Education: Johnstown Flood Museum

Johnstown Area Heritage Association
Primary Source: Photo Gallery

Rescue and Recovery after the Johnstown Flood of 1889

Rescue the Living

The first night after the Flood was filled with terror for survivors. The floodwave had carried most people away from where they were and dumped them somewhere else. Many were injured. Huge piles of filthy wreckage trapped others. Debris buried the dead. No one knew whether their families and friends were still alive or where the Flood had carried them. The rushing water continued to carry some people down the river.

The flood waters were still high, dammed up by the clogged stone bridge. Damaged buildings kept crashing down all night, making it dangerous for anyone seeking shelter inside. Just when it seemed like it couldn't get worse, it did. The blocks and blocks of wrecked buildings, trees, machines, and everything else scraped from the Valley, caught fire.

While the rain continued to pour from the sky, people got to work. Surivors who weren't hurt listened for people who were trapped (especially near the fire at the stone bridge!) and dug them out. Neighbors living nearby, but above the flooded area, collected food, warm clothes, and blankets. Then they opened their homes to flood victims who had lost theirs. People living downstream on the Conemaugh River stretched ropes across the flood rapids to rescue victims floating by. The further down the river they went, the fewer survived.

No one took pictures of these rescue efforts. Everyone was too busy trying to stay alive and help their neighbors do the same.

Recover the Dead

It was too late to rescue thousands of people who died from the crushing force of the floodwave within moments after it hit. They were buried deep under the wreckage. Right away people knew there were thousands. In a few days when trains from Pittsburgh could get through, one of the first loads sent were coffins. It would take months to find, count, identify, and bury all of the bodies in their final graves. Undertakers from all over the state volunteered to help with this terrible job.

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