Chapter 8

    Volumes might be written of the sufferings endured and valor exhibited by the survivors of the flood, or of the heart-rending grief with which so many were stricken. At Johnstown an utterly wretched woman names Mrs. Fenn stood by a muddy pool of water trying to find some trace of a once happy home. She was half crazed with grief, and her eyes were red and swollen. As a correspondent stepped to her side she raised her pale, haggard face and remarked:

   "They are all gone. O God! be merciful to them! My husband and my seven dear little children have been swept down with the flood, and I am left alone. We were driven by the awful flood into the garret, but the water followed us there. Inch by inch it kept rising, until our heads were cruising against the roof. It was death to remain. So I raised a window, and one by one, placed my darlings on some driftwood, trusting to the great Creator. As I liberated the last one, my sweet little boy, he looked at me and said: ‘Mamma, you always told me that the Lord would care for me; will he He look after me now?’ I saw him drift away with his loving face turned toward me, and , with a prayer on my lips for his deliverance, he passed from sight forever. The next moment the roof crashed in, and I floated outside, to be rescued fifteen hours later, from the roof of a house in Kernsville. If I could only find one of my darlings I could bow to the will of God, but now but my life, and I will return to my old Virginia home and lay me down for my last great sleep."

   A handsome woman, with hair as black as a raven’s wing, walked through the depot where a dozen or more bodies were awaiting burial. Passing from one to another, she finally lifted the paper covering from the face of a women, young, and with traces of beauty showing through the stains of muddy water, and with a cry of anguish she reeled backward to be caught by a rugged man who chanced to be passing. In a moment or so she had calmed herself sufficiently to take one more look at the features of her dead. She stood gazing at the corpse as if dumb. Finally, turning away with another wild burst of grief, she said: "And her beautiful hair all matted and her sweet face so bruised and stained with mud and water!" The dead women was the sister of the mourner. The body was placed in a coffin a few minutes later and sent away to its narrow house.

   A woman was seen to smile, on morning just after the catastrophe, as she came down the steps of Prospect Hill, at Johnstown. She ran down lightly, turning up toward the stone bridge. She passed the little railroad station where the undertakers were at work embalming the dead, and walked slowly until she got opposite the station. Then she stopped and danced a few steps. There was but a small crowd there. The woman raised her hands above her head and sang. She became quiet and then suddenly burst into a frenzied fit of weeping and beat her forehead with her hands. She tore her dress, which was already in rags.

   "I shall go crazy," she screamed, "if they do not find his body."

   The poor woman could not go crazy, as her mind had already been shattered.

   "He was a good man," she went on, while the onlookers listened pityingly. "I loved him and he loved me."

   "Where is he?" she screamed. "I must find him."

   And she started at the top of her speed down the track toward the river. Some men caught her. She struggled desperately for a few moments, and then fainted.

Johnstown-View Down Main And Clinton Sts.
Johnstown, View Down Main And Clinton Sts.

   Her name was Eliza Adams, and she was a bride of but two months. Her husband was a foreman at the Cambria Iron Works and was drowned.

   The body of a beautiful young girl of twenty was found wedged in a mass of ruins just below the Cambria Iron works. She was taken out and laid on the damp grass. She was tall, slender, of well-rounded form, clad in a long red wrapper, with lace at her throat and wrists. Her feet were encased in pretty embroidered slippers. Her face was a study for an artist. Features clear cut as though chiseled from Parain marble; and, strangely enough, they bore not the slightest disfigurement, and had not the swelled and puffed appearance that was present in nearly all the other drowned victims. A smile rested on her lips. Her hair, which had evidently been golden, was matted with mud and fell in heavy masses to her waist.

   "Does any one know her?" was asked of the silent group that had gathered around.

   No one did, and she was carried to the improvised morgue in the school-house, and now fills a grave as one of the "unidentified dead."

   Miss Rose Clark was fastened in the debris at the railroad bridge, at Johnstown. The force of the water had torn all the garments off and pinned her leg below the water between two beams. She was more calm that the two men who were trying to rescue her. The flames were coming nearer, and the intense heat scorching her bare skin. She begged the men to cut off the imprisoned leg. Finally half of the men turned and fought the fire, while the rest endeavored to rescue Miss Clark. After six hours of hard work, and untold suffering by the brave little lady she was taken from the ruins in a dead faint. She was one mass of bruises, from her breast to her knees, and her left arm and leg were broken.

   Just below Johnstown, on the Conemaugh, three women were working on the ruins of what had been their home. An old arm-chair was taken from the ruins by the men. When one of the women saw the chair, it brought back a wealth of memory, probably the first since the flood occurred, and throwing herself on her knees on the wreck she gave way to a flood of tears.

   "Where in the name of God," she sobbed, "did you get that chair? It was mine--no, I don’t want it. Keep it and find for me, if you can, my album. In it are the faces of my husband and little girl.

   Patrick Downs was a worker in one of the mills of the Cambria Iron Works. He had a wife and a fourteen-year-old daughter, Jessie Downs, who was a great favorite with the sturdy, hard handed fellow-workmen of her father.

   She was of rare beauty and sweetness. Her waving, golden-yellow hair, brushed away from a face of wondrous whiteness, was confined by a ribbon at the neck. Lustrous Irish blue eyes lightened up the lovely face and ripe, red lips parted in smiles for the workmen in the mills, every one of whom was her lover.

   Jessie was in the mill when the flood struck the town, and had not been seen since till the work of cleaning up the Cambria plant was begun in earnest. Then, in the cellar of the building a workman spied a little shoe protruding from a closely packed bed of sandy mud. In a few moments the body of Jessie Downs was uncovered.

   The workmen who had been in such scenes as this for six days stood about with uncovered heads and sobbed like babies. The body had not been bruised nor hurt in any way, the features being composed as if in sleep.

