Features appear in each issue of Pennsylvania Heritage showcasing a variety of subjects from various periods and geographic locations in Pennsylvania.

Laurette Taylor, an actress who knew well of what she spoke, wrote, “There is no existence so devoid of meaning as ‘the one night stands,’ none so fatal to progress as any kind of forced and hurried travel­ing.” Yet of just such ingredi­ents was the theatrical experience compounded dur­ing the last quarter of the nine­teenth century. For these were the years of “the road,” when hundreds of combination companies criss-crossed the land bringing passion and pathos, sensation and senti­ment to the audiences of opera house America. Cut adrift from friends and family, grate­ful for board and lodging that would not be tolerated by even a domestic servant, the road company actors and actresses had opportunities without number to repent their chosen profession – especially the physical demands it made upon them.

Yet on occasion the cheap boarding houses or station hotels – smelling of musty carpets, fried food and pun­gent slops – and the endless succession of shabby day coaches that delivered their human cargo to gritty gray towns at dawn were not with­out value. They fostered a resilience and a fortitude, a readiness and a sensibleness. And so fortified, the thespian was prepared to endure the vicissitudes of the profession or to face the exigencies of such natural disasters as fell to his lot – such as the Johnstown Flood of 1889.

George M. Cohan, a trouper born-and-bred long before he leased Broadway for an indefinite season, once penned a knowledgeable bit of verse enumerating his discov­eries of the road. It begins, “A stands for Albany, good for one night” and progresses through the alphabet to in­clude “J stands for Johnstown, capacity sure.” Cohan, of course, aptly hit off Johns­town, Pennsylvania, as a good showtown, its opera house hosting the memorable mo­ments and the ephemeral fare of an era. And, no doubt, many a local resident felt it only his community’s due when The Daily Tribune adver­tised the Thursday, May 30, 1889, appearance of Augustin Daly’s greatest of all comedy hits, A Night Off.

Today Daly’s name – much like Delmonico’s, Lily Langtry, and Saratoga – helps recall a vanished world, in which his players and the plays he adapted for them from the French and the German, such as A Night Off, enjoyed unpar­alleled popularity. Daly’s the­atre was judged de riguer and his plays in their original mounting, or in their road productions, had style and elegance, a tangible glamour. Audiences flocked to them, knowing in advance that they would witness the quintes­sence of good taste: the scen­ery always fresh, the props smartly correct and the wom­en’s gowns breathlessly style-setting. Even threatening weather was not formidable enough to keep Johnstown’s citizens from the Opera House on that fateful evening.

A storm had started out of Kansas and Nebraska two days before and by Wednes­day, May 29, the United States Signal Service issued notice that the Middle Atlantic states could expect severe local storms. All area stations re­ported threatening weather on Thursday morning, but Me­morial Day crowds thronged Johnstown. One of the com­munity’s ministers remem­bered that, “The morning was delightful, the city was in its gayest mood, with flags, banners and flowers everywhere …. ” Although the traditional parade started late (as usual}, much of the holiday crowd had returned from the cemetery by the time the rain began.

Without question, what followed was the worst down­pour that had ever been re­corded for western Pennsylvania. The Signal Service, calling it the most extensive rainfall of the cen­tury for so large an area, esti­mated that between six and eight inches of rain fell in twenty-four hours, drenching the entire region. Despite the unpleasantness of the evening, no one on either side of the footlights experienced any premonition of disaster. When night fell again, however, on the following evening, Johnstown – a city built on a nearly level flood plain at the confluence of two rivers – had ceased to exist.

A dam in the Conemaugh River Valley had burst, letting loose a surging wall of water fifty feet high and a half mile wide that swept away every­thing in its path. One eyewit­ness recounted the devastation of an entire valley.

… Everything which such a mighty avalanche of water could sweep down a valley and through a thickly populated city was piled up against the bridge, which had been so well constructed that it remained uninjured and acted as a solid dam to hold everything which pressed against it­ – locomotives, railroad cars, tangled networks of steel rails, machinery of every sort, trees, logs, lumber, stones, bricks, in fact everything which an irresistible flood of water could sweep out of a thickly settled valley, including the carcasses of cattle, horses and the bodies of human beings, were piled up in a tangled mountain against the bridge. The flood had cut a path­way through the valley where had once stood manufacturing plants, stores, banks and homes, which were as bare as if an army had marched over it.

