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The Devastation of the Johnstown Flood


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The 19th Century

The Johnstown Flood was one of America's most devastating natural disasters, killing more than 2,200 people and causing $17 million worth of damage, which in 1889 was quite a lot of money.

The disaster, also known as the Great Flood of 1889, occurred on May 31 and was the result of a number of factors, not the least of which was a record rainfall.

Johnstown was a town in Pennsylvania that had been founded in 1800 by Swiss immigrant Joseph Johns and had found prosperity by virtue of being on the Pennsylvania Main Line Canal and on the main route of the Pennsylvania Railroad. Thea Johnstown area was also home to the Cambria Iron Works, which employed many German and Welsh immigrants throughout the 19th Century.

High above the city, 14 miles away, was the South Fork Dam, built as part of the canal system in the mid-1850s. Johnstown itself was at the eastern end of the Western Division Canal. The dam held water in Lake Conemaugh, which supplied water to the town and the surrounding area.

As in other parts of the country, railroad traffic soon replaced canal traffic in Johnstown and elsewhere in Pennsylvania. The Main Line Canal was eventually abandoned, and the dam and lake were sold off.

A group of wealthy businessman led by Henry Clay Frick and Benjamin Ruff bought the abandoned lake and turned it into a private resort. Common visitors were Pittsburgh's wealthy. Within a few years, the resort owners had made several changes to the reservoir, including lowering the dam so that its top would be wide enough for a road and installing a fish screen in the spillway, to trap debris. The developers also built cottages and a clubhouse in creating a secretive retreat called the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club.

The club opened in 1881. For the next several years, the dam sprang several leaks. None of the leaks was severe, and all were patched with mud and straw. Somewhere along the way, as well, a number of large cast iron discharge pipes were sold off, leaving the dam with no easy method of discharging a controlled amount of water in the case of sudden and violent rain.

The severe storm that formed over the Midwest on May 28, 1889, swept across the Great Plains and gathered momentum as it hit Pennsylvania. The rainfall in the next couple of days in the Johnstown area was the most ever recorded, including up to 10 inches in a 24-hour period. Rivers, streams, and other bodies of water in the area swelled to overflowing. Among those that did overflow was Lake Conemaugh.

The dam was 72 feet high and 931 feet long. The lake was 2 miles long and 1 mile wide and 60 feet deep near the dam. The distance around the lake measured 7 miles. In the lake was 20 million tons of water.

On the morning of May 31, the dam burst, sending all of that water cascading down the valley toward Johnstown and the surrounding towns. Early on that morning, an engineer for the private club saw the banks of the lake beginning to swell and sounded the alarm. Some people in surrounding towns, including the small towns of South Fork and East Conemaugh, made it to safety by running for higher ground. Many residents of Johnstown were not so lucky.

When the dam burst, the water flowed down the Little Conemaugh River, picking up debris and speed as it went. A 78-foot-high railroad bridge downstream stopped the flooding for a time as the debris-swollen water swirled against the bridge. After just a few minutes, though, the inexorable pressure of the water broke the bridge into pieces, and the water churned on downriver, picking up force thanks to the sudden collapse of the railroad bridge and an increasing amount of debris, including uprooted trees and houses.

Johnstown residents had their final warning when the flood hit nearby Woodvale, home of the Cambria Iron Works. Amid the chaos, floodwaters engulfed the Gautier Wire Works, causing explosions in the boilers that shot up black smoke that was clearly seen in Johnstown. Of the 1,100 people who called Woodvale home, 314 died that day.

The torrent hit Johnstown at 40 miles an hour at a height up to 60 feet, with as much as 10 feet of water standing in the streets before floodwaters receded. In their wake was devastation, with buildings bowled over and residents swept away to their deaths.

When the floodwaters receded and the debris was cleared away, survivors totalled 2,209 dead in all. Nearly 100 entire families disappeared, including nearly 400 children. It was the largest loss of civilian life in the country at the time.

It took demolition crews nearly three months to clear all the debris, in part because of the numerous fires at businesses, homes, and bridges. The fire that engulfed the Stone Bridge burned for three days. (That particular bridge still stands today.)

About 1,600 homes were destroyed. In Johnstown proper, four square miles of the downtown were vaporized.

Relief came within a few days, led by Clara Barton, the president of the American Red Cross. Barton arrived on June 5 to lead the first newly formed organization's first major disaster relief effort. People and resources poured in from around the country. At its most populous point, the relief effort numbered 7,000 people. People across the U.S. and in other countries gave money to the tune of nearly $4 million.

Among the factors contributing to the flood were first and foremost the intense amount of rainfall that gathered in the dam, the river, and the entire countryside. It didn't help, though, that the private club that owned the dam had weakened the spillway by installing the fish screen and that the previous owners had removed the runoff pipes. On May 31, 1889, the water literally had nowhere to go but over and through the dam. A subsequent major investigation concluded that had the dam been at its original strength, the sheer amount of water would still have overwhelmed it.


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