1889 Johnstown Flood: An Industrial City Devastated

By: Joey Koishal

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Lake Conemaugh and the South Fork Hunting and Fishing Club in its operational days

The Johnstown Flood of 1889 still ranks second on the United States natural disaster civilians killed list only behind the 1900 Galveston, Texas hurricane. Unlike Galveston, Mother Nature was not the only factor involved. In fact, it has been debated for years of where the blame falls for the misfortune of the flood. Throughout my internship and work with the Johnstown Area Heritage Association, my interest in the flood has only expanded. Not to mention, I have lived in the flood valley of Johnstown my entire life.

During the mid-nineteenth-century, Johnstown became a booming industrial complex within the steel mills and was regarded as one of the largest steel producers in the world in the 1870s. Approximately, fourteen miles away stood the site of the South Fork Hunting and Fishing Club. The SFHFC purchased the property in 1879 and its members included wealthy Pittsburghers such as Henry Phipps, Andrew Mellon, Andrew Carnegie, Henry Frick, and Benjamin Ruff. South Fork was a getaway for these rich individuals who could spend their summertime weekends by the countryside compared to the black smoke filled city of Pittsburgh. However, this peaceful getaway had a deteriorating dam that enclosed Lake Conemaugh and stood tall above Johnstown. At the time, it was the largest built earthen dam and stood 72 feet high by 931 feet wide.[i] Lake Conemaugh itself was an astounding two miles long by one mile wide. Although the dam was faulty and deteriorating, it seemed to be more “bothersome than alarming.”[ii] In 1862, a portion of the dam had collapsed and shortly after the owner sold the discharge pipes for scrap; which created no possible way of draining the lake to make necessary repairs to the dam. The SFHFC members’ solution to stopping the continuous leaks in the dam were by covering them with dirt, grass, and hay. The unstableness of the dam was no secret to Johnstown residents as for years they had been making numerous efforts to have their voices heard in hopeful attempts of repairing the dam before it was too late. Soon enough, that day had come.

A tremendous storm that had formed over the Kansas and Nebraska area had eventually reached Johnstown and South Fork on May 30, 1889. Overnight, rivers rose at one foot per hour and Lake Conemaugh rose two feet.[iii] Eight inches of rain had fallen in twenty-four hours.[iv] After non-stop continuous torrential rainfall, “the old wounds in the dam that had been neglected for years were reopening.”[v] At 3:10 p.m., May 31, 1889, the dam broke. Since South Fork was located on a hillside, the town escaped annihilation. It took about forty minutes for the entire dam (twenty-million tons of water) to drain and at 4:07 p.m. the flood waters of forty miles per hour and sixty feet high had reached Johnstown. The floodwater flow was equivalent to standing next to Niagara Falls for thirty-eight minutes. It took ten minutes for the entire downtown city of Johnstown to be washed away. Throughout the fourteen mile trip heading towards Johnstown, the flood gathered houses, trees, animals, barbed wire, people, and other debris, which all piled up at the Stone Bridge; which was one of the very few bridges that withheld the flood. The flood killed 2,209 and caused $17 million in damage (equivalent to $425 million today).[vi]

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A tree striking jutting out of the side a house. A common site in the flood wreckage.

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The Stone Bridge following the aftermath of the flood.

Every year the Johnstown Flood Museum attracts thousands of visitors from all over the United States, in which the museum tells the story and traces the path of the flood. The museum houses rare artifacts and first hand perspectives of the flood that allows the visitor to gain the late nineteenth-century authentic feel. The museum also shows a twenty-six minute documentary, The Johnstown Flood, which won an academy award for best documentary in 1989, 100 years after the flood. The two causes of the flood, which are identified as being a destructive force of Mother Nature and the mismanagement of the dam leads visitors to investigate for themselves at the Johnstown Flood Museum.

The Johnstown Flood Museum

The Johnstown Flood Museum

The Stone Bridge as it appears today

The Stone Bridge as it appears today

[i] Johnstown Area Heritage Association: The Johnstown Flood Museum.

[ii] The Johnstown Flood, directed by Charles Guggenheim, released 1989. PBS Video. Film, 26 minutes.

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] Ibid.

[v] Ibid.

[vi] Johnstown Area Heritage Association: The Johnstown Flood Museum.

*All photos curtesy of the Johnstown Area Heritage Association.

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