   The men gathered up the body of their little sweetheart and were carrying it through the town on a stretcher when the met poor Patrick Downs. He gazed upon the form of his baby, but never a tear was in his eye, and he only thanked God that she had not suffered in contest with the angry waves.

   He had but a moment before identified the body of his wife among the dead recovered, and the mother and child were laid away together in one grave on Grove hill, and the father resumed work with the others.

   Dr. Lowman is one of the most prominent physicians of Western Pennsylvania. His residence in Johnstown was protected partially from the avalanche of water by the Methodist Church, which is a large stone structure. Glancing upstream, the Doctor saw advancing what seemed to be a huge mountain. Grasping the situation, he ran in and told the family to get to the top floors as quickly as possible. They had scarcely reached the second floor when the water was pouring into the windows. They went higher up, and the water followed them, but it soon reached its extreme height.

   While the family were huddled in the third story the Doctor looked out and saw a young girl floating toward the window on a door. He smashed the glass, and, at the great risk of his own life, succeeded in hauling the door toward him and lifting the girl through the window. She had not been there long when one corner of the building gave way and she became frightened. She insisted on taking a shutter and floating downstream. In vain did the Doctor try to persuade her to forgo such a suicidal attempt. She said that she was a good swimmer, and that, once out in the water, she had no fears for her ultimate safety. Resisting all entreaties and taking a shutter from the window, she plunged out into the surging waters, and has not since been heard from.

   When the girl deserted the house, Dr. Lowman and his family made their way to the roof. While up there another corner of the house gave way. After waiting for several hours, the intervening space between the bank building and the dwelling became filled with drift. The Doctor gathered his family around him, and after a perilous walk they all reached the objective point in safety. Dr. Lowman’s aged father was one of the party. When his family was safe Dr. Lowman started to rescue other unfortunates. All day Saturday he worked like a beaver in water to his neck, and he saved the lives of many.

   No man returns from the valley of death with more horrible remembrance of the flood than Dr. Henry H. Phillips, of Pittsburg. He is the only one known to be saved out of a household of thirteen, among whom was his feeble old mother and other near and dear friends. His own life was saved by his happening to step out upon the portico of the house just as the deluge came. Dr. Phillips had gone to Johnstown to bring his mother, who was an invalid, to his home in the East End. They had intended starting for Pittsburg Friday morning, but Mrs. Phillips did not feel able to make the journey, and it was postponed until the next day. In the meantime the flood began to come, and during the afternoon of Friday the family retired to the upper floors of the house for safety. There were thirteen in the house, including little Susan McWilliams, the twelve-year-old daughter of Mr. W. H. McWilliams, of Pittsburg, who was visiting her aunt, Mrs. Phillips; Dr. L.T. Beam, son-in-law of Mrs. Phillips; another niece, and Mrs. Dowling, a neighbor. The latter had come there with her children because the Phillips house was a brick structure while her own was frame. Its destruction proved to be more sudden and complete on account of the material.

   The water was a foot deep on the first floor, and the family were congratulating themselves that they were so comfortably situated in the upper story, when Dr. Phillips heard a roaring up toward the Cambria Iron Works. Without a thought of the awful truth, he stepped out upon the portico of the house to see what it meant. A wall of water and wreckage loomed up before him like a roaring cloud. Before he could turn back or cry out he saw a house, that rode the flood like a ship, come between him and his vision of the window. Then all was dark, and the cold water seemed to wrap him up and toss him to a house-top three hundred yards from where that of his mother had stood. Gathering his shattered wits together the Doctor saw he was floating about in the midst of a black pool. Dar objects were moving all about him, and although there was some light, he could not recognize any of the surroundings. For seventeen hours he drifted about upon the wreckage where fate had tossed him. Then rescuers came, and he was taken to safe quarters. A long search had so far failed to elicit any tidings of the twelve persons in the Phillips’ house.

   Mr. G.B. Hartley, of Philadelphia, was one of the five out of fifty-five guests of the Hurlburt House who survived.

   "The experience I passed through at Johnstown on that dreadful Friday night," said Mr. Hartley to a correspondent, "is like a horrible nightmare in a picture before me. When the great rush of water came I was sitting in the parlors of the Hurlburt House. Suddenly we were startled to hear several loud shouts on the streets. These cries were accompanied by a loud crashing noise. At the first sound we all rushed from the room panic-stricken. There was a crash and I found myself pinned down by broken boards and debris of different kinds. The next moment I felt the water surging in. I knew it went higher than my head because I felt it. The water must have passed like a flash or I would not have come out alive. After the shock I could see that the entire roof of the hotel had been carried off. Catching hold of something I managed to pull myself up on to the roof. The roof had slid off and lay across the street. On the roof I had a chance to observe my surroundings. Down to the extreme edge of the roof I espied the proprietor of the hotel, Mr. Benford. He was nearly exhausted, and it required every effort for him to hold to the roof. Cautiously advancing, I managed to creep down to where he was holding. I tried to pull him up, but found I was utterly powerless. Mr. Benford was nearly as weak as myself, and could do very little toward helping himself. We did not give up, however, and in a few minutes, by dint of struggling and putting forth every bit of strength, Mr. Benford managed to crawl upon the roof. Crouching and shivering on another part of the roof were two girls, one a chamber-maid of the hotel, and the other a clerk in a store that was next to it. The latter was in a pitiable plight. Her arm had been torn from its socket. I took off my overcoat and gave it to her. Mr. Benford did the same thing for the other, for it was quite chilly. A young man was nursing his mother, who had her scalp completely town off. He asked me to hold her head until he could make a bandage. He tore a thick strip of cloth and placed it round her head. The blood saturated it before it was well on. Soon after this I was rescued more dead than alive."

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