Education: Johnstown Flood Museum

Johnstown Area Heritage Association
Background Article

The Johnstown Flood of 1889

It rained and rained

At approximately 3:00 pm on May 31, 1889, the South Fork Dam gave way, unleashing 20 million tons of water into the valley below. In its path, were Johnstown and the surrounding communities. The Johnstown Flood would become one of the worst natural disasters ever seen in this country. Until the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, it was the United States' largest loss of civilian life in a single day.

It had been raining heavily in the two days before the flood. It had let up just long enough for Johnstown to have its Memorial Day parade, but now many of Johnstown's streets were under 2 - 7 feet of water. Many people had already moved their belongings to the second floors of their homes as the rising water gradually flooded the valley. Flooding happened fairly often in southwestern Pennsylvania, so most people didn't think this flooding would be much worse than other times. Unfortunately, it turned out to be one of the heaviest rainfalls of the 1800s.

South Fork Dam

Fourteen miles up the Conemaugh River stood the South Fork Dam holding back the waters of Conemaugh Lake. The State of Pennsylvania built the dam originally to supply water for the Pennsylvania canal. Work began on the dam in 1838. By the time it was finished in 1853, the railroad had already made the canal system obsolete, so the state sold the dam to the Pennsylvania Railroad. The impressive dam made of packed-down earth stood 72 feet high and 900 feet wide. It contained a lake that was over two miles long, a mile wide and 60 feet deep.

The Pennsylvania Railroad had no use for the dam or the lake, so it sold the property to John Reilly, a congressman from Altoona. Reilly thought he could sell the land to make a profit, but no buyers wanted to pay his price. In 1879 he ended up selling the land to the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club at a loss. The members of the new club were all prominent and wealthy Pittsburgh industrialists, like Andrew Carnegie and Henry Clay Frick. They built cottages and a clubhouse along the lake. Their quiet retreat from the city life was just a train ride away from Pittsburgh. By the time the Club bought the property, the dam needed some repairs. It had already failed once in 1862. The Pennsylvania Railroad had repaired it, but did not build it back up to its original height. The South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club wanted to build the lake up to its original height, so they could go boating and fishing. In 1879, they made repairs and improvements to the dam to bring up the water level. The repaired dam would hold for ten years.

May 31, 1889

The night of May 30, 1889 heavy rain poured non-stop. In the morning, Johnstown residents moved furniture and carpets to their second floors away from the rising waters of the Conemaugh and Stoney Creek Rivers. Businesses let their employees go home early to prepare their homes and families for flooding.

The Dam Gives Way

Fourteen miles up the Conemaugh Valley, the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club's president Colonel Elias Unger saw that the Lake's water level had risen more than two feet overnight. While the water continued to rise, he sent a messenger to the nearest town to telegraph a warning to Johnstown that the dam was close to overflowing. Workers toiled for the most part of the day, first trying to raise the height of the dam, then digging spillways and removing screens that kept fish in the lake from escaping.

It was too little, too late. The waters kept rising and around 3 pm spilled over the dam. Then the whole dam broke -- the lake full of water just pushed the dam out in front of it.

The Terrible Wave

20 million tons of water rushed down the narrow Conemaugh Valley like a moving mountain of water at an average speed of 40 miles per hour. The "terrible wave" picked up houses, trees, and even trains on its way down the valley. It flattened a railroad bridge. It swept whole towns away as it made its way to the city of Johnstown.

By the time it reached Johnstown the flood didn't even look like water anymore. People who saw it coming said it looked like a moving, boiling black mountain of junk. 35 feet high at its crest, it had the force of Niagara Falls. Even the best swimmers couldn't swim in that mess. Many people drowned. For most, the only warning was a thunderous rumble before the water hit.

In minutes, most of downtown Johnstown was destroyed. Survivors clung to roofs, debris, and the few buildings that remained standing. Others who weren't killed instantly, were swept down the valley to their deaths.

Just when it seemed like it couldn't get worse, it did. All that wreckage piled up behind the Pennsylvania Railroad’s Stone Bridge. People who managed to survive so far became trapped in the huge pile of debris, all wrapped in a tangle of barbed wire from destroyed Gautier Wire Works. Then the pile, which was 40 feet high and 30 acres across, caught fire!

At least the bridge slowed the water down and caught much of the deadly debris. Below the bridge the floodwaters reached the first floor, but it did not have the force of all that debris trapped in the jam. People could save themselves by running for their second floors.

