David was born the son of Joshua and Milly (Milliken) Beale on July 1, 1835 in the village of Honey Grove which is located about forty-five miles west-northwest of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. While David was a boy his father moved the household east to Mifflintown on the Juniata River. For academic studies David attended Tuscarora Academy and for spiritual fellowship and worship he attended the Lost Creek Presbyterian Church, Old School. Matthew Allison, an immigrant from Scotland, was David’s pastor when at the age of seventeen he professed faith in Christ.
Beale graduated Jefferson College in Canonsburg in 1861. That fall, he began ministerial studies in nearby Western Theological Seminary but left after only a semester. The reason for his brief attendance was not given. His next venue for divinity education was Princeton in New Jersey, but he did not complete its curriculum either. Despite not having a seminary certificate in hand, he was licensed April 16, 1863, by the Presbytery of Huntingdon, Old School, and supplied the pulpit of Middle Tuscarora Presbyterian Church until he was ordained and installed its pastor on August 11, 1864. The small community had a sizeable congregation of 347 communicant members that needed his oversight, but Pastor Beale was also able to supply a mission in Peru Mills until it was organized in 1867. He left the state for the next two successive churches—the first was in St. George’s, Delaware, for about three years, and the second was in Maryland at the Light Street Church in Baltimore for eleven years ending September 3, 1883. Pastor Beale’s next ministry relocated him back across the Mason-Dixson Line in his Quaker State homeland.
When David Beale was installed by the Presbytery of Blairsville in the Johnstown church, October 10, 1883, he could not have imagined the part he would play in the city’s history. At the time he started the call, Johnstown was bustling with about 30,000 inhabitants and many of them worked for Cambria Iron Company. For the residents, noise, smoke, soot, and smells were the way of life. The Presbyterians enjoyed a good ministry among the residents with Pastor Beale’s congregation numbering nearly 400 members, and an evangelist named David M. Miller was working to establish a second church. By 1888, Pastor Beale’s flock numbered 551 and Evangelist Miller’s efforts were blessed with seventy members organized in the Conemaugh Presbyterian Church. Johnstown was growing with hopes for a continued prosperous future and the Presbyterians were increasing their ministry.
The Conemaugh Valley could be a rainy place during the spring. It was not unusual for Johnstown to have some flooding, but the spring of 1889 was different because the showers falling on both the just and unjust were record setting. Back up the valley about fourteen miles from Johnstown was a private organization named the South Fork Hunting and Fishing Club located on Lake Conemaugh. Among its members were prosperous businessmen from the Pittsburgh area who went to the retreat for cool weather in summer and manly outdoor recreation. The lake was man-made. Its restraining dam was in poor shape at the time of its sale to the South Fork developers. The weakened structure was shored up, patched, and worried about, but nothing was done to properly rectify the situation. It was not an issue of money; the prosperous club members could have financed a dam reconstruction project. To make matters worse, South Fork developers had removed the top three feet of the earthen dam to provide a carriageway so members could ride rather than walk to their homes on the other side of the lake.
On May 31, 1889 at about three in the afternoon, the dam breached pouring water down the Conemaugh Valley dropping about 450 feet in elevation as it accelerated to a speed of as much as forty miles per hour. It was said the roar of the water was deafening. If one could have stood on the side of a mountain looking at the water careening down the valley it appeared as a four-story high foaming torrent carrying a variety of debris. It chewed up everything in its path. At the end of the flood’s route was Johnstown. Not long before the dam failed a concerned man had observed its weakened condition and telegraphed ahead. But the message never left the Western Union office in Johnstown. It was a case of the boy who cried wolf syndrome; the residents of Johnstown had received warnings before, but water never came down the valley. The telegraph office made a tragic mistake. When the water hit town, houses were toppled destroying 1600, trains were derailed, and over 2,200 people were killed. Ninety-nine families were wiped-out including nearly 400 children. Four square miles of downtown Johnstown were washed away. The Johnstown Flood is third in the list of worst natural disasters in American history behind the Galveston hurricane of 1900, and the catastrophic San Francisco earthquake and fire in 1906.
