Education: Johnstown Flood Museum

Johnstown Area Heritage Association
Secondary sources

Were There Warnings?

Another Hero Racing with Death

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. Stories like these--true or not--lead some people to believe that Johnstown had had plenty of warning by telegraph, but its citizens ignored the warnings. The Johnstown Horror has been scanned by Penn State's Digital Bookshelf and is available to download.

From The Johnstown Horror, 1889

A telegraph operator at the railroad station above Mineral Point, which is just in the gorge a short distance below the dam, and the last telegraph station above Conemaugh, had seen the waters rising, and had heard of the first break in the dam. Two hours before the final break came he sent a message to his wife at Mineral Point to prepare for the flood. It read: “Dress the three children in their best Sunday clothes. Gather together what valuables you can easily carry and leave the house. Go to the stable on the hillside. Stay there until the water reaches it; then run to the mountain. The dam is breaking. The flood is coming. Lose no time.”

His wife showed the message to her friends, but they laughed at her. They even persuaded her to not heed her husband’s command. The wife went home and about her work. Meanwhile the telegraph operator was busy with his ticker. Down to Conemaugh he wired the warning. He also sent it on to Johnstown, then he ticked on, giving each minute bulletins of the break. As the water came down he sent message after message, telling its progress. Finally came the flood. He saw houses and bodies swept past him. His last message was: “The water is all around me; I cannot stay longer, and, for God’s sake, all fly.” Then he jumped out of his tower window and ran up the mountain just in time to save himself. A whole town came past as he turned and looked. Great masses of houses plunged up. He saw people on roofs yelling and crying, and then saw collisions of houses, which caused the buildings to crush and crumble like paper.

 All the time he felt that his family were safe. But it was not so with them. When the roar of approaching water came the people of Mineral Point thought of their warning. The wife gathered her children and started to run. As she went she forgot her husband’s advice to go to the mountain and fled down the street to the lowlands. Suddenly she remembered she had left the key of her home in the door. She took the children and ran back. As she neared the house the water came and forced them up between the two houses. The only outlet was toward the mountain, and she ran that way with her children. The water chased her, but she and the children managed to clamber up far enough to escape. Thus it was that an accident saved their lives. Only three houses and a school-house were saved at Mineral Point.

The Johnstown Horror, p. 192-194

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