Statement of Freight Agent Deckert

Q. Where were you employed in May last?
A. At Johnstown, as freight agent for the Penna. Railroad Co.

Q. How many years had you been there?
A. 21 years in next September.

Q. Did you hold that position all those years?
A. Yes, sir.

Q. Now, can you tell me whether there were any floods, and if so, as near as you can, locate them in point of time, prior to this last one that swept Johnstown?
A. The only one I can remember is the one in June 1887, then we had a very high flood; the highest I guess we had had after the time I came there.

Q. What was the depth of it in Johnstown, as near as you can tel? [sic]
A. Well, really I couldn't tell.

Q. Was there any water mark on the school house, or any place there you know of that you could fix it by?
A. No, sir. This last high water was said to be four feet higher, which I think it was too, then the other flood.

Q. You mean this May flood was four feet higher than the flood of June 1887?
A. Yes, sir.

Q. Did the water get into the ouses [sic] - in the flood of June '87?
A. Well, in the lower part of the town, and the town was pretty well covered in this May flood.

Q. How high was the water in this last flood?
A. Well, it reached the second stories of most of the houses.

Q. Well, now, just go on in your own way, and give me a statement of what you observed as to the character of the rain; when it commenced, how long it lasted, how rapidly the Conemaugh at Johnstown rose, and what you saw of the trains the day the dam broke, etc.
A. Really, it was something I paid very little attention to. We were working in our office all the time.

Q. What kind of a rain was it?
A. It was a very heavy rain.

Q. Did you ever see as heavy a rain as that continue as long as that one did?
A. Well, I don't know that I have, really. It was a very heavy rain.

Q. And in all the years you lived there, did you ever see a flood as high as the May flood?
A. No, sir.

Q. Well, now, what time did the Conemaugh commence to raise, as near as you can recollect?
A. In the night.

Q. What night?
A. Through Thursday night. In the morning the first I knew of it was from hearing parties who went by my place, state that they couldn't get down past the stone bridge in going to Cambria; that they had to go up over the platform. That was the first I knew of the high water; and after that it continued rising until it stopped about 3 o'clock, and staid [sic] there for about half an hour.

Q. Did it rain all day Friday?
A. No, I don't think it did.

Q. Where were you en [sic] the dam broke, and the flood came down to Johnstown?
A. I was in my house, or on my way to my house.

Q. Which side of the railroad?
A. On the north side of the railroad. I was in the tower at the time it broke, or rather at the time parties heard it coming. I noticed a commotion on the platform, and went outside, and the crowd were hollowing "Fight!" in the back part of the crowd;--they [sic] didn't know what was the matter. I paid no attention to that, but went right down to my house as hard as I could run, though I didn't really know what was the matter, -- and why I ran, I don't know, but I went to the house, and -- went in and rushed them out just as I came to them, and then I came out myself last, and I no more than got outside the gate when the houses were falling around me on the other side of me, but they apparently fell without any cause as I could see, and I didn't understand it at all; didn't know what was the matter:

Q. Wasn't the water around them?
A. The water of the first flood was around them, but not the water from the dam.

Q. You mean to say that the houses fell before the flood reached them?
A. Yes, sir; that is, a few seconds before.

Q. Well, it wasn't the surge, or rush of water that washed them out?
A. It didn't seem to be that to me. The water then didn't seem to be but very little higher than it had been.

Q. Well, did you seek safety?
A. I left for the platform of the railroad, and got up on the bank.

Q. Did you live near the platform?
A. Oh, yes, that was the only thing that saved us, because I wasn't expecting the dam to break. We had had that scare so often, we didn't give it any thought at all.

Q. Do you recollect whether on the day the dam broke there had been any messages received at Johnstown in relation to the South Fork dam, who received them, and what was in the message?
A. I received a message dated at 2.44; it was between that time and 3 o'clock that I got it.

Q. Who was it from?
A. It was from J. C: W. ; I don't know who that is; I suppose it was an operator.

Q. Do you think it was the initials of the operator at South Fork or at Conemaugh?
A. It was dated at South Fork; from the telegraph station at South Fork. I had the message quite a little while.

Q. What was in that message, as near as you can tell?
A. Itwas [sic] that the dam was getting serious, and would possibly go.

Q. To whom was that sent?
A. That was addressed to me. The signature was, I think, J. C. W. or J. S. W. I kept it for quite a ----- while, but I have lost, or mislaid it.

Q. Do you know, from any conversation you had with Walkinshaw since, whether he sent that message?
A. No, I never asked him about it.

Q. Did the dispatch disclose how they had received the news of that fact about the dam, or how the news had got to South Fork?
A. No, sir.

