Education: Johnstown Flood Museum

Johnstown Area Heritage Association
Secondary source

Were There Warnings?

Newspaper and Telephones

The Pennsylvania Railroad trains left Pittsburgh at scheduled time on the morning of May 31. The New York and Chicago Limited (No. 2) departed for the east at 7:15 a.m. The Day Express (No. 8), in two sections, left at 8:10. By the time that these trains had entered the Conemaugh Valley, slides had been reported on the track at Cambria City, between East Conemaugh and Mineral Point and east at Lilly. … the slides were serious enough to demand the attention of the officials of the Pittsburgh Division of the railroad. Assistant Superintendent Trump, the assistant engineer, the division operator, and the master carpenter left Pittsburgh with a crew at eleven o’clock. By 3 p.m. they had arrived at East Conemaugh. At one o’clock, Robert Pitcairn, the division superintendent, left for the Conemaugh Valley; his party had only reached Sang Hollow by four o’clock in the afternoon.48

The passengers and officials of the railroad saw that Johnstown was under water. By the time that assistant-superintendent Trump reached Johnstown the water in the channel of the Big Conemaugh had reached the level of the spring line of the arches of the stone bridge. The slide over the track at Cambria City already had been cleared away. In the lower part of town, people waved to the railroad men from the second story of their homes. The debris from the boom of the Johnstown Lumber Company was piling against the piers of the bridge but the members of the work train, which stood just west of the stone bridge, kept pushing the logs and timber into the current. When Trump stopped for a few minutes at the Johnstown station, the freight agent told him that Agent Deckert at South Fork had telegraphed that the dam would surely break. The agent at Johnstown told Trump that people in town had been warned of the impending danger. 49

Two Johnstown men, Alexander Adair and Richard Eyre, had gone to Cambria City in the morning to inspect some houses which they owned in the borough. At 2:10 p.m. they started back to Johnstown, walking along the railroad track since the Cambria City bridge had already fallen. As they passed a freight train, going west, the engineer called to the men, telling them that East Conemaugh had been warned that the South Fork Dam might break at any moment. The engineer asked the men to warn the people to “fly to the hills.” Greatly alarmed the men descended into the first street of Cambria City, bordering the railroad, to spread the warning. Apathetic natives told the men that they heard that warning before. Meeting the burgess of Cambria City, the men repeated their warning. The official promised to send further alarm into the village. When Adair and Eyre reached the end of the stone bridge they met Squire Bland of Millville who told them he also had received the news from East Conemaugh. Another man in the party said that two messages had been received at East Conemaugh.  The trip that the Johnstown men had made into Cambria City had delayed their return somewhat. Conversations with men along the way had made them later. At 3:15 p.m. Adair and his partner were standing on the stone bridge. At that very moment, the tragedy of the Conemaugh began. Johnstowners had nearly an hour left in which to run to the hills. The telephone warning went out at 3:15, but the dozen subscribers of the new system were already marooned; and in Johnstown streets stood from four to ten feet of water to impede the escape of the apprehensive natives.50

  • 48 McMaster, op. Cit., 222-224; “Report of the Committee on the Cause of the Failure of South Fork Dam” loc. cit.: 433-434.
  • 49 McMaster, loc.cit.
  • 50Johnstown Weekly Tribune, June 14, 1889; Johnstown Tribune, August 29, 1889.

Excerpt from Nathan Daniel Shappee, History of Johnstown, Unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of Pittsburgh, 1940. Pages 248–253.

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