Education: Johnstown Flood Museum

Johnstown Area Heritage Association
Secondary sources

Were There Warnings?

Rev. Beale Disagrees: There Was No Warning

Soon after the flood stories started going around that Johnstown had had plenty of warning that the South Fork Dam was about to break. It was said that Johnstown's citizens ignored the telegraph warnings from Mineral Point that Hettie Ogle was supposed to have gotten. Other stories told of a "Paul Revere of Johnstown" named Daniel Payton who rode through the valley to warn people that the dam had broken. Citizens who lost everything didn't like the idea that somehow it was their own fault! Rev. David Beale tried to answer this claim in his book Through the Johnstown Flood.

From Through the Johnstown Flood , 1890

Rev. D. M. Miller, pastor of the Conemaugh Presbyterian Church, in a letter, says: “In regard to the warning having been given at Conemaugh Telegraph Station, the operators on duty that day affirm that they had received no intelligence in regard to the reservoir having given way; that the first intimation they had was the sight of the rolling mass coming down the narrow valley above them, apparently thirty or forty feet high; they dropped their instruments and fled from the signal-tower, barely in time to reach the elevated ground, wading knee deep in water much of the way.”

Again, the Pennsylvania Railroad trains were lying at East Conemaugh, detained by water on the tracks. In them were leading officials of the company, and they had sent ahead to ascertain the condition of the road and the prospect of “going ahead.” East Conemaugh is from one and a half to two miles nearer the dam that Johnstown. Nothing at this point was seen or hear of the furious and fateful rider.

Miss Ehrenfeldt, the telegraph operator at South Fork Station, gives this account: “Between 11 and 12 o’clock, A.M., that day, a man came into the station-tower and said I should telegraph to Johnstown that the dam would break. He seemed very much excited, and could not tell exactly what he wanted. Communication with Johnstown was cut off after the middle of the forenoon, and no message could get farther than Mineral Point. I tried repeatedly to get the office at Johnstown, but failed.”

Thus writes Rev. G. W. Brown to me, inclosing remarks of Miss Ehrenfeldt: “The people of Johnstown did not receive authoritative notice that the dam either would break or had broken, and did not deserve the condemnation passed upon them.”

For the heroism of the event we must look at those brave men and women and children who, while being whirled and dashed about in the angry waters, and before the awful wreck that rushed down upon them, were bearing up and helping others to cling to means of rescue. God only knows how much of this heroism was enacted. We know of some who saved others when it risked their own rescue; we do know of some who died in the act of saving others. This was a greater, nobler heroism than that on horseback, real or imagined.

To clinch this refutation of the story, the following prominent citizens have given him authority herewith to attach their names as uniting with me in this endeavor to disabuse the public mind, and relieve our people from the imputation upon their good sense and common prudence:

  • John Henderson,
  • Kramer Bros.,
  • F. D. Jolly,
  • C. Simon,
  • Chas. Zimmerman,
  • J. Earl Ode,
  • Prof. F. B. Cunz,
  • Irwin Horrell, Burgess of Johnstown
  • A. W. Luckhardt,           
  • Sol. Reineman,
  • J. E. Sedlmeyer,
  • G. W. Mapledoram,
  • F. H. Roberts,
  • C. O. Wilson,
  • John D. Roberts Casti,
  • John Thomas,
  • Curt G. Campbell,
  • L. M. Woolf & Son,
  • Alex. N. Hart,
  • Will. B. Dibert.

Through the Johnstown Flood , p. 408-409

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