As May turns into June in Pennsylvania, many people begin to think less about the winter weather and focus on the warm summer ahead. An occasional rain shower might interrupt the day, and sometimes those showers lead to flooding. However, on May 31, 1889, the showers would add to a continuing problem and create an even bigger one.
Founded in 1794, Johnstown was a booming steel center built by the German and Welsh peoples who had settled in the area. The population had reached 30,000 by 1889 and continued to prosper with the opening of the Pennsylvania Mainline Canal in 1834 and the arrival of the Pennsylvania Railroad and Cambria Iron Company in the 1850s.
The one problem of Johnstown's location was that it was built on the floodplain at the confluence of the Little Conemaugh and Stoneycreek Rivers. More problems such as increased runoff from the hills due to deforestation as well as filling in the banks of the rivers to accommodate more building space caused flooding to become a common event.
If those weren't enough for the perfect "disaster cocktail," throw in a poorly maintained dam 14 miles up the Little Conemaugh River. The two-mile-long Lake Conemaugh was held back by the South Fork Dam in Saint Michael. It had been built to accepted engineering practices of the time to supply water for the Pennsylvania Mainline Canal; however, the canal system had become obsolete by the opening in 1853 and the Pennsylvania Railroad purchased the reservoir four years later. A break occurred in the dam in 1862 near the discharge pipes which drained the lake, but little damage occurred because the level was so low. The railroad abandoned the dam and it fell into disrepair until 1879 when it was purchased by the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club.
The club repaired the old dam, raised the level of the lake, and built cottages on the banks. It would become a playground for the rich industrialists and businessmen from Pittsburgh, another steel town built at the confluence of two rivers. People such as Andrew Carnegie and Andrew Mellon were frequent visitors to the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club. With all the money possessed by the members, you would think that the dam would have been better maintained. Every spring there was talk it might not hold, but it always did, so the threat became more of a joke around town.
The 72-foot-high dam was a imposing figure in the valley. One resident said, "No one could see the immense height to which that artificial dam had been built without fearing the tremendous power of the water behind it." People wondered why nothing had been done to strengthen the dam and others, realizing the vulnerability, called the dam "the sword of Damocles hanging over Johnstown." Daniel J. Morrell, president of the Cambria Iron Company, was also worried about the dam. Benjamin Ruff, first president of the club, refused Morrell's request for the dam to be strengthened by saying "You and your people are in no danger from our enterprise."
Unusually heavy rains hit the area on May 30, and Johnstown residents began to make the standard preparations. John Parke began to do the same, not for himself, but rather at the club where he knew things were more serious. As the club engineer he was in charge of the dam and knew if the level of the lake continued to rise an inch every 10 minutes, water would run over the top. The water would continue to erode the middle of the dam, eventually slicing through it like a knife, and eventually destroy the dam itself. His workers tried in vain to dig another spillway and increase the height, but the water was rising too fast. Parke faced a dilemma: he could let the dam erode away or choose to cut a path in it where the pressure was not so great. The latter would relieve the pressure and let the dam give way slowly, thus reducing the destructive force of the water. However, if he chose to do that, how could he prove the dam would have failed? People would only know he was the one who destroyed it and the valley below, so Parke did nothing.
Nature made the decision for John Parke at 3:10 PM when the dam broke, unleashing 20 million tons of water at the same velocity the Niagara River goes over the falls. He tried to warn Johnstown of the impending destruction by horseback, but the water outpaced them. Later he would write, "the fearful rushing waters opened the gape with such increasing rapidity that soon after the entire lake leaped out....It took but forty minutes to drain that three miles of water." One observer noted the break "roared like a mighty battle." Farmers below the dam said that the wave was "a turbulent wall of water, filling the entire valley." Telegraph lines were now down, so word could not get through by those means.
The first locale to be hit was South Fork, two miles down river. The waters claimed 20 to 30 homes and the first four victims of the flood. The valley narrows abruptly beyond South Fork, which pushed the water level to 70 to 75 feet. Railroad ties and track were ripped up and added to the flow. The wave hit a two-mile-long oxbow, and at the end was a railroad viaduct 71-feet-high. Part of the water crossed the oxbow and hit the viaduct which acted as a second dam due to the amount of debris in the water. A second Lake Conemaugh, deeper than the original, was created until the bulk of the wave crashed through six to seven minutes later and destroyed the viaduct and temporary dam with more violence than how the original dam disintegrated.
