The Johnstown Flood of 1889 Part 2

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


The Club's manager let it be known from the beginning that the Club would brook no interference from local people, and that its owners had no intention of spending money on, what they termed, unneeded repairs on the dam. Their attitude was that the State of Pennsylvania had built the dam to last, and last it would. No thought was given to the fact that the original inadequate floodgates were badly damaged in 1862, thus destroying the only drains.

The people of the Conemaugh Valley became indifferent to any possible threat from the dam. Johnstown had been built in the early 1800s at the confluence of the Little Conemaugh and Stoneycreek rivers, and residents were well adjusted to seasonal floods that inundated the streets of Johnstown and the 1st floors of houses. Even if the dam did go out, it would raise the flood level by only a foot or 2, so it could cause no real damage.

The Disaster: In April and May of 1889, more than 40" of rain and snow fell in a 12,000-sq.-mi. area of western Pennsylvania. Watersheds of the Alleghenies were overrun with more than 5 billion tons of water, raising every creek, river, and stream above flood stage. On May 31 the entire countryside was under a blanket of ominous storm clouds. The streets of Johnstown flowed with water. Then on that memorable Friday at 3:10 P.M., the old South-fork Dam lost its 60-year battle with the elements. Filled and overflowing, the obsolete, tunnel-ridden pile of earth and stone gave way with an explosive roar. The pent-up waters of Lake Conemaugh became a giant, 50'-high wave of destruction traveling at express-train speed down the valley--gathering mud, rocks, trees, trains, and houses as it sped along--a juggernaut of devastation.

At 4:10 P.M. the liquid avalanche attacked and killed Johnstown. To rescue drowning people was impossible. Onlookers could only watch in stunned horror while thousands disappeared. Debris and bodies piled up against the Stoneycreek Bridge. Carloads of lime and sulfur became ignited, turning the pile into a flaming crematory.

Aftermath: Though at the time, and later, hundreds of writers attempted to describe the tragedy, only the words of Johnstonian Isaac G. Reed are a fitting epitaph to express the sentiments of the survivors:

An hour of flood, a night of flame, a week of woe without a name, A week when sleep with hope had fled, while misery hunted for its dead, A week of corpses by the mile, a long, long week without a smile, A week whose tale no tongue can tell, a week without a parallel! All the horrors that hell could wish, such was the price that was paid--for fish.

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