Statement of W.M. Hays

I have been in the service of the Penna. Railroad Company as supervisor for thirty years. My division extends from Conemaugh to Latrobe. It lacks a few feet of being forty miles long. On Thursday, the day of the commencement of t he big rain, I was at home at New Florence, twelve miles from Johnstown. My work train was called out during the night of Thursday; or on Friday morning rather, after midnight, to remove a slide that had come in below Johnstown, at Cambria City (.) I was not called, and didn't get out there until 11 o'clock the next day. The next day when I got up there, the train was still there. The river was very high when I got there, and there was talk about the reservoir breaking.

Q. What was said about the reservoir breaking?
A. Some said it was liable to break, and others said there was no danger. In the mean time, Johnstown Lumber Company's boom had broken up on Stony Creek, up above Johnstown, and the d rift was coming down very rapidly, and we with our force were trying to keep the bridge clear; - - that is, the stone bridge west of Johnstown, and we worked away there until about 4.10. The water had receded, we believe, about two inches. About 4.10, our attention was attracted by people shouting, and I saw this bank of water and drift coming down the Conemaugh, almost like a wall. About 4.10, it crossed the town before it reached our bridge, and went up into what is called Currenville [sic] (Kernville) a suburb of Johnstown, on Stony Creek, then after it got level there, it came down to our bridge. It was a very short time, but we saw the course of it. The houses were packed so close together that you could scarcely see the water. There were a few houses went under the arches of our bridge, only a few and then it stopped, but it ran over the bridge, over the coping a foot or more deep for fifteen or twenty minutes. Then it broke through the approach cast of the bridge and carried that away. I was at the west end of the bridge when I saw the wall of water coming. It seemed to me it couldn't be less than twenty feet, and I don't doubt it was thirty feet deep. It spread out from one side of the hill to the other, and came crushing and dashing ahead.

Q. How far did it come before it turned and went toward Currenville [sic]?
A. It apparently crossed at Gautier works at Johnstown and ran straight across to Currenville [sic] to Stony Creek.

Q. Now, what do you think was the reason for the change in the course of this volume of water?
A. It got up as far as its level would carry it. Then it receded back. It was the striking against the hill that turned the course of the current towards Currenville [sic]. From the Johnstown bluff, it took a straight course through Clinton and Market streets. It took its course through what is called the Currenville [sic] Bridge.

Q. How much of the track on the railroad embankment was washed out?
A. Two miles of it. Perhaps a little less than two miles. Commencing east to Conemaugh, maybe a thousand or fifteen hundred feet less than two miles.

Q. How high was the road constructed there above the bed of the South Fork of the Conemaugh at Johnstown, and above it eastward as far as it was washed out?
A. I would say twenty to twenty-five feet. Part of it was against the hill. All that part of the main line built on an embankment was swept out, not quite all the way, but nearly all the way. We had fo r [sic] tracks there.

Q. What was the width of the top of the roadway where these four tracks were located?
A. Fifty feet.

Q. What became of the ties and rails?
A. The rails were bent up and lying in the river, and the ties, many of them, were washed away; drifted off.

Q. The volume of water that came down Stony Creek was very great, was it?
A. Yes, sir.

Q. Did you ever see anything like that in the Conemaugh or Stony Creek, previous to this one?
A. No, sir.

Q. How many floods in thirty years have you seen there?
A. I suppose I have seen on an average one a year. There was one very heavy flood there two years ago.

Q. How did this one compare with that?
A. This was higher than that one before the reservoir broke.

Q. How much?
A. I suppose a couple feet anyway. It may have been four.

Q. How much water was there in Stony Creek before it commenced to fall?
A. I couldn't tell that; the water was backed all around there; guessing, I would say 15 feet.

Q. It was much greater than anything your have ever seen there before?
A. Yes, sir.

Q. What was the difference between the highest flood you ever saw there, and this one?
A. I would say five or six feet.

Q. What was your observation as to the character of the main town at your home at New Florence?
A. It rained a good portion of Thursday night, and all day on Friday.

Q. How was the Conemaugh river back of New Florence?
A. I never saw it so high before.

Q. How many County bridges were swept away?
A. Nineveh, New Florence, Bolivar, Blairsville; I think all the bridges on the river were gone before the South Fork water cam [sic] (.) I have seen those bridges frequently in passing along. They were constructed above the ordinary low water mark of the stream; I think the Bolivar bridge was 20 feet above, and the New Florence bridge 15.

Q. What kind of a bridge was the Bolivar bridge?
A. It was an iron bridge.

Q. And it was swept away?
A. Yes, sir.

Q. What time of day were these bridges taken out?
A. They were taken out sometime between twelve and three o'clock Friday.

Q. And before the dam broke?
A. Yes, sir, before the rush of water came from the dam. The Cambria bridge was gone when I came up there on Friday about 11 o'clock, both of them.

Q. How high were they above the ordinary low water mark of the Conemaugh?
A. Not very high: I couldn't say exactly.

Q. What kind of bridges were they?
A. They were iron bridges with tracks on them. A street track, and I think also a locomotive track.

Q. How high in your judgement was the water in Johnstown before the dam broke?
A. Near the Johnstown bridge, there was twelve feet of water; I judges it by the windows.

Q. For what area or extent did that twelve feet of water prevail or extend to?
A. I couldn't say exactly. It decreased in depth as you went southward because of the elevation of the ground which was greater.

Q. Had the people been moving out as the water rose in the town?
A. There [sic] had a few got out when the alarm came, as I understand.

Q. Where were the people before the dam broke, when there was twelve feet of water in the lower part of the town [sic]?
A. They got up in the second story of their houses.

Q. What proportion of the town of Johnstown do you think was covered withh [sic] twelve feet of water?
A. I don't think more than one fourth of it, but there was water all over the level part of the town down as far as I could see, before the dam broke. I never saw such a flood in Johnstown before, and the oldest inhabitants say that was the highest flood they ever had there. Some of the oldest people there two years ago say that flood was the highest they had ever had there.

Q. Who were some of these people?
A. I don't just remember. They were Welsh people. Charlie Ellis was one of them, and another old Welshman who had been there about fifty years; I don't know his name.

Q. How much was the water over its banks below Johnstown when you go there Friday?
A. Well it was ten feet anyway.

Q. And extended how far into the fields below there?
A. It extended out there into the flat part of the country some places one hundred feet, and some places a thousand feet.

Q. How much did the water rise from the time you went there until the dam broke?
A. I don't think it raised much. It kept about the same until the breaking of the dam.

Q. How far is by the course of the South Fork from Johnstown to the breast of the dam?
A. Twelve miles.

Q. How high was the water at the Johnstown bridge before the dam broke?
A. It was about five feet below the crown of the arch.

Last updated: February 14, 2017

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