Johnstown Flood – Pennsylvania – May 31, 1889

The town of Johnstown, Pennsylvania, was devastated by the nation’s worst flood. Poor maintenance had allowed a dam built high above Johnstown to give way and flood the town.

On May 31, 1889, the town of Johnstown, Pennsylvania, population 30,000, was devastated by the worst flood in the nation’s history. Over 2,200 died and many others were homeless. A small lake, about four hundred feet higher than the elevation of Johnstown, once used to supply the old Pennsylvania canals, had been purchased by a private group, The Hunting and Fishing Club, and they had enlarged it, raising its dam to a height of one hundred feet. This club failed to give attention to the old sluiceways at the bottom of the dam so that, as heavy rain raised the water level in the lake, the only escape route for water was over the top and the dam had never been designed to restrain the weight of water at that level. On May 31, 1889, heavy rains raised the lake level to the top of the dam. Leaks began to appear in several places and within a short time the whole dam collapsed. The waters of the entire threesquare- mile lake thundered down the valley to Johnstown.

Johnstown was a steel-company town in 1899, a growing and industrious community known for the quality of its steel. Founded in 1794, Johnstown prospered with the building of the Pennsylvania Mainline Canal in 1834 and still more with the arrival of the Pennsylvania Railroad and the chartering of the Cambria Iron Company in the 1850s. There was one drawback to living in the city—Johnstown had been built on a flood plain at the fork of the Conemaugh and Stony Creek rivers. Because the growing city had narrowed the river to gain building space, heavy rainfall quickly raised the river’s water level, frequently flooding parts of the town. Fourteen miles up the Conemaugh River, Lake Conemaugh, at an elevation of four hundred feet above Johnstown, with a poorly maintained dam, was a constant source of concern to the people farther down the valley. Every spring, as heavier rain arrived, there was talk that it might not hold back the water, especially if its level rose very high.

At 4:00 P.M. on the wet afternoon of May 31, 1889, the inhabitants heard a low rumble that grew to a roar like thunder. Some knew immediately what had happened. After a night of heavy rain, the South Fork Dam had finally broken, sending sixteen million tons of water crashing down the narrow valley. Boiling with huge chunks of debris, the wall of floodwater grew at times to sixty feet high, tearing downhill at 40 mph, leveling everything in its path. Thousands of people desperately tried to escape the wave. Those caught by it were swept up in a torrent of oily, muddy water, surrounded by tons of grinding debris, which crushed some while providing rafts for others. Many became helplessly entangled in miles of barbed wire. There were no telephones or anything similar beyond the telegraph stations at different locations to warn the people of Johnstown of the approaching deluge.

A young civil engineer who was the first to see the impending break in the South Fork Dam rode his horse as fast as he could down the valley shouting, “The dam is breaking, run for your lives.” At South Fork Station he stopped to send a telegraph message to Johnstown, ten miles down the valley. Some paid attention to his cry, most ignored him. He lost his life as he crossed a railway bridge below Johnstown and was caught in a wall of water and debris as the bridge collapsed. It was all over in ten minutes, but for some the worst was still yet to come. As darkness fell, thousands were huddled in attics, others were floating on the debris, and many more had been swept downstream to the old Stone Bridge at the junction of the rivers. Piled up against the arches, much of the debris caught fire, entrapping forever eighty people who had survived the initial flood wave.

Floods are familiar events in most parts of the world and they most frequently occur when humans compete for the use of flood plains. The natural function of a flood plain is to carry away excess water when there is a flood. Our failure to recognize this fundamental fact has led to extensive development on flood plains, without adequate attention being paid to the behavior of water, and hence an increase in floods. Because these places are ideal locations for agriculture, there are good reasons for living and farming there. In this book and in the second volume, there are examples of human use of flood plains and also the disastrous consequences of inadequate planning in time of flood. One of these examples is China’s terrible experience of a flood on the Yellow River in 1887. In that event, heavy rains raised the water level in the river so high that the levees were overtopped and then partly destroyed so the flood plain became a deep lake. Close to a million people lost their lives. While this example involved huge numbers of people and a large amount of land, the cause of the tragedy was exactly the same as the Johnstown one. There had not been sufficient strength in the methods used to hold back the water neither in the levees in China nor in the dam above Johnstown.

