THE first survivors of the Johnstown wreck who arrived at Pittsburgh
were Joseph and Henry Lauffer and Lew Dalmeyer. They endured considerable
hardship and had several narrow escapes with their lives. Their
story of the disaster can best be told in their own language.
Joe, the youngest of the Lauffer brothers said:
"My brother and I left on Thursday for Johnstown. The night
we arrived there it rained continually, and on Friday morning
it began to flood. I started for the Cambria store at a quarter-past
eight on Friday, and in fifteen minutes afterward I had to get
out of the store in a wagon, the water was running so rapidly.
We then arrived at the station and took the day express and went
as far as Conemaugh, where we had to stop. The limited, however,
got through, and just as we were about to start the bridge at
South Fork gave way with a terrific crash, and we had to stay
there. We then went to Johnstown. This was at a quarter to ten
in the morning, when the flood was just beginning. The whole city
of Johnstown was inundated and the people all moved up to the
"Now this is where the trouble occurred. These poor unfortunates
did not know the reservoir would burst, and there are no skiffs
in Johnstown to escape in. When the South Fork basin gave way
mountains of water twenty feet high came rushing down the Conemaugh
River, carrying before them death and destruction. I shall never
forget the harrowing scene. just think of it! thousands of people,
men, and women, and children, struggling and weeping and wailing
as they were being carried suddenly away in the raging current.
Houses were picked up as if they were but a feather, and their
inmates were all carried away with them, while cries of 'God help
me!' 'Save me!' 'I am drowning!' 'My child!' and the like were
heard on all sides. Those who were lucky enough to escape went
to the mountains, and there they beheld the poor unfortunates
being crushed to death among the debris without any chance of
being rescued. Here and there a body was seen to make a wild leap
into the air and then sink to the bottom.
"At the stone bridge of the Pennsylvania Railroad people
were dashed to death against the piers. When the fire started
there, hundreds of bodies were burned. Many lookers-on up on the
mountains, especially the woman, fainted."
Mr. Lauffer's brother, Harry, then told his part of the tale,
which was not less interesting. He said: "We had a series
of narrow escapes, and I tell you we don't want to be around when
anything of that kind occurs again.
The scenes at Johnstown have not in the least been exaggerated,
and, indeed, the worst is to be heard. When we got to Conemaugh,
just as we were about to start, the bridge gave way. This left
the day express, the accommodation, a special train, and a freight
train at the station. Above was the South Fork water basin, and
all of the trains were well filled. We were discussing the situation
when suddenly, without any warning, the whistles of every engine
began to shriek, and in the noise could be heard the warning of
the first engineer, 'Fly for your lives! Rush to the mountains,
the reservoir has burst.' Then with a thundering peal came the
mad rush of waters. No sooner had the cry been heard than those
who could rushed from the train with a wild leap and up the mountains.
To tell this story takes some time, but the moments in which the
horrible scene was enacted were few. Then came the avalanche of
water, leaping and rushing with tremendous force. The waves had
angry crests of white, and their roar was something deafening.
In one, terrible swath they caught the four trains and lifted
three of them right off the track, as if they were only a cork.
There they floated in the river. Think of it, three large locomotives
and finely finished Pullmans floating around, and above all the
hundreds of poor unfortunates who were unable to escape from the
car swiftly drifting toward death. Just as we were about to leap
from the car I saw a mother, with a smiling, blue-eyed baby in
her arms. I snatched it from her and leaped from the train just
as it was lifted off the track. The mother and child were saved,
but if one more minute had elapsed we all would have perished.
"During all of this time the waters kept rushing down
the Conemaugh and through the beautiful town of Johnstown, picking
up everything and sparing nothing.
"The mountains by this time were black with people, and
the moans and sighs from those below brought tears to the eyes
of the most stony-hearted. There in that terrible rampage were
brothers, sisters, wives and husbands, and from the mountain could
be seen the panic-stricken marks in the faces of those who were
struggling between life and death. I really am unable to do justice
to the scene, and its details are almost beyond my power to relate.
Then came the burning of the debris near the Pennsylvania Railroad
bridge. The scene was too sickening to endure. We left the spot
and journeyed across country and delivered many notes, letters,
etc., that were intrusted to us.
The gallant young engineer, John G. Parke, whose ride of warning
has already been described, relates the following:
"On Thursday night I noticed that the dam was in good order
and the water was nearly seven feet from the top. When the water
is at this height the lake is then nearly three miles in length.
It rained hard on Thursday night and I rode up to the end of the
lake on the eventful day and saw that the woods around there was
teeming with a seething cauldron of water. Colonel Unger, the
president of the fishing club that owns the property, put twenty-five
Italians to work to fix the dam. A farmer in the vicinity also
lent a willing hand. To strengthen the dam a plow was run along
the top of it, and earth was then thrown into the furrows. On
the west side a channel was dug and a sluice was constructed.
We cut through about four feet of shale rock, when we came to
solid rock which was impossible to cut without blasting. Once
we got the channel open the water leaped down to the bed-rock,
and a stream fully twenty feet wide and three feet deep rushed
out on that end of the dam, while great quantities of water were
coming in by the pier at the other end. And then in the face of
this great escape of water from the dam, it kept rising at the
rate of ten inches an hour.
"At noon I fully believed that it was practically impossible
to save the dam, and I got on a horse and galloped down to South
Fork, and gave the alarm, telling the people at the same time
of their danger, and advising them to get to a place of safety.
I also sent a couple of men to the telegraph tower, two miles
away, to send messages to Johnstown and Cambria and to the other
points on the way. The young girl at the instrument fainted when
the news reached her, and was carried away. Then, by the timely
warning given, the people at South Fork had an opportunity to
move their household goods and betake themselves to a place of
safety. Only one person was drowned in that place, and he was
trying to save an old washtub that was floating downstream.
"It was noon when the messages were sent out, so that
the people of Johnstown had just three hours to fly to a place
of safety. Why they did not heed the warning will never be told.
I then remounted my horse and rode to the dam, expecting at every
moment to meet the lake rushing down the mountain-side, but when
I reached there I found the dam still intact, although the water
had then reached the top of it. At one p.m. I walked over the
dam, and then the water was about three inches on it, and was
gradually gnawing away its face. As the stream leaped down the
outer face, the water was rapidly wearing down the edge of the
embankment, and I knew that it was a question of but a few hours.
From my knowledge I should say there was fully ten million tons
of water in the lake at one o'clock, while the pressure was largely
increased by the swollen streams that flowed into it, but even
then the dam could have stood it if the level of the water had
been kept below the top. But, coupled with this, there was the
constantly trickling of the water over the sides, which was slowly
but surely wearing the banks away.
"The big break took place at just three o'clock, and it
was about ten feet wide at first and shallow; but when the opening
was made the fearful rushing waters opened the gap with such increasing
rapidity that soon after the entire lake leaped out and started
on its fearful march of death down the Valley of the Conemaugh.
It took but forty minutes to drain that three miles of water,
and the downpour of millions of tons of water was irresistible.
The big boulders and great rafters and logs that were in the bed
of the river were picked up, like so much chaff, and carried down
the torrent for miles. Trees that stood fully seventy-five feet
in height and four feet through were snapped off like pipe-stems."
Johnstown | Mother Nature 1
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