Hundreds were drowned in their homes, while others were carried away to their death by the raging torrent. Historians labeled the Johnstown Flood “the greatest calamity in the loss of human life, which ever took place in the history of the State in times of peace. The battle of Gettysburg alone exceeded it in the loss of life.”

Among those who lived to tell of their experiences were the members of Daly’s A Night Off company. For Miss Eberle, their young star, “No words can tell the horrors of the scenes we witnessed and noth­ing that has been published can convey any idea of the awful havoc wrought in those few but apparently never­-ending minutes in which the worst of the flood passed over us.” Was it merely a matter of luck or capricious fate that spared them, or had the expe­riences of the road, the busi­ness of trouping, prepared them to survive? Very possibly they owed their lives to their profession.

Friday saw the Night Off company aboard mail train number twelve that was sched­uled to leave Johnstown at 8:29 A.M. Miss Eberle remembered the train leaving on time but she recalled their proceeding only two miles when suddenly the train shrieked to a halt at the East Conemaugh railyards. Looking from the windows of their coach E. Guy Spangler, one of Miss Eberle’s fellow players, described the scene. “The little stream just right of the track had swollen to a raging river, carrying with it bits of wood, logs, and occa­sionally a bit of roof or hen coop. From the car window we gazed on the destructive little stream, the rain pouring torrents.”

Unable to proceed because of a landslide ahead of it, the mail train backed onto a side track to make room for the first and second sections of the Limited. Within minutes of the move the train began to shake; the waters swirled danger­ously dose to the track. Coun­tering the elements, the engineer pulled the train fifty yards ahead to the round­house. As the horrified actors looked behind them, they saw the track on which their train had stood moments before swept into the turbulent river. But in Spangler’s words, “The danger had just begun.”

The eighteen passengers, all but one or two from the Night Off company, had, of course, been told that if the Conemaugh River dam ever broke, its waters would drown the valley; however, many of their informants did not them­selves believe the dam was in danger of bursting. The mail train’s conductor, Charles Warthen, was among the lat­ter, but in telling what he knew, he made the situation sound serious. Moreover, his sage advice was sound. All aboard were to get ready to move – and move quickly­ – should the occasion arise. Rather than bewail their fate or panic, those who listened to him – troupers all – rounded up their belongings. Valiantly, the women pinned up their skirts.

From their coach’s win­dows, the actors and actresses saw nothing but wholesale destruction. Spangler’s chilling description still conveys the terror which faced everyone in the vicinity. “Horses, pigs, fowls came floating down; families, houseless and home­less, were wandering over the hilltops, on both sides of the flood; trees were tom up and came tearing down; gigantic logs swept past like bits of straw.” Unsettling as these sights obviously were, Miss Eberle recalled they were not themselves unduly alarmed, believing that their car offered them safety for as long as need be – a night even.

In the meantime, the mail train’s brakeman, G. J. McGuigan, raced to the tele­graph tower in quest of news and was told by the operator: “Nothing, only another mes­sage that the dam is in a very dangerous condition. The operator then clarified the consequences of its breaking. “It would cover this whole valley from hill to hill with water.” Now growing alarmed himself, McGuigan hurried back to his train to urge the passengers to be on the look­out. He recalled that, “The ladies got frightened and one of them wanted to know if they should not better go to the hills now, but the manager of the troupe said ‘No, there is no danger yet’ … The women seemed to be ready for it .. .I think they were very sensible people.”

At this juncture the tracks in the East Conemaugh yard were crowded with railway trains, sleepers, dining cars, freight trains, fully a dozen engines – all in real jeopardy should the dam collapse. At about three o’clock those aboard the mail train saw a heavy iron bridge go down as if it were made of paper. Then a gravel train came tearing down the tracks with the en­gine giving out the most awful shriek Miss Eberle had ever heard. The other engines sounded their whistles in response, followed by desper­ate cries of “To the hills! To the hills for your lives!

Brakeman McGuigan ran to the car where the Night Off company was gathered to find the women sitting, the men standing. They all had their grips and valises in their hands. At McGuigan’s appear­ance the men bolted to the upper end of the car and the ladies to the other, where McGuigan stood waiting. The brakeman assisted them out “and then I ran with two of the ladies, caught hold of their hands, and ran until we came to the ditch … and Miss Eberle, she refused to go into the ditch, and I threw her into it, and jumped down and as­sisted her up the other side, and ran up the hill.”