A mile below the viaduct, Mineral Point became the second town to be hit. Sixteen people out of the 30 families that lived there were killed. What was disturbing was that the power of the water was so strong, it scoured the land down to bedrock. As it barreled toward East Conemaugh, a witness said the water resembled "a huge hill rolling over and over," with logs being tossed high above the surface. As the valley straightened out, the mass of water gained speed and power and hit both East Conemaugh and neighboring Woodvale. Train engineer John Hess tried to warn the residents by tying down his train whistle and racing the wave to the town. Even with his warning, 50 people died including around 25 passengers on trains stranded in the train yard. Locomotives were tossed around like toys, with some ending up a mile away.
The only things left standing in next door Woodvale were the mills, while everything else in Cambria Iron Company's "model town" was leveled. Only 314 people died out of the 1,100 residents. The Gautier Wire Works' boilers exploded after being doused by the wave and created a black "death mist" seen by the residents of Johnstown. When the works was destroyed, it unleashed miles of barbed wire to create a deadly debris "cocktail."
At 4:07 PM, a mere 57 minutes after the dam broke, the wave carrying the remains of the Conemaugh River Valley hit Johnstown. The debris in the water spared the city even worse destruction by slowing the water down to 40 MPH. Without the debris, the water could have been moving down the valley at speeds ranging from 60 to 90 MPH. As the flood entered Johnstown, it split into two parts: one following the river channel and the other going straight through downtown which hit the hillside alongside Stoneycreek River, caused a backwash, and a whirlpool above the stone bridge. The latter flow was split again by the First Methodist Episcopal Church, now known as the Franklin Street United Methodist Church, with the third flow speeding down Clinton Street and Jackson Street towards Kernville.
Thousands desperately tried to escape a watery death, but were slowed by the two to seven feet already on the ground in parts of Johnstown. One observer from a hill noted that the streets "grew black with people running for their lives." Some remembered reaching the hillsides, pulling themselves out of the path seconds before the water overtook them. The unfortunate ones found themselves caught in a torrent of oily, yellow-brown water, surrounded by tons of debris which crushed some and provided make-shift rafts for others. Many became tangled in the barbed wire from the decimated Gautier Wire Works. People indoors climbed stairs to avoid certain death seconds ahead of the rushing water, which reached the third story in many buildings. Some didn't even have time to do that with the water rushing with such strength it crushed homes or ripped them from their foundations which contributed to the debris in the wave. People were hanging from rafters or clinging to rooftops and railcars, trying to keep their balance as their rafts floated in the turbulent waters.
The devastation was over in a mere 10 minutes, but the worst was yet to come. Survivors who huddled in attics or on roofs of buildings that survived the initial flood were still threatened by the 20-foot-high current battering the foundations and slamming tons of debris into them. As darkness fell, they could see other buildings succumbing to the power of the water fearing that theirs would not survive the night.
located on Main Street across from Central Park which gave refuge to
264 on the night of May 31. The first floor was submerged which forced survivors to
climb through the second floor windows. Some men from the building, using a rope,
rescued survivors who were clinging to debris nearby. (Jeff Kitsko)
Perhaps the worst fate was those who were trapped at the stone bridge below the confluence. Thousands of tons of debris from the valley and Johnstown piled up against the bridge. The 45-acre mass was comprised of buildings, machinery, numerous freight cars, 50 miles of railroad track, bridge sections, boilers, telephone poles, trees, animals, and hundreds of humans. The oil-soaked pile was held against the arches of the bridge by the current and bound tight by the barbed wire. Those who could escape the pile did so by heading for shore; however, others were still trapped helplessly in the pile, entrapped by the barbed wire. Then the unthinkable happened: the oil in the pile caught fire. The flames spread over the mass as rescue workers tried to free people, some still in the remnants of their homes. The fire burned with "all the fury of hell" as a Johnstown newspaper reported. Eighty people who initially escaped a watery grave died by fire.
