Johnstown Flood

Johnstown Flood

The Johnstown Flood disaster (or Great Flood of 1889 as it became known locally) occurred on May 31, 1889. It was the result of the failure of the South Fork Dam situated 14 miles (23 km) upstream of the town of Johnstown, Pennsylvania, USA, made worse by several days of extremely heavy rainfall. The dam's failure unleashed a torrent of 20 million tons of water (18.1 million cubic meters/ 4.8 billion U.S. gallons). The flood killed over 2,200 people and caused US$17 million of damage. It was the first major disaster relief effort handled by the new American Red Cross, led by Clara Barton. Support for victims came from all over the United States and 18 foreign countries.


Founded in 1793 by Swiss immigrant Joseph Johns, Johnstown began to prosper with the building of the Pennsylvania Main Line Canal in 1836 and the arrival of the Pennsylvania Railroad and the Cambria Iron Works in the 1850s. By 1889, Johnstown was a town of Welsh and German immigrants. With a population of 30,000, it was a growing industrial community known for the quality of its steel.The high, steep hills of the narrow Conemaugh Valley and the Allegheny Mountains range to the east kept development close to the riverfront areas, and subjected the valley to large amounts of rain and snowfall. The area surrounding the town of Johnstown was prone to flooding due to its position at the confluence of the Stony Creek and Little Conemaugh River, forming the Conemaugh River, and to the artificial narrowing of the riverbed for the purposes of development.

outh Fork Dam and Lake Conemaugh

High in the mountains, near the small town of South Fork, the South Fork Dam was originally built between 1838 and 1853 by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania as part of the canal system to be used as a reservoir for the canal basin in Johnstown. It was abandoned by the commonwealth, sold to the Pennsylvania Railroad, and sold again to private interests.

Henry Clay Frick led a group of speculators including Benjamin Ruff to purchase the abandoned reservoir, modify it, and convert it into a private resort lake for the wealthy of Pittsburgh, many of whom were closely associated with Carnegie Steel. The changes included lowering the dam to make its top wide enough to hold a road, putting a fish screen in the spillway (that also trapped debris), and lowering the lake's level. These alterations are thought to have increased the vulnerability of the dam. They built cottages and a clubhouse to create the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club, an exclusive and secretive mountain retreat. Membership grew to include over 50 wealthy Pittsburgh steel, coal, and railroad industrialists, among them Andrew Carnegie, Andrew Mellon, Henry Phipps (whose descendants own present day Bessemer Securities), Henry Clay Frick, Philander Knox, John George Alexander Leishman, Duncan Clinch Phillips (father of the founder of The Phillips Collection), Louis Semple Clarke (founder of the Autocar Company), James McCord (owner of the oldest hattery west of the Allegheny Mountains), Benjamin Thaw ( Pittsburgh financier and brother of the infamous Harry K. Thaw), Calvin Wells (industrialist), Henry Sellers McKee (glass manufacturer and founder of Jeannette, Pennsylvania), John Caldwell, Jr. (George Westinghouse partner); James Hay Reed (founding partner, Knox & Reed, now Reed Smith LLP), Sylvester S. Marvin (founder of Nabisco), Maxwell K. Moorhead, Durbin Horne and C. B. Shea (both of Horne's Department Store), W. A. McIntosh (father of Burr McIntosh and Nancy McIntosh) and Robert Pitcairn.

Lake Conemaugh at the club's site was 450 feet (137 m) in elevation above Johnstown. The lake was about two miles (3 km) long, approximately one mile (1.6 km) wide, and 60 feet (18 m) deep near the dam. The lake had a perimeter of 7 miles (11 km) to hold 20 million tons of water. When the water was at its highest point in the spring, the lake covered over 400 acres (1.6 km²).

The dam was 72 feet (22 m) high and 931 feet (284 m) long. Between 1881 when the club was opened, and 1889, the dam frequently sprung leaks and was patched, mostly with mud and straw. Additionally a previous owner removed and sold for scrap the 3 cast iron discharge pipes that previously allowed a controlled release of water. There had been some speculation as to the dam's integrity, and concerns had been raised by the head of the Cambria Iron Works downstream in Johnstown. Carnegie Steel's chief competitor, the Cambria Iron and Steel Company, at that time boasted the world's largest annual steel production. However, no major corrective action was taken, and the flawed dam held the waters of Lake Conemaugh back until the disaster of May 31, 1889.

