The international Red Cross had been founded as primarily a battlefield relief organization, and Clara Barton, the founder of the American Red Cross, had led some battlefield relief efforts during the Civil War. However, Barton felt the Red Cross could also provide relief for peacetime disasters, and the Johnstown flood of 1889 provided an ideal opportunity. Barton, 67, and five Red Cross workers arrived from Washington, D.C., on June 5, 1889, just five days after the flood occurred. Thus, the Johnstown flood was the first major peacetime relief effort for the American Red Cross.
However, at the time of the Johnstown flood, the American Red Cross was not the only U.S. chapter of the international Red Cross movement, and had no governing authority over other Red Cross chapters. The Philadelphia Red Cross also rushed to the scene, and established a headquarters separate from the American Red Cross. The Philadelphia Red Cross specialized in medical relief, working out of the Cambria Iron Company’s hospital, while the most important work of the American Red Cross was to provide furniture and supplies for flood survivors. Under Barton’s direction, the American Red Cross distributed new and used supplies valued at $211,000, and some 25,000 people were helped.
In addition, the American Red Cross built “Red Cross hotels,” the first of which was built on the site of the flood-destroyed St. Mark’s Episcopal Church on Locust Street (the church would later be rebuilt on the same site). Merchants and businessmen left homeless by the flood were the primary tenants of the hotel, and it was so successful that other hotels were soon built.
The exhaustive news coverage of the Johnstown flood and the relief effort helped establish the American Red Cross as the major disaster relief agency in the United States. The role the Johnstown flood played in the history of the Red Cross is another reason why the flood remains so significant in American history.
Barton stayed in Johnstown until October 24, 1889, and the grateful people of Johnstown gave her a gold pin and a locket, set in diamonds and amethysts, as a farewell present. In 1892, Johnstown sent $2,596 to Barton to help with her efforts to relieve the Russian famine.
The Johnstown Flood Museum features a display about Barton and the Red Cross, including examples of some of the relief items she distributed, documents, photographs and more.
For more about the 1889 flood, visit the 1889 Flood Resources page in the Archives & Research section of this site.