Chapter 7

    There have been many famous rides in history. Longfellow has celebrated that of Paul Revere. Read has sung of Sheridan’s. John Boyle O’Reilly has commemorated in graceful verse the splendid achievement of Collins Graves, who, when the Williamsburg dam in Massachusetts broke, dashed down the valley on horseback in the van of the flood, warning the people and saving countless lives:

   There were two such heroes in the Conemaugh Valley. Let their deeds be told and their names held in everlasting honor. One was John G. Parke, a young civil engineer of Philadelphia, a nephew of the General John G. Parke who commanded a corps of the Union Army. He was the first to discover the impending break in the South Fork dam, and jumping into the saddle he started at breakneck speed down the valley shouting: "The dam; the dam is breaking; run for your lives!" Hundreds of people were saved by this timely warning. Reaching South Fork Station, young Parke telegraphed tidings of the coming inundation to Johnstown, ten miles below, fully an hour before the flood came in "a solid wall of water thirty feet high" to drown the mountain-bound town.

   Some heeded the not of alarm at Johnstown; others had heard it before, doubted, and waited until death overtook him. Young Parke climbed up into the mountains when the water was almost at his horse’s heels, and saw the deluge pass.

   Less fortunate was Daniel Peyton, a rich young man of Johnstown. He heard at Conemaugh the message sent down the South Fork by the gallant Parke. In a moment he sprang into the saddle. Mounted on a grand, big, bay horse, he came riding down the pike which passes through Conemaugh to Johnstown, like some angel of wrath of old, shouting his warning:

   "Run for your lives to the hills! Run to the hills!"

   The people crowded out of their houses along the thickly settled streets awe-struck and wondering. No one knew the man, and some thought he was a maniac and laughed. On and on, at a deadly pace, he rode, and shrilly rang out his awful cry. In a few moments, however, there came a cloud of ruin down the broad streets, down the narrow alleys, grinding, twisting, hurling, overturning, crashing—annihilating the weak and the strong. IT was the charge of the flood, wearing its coronet of ruin and devastation, which grew at every instant of its progress. Forty feet high, some say, thirty according to others, was this sea, and it travelled with a swiftness like that which lay in the heels of Mercury.

   On and on raced the rider, on and on rushed the wave. Dozens of people took heed of the warning and ran up to the hills.

   Poor, faithful rider! It was an unequal contest. Just as he turned to cross the railroad bridge the mighty wall fell upon him, and horse, rider, and bridge all went out into chaos together.

   A few feet further on several cars of the Pennsylvania Railroad train from Pittsburg were caught up and hurried into the cauldron, and the heart of the town was reached.

   The hero had turned neither to the right nor left for himself, but rode on to death for his townsmen. When found Peyton was lying face upward beneath the remnants of massive oaks, while hard by lay the gallant horse that had so nobly done all in his power for humanity before he started to seek a place of safety for himself.

   Mrs. Ogle, the manager of the Western Union telegraph office, who died at her post, will go down in history as a heroine of the highest order. Notwithstanding the repeated notifications which she received to get out of reach of the approaching danger, she stood by the instruments with unflinching loyalty and undaunted courage, sending words of warning to those in danger in the valley below. When every station in the path of the coming torrent had been warned, she wired her companion at South Fork: "This is my last message," and as such it shall always be remembered as her last words on earth, for at that very moment the torrent engulfed her and bore her from her post on earth to her post of honor in the great beyond.

   Miss Nina Speck, daughter of the Rev. David Speck, pastor of the First United Brethren Church, of Chambersburg, was in Johnstown visiting her brother and narrowly escaped death in the flood. She arrived home clad in nondescript clothing, which had been furnished by an old colored washerwoman, and told the following story of the flood:

   "Our house was in Kernsville, a part of Johnstown through which Stony Creek ran. Although we were a square from the creek, the back-water from the stream had flooded the streets in the morning and was up to our front porch. At four o’clock on Friday afternoon we were siting on the front porch watching the flood, when we heard a roar as of a tornado or mighty conflagration.