The Great Flood of 1889

On May 28, 1889, a storm formed over Nebraska and Kansas, moving east. When the storm struck the Johnstown-South Fork area two days later it was the worst downpour that had ever been recorded in that part of the country. The U.S. Army Signal Corps estimated that 6 to 10 inches (150 to 250 mm) of rain fell in 24 hours over the entire region. During the night small creeks became roaring torrents, ripping out trees and debris. Telegraph lines were downed and rail lines were washed away. Before daybreak the Conemaugh River that ran through Johnstown was about to burst its banks.

On the morning of May 31, in a farmhouse on a hill just above the South Fork Dam located about 14 miles (23 km) upstream, Elias Unger, the current president of the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club, awoke to the sight of Lake Conemaugh swollen after a night-long heavy rainfall. Unger ran outside in the still-pouring rain to assess the situation and saw that the water was nearly cresting the dam. Unger quickly assembled a group of men to try to save the face of the dam by trying to unclog the spillway which was blocked by the broken fish trap and debris caused by the swollen waterline. Other men tried digging another spillway at the other end of the dam to relieve the pressure but without success. Most remained on top of the dam, some plowing earth to raise it, while others tried to pile mud and rock on the face to save the eroding wall.

During the day, the situation worsened as water rose to as much as ten feet [Lane, F.W. "The Elements Rage" (David & Charles 1966), p.129] in the streets of Johnstown. Then at around 3:10 PM, the South Fork Dam burst, allowing the 20 million tons of Lake Conemaugh to cascade down the Little Conemaugh River. It took about 40 minutes for the entire lake to drain of the water. The first town to be hit by the flood was the small town of South Fork. Fortunately, the town was on high ground and most of the people ran further up the nearby hills when they saw the dam literally spill over. Despite 20 to 30 houses being destroyed or washed away, only four people were killed.

On its way downstream towards Johnstown, the crest picked up debris, such as trees, houses, and animals. At the Conemaugh Viaduct, a convert|78|ft|m|sing=on high railroad bridge, the flood temporarily was stopped when debris jammed against the stone bridge's arch. But after around seven minutes, the viaduct collapsed, allowing the flood to resume its course. Because of this, the force of the surge would gain strength periodically, resulting in a stronger force hitting Johnstown than otherwise would be expected. The small town of Mineral Point, one mile (1.6 km) below the Conemaugh Viaduct, was hit with renewed force. About 30 families lived on the village's single street. After the flood, only a bare rock remained. About 16 people were killed.

The village of East Conemaugh was next to be hit by the flood. One witness on high ground near the town described the water was almost obscured by debris, resembling "a huge hill rolling over and over." Train engineer John Hess, sitting in his locomotive engine, heard the rumbling of the flood and, correctly assuming what it was, tried to warn people by tying down the train whistle and racing toward the town by riding backwards to warn the residents ahead of the wave. His warning saved many people who were able to get to high ground. But at least 50 people died, including about 25 passengers stranded on trains in the town. Hess himself miraculously survived despite the flood picking up his locomotive and tossing it aside.

Just before hitting the main part of the city, the flood surge hit the Cambria Iron Works at the town of Woodvale, taking with it railroad cars and barbed wire. Of Woodvale's 1,100 residents, 314 died in the flood. Boilers exploded when the flood hit the Gauliter Wire Works, causing black smoke seen by the Johnstown residents.

Some 57 minutes after the South Fork Dam collapsed, the flood hit Johnstown. The inhabitants of Johnstown were caught by surprise as the wall of water and debris bore down on the village, traveling at 40 miles per hour (64 km/h) and reaching a height of 60 feet (18 m) in places. Some, realizing the danger, tried to escape by running towards high ground. But most people were hit by the surging floodwater. Many people were crushed by pieces of debris, and others became caught in barbed wire from the wire factory upstream. Those who sought safety in attics, or managed to stay afloat on pieces of floating debris, waited hours for help to arrive.

At Johnstown, the Stone Bridge, which was a substantial arched structure, carried the Pennsylvania Railroad across the Conemaugh River. The debris that was carried by the flood formed a temporary dam, stopping further progress of the water. The flood surge bounced upstream along the Stoney Creek River. Eventually, gravity caused the surge to return to the dam, causing a second wave to hit the city, but from a different direction. ["History of the Johnstown Flood", Willis Fletcher Johnson (1889), pp 61-64. Available on CD-ROM from [] ] Some people who had been washed downstream became trapped in an inferno as debris that had piled up against the Stone Bridge caught fire, killing at least 80 people. The fire at the Stone Bridge burned for three days. Afterwards, the pile of debris there covered convert|30|acre|ha, and reached 70 feet (22 m) in height. The mass of debris took three months to remove, because of the masses of steel wire from the ironworks binding it. Dynamite was eventually used to clear it. [Lane, F.W. "The Elements Rage" (David & Charles 1966), p.131] As of 2007, the Stone Bridge is still standing, and is often portrayed as one of the images of the flood.