Q. That was at 2.45, you think?
A. The message was dated 2.44. I remember distinctly about the time.

Q. How do you happen to remember the exact time?
A. I don't know, except that I looked at the time after I got it.

Q. How long was it after you got that dispatch until you had to clear out?
A. I had gone out to the office, and telephoned it over to the central office, and they received it all right, and I went down to the house---

Q. How long do you suppose it was?
A. Oh I suppose half an hour?

Q. I understand you telegraphed that to whom?
A. To the central office.

Q. What central office?
A. Johnstown.

Q. The telegraph office?
A. No, sir, the telephone office.

Q. The Company's telephone?
A. No, sir, the public telephone. The Company don't have one.

Q. What request did you send along with it to make it known? Did you request the operator to make it known?
A. I did.

Q. Who was that man?
A. I don't know; there is a lady there in day time, and I suppose she had left the office.

Q. Was it a man's voice?
A. Yes, sir.

Q. Did you receive any other dispatch than that?
A. Well, I saw a dispatch; it wasn't addressed to me; it was addressed to other parties.

Q. What other parties?
A. I don't remember now.

Q. You have given us a statement here of a dispatch you got and telephoned to the central office. Was that the second or first one?
A. That was the second one.

Q. When did you get the first one?
A. I didn't receive the first one. When I saw it or heard of it, it was about 12 o'clock, I suppose?

Q. Tell me what you know about it.
A. I didn't know anything in regard to it. I saw it but didn't read it. It was in regard to the dam; that there was some danger of it breaking.

Q. That was what time?
A. 12 o'clock, or in that neighborhood.

Q. You don't know who that was from?
A. No, sir.

Q. What did you do when you heard of that? Did you give any notice of it to the people?
A. No, sir, we did not. It came through the ticket office in the first place, and I believe that is the way the message reached our office; that is, the ticket man brought it up to our office.

Q. Was it a telegraphic message?
A. It was written on Penna. Railroad telegraphic paper.

Q. Do you know where that came from?
A. No, sir, I don't.

Q. Did it create any alarm in your mind?
A. Oh no.

Q. For what reason?
A. Well, we had had that alarm before. We had had it every high water we have had there.

Q. That was the reason, was it?
A. Yes, sir, it was a common subject of remark that the dam might come out, in times of high water.

Q. And you didn't take any interest in it?
A. No, sir, I did not, or I wouldn't have left my family, or remained in the house.

Q. Did any word come about the dam, other that these two dispatches you spoke of?
A. That is the only thing I know of.

Q. Do you know as a fact, whether after you got that first dispatch, that the contents of it were made known by the people around the station house there?
A. Oh yes.

Q. And amongst the citizens too?
A. Yes, we notifies all parties around there.

Q. Were there a great amny [sic] people on the platform around there?
A. Well, just a few off the street right handy.

Q. What did you do in the way of giving notice after you got the dispatch at 12 o'clock?
A. We notified all parties we saw.

Q. But what did you do?
A. We notified people as we saw them, but they did not pay any attention to it. It was no use. We didn't consider it any use to send it over town. I didn't send it over because I knew how it would be received by all parties. I saw a party the next day, I think it was, who said he got the warning I sent over town. I happened to be down at the landing when he came over in a boat, just the next day about the middle of the day; [sic]

Q. Was that Sunday?
A. No, that was Saturday. I might be mistaken about it being Saturday; I don't think it was Sunday though.

Q. Well, what was the interview? You reco lect [sic] whether it was before or after the dam broke?
A. Oh yes, it was after the dam broke. He struck me on the shoulder when he landed, and said he received my message, and that was the last warning he received until the water came.

Q. Who was he?
He is Col. Higgins' brother, of the Club House at Johnstown. [sic]

Q. Is that a social club?
A. No, sir, it is a Cambria Iron Company arrangement. It is different from a Club house. It is a Cambria Iron Co. house where they entertain boarders and strangers; in fact, for the benefit of Cambria Iron Company's friends and employes.

Q. Where is Mr. Higgins?
A. He was in Johnstown the last time I saw him. That was all he said to me.

Q. Did he say how he got the information?
A. No, sir, he didn't.

Q. Didn't you say just now that he got the warnign [sic] you sent?
A. Yes, sir, but whether he received it by telephone or not, I don't know.

Q. Do you recollect his words?
A. Well, he said he had received my word that the dam was going to burst, and that the last he heard about it was my message.

Q. And that was the one you telephoned to the central office?
A. Yes, sir.

Q. Well, if the people had taken heed from that warning, couldn't they have gotten out?
A. No, sir there was no means for getting out. The water was away up on their houses.

Q. So that there wasn't any mode of relief short of getting boats and taking them out?
A. That would be the only way. At 12 o'clock, the time that I saw the first message, the water was to high then for the lower end of town to get out without some boats or something of that kind.

Q. How much higher was this May flood of 1889, than the June flood you have spoken of before?
A. Well, I suppose it was our feet from our lot----

Q. And how high would that make the water in the lower portion of the town up on the houses?
A. That would make it,aI [sic] suppose, 15 feet.

Q. As you come up toward the station, the ground raises, don't it?
A. Yes, sir.

Q. What would be the height of the water on the houses immediately south of say, the passenger station at Johnstown, as compared with the water down in the bottom?
A. Well, it wasn't up to our first floor?