Railroad's Stone Bridge as it stands today spanning PA 56/PA
403 and the Conemaugh River. It now carries Norfolk Southern Railroad's traffic.
|Plaque at Point
Park in downtown Johnstown with a picture of the pile that claimed
so many lives. (Jeff Kitsko)
The next morning, the survivors awoke to an eerie silence hanging over the city. The waters had receded during the night, revealing mud and debris filling the streets where there were still streets, stacked as high as the third story. Entire blocks of Johnstown were swept away, while hundreds, alive and dead, were buried beneath the remnants of the city.
Disease washed over Johnstown as hard as the water, with typhoid adding 40 more casualties to the initial death toll of 2,209 from the flood. Emergency morgues and hospitals were set up, and commissaries distributed food and clothing. The nation responded with an outpouring of time, money, food, and clothing. Monetary contribution from the nation and world totaled over $3.7 million.
Five days after the flood, a new organization which would become a familiar one in the wake of disasters came to Johnstown to help. The newly formed American Red Cross, headed by the "Angel of the Battlefield" Clara Barton, set up hospital tents, constructed six "Red Cross hotels" for the homeless, and distributed food, clothing, and medicine to the survivors. Clara stayed in Johnstown until October working tirelessly even though she was 67.
The final tally of the damage came to $17 million and the clean up took years to accomplish. Bodies were still being found months, in some cases years, after the flood. As late as 1911 bodies were still being recovered even as far as Cincinnati, Ohio. Ninety-nine families were wiped out and 98 children lost both of their parents. The city regained the population it lost and rebuilt its industrial base, but it would not fully recover until 1884.
|Markers on the
corner of city hall in downtown Johnstown that mark the crests of
the three disastrous floods. From top-bottom: 1889 - 71 feet, 1936 - 17 feet, and
1977 - 8 feet-6 inches. (Jeff Kitsko)
|Plaque below the
levels in memorial for those who died in the Saint Patrick's Day
Flood in 1936. (Jeff Kitsko)
Construction began in 1890 and concluded June 1, 1891 on the Inclined Plane up Yoder Hill to not only provide transportation to and from the community of Westmont, but to aid in evacuation in the event of another flood. It did that in 1936 when it carried almost 4,000 to safety and again in 1977, when it not only carried people up but rescue personnel and equipment down.
the City of Johnstown from an overlook next to the Inclined Plane.
The torrent of water from the South Fork Dam came down the valley in the middle
of the picture. (Jeff Kitsko)
at the overlook that not only tells the story of the flood but also shows
a picture of downtown Johnstown in 1891 when the Inclined Plane opened.
|The terminal at the top of Yoder Hill on Edgehill Drive. Located next to it is the City View Bar and Grill which offers fantastic views of the valley. (Jeff Kitsko)|
the top of Yoder Hill from PA 56/PA 403-Roosevelt Boulevard.
A portion of Grandview Cemetery was purchased by the State Flood Commission to bury the 755 unknown victims, give each one a marker, and construct a monument. The monument cost $6,500 and was dedicated three years to the date after the flood on May 31, 1892. The cemetery is situated just off PA 271/Menoher Boulevard between Westmont and Johnstown.
|Sign at the intersection of Millcreek Road and Geneva Avenue. (Jeff Kitsko)|
|Sign denoting the Unknown Plot. (Jeff Kitsko)|
|The Monument of
the Unidentified Victims. The inscription in the middle reads "IN
MEMORY OF THE UNIDENTIFIED DEAD FROM THE FLOOD MAY 31, 1889."
nameless plots which bear a striking resemblance to Arlington
National Cemetery in Washington. (Jeff Kitsko)
the monument with the unidentified graves in the background.
|In some cases whole families were wiped out such as the Weners. (Jeff Kitsko)|
This was not the first time nor would it be the last time flood waters battered Johnstown, which became known as "Flood City." Major floods are denoted by asterisks.
Two of the worst floods to happen since the 1889 tragedy were on Saint Patrick's Day 1936 and July 19, 1977.
