Rev. Dr. David Beale
At the time of the Johnstown Flood of 1889, Rev. Dr. David J. Beale was pastor of First Presbyterian Church on Main Street, one of the largest congregations in town. On that Friday afternoon, inside his parsonage on Lincoln Street, Dr. Beale was working on his sermon for the upcoming Sabbath, while outside the streets were underwater as a result of the heavy rains. Just after the 4:00 PM bells tolled in Johnstown, the town was struck by the waters and debris of the Great Flood. The Beale family scrambled for safety, and, with hundreds of others, spent a terrifying night in Alma Hall a few doors away.
After the Flood, Dr. Beale was named co-chairman of a committee charged with the recovery of the dead. Together with some associates, he created a handwritten “master” record of the dead, compiled from the records of the different morgues, intended mostly to assist those looking for missing loved ones. He drew national praise for his work in assisting the survivors of the Flood, and was offered a contract to write a book on the disaster. (To complete this book, Dr. Beale solicited photographs and stories from his fellow survivors.)
Dr. Beale also became a controversial figure after the Flood. Some in his congregation opposed his decision to allow his church to be used as a morgue, while others accused him of profiting from the morgue records, and of dedicating too much time to the writing of his book. Tensions in his congregation came to a boil, and he left Johnstown in 1890, eventually accepting a charge in Philadelphia.
Historians of the Flood often wondered the fate of Dr. Beale’s notes, papers, and, most importantly, the master morgue book. Astonishingly, all of these items were found in the Philadelphia area a few years ago. The National Park Service and the Johnstown Area Heritage Association were able to secure the funds to acquire these treasures for preservation.
Colonel Elias Unger 1830-1896
Colonel Elias Unger probably never had a military record. He was, however, the manager of hotels along the Pennsylvania Railroad and the Seventh Avenue Hotel in Pittsburgh. These accomplishments did not get him much noteriety after his death in 1896, but what did was one of the worst disasters in United States history.
Unger happened to be, in 1889, the president of a corporation who maintained a dam and resort property called the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club. This resort was located high up in the Allegheny Mountains near Johnstown, PA, a city in central Pennsylvania.
In the early morning hours of May 31, 1889 Unger noticed that the level of Lake Conemaugh had risen considerably during the night of the thirtieth. Elias then made a quick calculation and estimated that the dam was rising 4-6 inches per hour. This scene alarmed Unger and around 10:00 AM he ordered 10-20 Italian laborers to start digging a spillway on the west end of the dam and to try to heighten the top of the breast. The immigrants worked heroically but the situation, unfortunately, grew worse. So Unger ordered a young graduate of the University of Pennsylvania, John Parke (who was also the club’s resident engineer), to ride to the nearest town (South Fork) and get a message to Johnstown about the condition of the dam. During Parke’s ride, water started pouring over the top of the dam and once the young man returned from South Fork saving the dam seemed like a hopeless cause. The water was rising faster than the men could build up the dam so at 2:45 PM Unger returned to his home above the South Fork dam due to exhaustion.
At 3:15 PM the South Fork dam finally gave way spilling the entire contents of Lake Conemaugh into the valley leading to Johnstown. The result of the 20 million-ton lake was over 2,000 dead in the valley.
The South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club Members:
Did You Know?
By July 1st, stores opened on Main Street for business. Five years later an observer would have been hard pressed to imagine the destruction in the valley on May 31, 1889.