Little Bits of History

Johnstown Flood

Posted in History by patriciahysell on May 31, 2013
Aftermath of the Johnstown Flood

Aftermath of the Johnstown Flood

May 31, 1889: At 3:10 PM, the South Fork Dam bursts. The dam was located on Lake Conemaugh near South Fork, Pennsylvania. Between 1838 and 1853, Pennsylvania built the dam as part of a canal and reservoir system. It was sold first to a railroad and then to a group a speculators. The group made some shoddy repairs to the old dam, raised the level of the lake, and created the exclusive South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club. Cottages and a clubhouse were built at the secret retreat frequented by 61 wealthy steel and coal industrialists from Pittsburgh, just a few hours away by rail.

The lake created by the dam was 2 miles long and about 1 mile wide. It was 60 feet deep near the dam with 7 miles of perimeter. It held 20 million tons of water. A huge storm cell formed over Kansas and Nebraska on May 28. The storm reached the South Fork area two days later. It began to pour. A remarkable rainfall of 6-10 inches fell over the entire region in 24 hours. During the night, tiny waterways turned into debris-strewn rivers.

Elias Unger, current president of the Fishing and Hunting Club, awoke on May 31 to a stunning sight. Lake Conemaugh was swollen and close to overflowing the dam – and it was still raining. Spillways were blocked by debris. Unger rounded up help to clear the spillways as well as try to raise the height of the dam. The streets of the nearby towns were already awash by the overflowing Conemaugh River which had flooded during the night. Still it continued to rain. The dam burst and the entire 20 million tons or 4.8 billion gallons of water emptied from the lake in just 40 minutes.

South Fork, a small town built on the hillsides was totally destroyed with 4 people killed. More debris was washed into the wall of water and as it surged against the Conemaugh Viaduct, the water was temporarily halted. Seven minutes later, the viaduct collapsed. The flood waters ran through the valley sweeping up all in its path. About 57 minutes after the dam collapsed, the flood struck Jamestown. Filled with debris and moving at speeds up to 40 mph, the wave of water was 35-40 feet high. The water mark reached as high as 89 feet. There were 2,209 people killed and nearly $17 million (about $425 million in 2012 USD) of property damage sustained.

“On the 31st day of May, 1889, more than two thousand lives were lost when the South Fork Dam collapsed. An entire lake, 20 million tons of water, crashed down the Conemaugh valley through a half dozen towns on its way to Johnstown, Pennsylvania.”

“It wiped out nearly everything in between, but by many accounts, Johnstown suffered the most gruesome and disturbing fate of all.”

“It was 4:00. At half past 3, there had been a Johnstown. Now, there was none.”

“June first, 1889. That morning opened dark and dreary. Great drops of rain fell occasionally and another storm seemed imminent. Everyone felt thankful that the weather remained cold to slow the decay of the bodies lying everywhere.” – all from The American Experience The Johnstown Flood

This article first appeared at in 2009. Editor’s update: The American Red Cross was formed in 1881 and this was the second major disaster relief effort since they formed. They were led at the time by Clara Barton who had learned about the Red Cross in Europe during the Franco-Prussian War. In 1881, the Red Cross responded to the Great Fire of 1881 in Michigan which left 5,000+ people homeless. Then came this disaster with thousands dead and thousands more injured. Support came from all over the US as well as 18 foreign nations. Barton arrived on June 5 and stayed for more than five months to help the shattered town recover. Even after surviving the flood, the victims suffered defeat in the courts when they tried to recover damages from the owners of the dam. American law changed from a fault-based premise to one of strict liability.

Also on this day Ready to Eat – In 1884 Kellogg patents corn flakes.
Pepys’s Diary – In 1669, Samuel made his last diary entry.
BEN – In 1859, Big Ben went on line.

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