But in Johnstown and other communities above the bridge, the devastation was unimaginable. Four square miles of downtown Johnstown was completely leveled, including about 1600 homes, 280 businesses, and much of the Cambria Iron Company.

Even more tragic was the loss of life. 2,209 people are known to have died in the flood waters. 99 whole families perished. 400 children under the age of ten were killed.

News Story of the Decade

Immediately, the flood became the news event of the decade. The waters hadn't even receded yet when hundreds of journalists arrived to document the disaster for the world. They captured their readers' attention with their wrenching stories (some more accurate than others), photographs, and illustrations. Songs told the stories of real and imagined heroes.

Help Arrives: Recovery and Relief

People all over the nation, even the world, responded with donations of clothing, food, and shelter. Doctors, nurses and Clara Barton and the American Red Cross arrived to provide medical assistance and emergency shelter and supplies. The Johnstown Flood was the first major disaster served by the recently formed Red Cross. Doctors worried especially about diseases that might breed in the unclean water and decaying bodies of humans and animals.

Undertakers volunteered for the gruesome task of preparing over 2,000 bodies for burial. 700 of the victims could not be identified. They were buried together in a new cemetery built high above the town. Recovering the bodies took weeks and cleaning up debris took months. Five thousand homes had been destroyed, so many families lived in tents.

During recovery and relief efforts the state of Pennsylvania put Johnstown under martial (military) law, since many of the towns leaders had perished in the flood. General Hastings took charge for several months, making sure relief supplies went to survivors who needed them and keeping the press from taking over the town.

Rebuild or move on?

Some people moved away from Johnstown, but a surprising number never even considered that option. The Cambria Iron Works, Johnstown’s major industry and employer, reopened on June 6, just days after the flood. After five years, rebuilding was so complete that the city showed no signs of the disaster.

With rebuilding also came questions: How and why did the flood happen? Was someone to blame? How could future flood disasters be avoided? Although suits were filed against the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club, no legal actions or compensation resulted. Several of the club members, including Carnegie and Frick, supported the relief and rebuilding efforts with large donations.

Finally... flood control

Although the Flood of 1889 was by far the worst, Johnstown had not seen the last of its floods. In 1936 another severe flood finally produced some action with the passage of the Flood Control Act of 1936.

By 1943, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers completed the Johnstown Local Flood Protection Program (JLFPP), a series of channel improvements to increase the amount of water the rivers could carry. Designed to protect Johnstown from ever experiencing floods of the level of 1889 and 1936, the JLFPP protected the city from further major flooding until 1977. Although the 1977 flood was brutal within a seven-county disaster area, the JLFPP flood control efforts kept the flood level about 11 feet lower than it would have been without it. Though 80 lives were lost in the 1977 flood, it was far less than it would have been if the waters had risen another 11 feet.

Further Reading

Books by Survivors

Beale, Reverend David. Through the Johnstown Flood. Philadelphia: Hubbard Brothers, 1890.

McLaurin, J.J. The Story of Johnstown. Harrisburg: James M. Place, 1890.

Pennsylvania Railroad Company. Testimony Taken by the Pennsylvania Railroad, 1889-1891.

Modern Books

Cambria County Transit Authority. Floods: 1889, 1936, 1977. Johnstown: Benshoff, 1988.

Degen, Paula and Carl. The Johnstown Flood of 1889: The Tragedy of the Conemaugh. Eastern Acorn Press, 1984.

Law, Anwei. The Great Flood. Johnstown: Johnstown Area Heritage Association and the National Park Service, 1997.

McCullough, David G. The Johnstown Flood. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1968.

Pryor, Elizabeth. Clara Barton: Professional Angel. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania, 1987.

Shappee, Nathan D. A History of Johnstown and the Great Flood of 1889: A Study of Disaster and Rehabilitation. Doctoral dissertation, University of Pittsburgh, 1940.

Slattery, Gertrude Quinn. Johnstown and Its Flood. Wilkes-Barre, 1936.

Strayer, Harold. A Photographic Story of the Johnstown Flood of 1889. Johnstown: Benshoff, 1964, 1993.

Books for Young Readers

Dahlstedt, Marden. The Terrible Wave. Beach Haven, NJ: The Attic, 1972. YA

Gross, Virginia. The Day it Rained Forever: A Story of the Johnstown Flood. New York: Penguin, Puffin, 1991. YA

Hamilton, Leni. Clara Barton, Founder, American Red Cross. New York: Chelsea House, 1988. YA

Walker, James. Head for the Hills! New York: Random House, 1993. YA

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