Pickerill Statement

Q. At the time of the Johnstown flood, where were you employed and by whom?
A. I was employed at the Penna. Railroad Company's tower known as "WP" tower, by the Pennsylvania Railroad Company.

Q. How long had you been there?
A. Sinc e [sic] the 14th day of May, 1875.

Q. In the same place all the time as operator?
A. Yes, sir.

Q. I wish you would state sir, whether prior to this big flood in May last, you had seen one or more floods in the Conemaugh.
A. Oh yes, I have seen high water in the Conemaugh before.

Q. How often did you see the water up high, do you suppose, since 1875?
A. Well, I saw high water every spring and fall; what we call high water.

Q. What is the highest you ever saw the water in the Conemaugh prior to this big flood?
A. Well, I have seen it almost bank full along at that point where I was. You understand I was at a location there where the bank is probably six or eight feet high on the side where my office is on.

Q. When it was in that condition, would any portion of Johnstown be under water?
A. That depends altogether on cirsumstances [sic];--how the Stony Creek would be. If there was a rise in Stony Creek, it might probably flood the lower portion of Johnstown---what is known as the"point".

Q. Have you known Johnstown to be flooded before this big flood came?
A. Yes, sir, I have heard of it, but I have never witnessed it. I have heard of it and seen an account of it in the paper,.

Q. You believe it to be true?
A. Yes, sir, from the fact that I had relatives living there, and they were flooded out one time.

Q. In the June freshet that occurred two years ago, I think it was, did they live there?
A. Yes, sir, they lived in that portion of Johnstown known as Iron Street; Millvale, I think is the name of the Borough or portion of the town all below the station; that portion of town that is all washed out now.

Q. How much higher was the last flood in May when any you ever saw there? How many feet?
A. Well, it was what I would call the river bank full before the main body of water came; I took particular notice that it seemed to be----

Q. The question is, how much higher was this last flood than any one you ever saw, in feet, if you can tell
A. I should judge to make the thing safe it must have been eight feet of water in the river behind my tower. I think I would be safe in saying eight feet at that point.

Q. Do you mean against the tower?
A. No, sir, what I would call bank full: eight feet of water in the channel.

Q. Can you tell us what the character of that rain was that fell in the last of May that produced the flood? Was it a continuous, heavy rain-fall or not?
A. Yes, sir, from what I can learn, and what I seen. I was told by the night operator that it commenced raining at 11 o'clock that night, on the night of the 30th, and he said it poured down; it was in regular torrents pretty much all night. I remarked in the morning when I came down that it was a pretty hard rain, and he said, "Yes, I never heard it rain harder than it did." He said he thought it would batter the office roof in. After I went on duty about half-past five o'clock, it rained pretty much all morning, Friday morning, without ceasing, and was raining hard up until 11 o'clock pretty much all the time, and then it began to cease. There would be short spells of probably 13 to 20 minutes and half an hour, and then it would darken up again, and begin to pour down.

Q. What dis patch [sic] did you(g)get [sic], as operator, after you went on duty, as to the condition of the South Fork dam?
A. Well, the first tidings that we received from the dam was a party, I understood from the operator, had been out on horseback; I heard the persons name, but I can't reco llect [sic] the name;

Q. What operator?
A. The lady operator at South Fork. And this party he came in to South Fork somewheres between the hours of 11 and 12 o'clock, and stated to the lady operator there that the dam was in a critical condition, and he thought the people in Conemaugh and Johnstown ought to be notified to be on the look-out,that [sic] it might break any time; and if I understood her right, and recall to memory, it was then within about two feet of the top.

Q. This is the conversation youm [sic] ad [sic] over the wire with her?
A. Yes, sir, and she inquired of me to know whether I could get a message to Conemaugh or Johnstown. I told her I couldn't, because all communication was cut off, supposed to have been caused by the poles falling in the river. You know the river far enough to catch the poles, and some of them were down at that time west of my office; and I told her the only salvation would be to take the message, and try to dispatch it to Conemaugh by foot messenger, if I could catch one coming along. She said to take it and do the best I could. I told her to go ahead with the message, and she said she had no message from this party; that he just chanced to come in and told her, and she didn't know whether to give it any credit or not. I told her that I thought it was a thing that there oughtn't to be any risks taken on, and she asked if we couldn't get together and make a message, and send it down. I told her I could, and she told me to go ahead and make a message, and I done so.

