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THE JOHNSTOWN FLOOD

On May 31, 1889 at 3:10 P.M. 20 million tons of water crashed through the South Fork Dam above Johnstown, PA bringing a sixty foot high wave roared down upon Johnstown and surrounding communities. On the previous day the town had celebrated Memorial Day with a parade down Main Street honoring the Veterans who had returned from the Civil War twenty four years before. Over 50 years earlier when the South Fork dam was constructed it was the world's largest earthwork dam. The 20 million tons of water held back by the dam formed Lake Conemaugh which was three miles long, 100 feet deep and over a mile wide in some places. This dam was only 404 feet above the city of Johnstown.

The dam had suffered erosion over the years and had been weakened. The pleas of the caretaker (of the lake and club formed for recreational purposes ) to the men who could have repaired the dam were ignored. There were several summer homes around the lake owners of which belonged to the recreational club. The caretaker was warned to keep quiet or he would lose his job. On the 31st the dam was raising at the rate of about 3 feet an hour with creeks flowing into the lake pouring in approximately 3,000,000 gallons an hour. John Parke, a civil engineer, knew it was only a matter of time before the dam would break. He warned the telegraph operator to spread the alarm but it was too late as the lines were washed out to Johnstown. A train engineer tied down his train whistle so it blew continuously. Then he ran to rescue his family. Water began to come up on the porches of the homes as the residents watched in fear. They began to go upstairs when they saw the wall of sixty foot water sweep down upon them. Buildings that they thought were indestructible were ripped off their foundations blew apart or went end over end.

The flood wave carried the debris it gathered until caught at the 7 arched stone bridge just below Johnstown. Miles of barbed wire from a factory wrapped the debris into a dam of carnage 30 feet deep covering four square miles. The area was soaked with petroleum from overturned railroad cars and hot coals from the Cambria Iron Works ignited the huge inferno. Some 500 who survived the initial drowning became entangled in the debris only to die in the fire which burned for 3 days. A Mrs. Anna Fenn lost her whole family of seven , husband and children. She was swept away on the roof and was saved sixteen miles away. A baby was born to her a few weeks later who also died. She would say, 'If God had spared me one I could have been resigned. But all! all! Father in Heaven, is not my cross heavier than I can bear?' There was no drinking water or food for three days. Forty people died of typhoid fever. The first relief were railway cars full of coffins. Then came relief workers wearing yellow ribbon. Clara Barton, founder of the Red Cross came to help staying for months directing her volunteers.

100 families were wiped out, 395 children under 10 died, 470 children lost at least one parent and 99 children were orphaned. Over 2,209 people were lost on that tragic Friday with thousands more injured. In November 1991 aired a program about the Johnstown Flood. The narrator ended the sad program saying that these families were torn apart, never to be reunited again. Brother and Sister Arterburn of the Rancho Bernardo II Ward, Poway Stake were deeply moved by the story. With the support of Bishop Robert Watkins they began a project for the ward to find information about these families to put their lives back together.

In 1992 the ward began to research the morgue lists from the flood, census records, old stories and I.G.I. Even though most of the records had been destroyed in the flood, 288 family group sheets were compiled. With the help of the Name Submission Department of the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, 1814 names were cleared for ordinance work. When the doors of the San Diego Temple opened in May 1993 a ward file was created so the members could participate in doing the work. The ward members loved doing the work for these families and felt a very personal relationship to them. They almost could feel the presence of these Johnstown victims.

Sister Arterburn was blessed to experience the joy of the Johnstown people firsthand when she had a remarkably real dream. She dreamed she was walking down a road leading to a large building. It was a beautiful sunny day. She admired the greenery and flowers on each side as she was drawn toward the building. Upon entering she found herself in a brightly lit room of happy, joyous people all laughing and celebrating. They came up lovingly embracing her and sharing their happiness with her. No words were spoken, communication came simply as a tremendous feeling of love and joy. Children clung to her legs and beautiful babies were put in her arms. A feeling of love flowed between them. As she was enjoying herself, she realized she didn't know anyone there, and she began to wonder who all these people were. Going up to a rather short, balding man she asked, 'Who are all you people anyway?' He replied, 'Why don't you know? We're the people from Johnstown!' She awoke and found herself sitting on the edge of the bed with tears streaming down her cheeks and knew she had just witnessed a celebration of joy and acceptance of their work being done.

What a blessing. Others experienced similar feelings of being in the presence of the people from Johnstown in the temple as their work was being done. At one point a receptionist on the 4th floor of the temple saw a group of people through the glass of the atrium. When she went to assist them no one was there. This was during the sealing of families at Johnstown and she wondered if they were not present there to witness this important work in their behalf. This project for Johnstown brought the ward and stake close together. It also brought them close to the families who died and for whom they provided saving ordinances.

Suzie Sutherland who wrote about this project visited Johnstown, Pa with her husband. After visiting the memorials and cemeteries there she felt how interesting it was how the boundaries of time, space and relationships have disappeared with this work. Being in Johnstown or the temple Suzie said she and others felt the eternal significance of their work.

Summarized from the story on the Johnstown Flood written by Suzy Sutherland.

Jedediah Grant Experience
Elder Rudger Clawson
Ann Boothe
Frederick W. Hurst