Johnstown Flood Museum
Open: Daily 10:00 AM - 5 PM; Friday and Saturday Memorial Day to Labor Day 10:00 AM - 7 PM
Closed: New Year's Day, Easter, Thanksgiving, and Christmas
Phone: 888-222-1889 or 814-539-1889
Address: Johnstown Area Heritage Association
P. O. Box 1889
Johnstown, PA 15907-1889
E-mail: mbacon#jaha.org - Replace "#" with "@"
Admission: Adults - $6.00
Seniors - $5.00
Students - $4.00
Located on the former site of the original Cambria Library which was destroyed in the flood, the building began as the replacement library which was financed by steel baron Andrew Carnegie. The philanthropist, and member of the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club whose negligence destroyed Johnstown, was known for starting libraries as can be seen by the ones which bare his name in and around Pittsburgh. In 1973, the library moved two blocks over to Main Street and the museum was created. The building is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
|Sign at the corner of Washington Street and Walnut Street. (Jeff Kitsko)|
|The outside of the museum from Washington Street. (Jeff Kitsko)|
dwelling called an "Oklahoma" house because they were
manufactured for homesteaders in the Oklahoma Territory. After the flood, these
became temporary housing for the survivors. This one was found still standing in
the Moxham neighborhood of Johnstown in the 1990s. (Jeff Kitsko)
|On the first floor of the museum. (Jeff Kitsko)|
relief map which illustrates the path of the flood down the Conemaugh
River Valley with sound and fiber optics. Significant times from when the rain
begins to fall until the waters begin to subside light up on the sides as the virtual
flood cascades through the valley. (Jeff Kitsko)
|The list of those who were killed in the flood. (Jeff Kitsko)|
|Some of the artifacts discovered in the aftermath of the flood. (Jeff Kitsko)|
|A display that
shows how the South Fork Dam was constructed and how the flood
eventually occurred. (Jeff Kitsko)
seal of the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club, whose lack of
maintenance decimated an entire community. (Jeff Kitsko)
|A plaque on the
third floor of the museum is dedicated to the United States
Steelworkers of America members who died in the 1977 flood. (Jeff Kitsko)
|The third floor
displays items relating more to the floods of 1936 and 1977.
Flood National Memorial
In 1964, the National Park Service created the memorial on the 165-acre site of the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club in Saint Michael. The visitor center, located above the former Lake Conemaugh and South Fork Dam, has displays illustrating the destructive power that Johnstown experienced that day as well as a theater that shows a documentary on the flood. Remembrance ceremonies take place every May 31, with the lighting of 2,209 candles on the remnants of the South Fork Dam and Elias Unger Farm which signifies those who died.
Open: Daily Year-round 9 AM - 5 PM
A "Flood-Free" Johnstown
The first flood control effort came in the wake of the 1889 flood. President Benjamin Harrison, by request from Governor James Beaver, ordered army engineer troops from the United States Engineer School at Fort Totten, New York to Johnstown to build bridges and assist in debris removal. The governor also requested help from the US Army Corp of Engineers to increase the capacity of the channels. The Corps surmised that the problem could be addressed by dredging and building water-tight embankments. However, due to the mandate of the Corps to only provide navigation improvements, they could not perform the flood control project.
The City of Johnstown began to take steps in 1890 to curb the flooding problem. Ordinances prohibiting dumping and other obstructions were passed and regulations stipulating minimum channel widths were put in place. The first flood walls, built of masonry or concrete, made their appearance at this time along certain sections of the rivers.
Three days of heaving rains, combined with run-off from melting snow and ice, caused the river to rise 14 feet to create the Saint Patrick's Day flood on March 17, 1936. Nearly one-third of the city was inundated, which destroyed 77 buildings and damaged thousands more. By the time the waters receded the day after, $50 million dollars in damage was inflicted on industrial facilities, commercial structures, and residences, as well as to bridges, sidewalks, and streets. The flood claimed 25 victims and made 9,000 homeless.
The Saint Patrick's Day Flood galvanized the need for some form of flood control. On March 25, the American Legion post in Johnstown wrote a letter to Senator Joseph Cuffey requesting Federal aid for clearing slums and home building, as well as flood prevention. Aid in the form of WPA projects came swiftly for flood clean-up and repairs.
Broad sweeping changes would come from the Flood Control Act of 1936, passed later that year, which appropriated Federal money specifically for flood control. In response, President Franklin D. Roosevelt visited Johnstown in August 1936, and before leaving, promised $300,000 for a survey to be undertaken by the US Army Corps of Engineers.