The total death toll for the disaster was 2,209 dead. 99 entire families had died, including 396 children. 124 women and 198 men were left without their spouses, 98 children lost both parents. 777 victims (1 of every 3 bodies found) were never identified and rest in the "Plot of the Unknown" in Grandview Cemetery.

Working seven days and nights, workmen replaced the huge stone railroad viaduct that had all but disappeared in the flood.

It was the worst flood to hit the U.S. in the 19th century. 1,600 homes were destroyed, $17 million in property damage was done, and four square miles (10 km²) of downtown Johnstown were completely destroyed. Clean-up operations continued for years. Although Cambria Iron and Steel's facilities were heavily damaged, they returned to full production within a year and a half.

The Pennsylvania Railroad restored service to Pittsburgh, 55 miles (89 km) away, by June 2. Food, clothing, medicine and other provisions began arriving. Morticians came by railroad. Johnstown’s first call for help requested coffins and undertakers. Demolition expert "Dynamite Bill" Flinn and his 900-man crew cleared the wreckage at the Stone Bridge. They carted off debris, distributed food, and erected temporary housing. At its peak, the army of relief workers totaled about 7,000.

One of the first outsiders to arrive was Clara Barton (1821-1912), nurse and president of the American Red Cross. Barton arrived on June 5, 1889, to lead the group's first major disaster relief effort and didn't leave for over 5 months. She and many other volunteers worked tirelessly. Donations for the relief effort came from all over the United States and overseas. $3,742,818.78 was collected for the Johnstown relief effort from within the U.S. and 18 foreign countries, including Russia, Turkey, France, Great Britain, Australia and Germany.

Continued flooding

Floods have continued to be a concern for Johnstown. A "500 year flood" is a massive event that hydrologists predict has only a one-in-500 chance of happening in any given year. These predictions are based upon natural events, and do not take into account an upstream dam failure.

Johnstown experienced additional major flooding in subsequent years, especially in 1894, 1907 and 1924. The most significant flood of the first half of the 20th century was the St. Patrick's Day Flood of March 1936, which also reached Pittsburgh and became known as the Great Pittsburgh Flood of 1936.

More recently, on the night of July 19, 1977, a relentless storm reminiscent of 1889 bombarded the city and the rivers began to rise. By dawn, the city was under water that reached as high as eight feet (2.4 m). The seven counties disaster area suffered $200 million in property damage and 80 lost lives. Another 50,000 were rendered homeless as a result of the "500 year flood."


In the years following the disaster, many people blamed the members of the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club for the tragedy. The club had bought and repaired the dam to turn the area into a vacation retreat in the mountains. However, they were accused of failing to maintain the dam properly, so that it was unable to contain the additional water of the unusually heavy rainfall. Despite the accusations and evidence, they were successfully defended by the firm of Knox and Reed (now Reed Smith LLP), both partners of which (Philander Knox and James Hay Reed) were Club members. The Club was never held legally responsible for the disaster. Though a suit was filed, the court held the dam break to have been an Act of God, and granted the survivors no legal compensation.

Individual members of the club did contribute substantially to the relief efforts. Along with about half of the club members, Henry Clay Frick donated thousands of dollars to the relief effort in Johnstown. After the flood, Andrew Carnegie, one of the club's better known members, built the town a new library. In modern times, this former library is owned by the Johnstown Area Heritage Association, and houses The Flood Museum. Remnants of the dam are preserved as part of Johnstown Flood National Memorial, established in 1964.

