Education: Johnstown Flood Museum

Johnstown Area Heritage Association
Secondary source

History of the Southfork Dam

The Dam's last moments

The rain keeps coming

The downpour of the great storm continued with an undiminished strength during the afternoon and evening of May 31. The rain over the watershed of the South Fork Dam fell at the rate of two-thirds of an inch per hour. This record fall put 20,909 cubic feet of water per second on the area drained by the Conemaugh.

By three o’clock, 10,000 cubic feet of water were pouring into the reservoir every second. The spillway, impeded by log floats, fish guards and bridge piers, possibly carried off 6000 feet per second. The other 4000 cubic flowed over the dam; much of it over the depression in the center of the wall. Pouring over the earth in the wall, which had already been plowed, was 123 tons of water per second whose weight and speed acted as an irresistible abrasive which not even the heavy stone facing of the outer wall could long resist.51

The Lake overflowed the Dam, cut a notch...

The small streams of water which ran from the crevices of the outer wall became large cores of water after a few stones had fallen from the top of the embankment. With a V-shaped notch cut in the outer wall, the force of the water soon cut a triangular trough to the inner wall. In a few moments this notch was ten feet deep,--deep enough to form a draining furrow 150 feet back into the lake.52

... pushed the Dam out of its way...

The eroded spot in the center of the dam grew larger and larger. The roar of the escaping water and the spray at the breach frightened the speechless observers away. Roaring louder and louder, grinding deeper and deeper, the waters of the Conemaugh finally pushed a 420 foot section of the wall into the valley below. Ninety thousand cubic  yards of the embankment were deposited in a gravel bar at the foot of the dam. All the fill of 1880-1881 was torn out. The force of the water even laid bare the sluice culvert of 1851.

... then raced in a huge wave down the Conemaugh

In forty-five minutes on May 31, 640 million cubic feet of water—20 million tons—were freed from the old Western Reservoir—freed to race through the Conemaugh Valley, freed to drop from a height of four hundred feet upon the defenseless towns of the valley. Even after the dam had been drained, the waters which constantly drained into the reservoir still made a stream five feet deep through the ruined wall.53

  • 51 McMaster, op cit., 229-230: “Report of the Special Committee of the American Society of Civil Engineers on the ‘Cause of the Failure of the South Fork Dam’” Engineering Record, 24 (September 5, 1891): 215-216.
  • 52 Parke’s letter to the Engineer’s Committee, August 22, 1889, “Report of the Committee on the Cause of the Failure of the South Fork Dam.” American Society of Civil Engineers, Transactions, 24 (June, 1890):448-451.
  • 53Engineering and Building Record, 20 (June 8,15,29, 1889):15-16, 25, 31-32, 61-64; Engineering News, 21 (June 22, 1889): 569; American Society of Civil Engineers, Transactions, 24:454; Dwight Porter, “Flood Discharge from Small Watersheds,” Technology Quarterly, 4 (December, 1891), 316; William McCreery, Chariman, Johnstown Flood; Report of the Citizens’ Relief Committee of Pittsburgh (Pittsburgh, 1890), 3: Walker, op.cit., 288-289.

Excerpt from Nathan Daniel Shappee, History of Johnstown, Unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of Pittsburgh, 1940.

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