It was about quarter of three in the afternoon. James Swank, editor of the Johnstown Tribune, stared out of the foggy window of his office. In the street below he could see a man sloshing—no, swimming—in waist-deep water, up to the door of his building. It was Alf Heslop. He was just over on Franklin Street, now less of a street than a channel of the Stonycreek River which spilled over its banks just after seven that morning. “It’s runnin’ at damn ‘ear six mal-en-‘arh,” he said standing soaking wet in the hallway. A half-an-hour later the phone rang. It was the central phone office informing him of a report from Agent Decker of the Pennsylvania Railroad freight division: the South Fork Dam was getting worse. Swank sat and scratched out: “It is idle to speculate what would be that result if this tremendous body of water—three miles long,—a mile wide in places, and sixty feet deep at the breast at normal stage—should be thrown into the already submerged Valley of the Conemaugh.” It was May 31st, 1889. On that day, 2,209 souls were fated to perish under the exceeding weight of 20 million tons of water.
Johnstown was thriving. The town—by 1889 a collection of boroughs with over 30,000 citizens—was situated in a narrow valley at the confluence of the Stonycreek and Little Conemaugh Rivers. Before the 1830s it was nothing more than sleepy mountain hamlet, but with the creation of the Pennsylvania Mainline Canal, things were about to change. Unlike Maryland and New York, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvanian couldn’t simply dig a trench across itself: when the line got to Hollidaysburg it faced daunting ridges of jagged hills. The solution was the engineering marvel of the age: the Allegheny-Portage Railroad. Canal boats came out of water, were hooked onto flat rail cars, and pulled up incline planes by steam engines. Five inclines up, five down, before reaching little Johnstown and splashing back into the canal basin. To facilitate the canal trenches in Johnstown which grew inoperably low on water in the dry summers, the South Fork dam was built with a reservoir fourteen miles upstream on the Little Conemaugh. Little could anyone know that this dam, so essential for the prosperity of the town, would cause its greatest catastrophe.
For the next fifty years the town steadily grew. With a fast connection to both Pittsburgh and Philadelphia the fledgling Cambria Iron Company boomed. The hills around Johnstown were blessed not only with an abundance of coal, but also one of the largest pockets of iron ore in Pennsylvania, limiting the need for its importation from Michigan and beyond. When the canal was replaced by the Pennsylvania Railroad, the city exploded. Immigrants from all over the world came to Johnstown, a company town producing nearly as much steel as Pittsburgh. Orders came in from across the American west including a lucrative contract to produce rails for San Francisco’s streetcars.
While the train brought speed, wealth, and energy, the canal system languished and the South Fork dam fell into disrepair. The canal was sold off to a succession of speculators, one of whom sold the iron discharge pipes which regulated the canal level for scrap. Without proper care it failed in 1862. In 1879 the now pitiful property was purchased by Benjamin F. Ruff of Pittsburgh for $2,000. He immediately incorporated a non-profit organization, the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club, the object of which was the “protection and propagation of game and game fish, and the enforcement of all the laws of this State against the unlawful defiling and wounding of the same.” For all intents and purposes, however, the club was to act as a private retreat for the Pittsburgh elite. Henry Clay Frick owned six of the initial forty-two shares. Membership later included men like Andrew Carnegie, Louis Semple Clarke, and Philander Knox. The family of a young Andrew Mellon spent time on the lake too, as did Henry Phipps, later of conservatory fame.
To create a verdant reserve and sparkling lake, the club members tidied up the dam. The collapsed culvert which controlled the reservoir’s discharge was filled with rock, and gravel was dumped into the gaping hole in the center. The refinished dam, shoddily completed in 1881, was significantly shorter than the original construction (so that two horse carriages could pass along the top without delay) and was dangerously only 4 ½ feet higher than its spillway. This was covered with triangular fishguards of heavy wire to prevent the escape of annually stocked bass. No professional engineers were hired to help undertake the project, and it seemed that no one could ever imagine a situation in which the dam’s integrity would be challenged. The forces of nature simply weren’t taken seriously.
Poor engineering wasn’t a cancer reserved for the Pittsburgh tycoons. Johnstown and her sister boroughs were running out of space. Hemmed in all around by 500 feet of hillside pockmarked with mine entrances, real-estate needed to be created, not found. The banks of the naturally wide and shallow creeks were continually infringed by dumping waste onto the edges under the ridiculous assumption that narrowed rivers would deepen themselves. By the 1880s flooding was an almost annual event, as spring and summer rains swelled the now too narrow rivers. In 1883 water covered the town from the confluence of the river up to Walnut Street, and in 1887 the Stonycreek surged up 3 ½ feet in a half-an-hour. The borough of Millville was completely submerged from August 21-22 in 1888.