Miss Eberle, in the mad scramble, turned once to look at the vast wall of water that appeared to her to be fifty feet high. “It was of a deep yellow color, but the crest was white with foam.” Spangler, only yards away, called it “a cataract of seething fury, rushing madly, submerging and sweeping all before it.” He saw the roundhouse and the en­gines crushed “like egg shells.” Houses swept by him “like a feather.” Trains of cars rushed along “like cockle shells, filled with human beings screaming, tearing their hair, wives torn from their husbands, children and babies swept away.”

But from the mail train and especially from the Night Off company, no one was lost. Moreover, the following morn­ing Spangler and the men from the company were able to make their way to the train they had so precipitously quit. Miraculously it was still intact, although it had been shoved downstream a considerable distance. Using an axe to clear away the debris, they suc­ceeded in entering the car and retrieving all the company’s trunks. Ahead of them lay a sixteen mile ride to Edensburg in a lumber wagon without springs. “It was trying,” wrote Miss Eberle, “but no one thought of complaining.”

From Edensburg, they were sent to Cresson and then to Altoona. A natural disaster, though it could disrupt and delay, could not long stay the inexorable route schedules of the theatrical road. And on Monday, June 3, installed at Altoona’s Eleventh Street Opera House, the Night Off company was proudly practic­ing its profession in a special benefit for the Johnstown survivors. Those who attended were, no doubt, influenced by genuine sympathy for the flood victims, but they may have been prompted by to see for themselves the members of a company who had survived the Johnstown catastrophe.

On the same day, Span­gler’s account of the disaster had appeared in the Mirror. Obviously written in the im­mediacy of events, it evoked the horror of the railyards: a crippled passenger crawling over the tracks on his hands and knees; a coach filled with human cargo torn from its coupling and turned around like a shell; frantic travelers crawling to the tops of coaches only to be swept like flies from their precarious perch by a passing tree; and a woman crazed with grief, her baby tom from her arms, begging passersby to return the child.

It was a wonder that every passenger on the mail train survived unscathed – albeit not unshaken – when so many of their fellows perished. Miss Eberle paid tribute to Charles Warthen. Unlike his fellow conductors, Warthen had made an effort to warn his passengers of what could lie ahead. And there were the helping hands of McGuigan, the brakeman. But no less crucial was the evident cool­ness and sensibility of the troupers themselves, from star to supporting stand-in. A season – or, more likely, many seasons on the road – had honed their ability not only to endure but to survive. For in that seemingly insignificant act of the women pinning up their skirts, in their gathering at either end of the car, the Night Off company made real a bit of advice about a troupe being known by the little things, or equally by the one night stands behind and yet ahead of them.


For Further Reading

Beale, David J. Through the Johnstown Flood. Edgewood, Pa.: Edgewood Publishing Company, 1890.

Berger, Karl, ed. Johnstown: The Story of a Unique Valley. Johnstown, Pa.: Johnstown Flood Museum, 1985.

Ditmar, Edward A. Memories of Daly’s Theatres. Privately Printed, 1897.

Donehoo, George P., ed. Penn­sylvania: A History. New York: Lewis Historical Publishing Company, 1926.

Felheim, Martin. The Theater of Augustin Daly. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1956.

Greer, M. Margaret. From Trail Dust to Star Dust. Johnstown, Pa.: Privately Printed, 1960.

Johnson, Willis Fletcher. History of the Johnstown Flood. Edge­wood, Pa.: Edgewood Publishing Company, 1889.

McCabe, John. George M. Co­han: The Man Who Owned Broadway. Garden City, N. Y.: Doubleday, 1973.

McCullough, David G. The Johnstown Flood. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1968.

O’Connor, Richard. Johnstown: The Day the Dam Broke. Lon­don: Alvin Redman, 1957.

Skinner, Cornelia Otis. Family Circle. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1948.

Taylor, Laurette. The Greatest of These. New York: George H. Doran, 1918.


John L. Marsh, a professor of English at Edinboro University of Pennsylvania, received his doctor­ate from the University of Penn­sylvania. A compulsive writer, he has co-authored texts devoted to English and American literature, compiled bibliographies and pro­duced monographs on subjects as diverse as Opera House America and country church architecture. His interest in the history of northwestern Pennsylvania has prompted him to publish numer­ous articles, many of which are devoted to the great days of the theatrical road companies, in Western Pennsylvania Histori­cal Magazine, Pennsylvania History and Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography.