The Johnstown Disaster, 1889

A poem by Joseph Horatio Chant

Look down, ye Alleghenies, into the Conemaugh vale,
And see the rising waters, and hear the bitter wail;
The swollen streams now empty their contents in the lake,
The waters rise to kiss the skies and walls of granite shake.

Oh, hear that awful booming; the dam has given way!
An avalanche of water God's hand alone can stay!
Oh, leap, ye hills, before it and keep this torrent back,
Or devastated towns and homes will mark its onward track!

Look down, ye Alleghenies, upon this vale of woe;
Ten thousand corpses at your base their soulless faces show;
Some hid beneath the debris, some covered o'er with slime,
Their spirits fled to meet their God, beyond the shores of time.
The aged sire and lassie; the careworn mother, too,
With her strong son, whom she had hoped would guard life's journey thro',
Are lying there together, the old and young alike;
Their plans and purposes cut off, no power to love or strike.

Bow down, ye Alleghenies, and weep o'er thousands slain,
Who yesterday were all intent this present world to gain.
Their active brain is sleeping, their busy hands are still,
Bright hopes are blasted in an hour, ambitions cease to thrill;
Their mansions, with their bodies, the flood has borne away--
The rich and poor together rest till resurrection day.

Now leap for joy, ye mountains, for all is not in vain!
For as it was in Noah's flood, it ever will remain!
God cares for those who love Him; He holds them in His hand,
And wind and wave obey His will, and rest at His command;
Some sank beneath the freshet, and now with others lie,
But God prepared another ark to bear their souls on high.

See, floating with the wreckage, borne onward by the tide,
A loving mother with her babe close sheltered at her side;
One hand has grasped a rafter, the other guards her child;
Oh, how she pleads with God and man in accents loud and wild!
Men hear but give no answer, no human hand can save;
Her voice, alas, is hushed in death by the relentless wave;

But God has heard her pleading, and now His angel bears
Their deathless souls to dwell with Him, where free from toils and cares,
Her voice rings out in gladness the notes of that blest psalm
The prophet heard the elders sing, of "Moses and the Lamb."

And see this lovely maiden, a mother's hope and pride,
The sunbeam of a Christian home, and the affianced bride
Of one who loved her dearly, and loved her not in vain,
For he had won a loyal heart, and hand without a stain;
But he lies 'neath the billows, and she will join him soon.
Hark! hark! she sings in accents sweet, to old familiar tune!
"Jesus, lover of my soul,
Let me to Thy bosom fly," etc.

Her prayer, also, is answered, for see, the roof is bare!
The current swept the slippery raft, the maiden is not there!
An angel band descended, her lover led the way,
And now she joins her loved and lost in realms of endless day!

Look down, ye Alleghenies, from your colossal heights,
And witness an heroic deed, bright gleam 'midst horrid sights.
See, Periton has mounted his famous large bay steed,
And flies, not to the mountains, but at his greatest speed
He gallops down the valley, to warn of pending fate,
And cries aloud, "Flee for your lives! flee, ere it be too late!
The Conemaugh dam is broken, destruction comes apace!
Leave all and to the mountains flee; leave all and win the race!"

Each creek becomes a river, each pool a little sea,
The tidal wave comes rushing on, men know not where to flee,
But on he rides, still shouting, as angels did of old,
"Flee! Flee ye to the mountain! Flee! forsake your homes and gold!"

His horse now shares his spirit, and leaps each swollen stream.
With panting flanks and nostrils wide, and breath like scalding steam,
He dashes down the roadway, and fairly seems to fly,
Obedient to his rider's rein, resolved to do or die.

Some heed our hero's warning. See, toward the hills they fly!
Will Periton now turn aside, or like a hero die?
Straight on he goes, brave fellow; to turn aside he scorned,
His life he deems of little worth if other men be warned.

We honor those brave soldiers, who scaled the rampart height,
To plant the standard of their queen in the defence of right,
The fire was hot before them, and bursting shells o'erhead,
Yet on they pressed, till bullet-pierced they fell--our honored dead;
But he, I hold, was braver, who ran his race alone,
No comrade's cheer to urge him on, no bugle blast was blown,
Nor grand review to follow if he should win the day;
But thoughts of self were all too weak his onward course to stay.

Spur up your steed, brave fellow--the flood is at his heels!
Too late! the waves now gird him round; the gallant rider reels;
Entombed beneath the debris his warning voice is stilled,
But he, I trust, ran not in vain; his mission is fulfilled.

Like Jesus, he saved others, yet would not save himself;
The plaudits of the world sought not, but scorned its praise and pelf.
He still sat in the saddle, and held the guiding rein,
Yet wind and wave awoke him not, and thunders roared in vain.
His spirit had ascended, death set the hero free,
And God shall say in His great day, "Thou didst it unto Me!"

Look down, ye Alleghenies, with ever-darkening frown,
Upon the selfishness which caused the ruin of Johnstown.
A reservoir was fashioned, of full three miles in length,
An inland lake, kept back by dam of insufficient strength;
No mills were driven by it; no water-works supplied;
A few rich men, for selfish sport, claimed all these waters wide.

They rode upon its surface in skiff, and bark canoe,
Shot grouse and duck, caught fish and eel, and held their title true;
For other people's safety took not a single thought--
Ten thousand lives were less to them than fish thus daily caught.
The dam revealed its weakness by frequent leaks, but they
Turned not aside to strengthen it till came the fateful day;
But God, who rules the nations, to whom all bow the knee,
Will say to them on judgment day, "Ye did it not to Me."

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