=The "Johnstown Flood" Tax= As a result of the damage from the 1936 flood, the Pennsylvania General Assembly imposed an emergency tax on all alcohol sold in the Commonwealth. The "temporary" 10% tax was initially intended to help pay for clean up, recovery, and assistance to flood victims. The tax was never repealed and in 1963 the tax was raised to 15% and again in 1968 to 18% (not including the statewide 6% sales tax). The nearly $200 million collected annually no longer goes to flood victims, however, instead going into the general fund for discretionary use by lawmakers. [ [;bp=t] ]

The Pennsylvania Department of Revenue states that, "All liquors sold by the LCB are subject to this tax which is computed on the actual price paid by the consumer including mark-up, handling charge and federal tax. The first sale of liquor also is subject to the sales and use tax at the time of purchase." [ [ Official PA state web site] ]

In Literature and Music

Dark fantasy author Caitlín R. Kiernan made the Johnstown Flood the central focus of her 1994 short story, "To This Water (Johnstown, Pennsylvania, 1889)," which appears in her collection, "Tales of Pain and Wonder". In the story, the flood serves as a catalyst for revenge in what is essentially a ghost story.

Bruce Springsteen's song "Highway Patrolman" from the Nebraska album (1982) references the event. The narrator of the song and his brother take turns "dancing with Maria, as the band played 'Night of the Johnstown Flood.'"

Catherine Marshall wrote a historical fiction novel "Julie" about a teenage girl in a small Pennsylvania town below an earthen dam not properly maintained by the Hunting and Fishing Club. Although set in the 1930s instead of 1889, this is a much researched account of the Johnstown Flood.

Brian Booker's short story "A Drowning Accident", published by the literary periodical One Story (Issue #57, May 30, 2005) was largely based on and influenced by the Johnstown Flood of 1889. [ [ One Story - issue #57 ] ]

Murray Leinster had his two time travellers unable to convince the Johnstown population of the coming disaster in his 1966 novel 'The Time Tunnel'.

The Johnstown Flood is mentioned in Rudyard Kipling's book "Captains Courageous" as the disaster that wiped out Pennsylvania Pratt's family causing his mind to give out. He briefly returns to reality, becoming his former self and recalling the disaster when a steamship runs down another fishing boat.

Pulitzer prize-winning historian David McCullough devotes an entire volume to the disaster in his book "The Johnstown Flood".

Michael Dudek, a Johnstown resident and author, references the Johnstown Flood in his book "The Fairytale of the Morley Dog". The book is a fantasy about the Morley Dog (famous to Johnstown residents) and his adventures. In the book the dog is claimed to be seen saving children from the flood waters.

The foreseen flood figured prominently in the plot of Paul Mark Tag's novel "Prophecy".

Marden A. Dahlstedt, a young readers' author, wrote one girl's account of the flood in her 1972 book, "The Terrible Wave".

The flood was also the subject of William McGonagall's poem "The Pennsylvania Disaster". [Lane, F.W. "The Elements Rage" (David & Charles 1966), p.129]

The flood was also mentioned in John Jakes' "The Americans," the final installment of The Kent Family Chronicles. Elenor and Leo find themselves in Johnstown when the flood takes place and Jakes gives an account of the experience of those in the town during the 24 hours prior to the flood, during the flood, and shortly after the flood.

It is the main topic of the Peg Kehret book The Food Disaster.In the book two student's are assigned a project on The Johnstown Flood. They travel back in time using a time traveling device called the instant commuter to see the flood in person and help them with their project. Things go terribly wrong, however, when they become stuck in 1889 during the flood.



* David McCullough, "The Johnstown Flood", (1968); ISBN 0-671-20714-8
*R. O'Connor, "Johnstown - The Day The Dam Broke" (1957).
* Willis Fletcher Johnson, "History of the Johnstown Flood" (1889). []

ee also

* Vajont Dam Disaster

External links

* [ Johnstown Flood]
* [ Johnstown Flood memorial on National Park Service]
* [ "Run for Your Lives!: The Johnstown Flood of 1889," a National Park Service Teaching with Historic Places (TwHP) lesson plan]
* [ Johnstown PA webpage]
* [ Johnstown Area Heritage Association webpage]
* [ A new look at the Engineering of the Johnstown Flood Dam]
* A [ Map and Timline] of the Johnstown flood

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Look at other dictionaries:

  • Johnstown Flood — Disastrous flood (1889) in the town of Johnstown, Pa. , U.S. Johnstown lies at the confluence of the Conemaugh River and Stony Creek; at the time of the flood it was a leading U.S. steelmaking centre. At 3:10 PM on May 31, the South Fork Dam, a… …   Universalium

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  • Johnstown — /jonz town /, n. a city in SW Pennsylvania: disastrous flood 1889. 35,496. * * * ▪ New York, United States       city, seat (1838) of Fulton county, east central New York, U.S. It lies near the Mohawk River, adjoining Gloversville, 43 miles (69… …   Universalium