This was my pastor’s letter in our church’s monthly newsletter for this month…
My daughters and I visited the ruins of the Austin Dam earlier this summer. Located in Potter County, not far from where I grew up, the failure of the Austin Dam and the disastrous flood that resulted on September 30, 1911, was part of our local history. But what started as a quick stop to stretch our legs as we drove home from grandma’s house, became an emotionally moving experience… and a reminder of spiritual truths.
According to the “experts” of the time, when the dam was started in 1909, it was deliberately designed backwards from conventional wisdom. The flat side of the dam wall was built to face the water and the wall’s sloped section faced downstream. The idea, supposedly, was that this would provide an even greater strength to the structure. It was claimed that this would be a “dam that could not break.” In fact, when flood survivor Marie Kathern Nuschke wrote her eyewitness account of the event almost 50 years later she entitled it: The Dam That Could Not Break.
When people would question the logic and/or the safety of the dam, the engineers and owners (and even other residents) would simply laugh and say things like: “That dam will stand when you all are dead.” Nuschke wrote that there were two people who were adamant in their concerns about the dam, Sarah Willetts and William Nelson. Not only were they summarily dismissed, but most of the rest of the community laughed at them as well. And despite their misgivings, they stayed in Austin. Later, when the flood did in fact come, they were killed as well.
As I stood there in the midst of those remains, reading names of those who died in this tragedy, I was reminded of the many times we have seen such conceit and overconfidence… with equally disastrous effect.
I’m reminded of the arrogance and pride of the builders of the Titanic who claimed that “Even God couldn’t sink this ship.” And yet, sink it did. The lack of concern over the safety of the local residents reminds me of the stories of the owners of the South Fork Club that disregarded safety warnings and their dam eventually burst and wiped out much of Johnstown, Pa. in 1889.
What did the Lord speak to me in this visit? First, just because “experts” claim something is safe or “everyone else agrees” with an idea, neither makes it safe nor right. Second, Proverbs 16:18 says “Pride goes before destruction, and haughtiness before a fall.” (NLT) Unbridled arrogance and pride, especially without compassion, is a disaster just waiting to happen. Third, I sensed a great deal of grief for those two people who had seen the danger and had tried to warn others, and yet did not escape. It reminded me that it’s not enough to know of the danger or even to tell others. We need to also take care of ourselves. Spiritually, it’s the same way. It’s not enough to know that there is a Hell or even to warn others, if we haven’t accepted Christ and established our own place in eternity then we won’t escape either.
Finally, as I left, I stopped at the little bridge that leads into the park and snapped this picture of Freeman Run, the water source the Austin Dam had tried to block to harness the power of the water. Yet without the proper respect and attention to its dangers, this tiny little brook caused the death of dozens. It was a reminder to me of the effect and importance of paying attention to the little things in our lives.
There was a lot for me to think about and pray about as I drove away from that memorial park that day. How about you? Can we learn from history? Or do we have to make our own mistakes every time?