   "We rushed up-stairs and got out upon the bay-window. There an awful sight met our eyes. Down the Conemaugh Valley was advancing a mighty wall of water and mist with a terrible road. Before it were rolling houses and buildings of all kinds, tossing over and over. We thought it was a cyclone, the roar sounding like a tempest among forest trees. We started down-stairs and out through the rear of the house to escape to the hillside near by. But before we could get there the water was up to our necks and we could make no progress. We turned back and were literally dashed by the current into the house, which began to move off as soon as were in it again. From the second-story window I saw a young man drifting toward us. I broke the glass from the frames with my hands and helped him in, and in a few minutes more I pulled in an old man, a neighbor, who had been sick.

   "Our house moved rapidly down the stream and fortunately lodged against a strong building. The water forced us out of the second-story up into the attic. Then we heard a lot of people on our roof begging us for God’s sake to let them in. I broke through the roof with a bed-slat and pulled them in. Soon we had thirteen in all crouched in the attic.

   "Our house was rocking, and every now and then a building would crash against us. Every moment we thought we would go down. The roofs of all the houses drifting by us were covered with people, nearly all praying and some singing hymns, and now and then a house would break apart and all would go down. On Saturday at noon we were rescued, making our way from one building to the next by crawling on narrow planks. I counted hundreds of bodies lying in the debris, most of them covered over with earth and showing only the outlines of the form."

   Opposite the northern wall of the Methodist Church the flood struck the new Queen Anne house of John Fronheiser, a superintendent in the Cambria Works. He was at home, as most men were that day, trying to calm the fears of the women and children of the family during the earlier flood. Down went the front of the new Queen Anne house, and into the wreck of it fell the Superintendent, two elder children, a girl and a boy. As the flood passed he heard the boy cry: "Don’t let me drown, papa; break my arms first!" and the girl: "Cut off my legs, but don’t let me drown!"

   And as he heard them, came a wilder cry from his wife drifting down with the current, to "Save the baby." But neither wife nor baby could be saved, and boy and girl stayed in the Wreck until the water went down and they were extricated.

   Horror piled on horror is the story from Johnstown down to the viaduct. Horror shot through with intense lights of heroism, and here and there pervaded with gleams of humor. It is known that one girl sang as she was whirled through the flood, "Jesus, lover of my soul," until the water stopped her singing forever. It is known that Elvie Duncan, daughter of the Superintendent of the Street Car Company, when her family was separated and she was swept away with her baby sister, kept the little thing alive by chewing bread and feeding it to her. It is known that John Dibart, banker, died as helplessly in his splendid house as did that solitary prisoner in his cell; that the pleasant park, with the chain fence about it, was so completely annihilated that not even one root of the many shade trees within its boundaries remains. It is known also that to a leaden-footed messenger boy, who was ambling along Main Street, fear lent wings to lift him into the Tribune office in the second story of the Post Office, and that the Rosensteels, general storekeepers of Woodvale, were swept into the windows of their friends, the Cohens, retail storekeepers of Main Street, Johnstown, two miles from where they started. It is known that the Episcopal Church, at Locust and Market Streets, went down like a house of cards, or as the German Lutheran had gone, in the path of the flood, and that Rector Diller, his wife and child, and adopted daughter went with it, while their next-door neighbors, Frank Daly, of the Cambria Company, and his mother, the son was drowned and the mother, not so badly hurt in body as in spirit, died three nights after in the Mercy Hospital, Pittsburg.

   But while the flood was driving people to silent death down the valley, there was a sound of lamentation on the hills. Hundreds who had climbed there to be out of reach during the morning’s freshet saw the city in the valley disappearing, and their cries rose high above the crash and the road. Little time had eyes to watch or lips to cry. O’Brien, the disabled Millville storekeeper, was one of the crowd in the park. He saw a town before him, then a mountain of timber approaching, then a dizzy swirl of men at the viaduct, a breaking of the embankment to the east of it, the forming of a whirlpool there that ate up homes and those that dwelt in them, as a cauldron of molten iron eats up the metal scraps that are thrown in to cool it, and then a silence and a subsidence.

   It was a quarter of four o’clock. At half-past three there had been a Johnstown. Now there was none.


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