Friday, May 31, 2013

Remembering the Johnstown Flood

Newspaper Headlines
It was 124 years ago today that a rare storm, sweeping across the U.S., coupled with a neglected dam in a Pennsylvania valley town, led to tragedy and thousands of deaths in the city of Johnstown.

Johnstown Waterways
Before the Flood
Floods were nothing new to Johnstown, Pennsylvania. Built into a river valley along the Appalachian Plateau, which was located at the confluence of two rivers, and a man-made lake 14 miles down the mountains; the local residents had dealt with many high water occasions. At least once a year, the two local rivers would overflow their banks due to melting snows from the mountains above, or intense rains that got trapped in the valley below, and unleash torrential amounts of water.

Water Rushes off Mountains
Heavy rains had pummeled the area for days.  The Conemaugh Lake was overflowing, rain ran down into the valley from the mountains above, and residents, living on a flood plain, thought they knew what to expect.

But no one had paid much attention to the redesign of the dam at the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club, located high above the city.   

The Robber Barons
The Club, a wealthy man’s retreat that included Andrew Carnegie and Henry Clay Frick among the members, had re-engineered the old dam to create the three-mile lake and private mountain retreat for the rich steel and coal barons of Pittsburgh. No one had seriously considered what would happen if the dam, ignored by the club and now in desperate need of repairs, began to fail.

Residents had been given warning of a flood and had taken precautions by carrying their belongings up to the second floors of their homes and businesses – standard procedure for an expected flood.  But this time would be different.

Wall of Water
It was just after 3 p.m. on that dismal Friday afternoon of May 31, 1889 when the South Fork Dam washed away, and over 20-million tons of water rushed down the hill and toward the city of Johnstown.

Train Car in Flood Wreckage
The tumbling torrent carried with it trees, rocks, animals, people, houses, barns, miles of barbed wire from a destroyed wire factory upriver, even train cars torn from the railroad bridges in the tiny towns and communities hit farther upstream. 

The wall of water was over 30 feet high and almost a half-mile wide, traveling at almost 40 miles per hour when it slammed into Johnstown just after 4 P.M.  The northern half of Johnstown was swept away, over 1,500 buildings and thousands of people – gone.

Debris at the Old Stone Bridge
In the ten minutes it took for the flood to sweep through the city, over 2,200 people were drowned or swept away.  Some of the debris became stuck near the old Stone Bridge. Carried with it were several flood survivors, clinging to makeshift rafts, hoping to hold on until help could arrive at daylight.   

As the waters receded, debris continued to get stuck and piled up to a height of 40 feet.  Hot coals and gas began to ignite in the rubble; 80 people died in the flames.

Survivors on Rubble
Clara Barton and The Red Cross arrived soon after, tending the injured, and helping residents put their lives and their town back together. This was the first major peacetime disaster that Barton’s newly formed American Red Cross had responded to.

Flood Victim's Graves
In all, 2,209 died at Johnstown, in the worst flood in the Nation’s history, and the largest loss of civilian life ever experienced in the United States. 

Hundreds of people were never found; over 750 bodies were never identified and their remains were buried in The Plot of the Unknown in Grandview Cemetery.  Remains were found for months, even years after the flood – The final remains were found in Cincinnati in 1911.  It took the City of Johnstown over five years to recover from the Flood of 1889.

Although the collapse of the South Fork Dam was evident as a reason for the flood, neither the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club, nor its rich owners, were ever found to be responsible for the flood or the damage.  However, many of the millionaire members did provide financial assistance for the rebuilding of the town. Damage was estimated to be $17-million – over $500-million in today’s economy.

1936 Flood
Subsequent floods have continued to hit Johnstown hard.  In 1936, the St Patrick’s Day floods caused severe damage and left a path of debris all the way to Pittsburgh.

Rubble from 1977 Flood

Again, in July 1977, torrential rains from passing storms flooded the rivers and the town was under 8 feet of water by dawn the next day. Eighty people died, forty in a dam failure. Over 50,000 were left homeless, and seven countries, declared as disaster areas, incurred over $200-million in property damage. The “100 Year Flood” was another one for the record books.

Photos of the 1889 Flood
The Johnstown Flood National Memorial was authorized in 1964 and established in 1969 to commemorate the 2,209 people who died in the 1889 Flood. It contains portions of the Stone Bridge and remains of the South Fork dam.

Point Park
Today, at Point Park, an eternal flame burns brightly in memory of the flood victims, and as a reminder of nature’s destructive power.

~ Joy

*Photos courtesy of the Johnstown Area Historical Association Archives, and the National Park Service,


  1. What an amzing peice of history you have provided. I have never heard of that till now. Thank you for this.

  2. Great post and pictures. There is still a Johnstown Flood Tax of 18% of all liquor and wines sold in Pennsylvania. It is no longer used for the flood victims. It goes into a "discretionary" fund.

    1. WOW!! Thanks for that bit of information, Claudia. I also write a wine blog, Joys Joy of Wine, and that just gave me a great idea.... ; )

  3. Great post ---- I didn't know about this flood, so it was an interesting read!

    1. Thanks, Jo! I learned about it years ago when I worked with someone who had grown up there - people still talked about it regularly.

  4. I find the last remains to be found in Cincinnati curious. How did it get there? Isn't that "upstream" to say the least? Also, in 1911, how was it determined that the remains found related to an incident 22 years later? Are the answers to these questions known?

  5. Actually Cincinnati, Ohio would be down river about 350 miles from Johnstown, Pennsylvania.