The Johnstown Local Flood Protection Project (JLFPP) was among the earliest flood control projects undertaken by the Pittsburgh District of the US Army Corp of Engineers under the new act. They designed the modified river channels to carry peak flows similar to those in the Saint Patrick's Day Flood, which are predicted to have a one in 60 chance of happening in any given year. By the end of June 1938, detailed surveys and testing had been completed for the entire project. Hydraulic tests were conducted with models at the Corps' laboratory in Vicksburg, Mississippi using peak flows, and the results were that the project would be able to handle that much water.
The project consisted of deepening and widening the channels of the Conemaugh, Little Conemaugh, and Stoneycreek Rivers, construction of concrete slopes, and floodwalls were the channels could not be widened. Grouted rock paving had been proposed originally, but it was deemed too expensive. Another cost-saving measure was incorporating 7,889 feet of existing concrete and 8,452 feet of existing masonry walls where feasible. A small number of channel bottom modifications including several small spillways and one short segment of concrete lining on either side of the Walnut Street Bridge were made.
One of the challenges of construction was constructing the paved sideslopes. In order to build them, the flow of the channel had to be diverted to the opposite side of the one being built. The paving was laid in slabs, with alternating slabs poured first then the remaining gaps were filled. Ramps were built for equipment access and for trucks to remove excavated material. Working conditions were difficult in the fall and spring, and run-off in the latter season, when snow and ice created a wet and muddy work area.
The final cost of the project came in at $8.87 million, one million more than was estimated. Around 2.75 million cubic yards of material were excavated which if dumped in Johnstown's 240-square-foot Central Park, would have made a pile higher than the Empire State Building. In terms of concrete, 156,631 cubic yards were poured which is the same amount that could be used to build a 20-foot-wide highway spanning 67 miles, the distance between Johnstown and Pittsburgh. Modifications to 11 bridges; relocating two railroad lines, one highway, one water line, and one sewer line; installation of 17 water line crossings; six sewer crossings; 14 special drainage outlets, and 810 pipe outlets; improvements to 28 culverts, one street, and five streams; and the protection of seven houses were included in the project. Six vehicle ramps and 55 sets of steps were built to provide access to the channels.
The project was dedicated in November 1943, where Pittsburgh District Engineer Colonel Gilbert Van B. Wilkes declared, "Today, Johnstown can boast that it has the largest and best channel improvement in the United States," which was based on a review of 26 similar project. The New York Times agreed with the Colonel. The JLFPP was also cited as a model for other flood control projects across the country.
With the project complete, a sense of safety fell over Johnstown which helped to spur renewed local interest and confidence in the economical and social revitalization of the city. It even helped in forming a local civic group named the "Flood-Free Johnstown Observance Committee." The committee began a campaign to promote the social and economic advantages of Johnstown through articles that appeared in newspapers nationwide reaching an estimated 46 million people.
The JLFPP did keep Johnstown free of disaster for several decades, even through some of the worst weather such as Hurricane Hazel in 1954 and Hurricane Agnes in 1972. Then came the night of July 19, 1977 when an unrelenting rain storm unleashed itself and raised the river levels. Adding to the misery was the collapse of several earthen dams such as the one at Laurel Run Reservoir. At the time my family lived 23 miles to the west in Derry Township. My parents recall the storm of that night and said that the lightning was like something they had never seen, even in the F3 tornado they'd survived a year earlier.
By dawn on July 20, the city was under eight feet of water. Damage in the seven county disaster area totaled $200 million, 80 were killed, and another 50,000 were homeless. They were sheltered in churches, schools, fire halls, and even dormitories at the University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown campus. Many small trailer parks were established afterwards to accommodate those left homeless. On July 21, President Jimmy Carter declared Cambria, Somerset, Indiana, Bedford, Westmoreland, Clearfield, and Jefferson Counties Federal disaster areas with Blair County added a few days later. The National Guard was activated and the US Army Corps of Engineers arrived to help removing debris and demolishing damaged buildings.
The city reeled not only from the damage of the flood, but also the damaged image of a "flood-free Johnstown." However, the project diminished the destructive power of the flood by reducing the level of water in the city by 11 feet, and a crest six feet lower than the 1936 flood. Damage might have been $322 to $332 million more without the JLFPP.
