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James and Mary Ford, eds. Every Day in the Year. 1902.

May 31

A Ballad of the Conemaugh Flood

By Hardwicke Drummond Rawnsley (1851–1920)

  • The town of Johnstown, Penn., was destroyed by the bursting of a reservoir on May 31, 1889, with a loss of about three thousand lives.

  • THE WINDOWS of Heaven were open wide,

    The storm cloud broke, and the people cried

    Will Conemaugh dam hold out?

    But the great folks down at Johnstown played,

    They ate, they drank, they were nought afraid,

    For Conemaugh dam holds Conemaugh lake,

    By Conemaugh dam their pleasure they take,

    Fine catching are Conemaugh trout.

    The four mile lake at the back of its wall

    Is growing to five, and the rains still fall,

    And the flood by night and by day

    Is burrowing deep thro’ buttress and mound,

    Fresh waters spring and spurt from the ground;

    While God is thundering out of His cloud

    The fountain voices are crying aloud,

    Away to the hills! away!

    Away to the hills! leave altar and shrine,

    Away to the hills! leave table and wine,

    Away from the trade and your tills;

    Let the strong man speed with the weakest child,

    And the mother who just on her babe has smiled

    Be carried, leave only the dead on their biers,

    No time for the tomb, and no time for tears;

    Away, away to the hills!

    Daniel Periton heard the wail

    Of the waters gathering over the vale,

    With sorrow for city and field,—

    Felt already the mountain quake

    ’Twixt living and dead. For the brethren’s sake

    Daniel Periton dared to ride

    Full in front of the threatening tide,

    And what if the dam do yield?

    To a man it is given but once to die,

    Though the flood break forth he will raise his cry

    For the thousands there in the town.

    At least, some child may be saved by his voice,

    Some lover may still in the sun rejoice,

    Some man that has fled, when he wins his breath,

    Shall bless the rider who rode thro’ death,

    For his fellows’ life gave his own.

    He leapt to his horse that was black as night,

    He turned not left and he turned not right,

    Down to the valley he dashed;

    He heard behind him a thunderous boom,

    The dam had burst and he knew his doom;

    “Fly, fly for your lives!” it was all he spoke,

    “Fly, fly, for the Conemaugh dam has broke!”

    And the cataract after him crashed.

    They saw a man with the God in his face,

    Pale from the desperate whirlwind pace,

    They heard an angel cry.

    And the steed’s black mane was flecked as he flew,

    And its flanks were red with the spur’s red dew,

    Into the city and out of the gate,

    Rider and ridden were racing with fate,

    Wild with one agony.

    “Flash on the news that the dam has burst,”

    And one looked forth, and she knew the worst,

    “My last message!” she said.

    The words at her will flashed on before

    Periton’s call and the torrent’s roar;

    And not in vain had Periton cried,

    His heart had caught a brave heart to his side,

    As bold for the saving he sped.

    The flood came down and its strong arms took

    The city, and all together shook,

    Tower and church and street,

    Like a pack of cards that a player may crush,

    The houses fell in the whirlpool rush,

    Rose and floated and jammed at the last,

    Then a fierce flame fed by the deluge blast

    Wove them a winding sheet.

    God have mercy! was ever a pyre

    Lit like that of the flood’s fierce fire!

    Cattle and men caught fast,

    Prisoners held between life and death,

    While the flame struck down with its sulphurous breath,

    And the flood struck up with its strong, cold hand,

    No hope from the water, no help from the land,

    And the torrent thundering past!

    Daniel Periton, still he rides,

    By the heaving flank and the shortening strides,

    The race must be well-nigh won.

    “Away to the hills!” but the cataract’s bound

    Has caught and has dashed him from saddle to ground,—

    And the man who saw the end of the race,

    Saw a dark, dead horse, and a pale dead face,

    Did they hear Heaven’s great “Well done?”