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The Day the Dam Broke

William Pickerill was telegraph operator at Mineral Point, a small village in the path of the Johnstown Flood of 1889. His telegraph lines were dead in both directions and soon he heard the roar of floodwaters followed a few moments later by the spectacle of human beings bobbing downstream on its crest. A few hundred feet west of the tower, an engine waited on the tracks.

Pickerill shouted down to the engineer, John Hess, “The dam has broken—clear out or you’ll be washed off the tracks!” Hess tied down his whistle and raced his engine backward toward East Conemaugh. He didn’t stop until he reached the yards; then he jumped out and ran up Railroad Street to his home, arriving in time to gather his family and take them up the hillside. The train whistle blasted away behind him, the only public warning given to the people of that borough. The whistle didn’t stop until the flood picked up the engine, choked its boiler and swept it downstream. In the East Conemaugh railroad yards the Day Express, eastbound from Chicago, was laying over, waiting for word that the tracks had been cleared. Twenty-year-old Jennie Paulson and her traveling companion Elizabeth Bryan sat in the first section, chattering unconcernedly. The young women were headed to Philadelphia for a weekend house party at Elizabeth’s home. When the shriek of engineer Hess’s train whistle was heard, they craned their necks to look up the tracks. Trainmen hurried through the cars, calmly telling the passengers, “Please step up the hillside as quickly as possible,” and refusing to discuss the order further. One man, after hearing the shrill of the whistle, turned to a woman sitting near him and said, “I presume there is no danger.” Then he looked out of his car window and saw a huge mass of trees and water, about 200 or 300 feet away, bearing down on the train and blotting out the horizon. Paralyzed with panic, many of the passengers were engulfed while still inside the train. Others jumped and scrambled for higher ground. Elizabeth and Jennie were among the first passengers to get off the train and start for the hillside.

But once outside the Pullman, Jennie caught her friend’s arm, staring in dismay at the dirty water swirling around her new white kid shoes. They went back to the car for Jennie’s overshoes and were just descending the platform steps when the flood struck the train and carried it off. Many days later, and many miles downstream, their bodies were recovered. Jennie had her overshoes on.

Richard O.Connor, Johnstown: The Day the Dam Broke