Pennsylvania Flooding Disaster

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Main Street after flood

On May 31, 1889, the people of Johnstown, Pennsylvania were warned to move themselves and their belongings to higher ground.

The town is situated in a river valley of the Appalachian Plateau with the Conemaugh and the Stony Creek Rivers located on the outside of the town merging with the Conemaugh River at the west end of town. It was not unusual that the town was flooded from time to time due to melting snow or heavy rains.

As the rains poured down on that fateful day of May 31, 1889, the people of Johnstown waited it as they did other times when floodwaters came. As the residents of Johnstown positioned themselves to wait out the storm, little did they know that the South Fork Dam, fourteen miles away, was leaking.

South Fork Dam & Lake

The rich and famous, such as Henry Clay Frick and Andrew Carnegie visited the Johnstown area regularly for pleasure. They would picnic and participate in other various social events. The dam around the Club was showing its ware and soon a crack developed in the dam unbeknownst to the residents of Johnstown who lived below the dam.

The rain was coming down in droves and the lake’s water was getting higher and higher. The dam officials feared the dam would break. They had been working on the dam since finding the crack.

They officials tried adding height to the dam and that did not work. They attempted to relieve pressure from the dam that did not work either. The last attempt was to release “the heavy screens placed on the overflow to keep the stocked fish from escaping, unfortunately that did not work either. Time was running out and there was no way to save the people below the dam.

The Dam Breaks

The dam eventually gave way and the force of the water is described as that of Niagara Falls. The water took down anything in its path. The debris came from houses, barns, animals, and people, dead and alive.

Survivors described the “as a rolling hill of debris about 40 feet high and a half mile wide”. The sound of the roaring water was more paralyzing than the amount of debris it took with it.

Residents stood on the roof of their houses waiting the flood out, while the rushing water picked others up. The Pennsylvania Railroad Company’s Stone Bridge caught fire igniting the forty foot high debris that rested against the bridge.

Gertrude Quinn Slattery survived to write about the flood. She was six years old at the time. She was picked up by a wave and described her experience as “raft with a wet muddy mattress and bedding. I had great faith that I would not be abandoned,” she wrote. “While my thoughts were thus engaged, a large roof came floating toward me with about twenty people on it. I cried and called across the water to them to help me. This, of course they could not do. The roof was big, and they were all holding on for dear life, feeling every minute that they would be tossed to death. While I watched I kept praying, calling, and begging someone to save me. Then I saw a man come to the edge, the others holding him and talking excitedly. I could see they were trying to restrain him but he kept pulling to get away which he finally did, and plunged into the swirling waters and disappeared.”

The disaster made world news. Over a hundred news reporters and illustrators rushed to Johnstown to tell the story.

The dead were taken to makeshift morgues throughout the city. Tents were set up for survivors. Clara Brown from the Red Cross had hotels built for people to live in and warehouses to store the supplies the community received. By July 1, Main Street businesses were opened.

Sources:

  1. McCullough, David. The Johnstown Flood. NYC, Simon & Schuster, 1968. ISBN: 978-0671207144
  2. The Great Flood of Johnstown Cassandra Lott – © 2002 Pagewise
  3. The Johnstown Flood New York Times 1889