Beale were walking through the town about a month after the flood, they met Mrs. Fenn, whose husband and seven children were lost in the flood on that terrible afternoon, none of whose bodies had then been recovered. She had been digging among the ruins of her home, this having been her occupation every day for nearly four weeks. When Dr. Beale and Dr. Cattell met her, she had just found a clock. It had been a pet clock. She was sitting there hugging the clock to her breast as if it were one of her babies. She is a member of Dr. Beale’s church, and was glad to see him. She told Dr. Cattell her story. She related her experience on that dreadful day in a simple, straightforward way and without a tear. She passed the clock over to Dr. Beale, and asked him to keep it for her. Dr. Cattell proposed that he should take it to Philadelphia and have it cleaned and placed in good condition again, promising to return it as soon as Mrs. Fenn was ready to receive it.

He had hardly finished his proposition when the poor woman’s face was bathed in tears: she had been able to tell the story of her dreadful sorrow with dry eyes, but one kind act from a stranger touched the well-spring of her heart, and made the tears course down her cheeks. Through the tender ministrations of Mrs. Beale and other ladies, this afflicted soul has been restored to the right use of her mind.

This clock was repaired and taken back of January 3rd by Dr. Beale and presented to Mrs. Fenn.

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

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