The stream of human beings that was swept before the angry floods was something most pitiful to behold. men, women and children were carried along frantically shrieking for help, but their cries availed them nothing. Rescue was impossible. Husbands were swept past their wives, and children were borne along, at a terrible speed, to certain death, before the eyes of their terrorized and frantic parents. Houses, out-buildings, trees and barns were carried on the angry flood of waters as so much chaff. Cattle standing in the fields were overwhelmed, and their carcasses strewed the tide. The railroad tracks converging on the town were washed out, and wires in all directions were prostrated.
Down through the packsaddle came the running waters. Clinging to improvised rafts, constructed in the death battle from floating boards and timbers, were agonized men, women and children, their heart-rending shrieks for help striking horror to the breasts of the onlookers. Their cries were of no avail. Carried along at a railway speed on the breast of this rushing torrent, no human ingenuity could devise a means of rescue.
It is impossible to describe briefly the suddenness with which the disaster came. A warning sound was heard at Conemaugh a few minutes before the rush of water came, but it was attributed to some meteorological disturbance, and no trouble was borrowed because of the thing unseen. As the low, rumbling noise increased in volume, however, and came nearer, a suspicion of danger began to force itself even upon the bravest, which was increased to a certainty a few minutes later, when, with a rush, the mighty stream spread out in width, and when there was not time to do anything to save themselves. Many of the unfortunates where whirled into the middle of the stream before they could turn around; men, women and children were struggling in the streets, and it is thought that many of them never reached Johnstown, only a mile or two below.
At Johnstown a similar scene was enacted, only on a much larger scale. The population is greater and the sweeping whirlpool rushed into a denser mass of humanity. The imagination of the reader can better depict the spectacle than the pen of the writer can give it. It was a twilight of terror, and the gathering shades of evening closed in on a panorama of horrors that has few parallels in the history of casualties.
When the great wave from Conemaugh lake behind the dam, came down the Conemaugh Valley, the first obstacle it struck was the great viaduct over the South Fork. This viaduct was a State work, built to carry the old Portage road across the Fork. The Pennsylvania Railroad parallels the Portage road for a long distance, and runs over the Fork. Besides sweeping the viaduct down, the bore, or smaller bores on its wings, washed out the Portage road for miles. One of the small bores went down the bed of a brook which comes into the Conemaugh at the village of South Fork, which is some distance above the viaduct. The big bore backed the river above the village. The small bore was thus checked in its course and flowed into the village.
The obstruction below being removed, the backed-up water swept the village of South Fork away. The flood came down. it moved steadily but with a velocity never yet attained by an engine moved by power controllable by man. it accommodated itself to the character of the breaks in the hill. It filled every one, whether narrow or broad. Its thrust was sideways and downward as well as forward. by side thrusts it scoured every cave and bend in the line of the mountains, lessening its direct force to exert power laterally, but at the same time moving its centre straight on Johnstown. It is well to state that the Conemaugh river is tortuous, like most streams of its kind. Wherever the mountains retreat, flats made out from the to the channel of the stream. It was on such flats that South Fork and Mineral point villages and the boroughs of Conemaugh, Franklin, Woodvale, East Conemaugh and Johnstown were built.
After emerging from the South Fork, with the ruins of the great viaduct in its maw, it swept down a narrow valley until just above the village of Mineral Point. There it widened, and, thrust its right wing into the hollow where the village nestled, it swept away every house on the flat. These were soon welded into a compact mass, with trees and logs and general drift stuff. This mass followed the bore. What the bore could not budge, its follower took up and carried.
The first great feat at carrying and lifting was done at East Conemaugh. It tore up every building in the yard of the Pennsylvania Railroad. It took locomotives and carried them down and dug holes for their burials. It has been said that the flood had a downward thrust. There was proof of this on the banks of the river, where there was a sort of breakwater of concreted cinders, slag, and other things, making a combination harder than stone. Unable to get a grip directly on these banks, the flood jumped over them, threw the whole weight of the mass of logs and broken buildings down on the sand behind them, scooped this sand out, and then, by backward blows, knocked the concrete to pieces. in this it displayed almost the uttermost still of human malice.
