Hettie Ogle and the Johnstown Flood

Hettie Ogle and the Johnstown Flood

Posted: May 13, 2024 5:07 pm

The anniversary of the Johnstown flood is coming up, and JAHA and the National Park Service are planning commemorative events, including an Interpreted Tour of the Johnstown Flood. One of the characters depicted in that tour is Hettie Ogle. Nikki Bosley, Johnstown Flood Museum docent, has written this piece about Ogle, one of the most famous flood victims, and her role in the events of May 31, 1889.

How would you react in the face of impending disaster?

Hettie Ogle was the tireless telegrapher who stood by her Johnstown, Pennsylvania post, bravely doing her job as the floodwaters rose higher and higher on May 31, 1889. But many do not know the story of this courageous woman who endured several hardships throughout her life, only to meet her end due to the historic Johnstown Flood of 1889.

Henrietta Esther Earl Ogle grew up in Somerset County, Pennsylvania, a daughter of Joseph Biddle Earl and Rachel Hitchman Allen Earl. The couple had six children in addition to Hettie: Rebecca, Mary, Theodosia, Annie, Edmund and Jane. Joseph was a well-known and respected tavern keeper in Jenner Township and by all accounts instilled a good work ethic in Hettie and her siblings from an early age.

Not much is known about Hettie during her years growing up a tavern keeper’s daughter. Her mother preceded her father in death at an unknown date, leaving Joseph in charge of the children. According to an article in the Pittsburgh Gazette from 1854, Joseph Earl died after being violently assaulted by an intoxicated patron at his tavern, orphaning Hettie and her siblings.

Following the death of her father, Hettie married Charles Ogle, also of Somerset County, and had at least two children, James and Minnie. Charles was one of the first volunteers in the county to sign up to fight in the Civil War as a member of the 39th Pennsylvania Infantry. Charles was killed at the Battle of Gaines’ Mill in 1862, leaving Hettie a widow with two children to support. His body was brought back to Somerset where he is buried in Union Cemetery.

Hettie had been learning telegraphy at the Somerset office, and following her husband’s death she became so well-respected in her trade that she was put in charge of the United States Telegraph Company office, eventually working in Philadelphia and possibly other locations in Pennsylvania before arriving in Johnstown where she would stay employed as manager of the Western Union Office for the next 20 years.

At the time of the flood, Hettie lived at 110 Washington Street, next to the Cambria Library. In addition to her daughter, Minnie, her housemates included her sister-in-law, Mary Elizabeth “Minnie” Ogle Hurst, who worked as the librarian at the neighboring library, and Mary Elizabeth’s grandchildren, Nathaniel and Emma Hurst. In addition, there were four or five others in the home at the time of the flood, most of them likely Hettie’s apprentices.

Hettie sent messages up and down the local telegraph lines as well as Pittsburgh until about 3:00 p.m. when she received a message from South Fork that “the dam may possibly go.” Around this time in Johnstown, the floodwaters were beginning to pull the telegraph poles down, and Hettie and those in her household had already moved all of the telegraph equipment to an upper floor of the home. She finally wired Pittsburgh, “This is my last message,” not yet aware that the contents of Lake Conemaugh were already heading toward Johnstown. Soon, Hettie and all of those who worked bravely alongside her that day were killed as a 40-foot wall of water and debris crashed into her Washington Street home.

Hettie’s story was memorialized in s song published in her memory, “My Last Message.”

A November 22, 1889 article in the Johnstown Democrat reported that a body buried in the sand just below Lincoln Bridge was positively identified as Hettie by those who saw it, but this was never proven to certainty.

Hettie’s daughter, Minnie, was also a victim of the flood, as she was in the Washington Street house with her mother when the floodwave hit. James Earl Ogle, Hettie’s son, was listed as an assistant postmaster in a copy of Clark’s 1889 city directory at the time of the flood. He was not successful in persuading his mother to escape to higher ground as the water rose. He survived the flood and was a resident of Westmont where he died in 1941.