Education: Johnstown Flood Museum

Johnstown Area Heritage Association
Secondary source

History of the Southfork Dam

South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club Repairs

[The property was bought by the newly formed South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club in 1879 to create a recreational lake and retreat. The Reservoir was renamed Lake Conemaugh]

Repairing the Dam

…The Pittsburgh men began to repair the dam in 1879. The five sluice pipes were covered with a double thickness of hemlock piling. The remainder of the culvert was covered with rock from the neighboring hillsides. The core wall of puddle clay was not built up to its former height; no repair at all was made to this all-important part of the earthen dam. Instead, rock and gravel was dumped into the breach so that the heaviest stones rolled to the bottom. The repairs did not even substitute a rubble or cyclopean wall to replace the clay core.77 On December 25, 1879 after five days of rain, the repairs were washed away; further work was suspended until the following spring.78

By July, 1880, the club had resumed the repairing of the embankment. A planked bulkhead was again placed over the culvert. Rock and shale was poured into the breach. To prevent water from seeping through the repairs, hay and brush was thrown on the fill as the wall was raised.79 This practice was then, and still is, a common device of engineers to protect temporary repairs from seepage. The natives who watched hay and boughs being thrown into the repairs never forgot the sight. To this day, the club stands condemned for this act and the whole misery of the Flood traced to this practice.

The repairs to the wall amounted to 22,000 cubic yards.80 A heavy rain in February 1881, again damaged the reconstruction, but the work was continued until the repairs had been finished.81 Residents declared that the height of the wall had been lowered two feet in order to make a better roadway across the breast of the dam. The original specifications of the state engineers had called for the top of the wall to be ten feet wide;82 Fulton’s measurements in December 1880 indicated a seventeen-foot roadway across the wall.83 Due to the way in which the repairs had been made, the new work settled until the center was only 4-1/2 feet higher than the bottom of the spillway.84


To complete the conversion of the canal reservoir into a fishermen’s lake, the club men fastened fishguards of heavy wire screen between the supports of the bridge over the spillway. Above these, at the water’s edge, was an elevated screen to prevent fish from leaping on to the bridge or the wall. In the water, in front of the waste wire were nail-studded logs, arranged in zig-zag fashion to keep the fish away from the overflow altogether.85 The fish in the reservoir were thus hampered by three devices to escape the dam. The impounded waters of the South Fork Reservoir were hampered by the same three obstructions.

The repaired wall contained 262,241 cubic yards of materials which weighed an estimated 316,094 tons. With water sixty feet deep in the dam, the wall, according to John Fulton, would have a weight of four times that of the pressure behind it. The circumference of the reservoir was nearly seven miles. The length, down the middle, was 10,188 feet; opposite the boathouse, the width was 1734 feet.

The president of the club, B. F. Ruff who supervised the repairs was a railroad tunnel contractor. Edward Pearson, in charge at the dam, was an employee of Haney and Company, a firm which hauled freight for the Pennsylvania Railroad. Neither of these men were engineers either by training or experience. Reverend David J. Beal put the fact more forcibly in his history of the Flood:

In fact, our information is positive, direct and unimpeachable that at no time during the process of rebuilding the dam was any engineer whatever, young or old, good or bad, known or unknown, engaged on or consulted as to the work.86

More damage repaired

When the rains in 1880 had damaged the repairs for the second time, Morrell sent John Fulton to South Fork to inspect the dam and the repairs to it. Fulton and his assistant, W. A. Fellows, Colonel B. J. Unger and C. A. Carpenter of the club and N. M. McDowell, an engineer from Pittsburgh. Together the six men examined the dam and discussed the repairs in progress. Fulton sent his report to Morrell on November 26, 1880...:

It is evident, therefore, that the water cannot overturn, or slide, the dam out, enmasse—

There appear to me two serious elements of danger in the dam:

1st. The want of a discharge pipe to reduce or take the water out of the dam for needed repairs.

2nd. The unsubstantial method of repair, leaving a large leak, which appears to be cutting the new embankment.

As the water cannot be lowered, the difficulty arises of reaching the source of the present destructive leaks. At present there is 40 feet of water in the dam, when the full head of 60 feet is reached, it appears to me to be only a question of time until the former cutting is repeated. Should this break be made during a season of flood, it is evident that considerable damage would ensue along the line of the Conemaugh.