A. Of the station house?
A. No, of my dwelling house; I live just below the passenger station. It hadn't reached my first floor.

Q. You were not away from Johnstown, you wasn't up to Conemaugh, was you?
A. No, sir.

Q. How high was the water, as near as you can tell, before the dam broke, in the channel of the Conemaugh? How many feet of water was there in the channel?
A. Well, I suppose 12 or 14 feet.

Q. Was it over its banks above Johnstown; between that and Woodvale?
A. Yes, sir, it was over the tops of cars on the siding along the river.

Q. What kind of cars?
A. Gondola cars.

Q. At what point?
A. Well, that is above us about 300 yards or more.

Q. And what time of day was the water up over the gondolas?
A. That was right after dinner; right after 1 o'clock.

Q. What would be the height of a gondola car over the track?
A. Some of them I guess are six feet.

Q. And the water was over the gondolas?
A. Yes, sir. I was afraid of the water starting them down, and catching us without the dam breaking.

Q. What siding were they on?
A. On Gautier sdiing [sic]; Gautier Steel Co. siding.

Q. Where was that siding with reference to the river? Was it close to it?
A. It was right alongside of it; right along the river bank.

Q. Well, how many cars were covered there?
A. I suppose 150.

Q. When the flood came down from the dam breaking, can you describe to me the course it took after striking the bluff above Johnstown?
A. Well the first current went through the eastern end of Johnstown across to Stony Creek, and the next one struck the town from our freight depot across.

Q. Where is the freight depot at Joh stown [sic] with reference to the passenger station?
A. It is about 200 yards above the passenger station. The current s truck the bridge that is used as a railroad bridge by the Cambria Iron Company, right opposite us across the river, and it turned the current across the town.

Q. It turned the current for a time, did it?
A. Yes, sir, a very short time: it was swept away.

Q. Did the first or the second current , after [sic] the dam broke, strike Currenville?
A. I couldn't say myself.

Q. Well, the water went in that direction did it, from the destruction it made?
A. Yes, sir.

Q. Currenville is on the bank of Stony Creek, isn't it?
A. Yes, sir.

Q. How far is it from the mouth?
A. It is well onto half a mile.

Q. Was there any channel there at all, the way those currents ran; had there ever been a channel up that way, or did the current make a new channel?
A. It made a new channel ; it cut its way.

Q. After the water subsided, had it cut out a considerable channel across the bottom?
A. Well, now, I don't think it had.

Q. What turned, or deflected the course of the water across the the [sic] town?
A. I suppose the first one took its course through the upper end of the town on account of the force of the current; it struck it on a curve, and just went over the town.

Q. In the elbow of this curve, there was a high bank, was there not?
A. No, sir, on the inside of the curve, there is; not on the outside.

Q. But didn't the water hit this high bank?
A. No, the Gautier Mill was along that bank; along the curve of the river; that was on the south side.

Q. I am speaking about the north side now; Wasn't there a high precipitous bank on the north side, opposite the Gautier works
Q. And didn't one of the currents strike that high bank?

A. Not that I know of.

Q. Was it the Gautier works that changed the current, and not the hill?
A. No, sir, it ran right through Gautier works.

Q. Where did it strike next?
A. It went right across the town?

Q. What I went to get at is, what turned it in that direction?
A. It was the body of the water; nothing more than that: there was too much water for the river.

Q. So far as you know, did the people in the service of the Penna Railroad Company at Johhnstown, [sic] including yourself, do all they theyy [sic] could to notify people of the danger of that dam breaking?
A. Well, yes, I believe they did; all that there was any use of notifying.

Q. Well, as you received the news by these dispatches, you made known to the people about the place what was likely to take place, or what the surmise was, and you telephoned that over to the general office, but I understand you to say that even with all that notice and warning, the people could not have gotten out of their houses on account of the water being so high in the houses?
A. Yes, sir.

Q. And the people were driven up to the upper stories of their houses?
A. Yes, sir.

Q. So that really the warning could not have been taken advantage of?
A. No, and if it had been earlier, it could not. Then it would not have made any difference what warning some got, they wouldn't have gotten out anyway . [sic]

Q. Was there any telegraphic communication between Johnstown and the South Fork dam that you know of?
A. Not that I know of.

Q. And no telegraph from South Fork up to the dam?
A. Not that I know of.

Q. Did the people you saw there about the station show any particular consternation or fear of the dam breaking?
A. No, sir.

Q. Neither you nor anybody you saw had any belief that the dam was going to break?
A. No, sir.

Q. You wouldn't have been there if you thought it was so?
A. No, sir.

(In talking the matter over afterwards, Mr. Deckert came to the conclusion that the current striking the north bank of the river was the cause of the water being turned in the direction of the town; co ntrary [sic] to his statement hereinbefore [sic] made).

Last updated: February 26, 2015

Contact the Park

Mailing Address:

733 Lake Road
South Fork, PA 15956


(814) 886-6170

Contact Us