1,1889, Americans woke to the news that
Johnstown, Pennsylvania had been devastated by
the worst flood in the Nation's history. Over
2,200 were dead, with many more homeless. When
the full story of the flood came to light, many
believed that if this was a "natural"
disaster, then surely man was an accomplice.
Johnstown in 1889 was a
steel company town of Germans and Welsh. With a
population of 30,000, it was a growing and
industrious community known for the quality of
its steel. Founded in 1794, Johnstown began to
prosper with the building of the Pennsylvania
Mainline Canal in 1834 and the arrival of the
Pennsylvania Railroad and the Cambria Iron
Company in the 1850s.
There was one small
drawback to living in the city. Johnstown had
been built on a flood plain at the fork of the
Little Conemaugh and Stony Creek rivers. Because
the growing city had narrowed the river banks to
gain building space, the heavy annual rains had
caused increased flooding in recent years.
There was another
thing. Fourteen miles up the Little Conemaugh,
3-mile long Lake Conemaugh was held on the side
of a mountain - 450 feet higher than Johnstown -
by the old South Fork Dam. The dam had been
poorly maintained, and every spring there was
talk that the dam might not hold. But it always
had, and the supposed threat became something of
a standing joke around town.
But at 4:07 p.m. on
the chilly, wet afternoon of May 31, 1889 the
inhabitants heard a low rumble that grew to a
"roar like thunder." Some knew
immediately what had happened: after a night of
heavy rains, the South Fork Dam had finally
broken, sending 20 million tons of water crashing
down the narrow valley. Boiling with huge chunks
of debris, the wall of flood water grew at times
to 60 feet high, tearing downhill at 40 miles per
hour, leveling everything in its path.
Thousands of people
desperately tried to escape the wave. Those
caught by the wave found themselves swept up in a
torrent of oily, muddy water, surrounded by tons
of grinding debris, which crushed some, provided
rafts for others. Many became helplessly
entangled in miles of barbed wire from the
destroyed wire works.
It was over in 10
minutes, but for some the worst was still yet to
come. Darkness fell, thousands were huddled in
attics, others were floating on the debris, while
many more had been swept downstream to the old
Stone Bridge at the junction of the rivers. Piled
up against the arches, much of the debris caught
fire, entrapping forever 80 people who had
survived the initial flood wave.
Many bodies were
never identified, hundreds of the missing never
found. Emergency morgues and hospitals were set
up, and commissaries distributed food and
clothing. The Nation responded to the disaster
with a spontaneous outpouring of time, money,
food, clothing, and medical assistance.
operation took years, with bodies being found
months later in a few cases, years after the
flood. The city regained its population and
rebuilt its manufacturing centers, but it was 5
years before Johnstown was fully recovered.
In the aftermath,
most survivors laid the blame for the dam's
failure squarely at the feet of the members of
the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club. They had
bought the abandoned reservoir, then repaired the
old dam, raised the lake level, and built
cottages and a clubhouse in their secretive
retreat in the mountains. Members were wealthy
Pittsburgh steel and coal industrialists,
including Andrew Carnegie and Andrew Mellon, who
had hired B. Ruff to oversee the repairs to the
dam. There is no question about the shoddy
condition of the dam, but no successful lawsuits
were ever brought against club members for its
failure and the resulting deaths downstream.
National Park Service - US Dept. of the Interior