Elsie Frum Remembers a Train's Desperate Whistle 100 Years Ago—and the Great Johnstown Flood

updated 06/05/1989 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 06/05/1989 AT 01:00 AM EDT

A century has gone by, but Elsie Frum still remembers the unsettling sounds that swirled around her that day as she sat underfoot in the kitchen, washing the face of her rag doll while her mother prepared dinner. One sound had been constant since the previous night—the pounding of rain on the roof of her family's house in East Conemaugh, Pa., two miles up the Little Conemaugh River from Johnstown, a thriving steel community of 30,000. The other sound was of anxious adult voices, using words she vaguely understood—"dam," "river" (she knew the river, that was where she made mud pies) and another one, "flood."

Elsie was six. The date was May 31, 1889. Twelve miles up the river from her house, the waters of Lake Conemaugh were rising behind a sagging earthen dam. In the kitchen Elsie and her sister Eva, 4, continued to play as their little sister, Fanny, 3, slept in another room. Then a third sound pierced Elsie's consciousness, where it has remained for a century: It was a train whistle—not the usual friendly triple toot but a seemingly endless, bone-shaking wail as the engineer, tearing down the track, tried desperately to warn the towns below what was coming. Suddenly Elsie's father, John Schaffer, ran into the house shouting, "The dam is broken! We've got to get out!"

John grabbed the girls and yelled for his wife to get the baby. Then they raced to Elsie's grandmother's house farther up the hill, escaping the devastating Johnstown Flood by seconds. Now 106 years old, Elsie is one of two living survivors of the tragedy. (The other is Frank Shomo, 100.) The dam's collapse unleashed a 40-foot wall of water, weighing 20 million tons, that raged into Johnstown at 40 miles an hour, destroying everything in its path and killing 2,209 people, including 80 trapped in a pile of rubble that ignited soon after the deluge.

When Elsie and her sisters returned home a week later, their father's planing mill had been turned into a coffin factory. "I saw dead bodies lying in the church on slabs, and they put the bodies in the coffins," she recalls. "It scared me to death."

The Johnstown Flood was called the greatest natural disaster of the century, but many agreed with George Swank, editor of the Johnstown Tribune, who wrote, "Our misery is the work of man." Swank was referring to the 61 Pittsburgh tycoons—Mellons, Carnegies and Fricks among them—who had rebuilt the decrepit South Fork dam in order to create a 70-foot-deep lake in the midst of their private summer retreat, the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club. Instead of hiring an engineer, they assigned the job to a railroad contractor who merely bolstered the breakwater with rocks, tree stumps and dirt.

Only one club member helped with the cleanup, and the others gave a mere $20,000 to help defray $10 million in damages. Over the years numerous suits were brought against the club, but no money was ever collected.

Unlike the tycoons, who, deprived of their lake, abandoned their swank cottages (untouched by the flood), Elsie never left the area. She married and raised three children in Johnstown—Margaret, now 84, Evelyn, 77, and Charles, 73. Twice widowed, she also survived two more floods, one in 1936 and another in 1977. After the first, in which 24 people died, she reportedly turned to her second husband, Charles Frum, a railroad engineer (her first husband, a barber, died in 1908), and said, "Get me out of here." The couple then bought land high on a hill above Johnstown. In the '40s, both daughters built houses nearby. Husband Charles died in 1954, after which Elsie filled her days crocheting, playing cards and doing church work, and in 1982 she moved in with Evelyn.

Ten years ago, Johnstown began holding commemorative banquets every May 31. Yet even now Elsie rarely speaks of the '89 flood. For her, it was just "a moment," not nearly as remarkable as the births of her children. "People then didn't make as much of a fuss about things like that as they do now," she says. "You cleaned up and you went on."

—Bonnie Johnson, Jane Beckwith in Johnstown

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