The outstanding example of flood plain problems is the Mississippi River basin. It is the largest in the world and it occupies almost half of the total surface area of coterminous United Sates. Floods have been a constant feature of this river from the beginning of historical records. For most of this time period, Mississippi’s floods were considered to be local responsibilities. When the flood of 1927 occurred, killing 246 people, flooding 137,000 buildings, and leaving 700,000 people homeless, it became clear to all that national action was essential if the ravages of flood damage were to be effectively minimized. At the mouth of the Mississippi, human activity of various kinds is destroying the wetlands that would normally develop if the river were free to deposit its silt naturally. Sixty square miles of wetlands are lost annually in this area, a higher percentage that occurs on any other U.S. coastal area. Yet we know now, in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, that these wetlands provide the first line of defense against deadly hurricanes, by both limiting the storms’ access to the warm ocean water that drives them and by creating a physical barrier to the floodwaters that they generate.

Johnstown is not the only example of flooding in the U.S. caused by a dam failure. There are numerous other examples, large and small, of similar failures. Two of them are described in one of these two volumes, Buffalo Creek and Teton, each quite different from the other. The dam failure in Buffalo Creek was very similar to that in Johnstown—it was the failure of a dam in a community that, like Johnstown, was dominated by a single company, a coal-mining company in Buffalo Creek. As so often happens when a single owner has complete control of the economic life of a community, there is a temptation to minimize safety precautions and maximize profits. In the case of Johnstown various officials provided ample warning that the dam posed a great risk to the whole community and external, objective advice was needed to assess that risk. In spite of these recommendations the Cambria Iron Company decided to assess the risk, concluding that the dam was safe. No one seemed to be able to insist on a second opinion. The Teton Dam was quite a different story. It was a public corporation set up to access the water supplies of a region to provide both flood control and, at the same time, supply water for irrigation. The disaster that occurred was caused by technical errors on the part of the geological engineers who designed the dam.

Once the dam collapsed and the wall of water and debris started moving down the valley toward Johnstown there was little that anyone could do to save lives. The only communications possible were shouts of warning. Within twenty minutes of the dam’s collapse it was all over. Men, women, and children had been carried along to their deaths in a tornado of water and debris, frantically shrieking for help. The speed of the flow of water and materials made it impossible to rescue anyone and the aftermath was painful in every way. Recriminations soon appeared. Why was the water level in the dam allowed to rise so high? Even as late as May 30, action could have been taken to release large quantities of water from the dam. The most urgent task was the burial of bodies, large numbers of them unknown by name or association. A mass funeral and mass burial was arranged but there were no pallbearers. Ox teams and carts, each cart carrying six burial boxes, brought the bodies to a mass grave. There were memories of the final day recounted many times, stories of heroes and of villains as is always the case in such situations.

In the offices of the Cambria Iron Company, south of Johnstown, an assistant cashier noticed that the water had reached as far as the second floor where he was and where the money for the workers was kept in a safe. The dam had not yet collapsed but the numerous leaks had already turned the river into a torrent that was steadily rising higher and higher. The cashier took the money from the safe—it was in packages of bills, altogether amounting to 12,000 dollars—and climbed to the next floor and within a short time went on to the roof, the only place that was still above water. Moments later the entire office building disintegrated and he jumped on to a house that was floating past. This temporary spot carried him downstream and, fortunately, the house got stuck for a time against a bank. He managed to clamber his way on to land and then found his way into the woods where he hid for the night in order to safeguard the money. There were other memories too from the days immediately following the tragedy. Memories that people would like to forget but cannot. Some young men came from Pittsburgh, fifty miles away, to observe the scene, found some barrels of whisky and in a state of intoxication began to rifle the dead bodies. Rings, clothing, jewelry, and anything else that might have value were stolen.

The telegraph line was the only form of communication with other places at this time, so the telegraph operator was always a vital part of efforts at saving people. Some telegraph lines had been swept away by the flood and later partly reconnected by volunteers who strung wires across trees wherever they could. As had happened elsewhere in similar situations, the importance of the telegraph connection was so important that operators often stood there until it was too late to escape. That was the story of the lady who had been telegraph operator for the Western Union Telegraph Office. She sent messages to every place that might be affected but waited too long to save her own life. In the days and weeks that followed, aid money and help of all kinds poured in from governments, businesses, and people in all walks of life. President Benjamin Harrison, who had been sworn in as president in the same year as the flood, convened a meeting of eminent citizens to plan relief. He also sent a gift of money as a personal contribution to the community.

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