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The Johnstown, Pennsylvania Flood of 1889

Updated on August 22, 2018
Johnstown, Pennsylvania prior to 1889
Johnstown, Pennsylvania prior to 1889 | Source

Johnstown, Pennsylvania, lies nestled in the Conemaugh Valley, built where the Stony Creek and Little Conemaugh rivers meet to form the Conemaugh River. Surrounded by hills and the Allegheny Mountain Range on its east side, Johnstown was founded in 1800 by Swiss-German immigrant Joseph Johns. Industrialization rose, beginning with the Pennsylvania Main Line Canal built in 1836, followed by the Pennsylvania Railroad and Cambria Iron Works, both built in the 1850s.

Because of its location, Johnstown, and the surrounding area, was susceptible to high runoff from rain and snowfall, as well as flooding from the rivers. A watershed located upstream, including a drainage basin for the Allegheny plateau, and the artificial narrowing of the riverbed both allowed for industry growth, but also compounded the flooding susceptibility.

Fourteen miles upstream of Johnstown, the South Fork Dam was constructed between 1838 and 1853 as part of the intrastate canal system, and was to serve as a reservoir for the canal basin established in Johnstown by Pennsylvania’s Main Line of Public Works. The canal was eventually abandoned by the state to focus on railroads as an emerging alternative to canal barge transport and was sold to Pennsylvania Railroad along with Lake Conemaugh and the South Fork Dam, both of which were later sold to private investors.

Following its purchase, the investors made alterations to the dam – alterations which were later thought to have weakened it – increased the water level of the lake, and erected cottages and clubhouses to create the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club, a private retreat for the wealthy. Some notable participants of this club were Andrew Carnegie, Henry Clay Frick, Philander Knox, John George Alexander Leishman, Andrew Mellon, and Daniel Johnson Morrell.

View of the collapsed South Fork Damn c. 1889
View of the collapsed South Fork Damn c. 1889 | Source

It was Elias Unger, President of the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club, who first recognized the potential danger of a dam breach on the day of the flood, but he could not have foreseen the unparalleled devastation.

Recognized at the time as the largest loss of civilian life in the United States, the Johnstown Flood wreaked havoc no one could have imagined on Johnstown and the surrounding communities. It all began with a storm that struck the area on May 31, 1889, which resulted in the failure of the South Fork Dam. This dam failure set in motion a series of events that only Mother Nature could control.

Early morning on May 31, Elias Unger awoke and surveyed the South Fork Dam from his farm located on a hill above it. When he realized that Lake Conemaugh was close to overflowing, he rounded up a group of men to try to save the dam. Some set to work unclogging the spillway which was blocked by a broken fish trap and debris. Others attempted to dig another spillway at the other end of the dam to alleviate the pressure. Still more worked on top of the dam adding mud and rocks to the dam face to stem the erosion.

Twice, engineer John Parke, at Unger’s insistence, rode his horse to South Fork, to send telegram warnings to Johnstown about the critical nature of the dam erosion. Because of the many false alarms about the South Fork Dam not holding, a sense of complacency was the norm and none of the warnings were passed to Johnstown authorities.

Wrecked Pullman cars and engines c. 1889
Wrecked Pullman cars and engines c. 1889 | Source

Unger, Parke, and their men continued working to save the dam until nearly 1:30 p.m. By that time, they realized that none of their efforts were solving the dam erosion, and concern that it would collapse at any moment reached a fever pitch, sending the crew scrambling to higher ground on either side of the dam.

Meanwhile, in Johnstown, the water had risen as high as 10 feet, trapping some in their houses.

The South Fork Dam finally collapsed around 3:10 p.m., unleashing 20 million tons of water from Lake Conemaugh, and sending it cascading down the Little Conemaugh River.

It took only 40 minutes for the lake to drain completely.

First in the raging torrent’s path was South Fork. Located on high ground, most were able to escape by running up the surrounding hills when the dam spilled over. Even still, 20-30 houses were destroyed or washed away, and 4 people were killed.

The water continued its destructive race toward Johnstown. The debris collected en route created a jam at the Conemaugh Viaduct. Lasting no more than seven minutes, the jam and subsequent water pressure caused the viaduct’s collapse. The temporary stop of the water flow allowed the surging river to gain more strength resulting in a stronger-than-expected wave hitting Johnstown.