Pastor Beale was in the church manse with his family when the water flooded town. It seemed to him that the house was going to be washed away, so he and his family went up to the third floor and transferred to a more sturdy abutting building. A daughter remembered to bring their canary in its cage. The Beales survived by God’s grace. Their little dog was rescued from the flood to remain the Beales’ best four-legged friend. The Presbyterian Church building survived, but it was damaged. Despite the poor condition of the church it was good enough to be used for one of the morgues necessitated by the abundance of corpses. Johnstown had to recover and rebuild.
David Beale wanted to help his flock and town recover. He was placed on the Morgue Committee with another minister. The committee had the necessary but emotionally difficult task of gathering and identifying bodies, notifying their kin, returning personal items, and then seeing they were properly interred. In many cases bodies could not be identified. What a distressing situation for a minister to experience as he directed handling the dead in the light of eternity. As the city recovered, one resident, Alexander N. Hart, while telling of his own experience, commented regarding Beale’s work.
I cannot end this account without paying tribute to Dr. David J. Beale, the pastor of the Presbyterian Church. During the whole time of the flood and afterward, he forgot himself in his care and ministering to us and our suffering people. Throughout that dreadful night in Alma Hall, he was incessant in his attentions, though his own wife and children were among the suffering multitude. By his kind, consoling words, by his calmness and self-control, by his fervent prayers, directing us to our only help in this time of trouble, he made it possible for us to endure the horrors of that night. During the following weeks his work and services in the morgues and among the survivors have laid our citizens under obligations they can never fully discharge. (Through the Flood, p. 347)
Like George D. Armstrong, whose The Summer of the Pestilence, 1856, provides an account of a yellow fever epidemic in Norfolk, Virginia, David Beale’s Through the Flood, By a Survivor, 1890, gives an eyewitness and informative record of the Johnstown Flood. His book also has a detailed list of those who died in the flood. David Beale’s call to Johnstown was dissolved by the Presbytery of Blairsville on September 16, 1890, so he could transfer to the church in Frederick City, Maryland, where he remained until July 1896. Returning to Pennsylvania, this time Philadelphia, his last pastoral call was to First Church of the Northern Liberties for two years ending October 3, 1898. When he passed away on October 19, 1900 from what was diagnosed as angina pectoris, he was involved in evangelistic work. David J Beale had married on May 2, 1865, Mary Riddle Moore in Bellefonte, Pennsylvania, and she survived him along with their three sons and three daughters. He was buried in the Presbyterian Cemetery in Mifflintown, Pennsylvania.
Dr. Beale was a Member of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, and he was honored with the Doctor of Divinity in 1886 by Washington and Jefferson College, his alma mater had merged with Washington College in 1865. In addition to his important account of the Johnstown Flood and its aftermath, Beale wrote The History of the Tuscarora Valley, 1869; Sketches of the Jefferson College Class of 1861, 1886; Life and Labors of Professor David Wilson, [n.d.]; and some sermons. The digitized copy of Beale’s book about the Johnstown Flood used for writing this post was scanned from one donated to Princeton Seminary by Wilson Thomas Moore Beale, David’s son, who graduated in 1902.
Notes—I could not find out for certain what the “J” stands for in Beale’s name (note the lack of a period). One newspaper obituary says his middle name was Joshua, which means he may have been named for his father or the obituary author assumed the J stood for Joshua. The necrological report notes that the “J” was not an initial, just a “J”. The necrological reports are usually composed from a data form provided by the graduate or a member of his family, so it is likely his middle name was just the letter. See the explanation of the “X” in D. X. Junkins name on this site, and the same post provides information regarding the considerable number of students who failed to complete their seminary educations but were licensed and ordained. Sometimes parents simply gave their children middle initials, and this may be the case for Beale. Honey Grove, Pennsylvania, was at the time of Beale’s birth named Bealetown, which means there may have been other David Beales in town and his “J” was simply a practical means for distinguishing him from other like-named residents.
The Historical Memorial of the Centennial Anniversary of the Presbyterian of Huntingdon Held in Huntingdon, PA., April 9, 1895 Published by the Authority of the Presbytery, 1795-1895, Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott Co., 1896; the header shows the Presbyterian Church on the right side. All the images are from Beale’s book on the Johnstown Flood.