But nothing was like the rain that fell in May of 1889. For days on end the Conemaugh watershed was pounded with torrential storms, and both the Little Conemaugh and the Stonycreek crested their molested banks on the morning of Friday, May 31st. Up at the South Fork Dam, newly hired engineer John Parke met with Club president Elias Unger at 6:30 am. To their shock, the mountain steams which feed into the reservoir were out of control and the water level was rising now at nearly a foot an hour. By the time Parke and his workmen finished their breakfast at 7:00, the water was a mere six feet from the top of the dam. The spillway was impeded by the fishguards which now held back masses of debris carried into the lake by its feeder streams in addition to the prized bass. The workmen tried under the hail of water to rip out the heavy oak and metal screens, but couldn’t. Still water flowed through the choked channel at nine feet per second. Throughout the face of the dam, water gurgled through leaks like some macabre fountain.
By three o’clock 10,000 cubic feet of water were pouring into the reservoir per second from the hills around. At 3:10 the water crested the center of the dam. It never really failed, it just vanished. Dr. Nathan Shappee describes it well: “pouring over the earth wall…was 123 tons of water per second whose weight and speed acted as an irresistible abrasive which not even the heavy stone facing of the outer wall could long resist.” Within seconds the water pushed a 10-foot deep “V” into the dam, and with a deafening roar a 420-foot section of the center of the dam was gone. In less than forty-five minutes, 640 million cubic feet of water raced from the lake into the valley of the Little Conemaugh.
The valley was lined on both sides with train tracks, trees, and small hamlets all of which were uprooted and added to the wall of the water as it gained momentum and tumbled ten miles into the first of Johnstown’s boroughs, East Conemaugh. It was there that a day’s worth of rail traffic was held up, prevented from entering the flooded rail depots. Now, hundreds of railcars, several 150 ton locomotives, and countless homes were added to the water, creating a moving tidal wave of death. The town of Woodvale was literally stripped to bedrock as the water pushed thousands of tons of debris along the path of the valley.
At the Gautier Wire Works, the valley opens up to the flat plane of downtown Johnstown. There the wave greedily snatched countless spools of barbed wire before leaping out into three deadly streams. One followed the path of the river, decimating the railroad lines and little Millville. A second jumped over to the Stonycreek forcing this torrential stream to actually flow in reverse. But it was the central wave which would prove the most destructive as it ran through the middle of town. This deluge crashed into Yoder Hill and turned back on itself, rushing back across downtown a second time. Thirty acres of wreckage backed up at the sturdy railroad bridge which crosses the Conemaugh River. This held like a dam for a while, before the water broke though the railroad embankment on either side and continued down the river. Hundreds of people clung to the debris, trapped by barbed wire, heavy wooden beams, and God-knows-what. Everything was soaked in oil, kerosene, and tar and somewhere a flame shot up—from a cooking stove, maybe, or a locomotive’s boiler. Soon the whole valley glowed in the light of a massive conflagration. Screams echoed among the hillsides as the water’s survivors fell victim to voracious flames.
In two hours, it was over. The water was gone, but its legacy was all around. Few building stood. Out of one of them Swank looked in awe and dread: the town would have to rise from the mud and ash. That’s just what the citizens determined to do. A police force was deputized, ordered to shoot looters dead; morgues sprung up to begin the morbid work of burying men, women, and the ghastly disfigured bodies of babies. Over seven hundred of the victims were never identified, buried in a haunting common grave. Hundreds were never found and must lie to this day undisturbed under the foundations of the rebuilt city. The Tribune reported on June 24 that the flood’s greatest horror was the previous day’s discovery “of the body of a woman who had been killed while giving birth to a child. The babe had not yet been fully delivered.”
No one was ever held responsible for May 31st, which the courts deemed an act of God. The judges were right in a sense: man’s hubristic habit to underestimate the forces of nature, his insidious inclination to cut corners, and his capitalistic crusade for efficiency never go long unavenged. In 1891 as part of the rebuilding effort, the Cambria Iron Company erected a public library—funded, in part, by Andrew Carnegie. Today you can visit this library, converted into a museum dedicated to telling the Flood’s story. Visitors often remark on the philanthropic generosity of Carnegie, reading the dedication while walking in. On the way out, quite a few voice another opinion.
Godbey, Emily. 2006. “Disaster Tourism and the Melodrama of Authenticty: Revisiting the 1889 Johnstown Flood.” Pennsylvania History: A Journal of Mid-Atlantic Studies 73: 273-315.
McCullough, David G. 1968. The Johnstown Flood. New York: Simon and Schuster.
O’Connor, Richard. 1957. Johnstown: The Day the Dam Broke. Philadelphia: Lippincott.
Shappee, Nathan Daniel. 1940 A History of Johnstown and the Great Flood of 1889: A Study of Disaster and Rehabilitation. Ph.D. Diss.: University of Pittsburgh.
An extended version of the Academy Award Winning documentary by Charles Guggenheim is available on Youtube here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K6FII51Oz4A