East Conemaugh was next in line. Locomotive engineer John Hess heard the roar of the approaching flood and tried to save those still downriver by tying down the train whistle so that it served as an alarm, and heading back toward East Conemaugh. Thanks to his warning, many people were save, though at least 50 people still lost their lives, including 25 stranded train passengers. Hess survived despite his locomotive being picked up and thrown aside by the violent waters.

Flooding and Damage at Cambria Iron Works c. 1889
Flooding and Damage at Cambria Iron Works c. 1889 | Source

Before the flood reached Johnstown proper, the surge smashed into the Cambria Iron Works in Woodvale, which offered little resistance. The floodwaters picked up more debris in the form of railroad cars and barbed wire. 314 of Woodvale’s 1,100 residents died.

Gautier Wire Works followed suit with their boilers exploding, pumping black smoke into the air. More barbed wire was added to the debris.

57 minutes after the South Fork Dam collapsed, the flood reached Johnstown. With virtually no warnings able to reach the townspeople, the 40 mph floodwaters rushing up to 60 feet high caught most unaware. Some tried to escape by heading to high ground, but most were caught by the flood, crushed by debris, or tangled in the barbed wire. Those who were able to reach attics or stay afloat on debris waited hours for help to arrive.

Debris at Stone Bridge c. 1889
Debris at Stone Bridge c. 1889 | Source

To add insult to injury, Stone Bridge, which allowed railway transport across the Conemaugh River, formed a temporary dam when confronted with the debris brought downriver. This forced the water to roll upstream along the Stony Creek River. Gravity returned the water to the dam, resulting in a second wave of floodwater smashing into Johnstown from another direction.

Some of the people washed downstream became trapped in an inferno created by the debris at the Stone Bridge when it caught fire and burned for three days.

Once the water receded, the full picture of the devastation became clear: a total of 2,209 people were killed. Of that total, 396 were children, 98 of which were orphaned. 99 families were decimated. 124 women and 198 men were widowed. 777 of the dead were never identified.

In addition to the immense loss of life, the financial cost ran to $17 million in property damage. 1600 homes were destroyed and 4 square miles of downtown Johnstown were a wasteland.

View of a flooded Conemaugh Valley c. 1889
View of a flooded Conemaugh Valley c. 1889 | Source

Once the relief effort began in earnest, debris was removed, food distributed, and temporary housing erected. The Pennsylvania Railroad was able to restore service to Pittsburgh by June 2nd, allowing relief supplies and volunteers to arrive by rail. The American Red Cross, founded only eight years earlier, tackled their first major disaster relief. President and Founder of the American Red Cross, Clara Barton, arrived on June 5th and stayed for more than five months. At its peak, the total number of relief workers reached 7,000. Monetary donations poured in from throughout the United States and 18 foreign countries. Some members of the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club, including Henry Clay Frick, donated thousands of dollars. Andrew Carnegie built a new library that is currently owned by the Johnstown Historical Society and which now houses The Flood Museum.

Additionally, a temporary 10% tax on all alcohol sold within Pennsylvania was implemented by the General Assembly to aid recovery. Never withdrawn, the tax was raised to 14% in 1963, and to 18% in 1968. Today, the money raised from this tax is deposited into a general discretionary fund used by lawmakers.

Survivors of the Johnstown Flood blamed the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club for the modifications they had made to the dam and accused them of failing to properly maintain it. A court case ensued resulting in the survivors being defeated in court; not only did the members of the club keep their private assets separate from the club’s financial structure, it was also difficult to prove any negligence had occurred. Despite the trial outcome, the alleged negligence was covered and criticized extensively in the national press.

It was this criticism that led a number of states to implement Rylands v. Fletcher, an 1868 tort law decision that Britain had established, which asserted that a defendant, while non-negligent, could be held legally responsible for any destruction brought about by man-made modifications to natural land.

Any first-hand knowledge of the events that shattered the Conemaugh Valley passed with the death of Frank Shomo, the last known survivor of the Johnstown Flood, who died on March 20, 1997, at the age of 108. Still, many reminders of the flood and the havoc it wreaked remain. The Stone Bridge, which was so clogged with wire-entangled debris that it could only be cleared by the use of dynamite and the efforts of a 900-man crew led by “Dynamite Bill” Fill, underwent a restoration in 2008 and still allows for rail transport across the Conemaugh River. Portions of the bridge are used as part of the Johnstown Flood National Memorial, which was established in 1969. An eternal flame burns in Johnstown’s Point Park as a testimony to the flood victim’s memories, a constant reminder of Mother Nature’s wrath.

Documentary about the Johnstown Flood


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