The Johnstown Flood


Yesterday I returned from Pennsylvania where I visited a Navy Reserve Chaplain friend of mine, Fr. Leo Arnone, pastor of St. Francis Xavier Catholic Church in Cresson. He showed me around his hometown of Johnstown, whose main tourist attraction is the Flood Museum, commemorating one of the worst disasters in U.S. history. On May 31, 1889 a poorly maintained dam broke fourteen miles upriver where the wealthy Pittsburghers, Andrew Carnegie among them, had their hunting and fishing club. With little warning a tidal wave of water slammed into Johnstown destroying the city in just ten minutes. A tangled mountain of debris and humans, living and dead, piled up at the stone bridge at one end of town, and then caught fire, creating a scene of apocalyptic horror.

Over 2,000 people perished, and hundreds of them were never found. Although the exact number of dead is unknown, the official total stands at 2,209. In his book The Johnstown Flood, David McCullouch details the loss of life:

Ninety-nine whole families had been wiped out. Three hundred and ninety-six children aged ten years or less had been killed. Ninety-eight children lost both parents. One hundred and twenty-four women were left widows; 198 men lost their wives.

One woman, Mrs. John Fenn, wife of the tinsmith on Locust Street, lost her husband and seven children. Christ Fitzharris, the saloonkeeper, his wife, father, and eight children were all drowned. Charles Murr and six of his children went down with his cigar store on Washington Street; only his wife and one child survived. In a house owned by John Ryan on Washington Street, twenty-one people drowned, including a man named Gottfried Hoffman, his wife and nine children.

Some of the victims later reported that they believed they were experiencing the Last Judgment when the flood hit. When we suffer we sometimes assume suffering is a punishment from God. We ask, What have I done to deserve this?  Yet suffering is usually not a punishment or even a consequence of sin. Remember Job? Job lost everything: his possessions, his family, and his health. In Job’s case his suffering was part of a cosmic contest between God and Satan. But Job never learned that he was God’s test case or that he passed the test. Let’s keep in mind Job didn’t suffer because he was bad; he suffered because he was good. Johnstown, a city of 30,000 souls in 1889, had both saints and sinners. We shouldn’t assume that Johnstown was any more corrupt or deserving of divine judgment than any other town or that only the wicked perished. Jesus mentioned that eighteen people died when the tower in Siloam fell and suggested the victims were no guiltier than the people who were spared (Luke 13:4-5). Accidents happen. So do floods.

When tragedy strikes we often struggle to make sense out of a senseless situation. We ask God why:  Why would you allow such pain and suffering?  The Bible doesn’t give a direct answer to the question why God permits evil, whether caused by people or nature. We don’t know why God permits evil and tragedy in the world when he could prevent it. The one who calmed the Sea of Galilee could prevent tsunamis and hurricanes, stop deadly floods, and still rumbling earthquakes. He could also stop criminals’ bullets and terrorists’ bombs. Sometimes he does but often he does not.  And he doesn’t tell us why.

During and after the Johnstown flood there was a great outpouring of humanitarianism in the form of heroic acts and charitable deeds. Many risked their lives saving others. Some died trying. People whose homes and possessions were spared shared with those who had nothing. Money and volunteers poured in from all over the country. Clara Barton, head of the newly formed American Red Cross, arrived with relief supplies, and stayed five months, personally overseeing relief operations. Doctors, nurses, ministers, police officers, soldiers, concerned citizens, and even sightseers came in by the trainload to the devastated city. Hearty souls carried out the gruesome task of recovering and burying mangled, decomposing bodies. Others prayed with and consoled the inconsolable. A tidal wave of mercy and goodness hit Johnstown after the flood in similar proportion to the watery one that destroyed the city.

I’m not saying that God causes suffering so that good will result. What I am saying is that God redeems our suffering, changing it from something ugly into something beautiful. The One who brought light out of darkness is in the business of bringing good out of evil. He did that in Johnstown and he did it on Calvary over nineteen hundred years earlier. The crucifixion of the Son of God was one of the greatest acts of evil ever committed, yet God used this supreme evil for the ultimate good of humanity, the salvation of the world.

St. Paul wrote, “All things work together for good for those who love God and are called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28). That doesn’t mean everything that happens to us is good. It means that God brings good out of evil in our lives if we let him.


1 Comment

Filed under devotionals, personal

One response to “The Johnstown Flood

  1. Excellent post on the Johnstown Flood, rich with accurate historical detail. I too have often wondered how God can allow such suffering to occur. In the end, trusting in my faith and His plan. I also read David McCullough’s excellent story, a fictional novella entitled SWEPT AWAY. It follows the lives of two teens and their opposite families, one wealthy, one struggling, the weekend of terrible flood. You can learn more at my website

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