The Dam That Could Not Break

from  “The Flame” (Clarks Mills, PA United Methodist Church newsletter)
    Today marks 100 years since the failure of the Austin Dam not far from my hometown. My daughters & I had a chance to visit the ruins a few summers ago. Growing up just about 30 or so miles away, I had vaguely been aware of the September 30, 1911 failure of the dam & the ensuing flood. But I had never stopped to see the remains.

     In 1909, on the wisdom of the latest experts, the dam was deliberately designed backwards from conventional wisdom. The flat side of the dam wall was built to face the water & the dam’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 & owners (& even other residents) would simply laugh & 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 & William Nelson. Not only were they summarily dismissed, but most 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 too were killed.

     As I stood there in the midst of those remains reading names of those who died in this tragedy, I was reminded of how many times such conceit & overconfidence resulted in equally disastrous effects.

     I’m reminded of the arrogance & 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 in Austin reminds me of the stories of the owners of the South Fork Club that disregarded safety warnings & their dam eventually burst & wiped out much of Johnstown, Pa. just two decades earlier in 1889.

    What started as a chance to stretch our legs on a long trip, turned into a time of hearing the Lord speak to me about three things. First, just because experts claim something is safe or “everyone else agrees” with an idea, neither makes it safe nor right. After all, following the crowd and going with the majority assures you of Hell, not Heaven. Secondly, Proverbs 16:18 says “Pride goes before destruction, & haughtiness before a fall.” Unbridled arrogance & 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 & had tried to warn others, & 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 & established our own place in eternity, then we won’t escape either.

     Finally, as we 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 & attention to its dangers, this tiny little brook caused the death of dozens. It was a reminder to me of the effect & importance of paying attention to the seemingly little decisions in our lives, for they can have grave consequences later.

     As I drove away from that memorial that day, I found myself comparing my attitudes and decisions to those of the ones behind the disastrous failure of the Austin Dam a hundred years ago. How about you?

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