It is impossible to estimate how disastrous this flood would be, as its force would depend on the size of the breach in the dam with proportional rapidity of discharge.

The stability of the dam can only be assured by a thorough overhauling of the present lining on the upper slope, and the construction of an ample discharge pipe to reduce or remove the water to make necessary repairs.87

The assistant engineer, W. A. Fellows, also condemned the repairs to the dam.88

Morrell sent Fulton’s report to Ruff who responded for the club on December 2, 1880. The reply cited five errors in Fulton’s estimate and then picked miscellaneous faults with the engineer’s conclusion:

Error 1. Organization is not the Sportsmen’s Association of Western Pennsylvania

Error 2. Dam not originally built of stone, face of dam on lake was not rip-rapped.

Error 3. Large arched culvert did not contain pipes but three large conduits which terminated in the wooden tower in the lake, rods and valves then regulated the flow of water from the dam.

Error 4, Fulton claimed the dam was destroyed when the bulkheads burned. Impossible while the dam held. Would burn only to the water’s edge. Dam destroyed by the arch culvert giving way in center of embankment.

Error 5. Fulton claimed that the break created a notch 200 feet long and 40 feet deep, - break went clean to the bottom.

Ruff then stated that 22,000 cubic yards of material had been used to close the breach of 186s. Hay and hemlock had been put into the cavity only after 10,000 cubic yards of fill had been put into place. The rock fill had been deliberately rolled into the hole in order that the largest stone would settle at the bottom. Disputing Fulton’s calculation Ruff claimed that the weight of the dam was six times the thrust against it. Ruff ended his answer by declaring that “you and your people are in no danger from our enterprise.”89

Faced with the conflicting reports, Morrell asked the Pennsylvania Railroad Company to have their engineers examine the embankment. The two men, sent by the railroad, reported opposite findings also.90 Still in the dilemma, Morrell wrote Ruff:

We do not wish to put any obstruction in the way of your accomplishing your object in the reconstruction of the dam; but we must protest against the erection of a dam at that place, that will be a perpetual menace to the lives and property of those residing in the upper valley of the Conemaugh from its insecure construction. In my judgement there should have been provided some means by which the water could be let out of the dam in case of trouble, and I think that you will find it necessary to provide an outlet pipe or gate before any engineer could pronounce the job a safe one. If this dam could be securely reconstructed with a safe means of driving off the water in case any weakness manifests itself, I should regard the accomplishment of this work a very desirable one, and if some arrangement could be made with your Association by which the store of water in this reservoir could be used in time of great drouth in the mountains, this Company would be willing to cooperate with you in the work, and contribute liberally toward making the dam absolutely safe.01

  • 77 McMaster, op. Cit., 228-229.
  • 78Johnstown Tribune, December 27, 1879.
  • 79Idem, February 11, 1881; “Report of the Committee on the Cause of the Failure of the South Fork Dam”, loc. cit.
  • 80 Engineering Society of Western Pennsylvania, Proceedings, 5(June 18, 1889); 89-99; B. F. Ruff, Letter to D. J. Morrell, December 2, 1880, in Johnstown Tribune, June 18, 1889.
  • 81Johnstown Tribune, February 2, July 2, 1889.
  • 82 American Society of Civil Engineers, loc. cit.
  • 83 John Fulton, Letter to D. J. Morrell, November 26, 1880.
  • 84The Iron, Steel and Allied Industries of Johnstown, 36-37.
  • 85 McMaster, op.cit., 228-229.
  • 86 Beale, op. Cit., 97.
  • 87 John Fulton, Letter to D. J. Morrell, November 26, 1880.
  • 88Johnstown Tribune, November 9, 1889.
  • 89 B. F. Ruff, Letter to D. J. Morrell, December 2, 1880, quoted in Johnstown Tribune, June 18, 1889.
  • 90 John Fulton, Autobiography….., 3:146-147.
  • 01 D.J. Morrell, Letter to B. F. Duff, December 22, 1880, quoted in Johnstown Tribune, June 18, 1889.

Excerpt from Nathan Daniel Shappee, History of Johnstown, Unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of Pittsburgh, 1940. Pages 207-215.

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