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Washed Away

Updated: Dec 1, 2022

I was watching a program recently on The Johnstown Flood. Over 2,000 people were killed when a dam broke, sweeping away entire villages. What happened?

Built for the super-rich of the 1800s, a sporting club, catering to a very wealthy clientele from nearby Pittsburgh, was built on the banks of Lake Conemaugh.

The lake was held back by the South Fork Dam, a large earth-fill dam that was completed by the club in 1881. By 1889, the dam was in dire need of repairs.

Lake Conemaugh at the club’s site was 450 feet in elevation above Johnstown. The lake was about 2 miles long, about 1 mile wide, and 60 feet deep near the dam. The lake had a perimeter of 7 miles and held 20 million tons of water. The dam was 72 feet high and 931 feet long.

After 1881, when the club opened, the dam frequently sprang leaks. It was patched, mostly with mud and straw. Additionally, a previous owner had removed and sold for scrap the three cast iron discharge pipes that had allowed a controlled release of water. There had been some speculation as to the dam’s integrity, and concerns had been raised by the head of the Cambria Iron Works downstream in Johnstown.

On May 28, 1889, a storm formed over Nebraska and Kansas and headed east. When the storm struck the Johnstown-South Fork area two days later, it was the worst downpour that had ever been recorded in that part of the country.

The U.S. Army Signal Corps estimated that 6 to 10 inches of rain fell in 24 hours. The river that ran through Johnstown was about to overwhelm its banks.

Elias Unger, president of the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club, awoke to the sight of Lake Conemaugh swollen after a night-long heavy rainfall. Unger ran outside in the still-pouring rain to assess the situation and saw that the water was nearly cresting the dam. He quickly assembled a group of men to save the face of the dam by trying to unclog the spillway; it was blocked by the broken fish trap and debris caused by the swollen waterline.

Other men tried digging another spillway at the other end of the dam to relieve the pressure, without success. Most remained on top of the dam, some plowing earth to raise it, while others tried to pile mud and rock on the face to save the eroding wall.

At around 3:10 p.m., the South Fork Dam collapsed, freeing the 20 million tons of Lake Conemaugh to cascade down the Little Conemaugh River.

It took about 40 minutes for the entire lake to drain of the water. The first town to be hit by the flood was South Fork. The town was on high ground, and most of the people escaped by running up the nearby hills when they saw the dam spill over. Some 20 to 30 houses were destroyed or washed away, and four people were killed.

On its way downstream toward Johnstown, 14 miles away, the crest picked up debris, such as trees, houses, and animals.

At the Conemaugh Viaduct, a 78-foot-high railroad bridge, the flood temporarily was stopped when debris jammed against the stone bridge’s arch. But within seven minutes, the viaduct collapsed, allowing the flood to resume its course. Because of this, the surging river gained renewed hydraulic head, resulting in a stronger wave hitting Johnstown than otherwise would have been expected.

The small town of Mineral Point, one mile below the Conemaugh Viaduct, was hit with this renewed force. About 30 families lived on the village’s single street. After the flood, only bare rock remained.

Some 57 minutes after the South Fork Dam collapsed, the flood hit Johnstown.

Residents were caught by surprise as the wall of water and debris bore down, traveling at 40 miles per hour and reaching a height of 60 feet in places. Some, realizing the danger, tried to escape by running towards high ground but most people were hit by the surging floodwater.

Many people were crushed by pieces of debris, and others became caught in barbed wire from the wire factory upstream. Those who reached attics or managed to stay afloat on pieces of floating debris, waited hours for help to arrive.

The total death toll was 2,209, making the disaster the largest loss of civilian life in the United States at the time. (source: Wikipedia)

But here’s the thing, all those death numbers could have been avoided.

John Parke, the engineer for the South Fork Club, rode on horseback, not once, but twice, to a telegraph office in the nearby town of South Fork to send warnings to Johnstown explaining the dangerous situation unfolding at the dam. However, because there had been false warnings in the past, the information was not passed to the authorities in Johnstown. The warnings were ignored.

Did you catch that? They became complacent. They had received so many false warnings before, they did not believe the real warning and many lives were lost as a result.

Do you remember the December 26, 2004, earthquake? More than 230,000 people were killed! Close to 500,000 were injured. The earthquake measure 9.2 and caused a tsunami that affected 14 countries. It is one of the deadliest natural disasters in recorded human history.

But here’s the thing. The death toll could have been much less had warnings been heeded.

Look at this:

“Seven years before the earthquake and subsequent tsunami, a top government official in Thailand warned that the country would soon be hit by a tsunami. His calls were ignored, and he was termed “crazy.” He was also banned from entering some parts of Thailand, where he was considered a threat to tourism.

“The Pacific Ocean Tsunami Warning System also called the embassies and government officials of several Asian countries after the earthquake and warned that they were at risk of a possible tsunami. Many countries ignored the warning, and even those that listened didn’t take any tangible action.” (Source:

If you type into an online search engine the words, “times in history when warnings went unheeded” you will find story after story.

My point is this. Jesus is coming back. He is coming soon. But we have been waiting so long, that some have given up on the narrative. Some have heard the cry so many times, that they no longer believe it. They no longer come running. They are no longer preparing for the end event.

What do we need to know?

“First off, you need to know that in the last days, mockers are going to have a heyday. Reducing everything to the level of their petty feelings, they’ll mock, “So what’s happened to the promise of his Coming? Our ancestors are dead and buried, and everything’s going on just as it has from the first day of creation. Nothing’s changed.”

They conveniently forget that long ago all the galaxies and this very planet were brought into existence out of watery chaos by God’s word. Then God’s word brought the chaos back in a flood that destroyed the world. The current galaxies and earth are fuel for the final fire. God is poised, ready to speak his word again, ready to give the signal for the judgment and destruction of the desecrating skeptics.

Don’t overlook the obvious here, friends. With God, one day is as good as a thousand years, a thousand years as a day. God isn’t late with his promise as some measure lateness. He is restraining himself on account of you, holding back the End because he doesn’t want anyone lost. He’s giving everyone space and time to change.

But when the Day of God’s Judgment does come, it will be unannounced, like a thief. The sky will collapse with a thunderous bang, everything disintegrating in a raging inferno, earth and all its works exposed to the scrutiny of Judgment.

Since everything here today might well be gone tomorrow, do you see how essential it is to live a holy life? Daily expect the Day of God, eager for its arrival. The galaxies will burn up and the elements melt down that day—but we’ll hardly notice. We’ll be looking the other way, ready for the promised new heavens and the promised new earth, all landscaped with righteousness.” 2 Peter 3:3-13 - The Message Version

Jesus is coming again. He is coming soon. Paul invites us to grow in grace and understanding of our Master and Savior, Jesus Christ. Grow, while waiting patiently and never give up.

Never let the world tell you this will not happen. The dam is going to break. It will happen, and we do not want to be caught downstream unawares. Be ready.

by Jeanette Stark – Wednesday, November 30, 2022

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