After crossing the flat of East Conemaugh and scooping out of their situations sixty-five houses in two streets, as well as tearing passenger trains to piece, drowning an unknown number of persons, and picking up others to dash against whatever obstacles it encountered, it sent a force to the left, which cut across the flat of Franklin borough, ripped thirty-two houses to pieces, and cut a second channel for the Conemaugh river, leaving an island to mark the place of division of the forces of the flood. The strength of the eastern wing can be estimated from the fact that the iron bars piled in heaps in the stock yard of the Cambria Iron Company were swept away, and that some of them may be found all along the river as far as Johnstown.
After this came the utter wiping out of the borough of Woodvale, on the flat to the northeast of Johnstown and diagonally opposite it. Woodvale had a population of nearly 3000 people. It requires a large number of houses to shelter so many. Estimating 10 to a family, which is a big estimate, there were 300 houses in Woodvale. there were also a woolen mill, a flour mill, the Gautier barb Wire Mills of the Cambria Iron Company, and the tannery of W. H. Rosenthal & Co. Only the flour mill and the middle section of the bridge remain. The flat is bare otherwise. The stables of the Woodvale Horse Railroad Company went out with the water; every horse and car in them went also.
The change was wrought in five minutes. Robert Miller, who lost two of his children and his mother-in-law, thus describes the scene: "I was standing near the Woodvale Bridge, between maple avenue and Portage street, in Johnstown. The river was high, and David Lucas and I were speculating about the bridges, whether they would go down of not. Lucas said, 'I guess this bridge will stand; it does not seem to be weakened.' Just then we saw a dark object up the river. Over it was a white mist. It was high and somehow dreadful, though we could not make it out. Dark smoke seemed to form a background for the mist. We did not wait for more. By instinct we knew the big dam had burst and its water was coming upon us. Lucas jumped on a car horse, rode across the bridge, and went yelling into Johnstown. The flood overtook him, and he had to abandon his horse and climb a high hill.
"I went straight to my house in Woodvale, warning everybody as I ran. My wife and mother-in-law were ready to move, with my five children, so we went for the hillside, but we were not speedy enough. The water had come over the flat at its base and cut us off. I and my wife climbed into a coal car with one of the children, to get out of the water. I put two more children into the car and looked around for my other children and my mother-in-law. My mother-in-law was a stout woman, weighing about two hundred and twelve pounds. She could not climb into a car. The train was too long for her to go around it so she tried to crawl under, leading the children.
"The train was suddenly pushed forward by the flood, and she was knocked down and crushed, so were my children, by the same shock. My wife and children in the car were thrown down and covered with coal. I was taken off by the water, but I swam to the car and pulled them from under a lot of coal. A second blow to the train threw our car against the hillside and us out of it to firm earth. I never saw my two children and mother-in-law after the flood first struck the train of coal cars. I have often heard it said that the dam might break, but I never paid any attention to it before. It was common talk whenever there was a freshet of a big pack of ice.
The principal street of Woodvale was Maple avenue. The Conemaugh river now rushes through it from one side of the flat to the other. Its pavement is beautifully clean. It is doubtful that it will ever be cleared by mortal agency again.
Breaking down the barbed steel wire mill and the tannery at the bridge, the flood went across the regular channel of the river and struck the Gautier Steel Works, made up of numerous stanch brick buildings and one immense structure of iron, filled with enormous boilers, fly wheels, and machinery generally. The buildings are strewn through Johnstown. Near their sites are some bricks, twisted iron beams, boilers, wheels, and engine bodies, bound together with logs, driftwood, tree branches, and various other things, woven in and out of one another marvelously. These aggregations are of enormous size and weight. They were not too strong for the immense power of the destroying agent, for a twenty-ton locomotive, taken from the Gautier Works, now lies in Main street, three-quarters of a mile away. It did not simply take a good grip upon them; it was spreading out its line for a force by its left wing, and hit simultaneously upon Johnstown flat, its people and houses, while its right wing did whatever it could in the way of helping the destructive work. The left wing scoured the flat to the base of the mountain. With a portion of the centre it then rushed across Stony Creek. The remainder of the central force cleared several paths in diverging directions through the town.
