The Johnstown Flood of 1889 Part 1

About the Johnstown Flood of 1889, history of the disaster and destruction done in Pennsylvania.


Just before her 100th birthday, Mrs. Anne Freidhoff, of Quail Valley, Calif., recalled in vivid detail what she--and her brother and 4 sisters--saw during the Johnstown flood:

It was terrible! We were standing on our front porch watching the train below when a great wall of water came sweeping down on the town. It was roof-top high and swept away everything in its path including the train and the people. People began to scramble up the hillside to escape. Some made it, hundreds didn't. After it was all over those awful looters cut fingers and ears off dead people to get their rings and earrings.

When: At 4:10 P.M. on May 31, 1889.

Where: Johnstown, Pa.

The Loss: 2,200 lives and estimated property damage of $10 million.

The Cause: The earth-fill dam across the Conemaugh River, 14 mi. up the valley from Johnstown, was 931' wide by 272' thick at its base, and 100' high. Its rim was wide enough for a 2-track wagon road. Built by the State of Pennsylvania at a cost of $290,000, its original purpose had been to supply water for an interlocking rail and canal system between Philadelphia and Pittsburgh.

The system, completed in the late 1820s to early 1830s, was described enthusiastically by Charles Dickens, an early passenger. His only registered complaint was the menu: Tea, coffee, bread, butter, salmon, shad, liver, steak, potatoes, pickles, ham, chops, black pudding, and sausage were served for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

The dam began to deteriorate before Lake Conemaugh was filled. Pennsylvania spent $20,000 to repair damages caused by heavy rains in 1846. Four years later the whole system, including the unneeded dam, was sold to the Pennsylvania Railroad for $7 1/2 million. For the next 12 years, the dam was forgotten. Then in July of 1862 a 200'-wide by 50'-high section in the dam's middle collapsed. No repairs were made.

In 1875 Congressman John Reilly bought the dam, lake, and surrounding land for $2,500, then sustained a $500 loss when he resold it to Benjamin F. Ruff in 1879. Ruff developed the property into the exclusive South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club with a wealthy nabob membership of 100 families including those of Andrew Carnegie, Andrew Mellon, Henry C. Frick, A. V. Holmes, Philander C. Knox, W. L. Dun, and John A. Harper. Each paid $2,000 to join.

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