Congress authorized the Pittsburgh District in 1991 to undertake a rehabilitation project of the Johnstown Local Flood Protection Project. The $40 million project began in 1997 and will consist of replacing or reinforcing the older masonry and concrete walls which were incorporated into the original project, and repairing the sideslopes where needed. In 1998, Congress added $164,000 to the project for construction of the Unit 3 Trail in conjunction with the rehabilitation. Project website: http://www.lrp.usace.army.mil/pm/johnlfpp.htm.
Pennsylvania historical marker in Point Park dedicated to the project.
|A memorial erected
by the school children of the Conemaugh Valley which was
dedicated on the 51st anniversary of the 1889 flood. (Jeff Kitsko)
|Close-up of the plaque on the rock. (Jeff Kitsko)|
outside display on the railing lining the channel the Little Conemaugh
through which shows pictures before and after the project. (Jeff Kitsko)
on the Little Conemaugh River where the concrete channel built as
part of the flood control project can be seen. It was down this river where the torrent
of water came from on May 31, 1889. (Jeff Kitsko)
A moving story as told in a documentary format that talks about the dam, the wealthy owners who let it fail, and the disastrous outcome.
Johnstown Flood narrated by Richard
directed by Mark Busseler (2003)
An excellent documentary with re-enactments that bring the viewer into the 1880s and a part of Johnstown. The narration provided by Academy Award winner Richard Dreyfus is very powerful.
Valley of Disaster: The
Johnstown Flood of 1889
A good book for ages nine to 12 with illustrations to bring the story of that tragic Spring day to life.
The Day It Rained Forever:
A Story of the Johnstown Flood
A book for ages three to five that focuses on the disaster through the eyes of a fictional child and her family.
In Sunlight, in a Beautiful Garden
A fictional novel set against the backdrop of the flood whose characters all experience the disaster in one way or another.
Images of America: Johnstown
Numerous historical pictures combined with extensive research can be found in this book that details the history of "flood city."
Pennsylvania Disasters: True Stories of Tragedy and Survival
Covers all disasters, natural and man-made, that have befallen the Commonwealth from the Yellow Fever Epidemic of 1793 to the Quecreek Mine Accident of 2002. This page is cited under the Johnstown Flood section in the Bibliography.
Weather Alert Radio
Perfect item to keep you in touch of changing weather conditions and national emergencies. Tunes to National Weather Service and Environment Canada weather/hazard channels with S.A.M.E. (Specific Area Message Encode) with the help of the scan feature to lock in the strongest signal. Tricolor LED display shows warnings, watches, and advisories in an easy-to-read color-coded format. NOAA frequencies and tower locations can be found on PennDOT Official Transportation and Tourism Map.
directed by George Roy Hill (1977)
Academy Award winner Paul Newman plays Reggie Dunlop, a player-coach for the Charlestown Chiefs who has to find a way for his team to survive. Filmed in and around Johnstown a year before the last disastrous flood which was one of the reasons the Johnstown Jets, the team used as the basis for the Chiefs, folded. Morley's Dog, a symbolic statue recovered in the aftermath of the 1889 flood, is featured in one scene.
American Red Cross
Current Watches, Warnings, and Advisories for Pennsylvania - National Weather Service
The Inclined Plane
Johnstown Flood Information - Johnstown Redevelopment Authority
Johnstown Flood Museum - Pennsylvania Tourism Office
Johnstown NOAA Weather Radio Station - Weather Underground
National Weather Service
NOAA Weather Radio Pennsylvania Station Listings - National Weather Service
Storm Prediction Center - National Weather Service
History of the Johnstown Flood - Robert Schoenberg
Johnstown Flood - Inecom Entertainment Company
Johnstown Flood - National Geographic Kids
The Johnstown Flood - Pat Mestern
Johnstown Flood of 1889 - Johnstown Pennsylvania Information Source Online
The Johnstown Flood 1889 - Ginette Isberg
Johnstown Flood Museum - The Center for Land Use Interpretation
Johnstown Pa Weather - Private Weather Station
Looking Back: The '77 Flood - WJAC-TV
MyJohnstownPA - Pappas Development Group
Slideshow: The Johnstown Flood - Pittsburgh Post-Gazette