Sunday, April 14, 2013

1889 Johnstown, PA Flood Account & Family Death

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Click image for larger view.

IT IS REALLY QUITE AMAZING WHAT CAN BE FOUND ON EBAY IF YOU SPEND THE TIME TO LOOK. Amidst the flotsam of junk, fakes and Walmart resellers you find wonderful things. This anonymous letter, a four-page account of the Johnstown flood of 1889 and the death of the entire Kirkbride family, is quite revealing. Over 4,000 people perished in that flood, the result of a dam breaking upstream. Think about it. Just after 4pm on a spring day, as people prepared for dinner and the usual things, death in the form of raging water wiped everything away. This letter should be in the Kirkbride geneology archive. It was once available on eBay (for purchase) for $50 bucks.

Circa late 1889 or early 1890s is this four page letter with envelope giving a detailed account of the 1889 Johnstown, Pennsylvania flood and the death of Mahlon Kirkbride and his family. The letter reads as follows...

“Drowned at Johnstown, Pa on the 31st of 5th Mo. 1889 Mahlon Kirkbride, son of Mahlon and Mary Bishop Kirkbride - aged thirty four years and thirty one days, also at the same time his wife Ida V. Kirkbride aged thirty two years. Their children Fannie, aged ten years, ten months and ten days. Linda aged seven years seven months and twenty three days and infant son. By the most correct statistics given 4 thousand persons perished in the flood - which caused almost the entire destruction of the town - little save the foundation of the Cambria Iron Works being left.

The flood was caused by the giving way of the dam of an immense reservoir - the largest either natural or artificial in the U. States. The Reservoir was 11 miles east of Johnstown and 2 miles from the village of South Fork. The dam was 2-1/2 miles long and the western end was 4 hundred feet long and eighty feet high. It was originally one of the feeders of the old Pennsylvania Canal. Afterward retained by sporting club as a resort for fishing and boating. After a steady rainfall of 48 hours this dam gave way at a few minutes past four o’clock on the afternoon of the 31st of 5th mo. 1889. In one hour the water had all run out carrying the most fearful destruction before them for 18 miles.

Mahlon Kirkbride and his family had apartments in the Hager Block - a three story brick building - near the edge of the valley. They could have escaped to the mountains in a few minutes - but brick buildings were supposed to be the safest places. It is thought they would have resisted the water itself successfully - but locomotive engines, cars, frame houses, and trees from above danced about like toys on the water - and striking the brick walls - caused them to cave in - and roofs to fall. Of the thirty five persons in the block all perished. After four months Mahlon’s body was recovered - being found covered with sand and protected by the roots of a large tree on the bank of Stonycreek River - one half mile from his home. His remains were interred on the 4th of 10th mo. 1889- by the side of those of his wife and child in Grand View Cemetery. Mahlon Kirkbride was auditor of the Johnson Steel Street Rail Co. at Johnstown.

This is to be copied in Yardley Genealogy. The envelope reads, “History of the Johnstown flood and the destruction of Mahlon Kirkbride and his family”.


Joey said...

Incredible. This is why I love the Internet - an important family history like this can at least be shared and saved in another form.

Your post prompted me to look up more info. on the flood. I guess the dam was originally designed to hold back only 10 feet of water but over the years it was built up to 100 feet high, often with cheap materials like horse manure and straw. Wow!

There was a documentary made on this in 2003. I'm going to look it up. It looks very interesting. Thanks for the Sunday morning detour John!

Maureen said...

Did you buy it? You must have a fascinating collection. said...

this gave me chills to read, John. How ephemeral all of us are, really. I don't know how this relates, but I was listening to NPR the other day and a scientist was talking about how paper will survive for millenia but the ink that is on it will not. So all our "data" will be gone shortly after we are - unless somehow our electronic data can be built to be impervious to the elements and some future civilization of beings can decode it

Blue Shoe Farm said...

When I would find things like this on ebay or antique stores that were less expensive (<15.00) I buy it, then donate to the local museum for that community who will preserve it and keep it in the public domain. I agree some relative would want to know this story of their family tree!
I have passed on letters, photo albums, scrapbooks and individual photos to museums from Missouri to Alaska.

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