While the left and centre were tearing houses to pieces and drowning untold lives, the right had been hurrying along the base of the northern hills, in the channel of the Conemaugh river, carrying down the houses, bridges, human beings and other drift that had been picked up on the way from South Fork.
Thus far the destruction at Johnstown had not been one-quarter what it is now. But the bed of the Conemaugh beyond Johnstown is between high hills that come close together. the cut is bridged by a viaduct. the right wing, with its plunder, was stopped by the bridge and the bend. The left and centre came tearing down Stony creek. There was a collision of forces. The men, women, children, horses, other domestic animals, houses, bridges, railroad cars, logs and tree branches were jammed together in a solid mass, which only dynamite can break up. The outlet of Stony creek was almost completely closed and the channel of the Conemaugh was also choked. The water in both surged back. In Stony creek it went along the curve of the base of the hill in front of which Kernville is built. Dividing its strength, one part of the flood went up Stony creek a short distance and moved around again into Johnstown. It swept before it many more houses than before and carried them around in a circle, until they met and crashed against other houses, town from the point of Johnstown flat by a similar wave moving in a circle from the Conemaugh.
The two waves and their burdens went around and around in slowly-diminishing circles, until most of the houses had been ground to pieces. There are living men, women and children who circled in these frightful vortices for an hour. Lawyer Rose, his wife, his two brothers and his two sisters are among these. They were drawn out of their house by the suction of the retreating water, and thus were started on a frightful journey. They were dropped at last on the Kernville shore. Mr. Rose had his collar bone broken, but the others were hurt only by fright, wetting and some bruises.
Some of the back water went up the creek and did damage at Grubtown and Hornerstown. More of it, following the line of the mountain, rushed in at the back of Kernville. It cut a clear path for itself from the lower end of the village to the upper end, diagonally opposite passing through the centre. It sent little streams to topple homes over in side places and went on a round trop into the higher part of Johnstown, between the creek and the hill. it carried houses from Kernville to the Johnstown bank of the creek, and left them there. Then it coursed down the bank, overturning trains of the Baltimore and Ohio railroad, and also houses, and keeping on until it had made the journey several times.
How so marvelous a force was exerted is illustrated in the following statement from Jacob Reese, of Pittsburg, the inventor of the basic process for manufacturing steel. Mr. Reese says:--
"When the South Fork dam gave way, 16,000,000 tons of water rushed down the mountain side, carrying thousands of tons of rocks, logs and trees with it. When the flood reached the Conemaugh Valley it struck the Pennsylvania Railroad at a point where they make up the trains for ascending the Allegheny Mountains. Several trains with their locomotives and loaded cars were swept down the valley before the flood wave, which is said to have been fifty feet high. Cars loaded with iron, cattle, and freight of all kinds, with those mighty locomotives, weighing from seventy to one hundred tons each, were pushed ahead of the flood, trucks and engines rolling over like mere toys.
"Sixteen milling tons of water gathering fences, barns, houses, mills and shops into its maw. Down the valley for three miles or more rushed this mighty avalanche of death, sweeping everything before it, and leaving nothing but death and destruction behind it. When it struck the railroad bridge at Johnstown, and not being able to force its way through that stone structure, the debris was gorged and the water dammed up fifty feet in ten minutes.
"This avalanche was composed of more that 100,000 tons of rocks, locomotives, freight cars, car trucks, iron, logs, trees and other material pushed forward by 16,000,000 tons of water falling 500 feet, and it was this that, sliding over the ground, mowed down the houses, mills and factories as a mowing machine does a field of grain. It swept down with a roaring, crushing sound, at the rate of a mile a minute, and hurled 10,000 people into the jaws of death in less than half an hour. And so the people called it the avalanche of death."