MR. WILLIAM HENRY SMITH, General Manager of the Associated Press, was a passenger on a railroad train which reached the Conemaugh Valley on the very day of the disaster. He writes as follows of what he saw:
"The fast line trains that leave Chicago at quarter past three and Cincinnati at seven p.m. constitute the dayexpress eastward from Pittsburgh, which runs in two sections. This train left Pittsburgh on time Friday morning, but was stopped for an hour at Johnstown by reports of a wash-out ahead. It had been raining hard for over sixteen hours, and the sides of the mountains were covered with water descending into the valleys. The Conemaugh River, whose bank is followed by the Pennsylvania Railroad for many miles, looked an angry flood nearly bankfull. Passengers were interested in seeing hundreds of saw-logs and an enormous amount of driftwood shoot rapidly by, and the train pursued its way eastward. At Johnstown there was a long wait, as before stated. The lower stories of many houses were submerged by the slack-water, and the inhabitants were looking out of the second-story windows. Horses were standing up to their knees in water in the streets; a side-track of the railroad had been washed out; loaded cars were on the bridge to keep it steady, and the huge poles of the Western Union Telegraph Company, carrying fifteen wires, swayed badly, and several soon went down. The two sections ran to Conemaugh, about two miles eastward of Johnstown, and lay there about three hours, when they were moved on to the highest ground and placed side by side. The mail train was placed in the rear of the first section, and a freight train was run onto a side track on the bank of the Conemaugh. The report was that a bridge had been washed out, carrying away one track and that the other track was unsafe. There was a rumor also that the reservoir at South Fork might break. This made most of the passengers uneasy, and they kept a pretty good lookout for information. The porters of the Pullman cars remained at their posts, and comforted the passengers with the assurance that the Pennsylvania Railroad Company always took care of its patrons. A few gentlemen and some ladies and children quietly seated themselves, apparently contented. One gentleman, who was ill, had his berth made up and retired, although advised not to do so.

"Soon the cry came that the water in the reservoir had broken down the barrier and was sweeping down the valley. Instantly there was a panic and a rush for the mountain side. Children were carried and women assisted by a few who kept cool heads, It was a race for life. There was seen the black head of the flood, now the monster Destruction, whose crest was high raised in the air, and with this in view even the weak found wings for their feet. No words can adequately describe the terror that filled every breast, or the awful power manifested by the flood. The roundhouse had stalls for twenty-three locomotives. There were eighteen or twenty of these standing there at this time. There was an ominous crash, and the round-house and locomotives disappeared. Everything in the main track of the flood was first lifted in air and then swallowed up by the waters. A hundred houses were swept away in a few minutes. These included the hotel, stores, and saloons on the front street and residences adjacent. The locomotive of one of the trains was struck by a house and demolished. The side of another house stopped in front of another locomotive and served as a shield. The rear car of the mail train swung around in the rear of the second section of the express and turned over on its side. Three men were observed standing upon it as it floated. The coupling broke, and the car moved out upon the bosom of the waters. As it would roll the men would shift their position. The situation was desperate, and they were given up for lost. Two or three hardy men seized ropes and ran along the mountain side to give them aid. Later it was reported that the men escaped over some driftwood as their car was carried near a bank. It is believed there were several women and children inside the car. Of course they were drowned. As the fugitives on the mountain side witnessed the awful devastation they were moved as never before in their lives. They were powerless to help those seized upon by the waters; the despair of those who had lost everything in life and the wailing of those whose relatives or friends were missing filled their breasts with unutterable sorrow.

"The rain continued to fall steadily, but shelter was not thought of. Few passengers saved anything from the train, so sudden was the cry 'Run for your lives, the reservoir has broken!'

"Many were without hats, and as their baggage was left on the trains, they were without the means of relieving their unhappy condition. The occupants of the houses still standing on the high ground threw them open to those who had lost all, and to the passengers of the train.

During the height of the flood, the spectators were startled by the sound of two locomotive whistles from the very midst of the waters. Two engineers, with characteristic courage, had remained at their posts, and while there was destruction on every hand, and apparently no escape for them, they sounded their whistles. This they repeated at intervals, the last time with triumphant vigor, as the waters were receding from the sides of their locomotives. By half-past five the force of the reservoir water had been spent on the village of Conemaugh, and the Pullman cars and locomotive of the second section remained unmoved. This was because, being on the highest and hardest ground, the destructive current of the reservoir flood had passed between that and the mountain, while the current of the river did not eat it away. But the other trains had been destroyed. A solitary locomotive was seen embedded in the mud where the round-house had stood.

