The Johnstown Flood of 1889 was not the first nor the last to scour Pennsylvania’s Conemaugh River Valley–only the worst.
The South Fork Dam had been built in the years 1838-1853 by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania as part of a canal system that was never implemented; it became obsolete as railroads replaced canals and river traffic as the most common form of transport. The state sold the dam to the Pennsylvania Railroad; the railroad in turn sold it to a group of wealthy speculators from Pittsburgh, who included Henry Clay Frick, Andrew Mellon, Andrew Carnegie, and the lawyers Philander Knox and James Hay Reed. The group maintained the lake and surrounding area as a private hunting and fishing preserve.
The collapse of the South Fork Dam, nearly sixty years old and weakened by “improvements” made by its owners, followed a day when water levels rose precipitously due to a rainfall variously estimated as between six and ten inches in a twenty-four hour period. With cast iron discharge pipes having been removed and sold for scrap even before the club’s “improvements” and the spillway covered by debris-clogged fish screens, the dam had no chance of holding.
At 3:10 PM on May 31, it gave way, sending twenty million tons of water roaring down the Little Conemaugh. On its route down the valley, the flood took out the villages of South Fork, Mineral Point, East Conemaugh, and Woodvale, but all hell broke loose in Johnstown because debris formed a dam at the railroad’s Stone Bridge. Although the water was temporarily diverted to another streambed, gravity brought it plowing back, and to worsen matters, debris at the Stone Bridge caught fire, burning for three days and killing at least eighty.
The loss of life was staggering: two thousand two hundred nine known dead, ninety-nine whole families wiped out, one hundred twenty-four women and one hundred ninety-eight men left widowed, ninety-nine children losing both parents, and of the bodies recovered seven hundred seventy-seven never identified. The death toll remains the second greatest by natural disaster in US history, surpassed only by the Galveston Hurricane of 1900.
Help came in eventually: Clara Barton and the fledging American Red Cross, workers from nearby areas to help clean up debris, trainloads of morticians and coffins–and money, much of it raised, ironically, by the very wealthy Pittsburgh businessmen whose failure to maintain the South Fork Dam had contributed to the disaster.
Lawsuits filed against said wealthy businessmen came to nothing; among their number were lawyers who persuaded the courts that A) since the club had no assets of its own it could not be held liable and B) given the circumstances the flood was not a manmade disaster, but an “act of God.”
The people of Johnstown didn’t see it that way. It was left to a local poet named Isaac G. Reed to sum up their feelings in a scathing poetic indictment that ended:
All the horrors that hell could wish,
Such was the price that was paid–for fish!
All in all a harrowing story, one I first read in David McCullough’s 1968 book The Johnstown Flood.