Education: Johnstown Flood Museum

Johnstown Area Heritage Association
Secondary source

History of the Southfork Dam

Under Pennsylvania Railroad ownership

…The railroad company maintained a watchman at the reservoir to protect its machinery and to drive off the residents who coveted the lead wipings in the exposed joints of the sluice pipes. On July 18, 1862. the Cambria Tribune reported:

The canal Reservoir is represented by citizens who have visited it recently as in a dangerous condition. A portion of the arch in the breast wall has fallen, leaving but a feeble support at that point for the immense body of water behind it. Should the dam give way suddenly, as it is likely to do in the case of a heavy rain, unless the fallen wall is speedily repaired, the consequences would be serious. The matter was brought before the Borough Council on Tuesday Evening, when Mr. Pershing, promised to telegraph to the canal authorities apprising them of the impending danger.66

On July 26, 1862, after a heavy rain, the stone culvert fell in and 200 feet of the dam washed out to a depth of fifty feet. When the break was observed, Joseph Leckey, the watchman, opened the valves to drain the water. Hastening to Wilmore, Leckey had the railroad telegrapher send warnings to Johnstown of the danger.67 The break in the wall was gradual enough to drain the reservoir in eleven hours.68 The Johnstown paper reported the break in the wall in its next issue:

The Reservoir dam, the precarious condition of which we noticed two weeks ago, gave way on Saturday morning last and emptied its waters into the Conemaugh. The announcing of the breaking of the dam caused considerable alarm in the town, but owing to the low stage of water in the creek, the flow from the Reservoir produced but an inconsiderable rise, and the excitement and the flood both soon subsided.69

The draining of the reservoir did wash away part of the railroad’s embankment along the Conemaugh. At the time the break occurred, there was only a depth of forty-five feet of water in the reservoir. With the stream beds being almost dry, the freed water raised the Conemaugh only three feet.70 At the time, Johnstown was too busy raising a bounty for enlistments [in the Civil War] to pay but a passing notice to the broken dam. The railroad did not repair the break. Neighboring farmers grazed their cattle on the dried slopes of the reservoir which soon returned to grassy pasture. Boys fished in the pools that still remained at the deep end against the embankment.

  • 66Cambria Tribune, July 18, 1862.
  • 67Johnstown Tribune, August 10, 1900.
  • 68 Chapman, op. Cit., Meise, Schantz and Johnstown, 162: Johnstown Tribune, November 7, 1889.
  • 69Cambria Tribune, August 1, 1862.
  • 70Johnstown Tribune, February 11, 1881; Engineering and Building Record, 20 (June 29, 1889): 64.

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

About Us | Site Map | Privacy Policy | Contact Us | ©2013 Johnstown Area Heritage Association