May 31, 1889, was just another day in Pennsylvania, but by the time the day was over, the worst flood of the 19th century had occurred and 2,209 people had perished, 1,600 homes had been destroyed, and the property damage price tag topped $17 million (almost $374 million today). Because of selfishness, greed, and negligence, necessary preparation was not made to prevent an event that they all knew could happen. They had been warned, but the warning was ignored.
Johnstown, Pennsylvania, is located about 60 miles east of Pittsburgh in a valley on a flood plain at the fork of the Little Conemaugh and Stonycreek Rivers. As the city grew, it narrowed the river banks to gain building space. This combined with heavy annual rains had resulted in increased flooding in the area.
In 1889, Johnstown was a steel manufacturing town with a population of 30,000 people mostly of German and Welsh descent. The town had prospered since its founding in 1800 in part due to the Cambria Iron Works that had opened there in the 1850s.
The South Fork Dam was built on the Little Conemaugh River, 14 miles upstream from Johnstown. The dam was 931 feet by 72 feet and the largest man-made, earthen (dirt and rock) dam in the U.S. It was originally built as part of the Pennsylvania Mainline Canal system, but by 1889 the reservoir behind the dam had been abandoned and the canal system had become obsolete with the introduction in the 1850s of the Pennsylvania Railroad as a means of transporting goods. As the canal system was no longer used, maintenance on the dam was neglected.
There was a fear for some time that the dam would break, but, storm after storm, it had held and soon it became something of a joke around Johnstown. People became complacent.
The dam and abandoned reservoir were sold to a group of Pittsburgh speculators. They modified the dam to accommodate a road and to add a fish screen in the spillway. It was believed that these alterations increased the vulnerability of the dam. In addition, a system of relief pipes and valves, part of the original dam, had been sold for scrap and never replaced, preventing the lowering of the level of the lake in an emergency. Around Lake Conemaugh, 450 feet above Johnstown, these speculators had built the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club, consisting of cabins and its clubhouse along the banks of the lake.
On May 28, a low-pressure area had formed over Nebraska and Kansas and by the time it had made its way to Pennsylvania on May 30, it was considered the heaviest rainfall event in recorded U.S. history. It was estimated that six to ten inches of rain had fallen over the area in a 24-hour period. During the night creeks had become torrents. Telegraph lines were downed and rail lines had been washed away. By daybreak, the Conemaugh River that ran through Johnstown would soon overwhelm its banks.
On the morning of May 31, the president of the Club realized that the water had nearly crested the dam and he quickly assembled a group of men who worked desperately to save the face of the dam. Others attempted digging a ditch along the side of the dam in an effort to prevent the water from overtopping the dam, but the effort failed.
A messenger was sent to the nearby town of South Fork to warn Johnstown of the now inevitable disaster. But the message was never given to the authorities of Johnstown. The dam had always held. This would be just another false alarm.
The situation in Johnstown had drastically worsened. Water from Lake Conemaugh had risen as much as ten feet into the streets. Many people were trapped in their homes.
About 2:50 in the afternoon, the water breached the South Fork dam and moments later the dam collapsed. The flood reached the town of South Fork first, but the town was built on higher ground and most of the people simply sought refuge in the surrounding hills. Property damage was minimal and four people died.
It stalled, momentarily, at the Conemaugh Viaduct, a 78-foot high railroad bridge. Seven minutes later the viaduct collapsed and the flood resumed its course, only now it had gained a renewed energy. It hit the small town of Mineral Point, one mile below the viaduct and wiped out the town down to the bedrock. Sixteen people died.
The village of East Conemaugh was hit by a mass of debris described as “a huge hill rolling over and over.” Here trains were picked up by the surging waters and carried along. At least 50 people died.
When the water hit the town of Woodvale, it destroyed the Cambria Iron Works, sweeping up railroad cars and barbed wire. Of Woodvale’s 1,100 residents, 314 died. Boilers exploded when the water hit the Gautier Wire Works. The resulting black smoke was seen by the people of Johnstown. Miles of barbed wire became entangled in the debris heading for Johnstown.
Fifty-seven minutes after the dam collapsed, the flood hit Johnstown. Twenty million tons of water (almost 4 billion gallons) had traveled through the narrowed valley and now hit the town at 40 miles per hour, with a wave reaching 60 feet high and a roar “like thunder” that could be heard for miles.
Caught unaware, people tried to run for high ground, but most were engulfed in the surging floodwater, crushed by the debris or helplessly entangled in barbed wire and drowned. Those who managed to make it into their attic or onto their roof, or were able to stay afloat on the debris, waited hours for help to come.
The debris began to build up downstream against the Stone Bridge, an old, but substantial, arched bridge, that carried the Pennsylvania Railroad across the Conemaugh River, ultimately covering 30 acres and reaching 70 feet high. Tragically, a fire broke out in this enormous pile of debris, and at least 80 people who had survived the initial wave, lost their lives in the inferno. The fire burned for three days; it took three months to remove all the debris mainly because of the amount of barbed wire entangled in the wreckage, but dynamite did the trick.
Many of those who died were never identified, hundreds were missing and never found; some bodies were found months later. The cleanup operation took five years before Johnstown had fully recovered.
Sources: johnstownpa.com/History/hist19.html; history.com/this-day-in-history/the-Johnstown-flood; Wikipedia/Johnstown Flood
Terrible things are coming, and if we are not prepared, ready and waiting, then we will be overcome and lost.
“To us has been given the message of Christ’s soon coming. …
“Are we preparing for this great event? Are we preparing to meet the Saviour in peace, or are we absorbed in worldly business and pleasure? In the judgment, the question will not be, What profession did you make? but, What have you done for Me? What fruit have you borne to My glory? Now is the time to prepare for the coming King. …
“At infinite cost a fountain has been prepared for our cleansing. If we now wash our robes of character at this fountain, God will give us a place in the mansions that are being prepared for those who love Him.” The Signs of the Times, November 22, 1905
“We are living in an evil age. The perils of the last days thicken around us. … Should it be necessary that the terrors of the day of God be held before us in order to compel us to right action?” The Faith I Live By, 350