On May 31, 1889 the Day Express, a passenger train from Chicago via Pittsburgh, arrived at the Johnstown railroad station in two separate sections.
There, both were held up because the eastbound tracks had washed out. While waiting, passengers got off the train to look at the debris that was piling up at the Stone Bridge, or to wave at local citizens hanging out of upper story windows. Finally, when a mail train came through, the Day Express was given clearance to follow it to East Conemaugh, using a westbound track to travel east. At East Conemaugh, the main yard for Johnstown, the trains were all held up once more. “Trouble up at Lilly,” they were told.
They weren’t there long until a telegraph message came to the yardmaster saying that the South Fork Dam was about to break and those downstream should prepare for the worst. The yardmaster told those in the East Conemaugh station the news, bringing a chuckle from most of them. Those messages came in with regularity and, despite all the alarms, the dam was still there. Nobody showed concern. The yardmaster decided not to bother sending the message through.
Meanwhile, a work train sat along the tracks a short distance upstream. Warned that the track ahead was under water, the engineer and conductor walked ahead to see if they could safely go through. When it was obvious that they couldn’t, they returned to the East Conemaugh yard and ate lunch.
As they ate, another message came through, reporting a landslide at the nearby Buttermilk Falls. The work crew immediately went there to clear the slide, and had been there only a few minutes when they heard a low rumble. Then, as it got louder, the crew could see trees bending over.
The engineer, John Hess, knew immediately what was happening. He jumped into his engine, tied down the whistle, and began a hair-raising dash to warn those downstream. Only when the floodwaters overtook the train did he and his crew jump out and make their way to safety as the locomotive and cars disappeared beneath the raging torrent.
His heroism would become legendary and would be talked about and written about for years to come.
Back on the Day Express, passengers passed the time sleeping, reading, and keeping their children occupied.
Of course, there also was the usual grumbling about the delay.
The yardmaster had the engineer move the train to another track to get it away from the rising water, and those who looked back saw other tracks fall into the water, but few appeared to be overly uneasy about the situation.
Then, those with the best hearing heard it. It was a low-pitched hum at first, barely discernible over the pounding rain. Then, a bit louder, loud enough for all to hear. If it was another train it may mean the tracks were now open. Hopes were raised until someone said that no train ever made a sound like that. Soon a conductor was seen running between the trains, yelling “Run for the hill. Run for the high ground.”
Most rushed for the doors. Women pinned up their skirts and stepped into the rising water, but several refused to step out into the driving rain and mud. Those who left the train encountered another train on the adjoining rack, blocking their way. Some crawled between cars, others ran to the rear of the train to go around. Panic began to set in. There was no mistaking what the noise was now. A ditch presented a new obstacle. The more agile were able to jump over it. One man didn’t jump far enough. As his wife watched in horror, he was quickly swept away by the shoulder-deep water. His body would not be found for nearly two weeks.
It wasn’t long before railroad cars broke loose, then the heavier locomotives, all swirling in the rushing current. Some had people on top, trying to get as far above the water as they could. Floating houses joined in the chaos, slamming into one another and tossing their occupants into the surging tidal wave. Some of those who weren’t fast enough were crushed when the railroad cars toppled onto them. The photo of the Day Express, taken immediately after the flood, gives a graphic idea of the force of the water.
The fortunate ones who made it to the hillside looked back in disbelief. Nothing that they had just left was recognizable now. Nearby Maple Avenue was gone, now a mudflat. Some insisted it was the end of the world. For many, it was.
An exact number of dead would never be known, nor would anyone know exactly how many were from the Day Express. An official listing showed 21 Day Express passengers confirmed dead, including three children. However, hundreds of victims would remain missing forever, never accounted for. One of every three that were found would never be identified.
The inevitable lawsuits against the Pennsylvania Railroad followed. Lawsuits for negligence, lawsuits for lost luggage, lawsuits for injuries suffered. Only one lawsuit would be won.
It was that of a Philadelphia company who sued for the loss of 10 barrels of whiskey that had been stolen from one of the freight cars while a conductor watched the looters.