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The Johnstown Flood: An American Tragedy

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The South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club

The South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club, established in 1879.

Courtesy of the National Park Service
"The boy was through the door and on to the roof in a matter of seconds. Looking over his house he saw the source of the racket. He saw no water, just an immense wall of rubbish, dark and squirming with rooftops, huge roots, and planks. It was coming at him very fast. When it hit his street he saw his home crushed like an old crate and swallowed up...."
Excerpts from Victor Heiser experiences.

May 31st marks the anniversary of the Johnstown Flood, one of the worst disasters in American history. It was on this day in 1889 near the town of Johnstown, Pennsylvania[/link], that the South Fork Dam collapsed, sending a massive wall of water down river that killed more than 2,000 people. In 1964, the Johnstown Flood National Memorial was authorized as a unit of the National Park Service. The 165-acre memorial tells the story of the fateful event in southwestern Pennsylvania. As part of the annual commemoration, more than 2,209 candles are lit as a way of remembering those who died in the Flood.

Background

Johnstown was established in 1794 in a river valley at the heart of the Allegheny Mountain Range, about 65 miles east of Pittsburgh. It was located on a flood plain at the juncture of two mountain rivers, the Little Conemaugh and Stonycreek. These two rivers merged at the western end of Johnstown to form the Conemaugh River. The community began to prosper with the building of the Pennsylvania Mainline Canal in 1834 and the arrival of the Pennsylvania Railroad and the Cambria Iron Company in the 1850s. Cambria was the town's biggest employer, with close to 4,000 men in its works and mines. The population of Johnstown in 1889 was approximately 10,000, and including the surrounding communities, reached 30,000. Most of the townspeople lived in small wood tenement houses on the flats by the river.

Situated 14 miles above Johnstown, on the Little Conemaugh River, was the South Fork Dam. The dam held back Lake Conemaugh, a three-mile long, one-mile wide, 65-foot deep lake that was owned by the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club, a prestigious club which included such notable entrepreneurs as Andrew Carnegie and Henry Clay Frick. The dam at South Fork had been built between 1838-1853 as part of the Pennsylvania Canal System. After the Pennsylvania Railroad had built its first rail line across the state, the dam was no longer used and was then sold to the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club.

David McCullough, writing in his 1968 book The Johnstown Flood, notes, "Seen from below, the dam looked like a tremendous mound of overgrown rubble, the work of a glacier perhaps. It reared up 72 feet above the valley floor and was more than 900 feet long. The dam wall had over the years become pock marked with brush and trees growing in the cracks of the rock wall. From below there was no indication that the lake was being held back by this man made creation."

Before the Flood

Due to its location, Johnstown had always been a prime target for major floods. With the Conemaugh, the Little Conemaugh, and the Stony Creek rivers all merging to flow directly through the heart of the town, at least once a year, rivers would overflow into the streets. In the years leading up to the disaster, there had been signs that the dam might break. The foundations of the dam were considered shaky, it had been poorly maintained, and there had been an increasing number of leakages reported, but people had heard the rumors so many times, that they were generally regarded in the same fashion as someone "crying wolf."

On May 30th, 1889, unusually heavy rains hit the area. Eight inches of water fell in Lake Conemaugh, and the water level had climbed as high as two feet from the top of the dam. To make matter worse, the rains had also caused the river that ran directly through the city of Johnstown to begin flooding its banks. The following morning, the continuing rains increased the height of the lake by an inch every ten minutes. By mid-morning, the volume of water had filled the lake nearly to the top of the dam and officials began to fear the dam would fail. Attempts were made to add height to the dam, then to dig a second spillway to relieve pressure, and finally to free drainage screens covering the dam's catch basins, but these measures failed or proved ineffective.

By some accounts, men had been sent three or four times during the day to warn people below of the impending danger, but the citizens had ignored the warnings. By 2:30pm the water began to pass over the top of the dam and and shortly thereafter, the stones in the center of the dam began to sink. Around 3:10 pm the remainder of the dam wall dam collapsed.

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