As the greatest danger had passed, the people of Conemaugh gave their thoughts to their neighbors of the city of Johnstown. Here was centred the great steel and iron industries, the pride of Western Pennsylvania, the Cambria Iron Works being known everywhere. Here were churches, daily newspapers, banks, dry-goods houses, warehouses, and the comfortable and well-built homes of twelve thousand people. In the contemplation of the irresistible force of that awful flood, gathering additional momentum as it swept on toward the Gulf, it became clear that the city must be destroyed, and that unless the inhabitants had telegraphic notice of the breaking of the reservoir they must perish. A cry of horror went up from the hundreds on the mountain-side, and a few instinctively turned their steps toward Johnstown. The city was destroyed. All the mills, furnaces, manufactories, the many and varied industries, the banks, the residences, all, all were swallowed up before the shadows of night had settled down upon the earth. Those who came back by daybreak said that from five thousand to eight thousand had been drowned. Our hope is that this is an exaggeration, and when the roll is called most will respond. In the light of this calamity, the destruction at Conemaugh sinks into insignificance."

Mr. George Johnston, a lumber merchant of Pittsburgh, was another witness. I had gone to Johnstown," he says, "to place a couple of orders. I had scarcely reached the town, about three' o'clock in the afternoon, when I saw a bulletin posted up in front of the telegraph office, around which quite a crowd of men had congregated. I pushed my way up, and read that the waters were so high in the Conemaugh that it was feared the three-mile dam, as it was called, would give way. I know enough about Johnstown to feel that my life was not worth a snap once that dam gave way. Although the Johnstown people did not seem to pay much attention to the warning, I was nervous and apprehensive. I had several parties to see, but concluded to let all but one go until some later day. So I hurried through with my most urgent transactions and started for the depot. The Conemaugh had then gotten so high that the residents of the low-lying districts had moved into upper stories. I noticed a number of wagons filled with furniture hurrying through the streets. A few families, either apprehensive of the impending calamity or driven from their houses by the rising waters, had started for the surrounding hills. Johnstown, you know, lies in a narrow valley, and lies principally on the V-shaped point between the converging river and Stony Creek.

I was just walking up the steps to the depot when I heard a fearful roar up the valley. It sounded at first like a heavy train of cars, but soon became too loud and terrible for that. I boarded a train, and as I sat at the car window a sight broke before my view that I will remember to my dying day. Away up the Conemaugh came a yellow wall, whose crest was white and frothy. I rushed for the platform of the car, not knowing what I did, and just then the train began to move. Terrified as I was, I remember feeling that I was in the safest place and I sank back in a seat. When I looked out again what had been the busy mill yards of the Cambria Iron Company was a yellow, turbulent sea, on whose churned currents houses and barns were riding like ships in a brook. The water rushing in upon the molten metal in the mills had caused deafening explosions, which, coupled with the roar and grinding of the flood, made a terrifying din. Turning to the other side and looking on down the valley, I saw the muddy water rushing through the main streets of the town. I could see men and horses floundering about almost within call. House-tops were being filled with white-faced people who clung to each other and looked terror-stricken upon the rising flood.

"It had all come so quickly that none of them seemed to realize what had happened. The conductor of my train had been pulling frantically at the bell-rope, and the train went spinning across the bridge. I sat in my seat transfixed with horror. Houses were spinning through beneath the bridge, and I did not know at what moment the structure would melt away under the train. The conductor kept tugging at the bell-rope and the train shot ahead again. We seemed to fairly leap over the yellow torrents, and I wondered for an instant whether we had not left the rails and were flying through the air. My heart gave a bound of relief when we dashed into the forest on the hillside opposite the doomed town. As the train sped along at a rate of speed that made me think the engineer had gone mad, I took one look back upon the valley. What a sight it was! The populous valley for miles either way was a seething, roaring cauldron, through whose, boiling surface roofs of houses and the stand pipes of mills protruded. The water was fairly piling up in a well farther up, and I saw the worst had not yet come. Then I turned my eyes away from the awful sight and tried not to even think until Pittsburgh was reached.

"I cannot see how it is possible for less than five thousand lives to have been sacrificed in Johnstown alone. At least two-thirds of the town was swept away. The water came so quickly that escape from the low districts was impossible. People retreated to the upper floors of their residences and stores until the water had gotten too deep to allow their escape. When the big flood came the houses were picked up like pasteboard boxes or collapsed like eggshells. The advance of the flood was black with houses, logs, and other debris, so that it struck Johnstown with the solid force of a battering-ram. None but eye-witnesses of the flood can comprehend its size and awfulness as it came tumbling, roaring down upon the unprotected town."

