- Historic Sites
Run For Your Lives!
In the hills above Johnstown the old South Fork dam had failed. Down the Little Conemaugh came the torrent, sweeping away everything in its path
June 1966 | Volume 17, Issue 4
Then she passed close to the roof of a big building crowded with people. She called to them, and a man started up to help her. The others tried to stop him, it seemed, but he pushed away from them and jumped into the powerful current. His head bobbed up, then went under again. Several times more he went under. Then he was hoisting himself up over the side of her raft and the two of them were fast on their way toward the stone bridge.
Farther on, on the hillside, two men with long poles were carrying on their own rescue operation. Seeing Gertrude and her companion, one of them called out, “Throw that baby over here to us.” The child came flying through the air across about ten feet of water and landed in the arms of George Skinner—”a gallant colored fellow,” he would be described as later on.
Gertrude’s savior on the raft was a strapping, squarejawed mill worker named Maxwell McAchren. Maxwell lived to tell his tale and became one of the flood’s bona fide heroes. For years afterward Gertrude’s father took special pleasure in having Maxwell drop by each Fourth of July to elaborate on his deed. And, as Gertrude later wrote, “there was usually a five-dollar bill forthcoming with which Maxwell celebrated.”
The Reverend David Beale, pastor of the Presbyterian Church, was at home in the Lincoln Street parsonage, working on his sermon for Sunday, when the flood hit Johnstown shortly after four. The Reverend Mr. Beale grabbed the family Bible, his daughter grabbed the canary cage, and his wife switched off the natural gas, all in the brief instant they had to turn from the window and get upstairs. By the time they got to the second-floor landing the water was up to their waists. As they reached the third floor, a man washed in through the window.
“Who are you? And where are you from?” Beale shouted.
“Woodvale,” the man gasped. He had been carried down on a roof over a mile and a half.
Thoroughly expecting to be at any minute “present with the Lord,” Beale led the group in prayer and read aloud from the Bible, his voice shouting against the noise of the flood: God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble./Therefore will not we fear, though the earth be removed, and though the mountains be carried into the midst of the sea. …
There were ten people in the Beale attic, counting the newcomer and others who had been downstairs visiting before the flood hit. Soon after, Beale helped save several more friends and their children by pulling them in through the window. But there was considerable doubt as to how long the frame parsonage could last. A decision was made to try, before dark, to walk across the flood—over the debris—to Alma Hall, an office building half a block away on Main Street. The whole group, which included the Beaks’ dog, started off about five o’clock, and they made it, picking their way over tree trunks, boxcars, timbers, the steep sides of roofs, and sudden spaces of dark water which they bridged with planks. For by now, downtown Johnstown was one big filthy lake about twenty feet deep, trusted over with a grinding pack of wreckage.
Alma Hall was made of brick. It was four stories tall. It faced on to the town square, and it still does. It was one of the buildings in Johnstown that withstood the impact of the flood and held through the long night after. And well that it did, for there were several hundred people in Alma Hall that night. The rooms and corridors of the upper three floors were pitch dark and filled with the crying of scared children, the moaning of the wounded, and a lot of fervent praying. From outside came the sounds of nearby buildings cracking up and caving in.
To prevent panic, an Alma Hall government was quickly set up, with the Reverend Mr. Beale in charge of one of the floors. All whiskey was confiscated and the use of matches strictly forbidden, because of the likelihood of a natural-gas leak in the basement. There was no light, no food or water. There were no blankets, no dry clothes, and no medical supplies. Nor was there any assurance whatsoever that the whole building would not crack apart and bury them all. Among Alma Hall’s refugees was John Fulton, the same engineer who had reported to Daniel Morrell on the structural shortcomings of the South Fork dam. It was, in Mr. Beale’s words, “a night of indescribable horrors.” But everyone in Alma Hall came out alive.
In the early morning, before dawn, on Saturday, June i, thousands of people on the near hillsides watched the wreckage of Johnstown begin to emerge from the half light. Cold, hungry, many of them badly injured, they huddled under dripping trees or stood along narrow footpaths ankle deep in mud. At the Frankstown Road hill some 3,000 people were gathered. The sky overhead was a soft, spotless blue. It was going to be a magnificent day.
Few of them had had any sleep. The sounds from below had been too horrible through the night. Some of the Civil War veterans were saying it was worse than anything they had ever been through before. Then, too, there was a kind of grim fascination in seeing fire and water together where a city ought to be. Little Gertrude Quinn said it was like watching ships burning at sea.
But just how bad the damage had been no one really knew until the sun was up. Almost any hill around Johnstown offers a panoramic view of the whole city. The panoramic view that morning was unbelievable.