Neglect, Nature and Horror of Johnstown Flood

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“The lake seemed to leap into the valley like a living thing,” wrote historian David McCullough in describing the immediate effect of the failure of the South Fork Dam on May 31, 1889. It was 3 p.m. when the dam gave way and in the next 35-40 minutes Lake Conemaugh emptied into the valley of the Little Conemaugh River on its way to Johnstown, Penn. 

The lake traveled 14 miles, wiping out the small towns of Mineral Point, East Conemaugh and Woodvale that lay directly in its path. Before it reached Johnstown, the huge wave of water and debris momentarily reenergized against a large stone railroad viaduct. “Now, for a brief instant,” wrote McCullough, “Lake Conemaugh formed again. It gathered itself together, held now by another dam, which however temporary was nonetheless as high as the first one; and when this second dam let go, it did so even more suddenly and with greater violence than the first one. The bridge collapsed all at once, and the water exploded into the valley with its maximum power now concentrated again by the momentary delay.” 

The month before, the Johnstown area suffered heavy snowfall, which melted quickly. That was followed by 11 days of rain and a storm on May 30 that dumped 8-10 inches of rain on the soaked ground. The rivers and streams that fed Lake Conemaugh swelled, causing the lake to rise against the earthen dam that had not been adequately reinforced by the wealthy members of the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club, which included Andrew Carnegie, Andrew Mellon, Henry Frick, and Philander Knox. (Their clubhouse is still there at the edge of the empty lakebed). The dam was 72 feet high and nearly 900 feet across. Lake Conemaugh was about three miles long and more than a mile wide at its widest point. You can walk into the empty lakebed today and gaze up at the dam’s remnants at the Johnstown Flood Memorial, which is operated by the National Park Service.  

Johnstown destroyed in 10 minutes

It was around 4 p.m. when the torrent of water crashed into Johnstown. Witnesses reported hearing a thunderous roar and seeing a 40-foot wall of water and debris. It took about 10 minutes for the water to destroy most of the city. The water and debris came to rest at a stone bridge at the southern end of the city. The debris at the bridge caught fire and as many as 80 people were burned alive. What remained of Johnstown, McCullough wrote, was “a vast sea of muck and rubble and filthy water.”

More than 2,200 people were killed, including 99 whole families and 400 children under age 10. Hundreds of homes and businesses were destroyed.  There is a museum in Johnstown that tells this tragic story, and it includes a model of the topography of the valley through which Lake Conemaugh traveled along its path of destruction. David McCullough’s book "The Johnstown Flood" remains the best source for understanding what happened that fateful day. It was the historian’s first book — he is a native of southwestern Pennsylvania — and set him on a path to national and international fame for his subsequent historical works. 

The tragedy of the Johnstown Flood of 1889 resulted from a combination of nature and human indifference and neglect.


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