The appearance of the flood at Sang Hollow, some miles below Johnstown, is thus pictured by C. W. Linthicum, of Baltimore:
"My train left Pittsburgh on Friday morning for Johnstown. The train was due at Sang Hollow at two minutes after four, but was five minutes late. At Sang Hollow, just as we were about to pull out, we heard that the flood was coming. Looking ahead, up the valley, we saw an immense wall of water thirty feet high, raging, roaring rushing toward us. The engineer reversed his engine and rushed back to the hills at full speed, and we barely escaped the waters. We ran back three hundred yards, and the flood swept by, tearing up track, telegraph poles, trees, and houses. Superintendent Pitcairn was on the train. We all got out and tried to save the floating people. Taking the bell cord we formed a line and threw the rope out, thus saving seven persons. We could have saved more, but many were afraid to let go of the debris. It was an awful sight. The immense, volume of water was roaring along, whirling over huge rocks, dashing against the banks and leaping high into the air, and this seething flood was strewn with timber, trunks of trees, parts of houses, and hundreds of human beings, cattle, and almost every living animal. The fearful peril of the living was not more awful than the horrors of hundreds of distorted, bleeding corpses whirling along the avalanche of death. We counted one hundred and seven people floating by and dead without number. A section of roof came by on which were sitting a woman and girl. A man named C. W. Heppenstall, of Pittsburgh, waded and swam to the roof. He brought the girl in first and then the woman. They told us they were not relatives. The woman had lost her husband and four children, and the girl her father and mother, and entire family. A little boy came by with his mother. Both were as calm as could be, and the boy was apparently trying to comfort the mother. They passed unheeding our proffered help, and striking the bridge below, went down into the vortex like lead.

"One beautiful girl came by with her hands raised in prayer, and, although we shouted to her and ran along the bank, she paid no attention. We could have saved her if she had caught the rope. An old man and his wife whom we saved said that eleven persons started from Cambria City on the roof with him, but that the others had dropped off.

"At about eight p.m. we started for New Florence. All along the river we saw corpses without number caught in the branches of trees and wedged in corners in the banks. A large sycamore tree in the river between Sang Hollow and New Florence seemed to draw into it nearly all who floated down, and they went under the surface at its roots like lead. When the waters subsided two hundred and nine bodies were found at the root of this tree. All night the living and the dead floated by New Florence. At Pittsburgh seventy-eight bodies were found on Saturday, and as many more were seen floating by. Hundreds of people from ill-fated Johnstown are wandering homeless and starving on the mountain-side. Very few saved anything, and I saw numbers going down the stream naked. The suffering within the next few days will be fearful unless prompt relief is extended."

H. M. Bennett and S. W. Keltz, engineer and conductor of engine No. 1165, an extra freight, which happened to be lying at South Fork when the dam broke, tell a graphic story of their wonderful flight and escape on the locomotive before the advancing flood. At the time mentioned Bennett and Keltz were in the signal tower at that point awaiting orders. The fireman and flagman were on the engine, and two brakemen were asleep in the caboose. Suddenly the men in the tower heard a loud booming roar in the valley above them. They looked in the direction of the sound and were almost transfixed with horror to see two miles above them a huge black wall of water, at least one hundred and fifty feet in height, rushing down the valley upon them.

One look the fear-stricken men gave the awful sight, and then they made a rush for the locomotive, at the same time giving the alarm to the sleeping brakemen in the caboose with loud cries, but with no avail. It was impossible to aid them further, however, so they cut the engine loose from the train, and the engineer, with one wild wrench, threw the lever wide open, and they were away on a mad race for life. For a moment it seemed that they would not receive momentum enough to keep ahead of the flood, and they cast one despairing glance back. Then they could see the awful deluge approaching in its might. On it came, rolling and roaring like some Titanic monster, tossing and tearing houses, sheds, and trees in its awful speed as if they were mere toys. As they looked they saw the two brakemen rush out of the cab, but they had not time to gather the slightest idea of the cause of their doom before they, the car, and signal tower were tossed high in the air, to disappear forever in engulfing water.

Then with a shudder, as if at last it comprehended its peril, the engine leaped forward like a thing of life, and speeded down the valley. But fast as it went, the flood gained upon them. Hope, however, was in the ascendant, for if they could but get across the bridge below the track would lean toward the hillside in such a manner that they would be comparatively safe. In a few breathless moments the shrieking locomotive whizzed around the curve and they were in sight of the bridge. Horror upon horrors! Ahead of them was a freight train, with the rear end almost on the bridge, and to get across was simply impossible! Engineer Bennett then reversed the lever and succeeded in checking the engine as they glided across the bridge, and then they jumped and ran for their lives up the hillside, as the bridge and tender of the locomotive they had been on were swept away like a bundle of matches in the torrent.

Johnstown | Mother Nature 1 | Contents Page

Do you have any information you'd like to share on this subject? Please email me!
The Catskill Archive website and all contents, unless otherwise specified,
are 1996-2010 Timothy J. Mallery