Q. Who did you direct that message to?
A. I addressed it, I think, to the Yard Master or Despatcher at Conemaugh, and to R. P. at Pittsburgh. That was the way I had it addressed.

Q. What was in that message?
A. To the best of my recollection it read something like this: That the reservoir was reported as being in a critical condition , and it would be well to notify the people of Conemaugh and Johnstown to prepare for the worst, and I signed "Operator" to it. I wrote the message up, and repeated it to her and asked her if that would do, and she said that was splendid; to send it that way. I doubled the message and waited and waited, and after while there was a track man came up to flag a washout that had been caused west of my office, and I pressed him into service to take this message to the first telegraph office, to sendd [sic] it to Conemaugh and Pittsburgh.

Q. What was that person's name?
A. I think that man's name is William Reichard.

Q. Do you know whether he did it or not?
A. He started with the message and he got down to where this washout was, and he met the division foreman, Rushor, and he turned the message over to Rusher, and Rusher said he would take the message back and see that itt [sic] w as [sic] sent, and would also notify the people in Conemaugh and Johnstown that they had better go to higher ground, and this man Reichard returned to my office again, and took charge of his flag, to flag the track, and he hadn't been there but a short time until I got a second message;

Q. Who from?
A. The second message was signed by C. P. Dougherty, Agent at South Fork.

Q. What time of day was that, as near as you can tell?
A. I received that message from the South Fork operator over No. 4 wire at 2.24 p. m.

Q. Now did you fix upon the time?
A. I fixed upon the time from the message I have on file in my office.
(Here, the witness discovers he has made a mistake in the time of the receipt of the message, which he corrects, as follow s; [sic])
The C. P. Dougherty message was received at my office at 1.52

Q. How do you know that fact?
A. I know by the message I have on file in the office. The message is hanging there on a hook.

Q. What was in it?
A. I have a duplicate of it; I can show you th [sic] exact copy.
Witness produces copy which reads as follow s:
"South Fork, May 31, 1889.
R. P.
OD via MP &AO.
The water in running over the breast of Conemaugh lake
in the center and west side end is becoming dangerous.
C. P. Dougherty"

Q. What route was that message to take in order to reach R. P. and did it take?
A. That message was sen from my office by this young man Reichard, on foot. he started away from there just shortly after I got it.

Q. What time?
A. I got it at 1.52 p.m% [sic] and just as quick as I got it fixed up, I started him right off.

Q. Where did you send him to?
A. To AO office, the tower immediately west of No. 6 bridge. That was the first office I understood that had communicatin [sic] with Pittsburgh, the wires being broken down between my office and his office.

Q. Did he get that message to the destination?
A. Yes, sir, that message reached the destination, so I understand; the operator himself told me he had received it and sent it; he didn't tell me he sent it; I suppose he did.

Q. Did you get any other message that day?
A. Yes, sir, I got one more. That message was sent by the operator at South Fork to me over No. 4 wire. I have a copy of it here.

Q. Read the copy.

(Witness produces copy and reads as follows:)
"SouthFork, May 31, 1889.
R. P.
The dam is becoming dangerous and may possibly go.
J. P. Wilson."
He is the Superintendent of the Argyle Coal Works.

Q. Have you the original of that dispatch in the office?
A. I couldn't say whether I have the original there or not. I copied that dispatch off from emmory [sic] without looking for the original among the oth r [sic] messages. I don't know whether the original is on the hook or not.

Q. Are you sure that is the contents of the message?
A. Yes, sir, I could be qualitfied [sic] on that.

Q. What time did you get that message?
A. 2.25 is the time I received the message from the operator. The time I got it to Conemaugh is on the back of it; 2.35. There was only ten minutes elapsed between the time I got it and getting it to Conemaugh over the wire. We got a circuit by some unknown cause; the operator and I had a communication over a wire that was crippled for a long while there before, and all at once the wire came all right. We can't account for it in any other way unless the wire raised up from the river and cleared it out of the water. I had a circuit with the operator about 2.20, I think it was, and we were trying to get a line opened to get communication between Conemagh [sic] and South Fork, but we couldn't do it. I sent him the message at 2.35 and the operator signed his signal "jo"; he signed for the message.

