The Johnstown Flood of 1889


Fr. Charles Neale Field, SSJE

Chaos: a state of things in which chance is supreme, especially: the confused unorganized state of primordial matter before the creation of distinct forms. This scientific definition of chaos might hearken us back to the very beginning of the creation account from Genesis: “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.” The Hebrew word for “the deep” is tehor, which scholars think might be related to a Babylonian divinity associated with oceanic chaos. We gather from ancient writings, including our own Judeo-Christian background, that to the ancients, (especially those who lived in desert habitats), the sea was “chaos” and therefore something to be feared. 

With the help of science, we have a better understanding of watery chaos in our modern times and have systems in place to navigate it. Still, we can be caught off guard when we are blindsided by natural and human-made catastrophes. In 1889, such a catastrophe occurred when a defective dam in the Conemaugh Valley of Pennsylvania burst without warning and destroyed the city of Johnstown, Pennsylvania, in an instant. Records of the tragedy indicate that 2,209 people died in the flood that ensued – 99 entire families – 396 of which were children. Bodies from the flood were found as far as Cincinnati, Ohio, as late as 1911.

At that time, there were Brothers from our Society ministering at St. Clement’s Church in Philadelphia including Fr. Charles Neale Field. Fr. Field volunteered to go and help in the relief efforts being organized by the American Red Cross. Joined by three men of the Guild of the Iron Cross (created by Fr. Field for working men and boys at St. Clement’s), they set off towards Johnstown. In a small book published by the Guild of the Iron Cross entitled After the Flood, Fr. Field recounted the story of the devastation and the heroic efforts of many who came to Johnstown’s aid. In this memoir, we hear him marvel at the devastation. He writes:

It is true that reflections are generally unsatisfactory, dreamy and transient. But reflections in a railway car, not of oneself but of the events of the first week after the flood are exceptional. Had I been dreaming? I felt more than half dead, as Dante might have felt coming out from writing of purgatory. I had seen Johnstown shortly before a flourishing city; where was it now? A name, a shell of a city. Where were the waters that had ruined it? Gone thousands of miles. Where were the people that had made it? Heaps of them dead, and those living, half dead, wounded in body and soul. Why had it happened to Johnstown?

Here we see a man of God clearly affected by the magnitude of human suffering he encountered. The question Fr. Field prayerfully asked was “Why?” How many of us ask this same question of God in prayer amidst the chaos we experience in our lives? Yet, Fr. Field was a man who knew that sacramentally he had entered into the waters of chaos in his Baptism and had risen from its depths into the promise of resurrection as a child of God. He knew that in spite of all the chaos he might encounter in his life, his Baptism gave assurance that God has brought and will bring order out of chaos. And so too for us, as we navigate all the uncertainties of our earthly life. He closes his initial reflections by writing that there were many good people in Johnstown:

Why God allowed men to build, and the State not to condemn the weak dam is a mystery contained in the deeper question how God can allow evil. The end of our reflection is that in spite of the carelessness and sin of men, God can and will bring good out of all this evil, and most good to those who have suffered most.

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