“Prepare to meet your God, O Israel.” -Amos 4:12
I wonder what the folks in Johnstown, Pennsylvania were thinking about when they woke up on the morning of Memorial Day, May 30, 1889. Did any of them think, “This will be my last day on earth because I am going to die today.” We can be almost certain that no one was thinking that way.
John Parke, the resident civil engineer at the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club, a summer resort destination for rich Pittsburgh industrialists like Andrew Carnegie, Philander Knox, and Robert Pitcairn, was deeply concerned on that day. Rain had been falling for several days and the lake on which the resort was situated was dangerously close to flowing over the top of the thirty foot earthen dam. The dam had been compromised for years. John Morrell, the owner of the Cambria Iron Works in Johnstown, PA, actually approached Carnegie, et al several years before about refurbishing the dam, even offering to pay some of the cost himself. People had lived for years with fear of the dam breaking and sending a wall of water down the valley to Johnstown. Carnegie and his friends said there was no problem with the dam. Nothing was ever done about it. So, the rain had stopped by midday on May 30 and the Memorial Day festivities in Johnstown went on without incident. But later that night, by 11 p.m., the rains began again. By the next morning, as Parke took a boat and went out on the South Fork lake to survey the situation, he was very troubled by what he saw. He sent a telegram down the valley to Johnstown, warning that the dam was in jeopardy. Actually he sent two telegrams. The receiver of both ignored both. The people had been told for years that even if the dam broke, not more than two or three feet of water would flow into the valley, that they ought not to be concerned. Besides, they had been worried before but nothing ever happened. At 3 p.m., May 31, the dam broke and a thirty foot high wall of water began to cascade very rapidly from an altitude of 1500 feet down the valley toward Johnstown, a drop of over five hundred feet in elevation, taking everything in its path with it—trees, houses, horses, hundreds of people, and railroad box cars and locomotives from the Pennsylvania Railroad. It took an hour for the waters to make their way into Johnstown, but by the time they did, 2209 people had died. Some heeded the warning of a long train whistle blast to flee from impending doom to high ground, but most ignored it or were too late to escape.