Q. You know that he did receive it?
A. Yes, sir, to the best of my knowledge; the sign he gave, and everything indicated that the message was received in as good faith as any I ever sent. He answered fari and plain [sic] for it and signed his office call, which indicated that he had got it.

Q. How long after that ^[last] message was received was it until the flood came?
A. It was about, I should say, somewheres between 30 and 35 minutes. That is , after I got it in to Conemaugh.

Q. How far was your t ower [sic] from Conemaugh?
A. My tower is located from Conemaguh [sic] to 3.3 miles east.

Q. Did you get any other than th se [sic] messages?
A. No, sir that is all the information I got in regard to the flood.

Q. Where were you when the flo od [sic] came?
A. I was in my -- tower.

Q. Did you stay there all the time?
A. No, sir, I was sitting in the tower, and all at once, I heard a roar. I looked up the track, and I sen the trees and water coming. I jumped up and throwed the window up, and climbed out on a tin roof around our office and walked around on it, and I saw the drift wood coming around the curve, and the channel filling up and r nning [sic] over the bank, and I heard voices; I could hear somebody hollowing, but I couldn't see them, and I walked on around until the drift came down, and looked out, and perhaps one third of the distance in the river, I saw a man standing on a house roof. He looked over and seen me and recognized me. He says [sic] "mineral Point is all swept away, and the people swept away, and my whole family is gone". I says "Is that so?", and I says "Do you know anything of my family?, and he says,"No, [sic] I don't; I think they were all drowned". Christ Montgomery was his name, and I says "Cheer up, Christ, don't give up; as long as you're on top, there's hope!" I didn't more than have the words out of my mouth until the drift he was riding made a straight shoot for the shore, and struck 100 or 150 yards w est [sic] of my office where the river made a short turn, and went all to pieces; shingles flew right up in the air.

Q. What became of the man?
A. He got out all right. He grabbed into the bushes just about the time it struck and I didn't see anything of him for a breath, and then he craw led [sic] out of the bushes. After I cheered him up, and told him not to give up, that there was hope for h m [sic] as long as he was on top; I turned around to walk into my office on this tin roof; I didn't have more than 15 feet to walk, but I almost fainted when he told me my whole family was drowned. I turned right around to come in the office, and as I climbed toward the window, I looked and saw the house roof striking shore and seen him light, and saw him crawl up on his hands and knees, and saw he was saved, and when I looked above, there was a regular mountain of water coming. He was probably ahead of the main body a little. I started without coat or hat, and as it was pouring down raining at the time, I turned around to get my coat and hat, and I ran with them in my hand onto the opposite side of the track onto a high bank, and when I looked up the track, the wave wasn't more than a hundred yards off, and I beckoned for this man to get off the track. He wasn't looking for it to come down the track, and he had got out on the track ahead of it, and came pretty near getting caught the second time.

Q. Is there bottom land around where the tower is?
A. It is a flat, but it is up---well, [sic] I should judge the bank around back of the tower must be 20 feet. That would bring the water around there 20 feet high before it had covered the sod around my office.

Q. How deep was the water over the ground where the tower stood?
A. I measured in my water closet 4 1/2 feet, and there was in the tower as near as I could tell, from the marks around on the wall, there was about two feet of water in the tower, and the tower is up two feet anyhow from the ground. That would be four feet. The water closet is a little bit lower ground than the office.

Q. How far was your tower from South Fork dam?
A. I don't know whether I can tell you for sure. It is three and six tenths miles from my office to South Fork tower, and I don't know the distance from there up.

Q. Was there any of your family lost?
A. No, sir, noen [sic] of my family at Mineral Point; I lost relations at Johnstown.

Q. I mean in your immediate family?
A. No, sir, none.


Last updated: May 29, 2020

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