Education: Johnstown Flood Museum

Johnstown Area Heritage Association
Primary source: Interviews

Engineer Hess ties the Whistle Down

PRR Testimony

Engineer J. C. Hess tells his story

…We heard the flood coming. We didn't see it but we heard the noise of it coming.

Q. What was the noise of it like?

A. It was like a hurricane through a wooded country. It was a roar and a crash and a smash; I can't tell what it was like, but the first thing I heard was a terrible roar in the hollow and the next thing was a crash something like a big building going to pieces, which I think was the Company house that stood right up around the curve, and the trees and brush hid it from our sight. I couldn't see it, but there was people told me afterwards that that house crushed together just about the time we left. We saw no flood; we saw a drift of large logs in the river, but the river was no higher than it was twenty minutes before that. I pulled the whistle wide open, and went into Conemaugh that way….

Q. Did you keep ahead of the flood?

A. Oh yes, I kept ahead of the flood down as far as I could go. I couldn't go through Conemaugh on account of the tracks below me being washed in the river….

East Conemaugh Yard Master J. C. Walkinshaw tells what he saw

...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…

Johnstown Tribune, June 14, 1890

Engineer John Hess ties down the whistle

At the eastern end of the Conemaugh yards stood the train of John Hess who was waiting for orders. When Engineer Hess heard the roar as the flood sped toward the terminal, he guessed what happened. Quickly he tied down the whistle of his engine and drove his train westward until he reached the proximity of his own home; then he fled. People of East Conemaugh, Franklin, Woodvale, and Conemaugh heard the steady scream of the engine, many of them likewise guessed what had happened and fled.67 Even then the flood pulled many back into the tumbling mass as it rushed about the lower valley.

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