The Johnstown Flood Of 1889
The Johnstown Flood of 1889 was one of the worst disasters in United States history.
Located in a valley among the Laurel Mountains, part of the Alleghenies in Pennsylvania, Johnstown is a prime target for major floods. The Conemaugh, the Little Conemaugh, and the Stony Creek Rivers all merge to flow directly through the heart of the town.
Toward the end of the Nineteenth Century, Johnstown was a thriving community in the forefront of the new steel industry. With a population that doubled every ten years, primarily due to an influx of immigrants who came to work in the steel mills, Johnstown needed more land.
In the 1880's, the rivers were cut in half by pouring slag from the iron furnaces of the steel mills into them, creating more land for building. By making more land space, the rivers' channels were made narrower, which greatly increased the potential for flooding in an already flood-prone area.
Fourteen miles above Johnstown, on the Little Conemaugh River, lay the South Fork Dam. The dam was owned by the exclusive South Fork Hunting and Fishing Club, which touted on its membership rolls notable names such as Andrew Carnegie and Henry Clay Frick.
The dam created a three-mile long, one-mile wide, 65-foot deep lake for the club's recreational activities. It was an earthen dam and not well-built.
Heavy rains began to fall in the Johnstown area on Memorial Day evening, May 31, 1889. By the morning of June 1st, eight inches had fallen at the South Fork Dam, and the rain was still coming down. The water from the lake at the South Fork Hunting and Fishing Club was only two feet from the top of the dam and continued to rise one inch every ten minutes.
To make matters worse, the river that ran directly through the city of Johnstown was already beginning to flood its banks. At approximately 3:15 in the afternoon, the South Fork Dam could no longer hold the water back from the lake. It collapsed, sending 20 million tons of water sweeping downstream toward Johnstown.
In its deadly path were several small towns along the river's edge, a 75-foot railroad bridge, and the Gautier Wire Mill, all of which were destroyed by the roaring waters.
The water filled with the debris from its path. Horses, cattle, people, houses, locomotive cars and trees swept through Johnstown. Much of the debris came to a grinding halt at the Stone Bridge on the west side of the city. When the wreckage could go no further, it began to smash, crash and pile up, one piece upon another.
Official city records list the final death toll at 2,207, but many witnesses to the flood believe the count to have been much higher.
Floods have continued to ravage Johnstown from time to time, the most notable ones occurring in 1936 and in 1977. In a seven hour period during the night of July 19-20, 1977, at least 12 inches of rain fell in the mountainous region around Johnstown. The flood swept through the area, resulting in the deaths of 77 people and damage in excess of $200 million.
[Some data courtesy of The Thunderstorm in Human Affairs, Edwin Kessler, Editor.]