“The morning was delightful, the city was in its gayest mood with flags, banners and flowers everywhere… we could see almost everything of interest from our porch. The streets were crowded with more people than we had ever seen before.” – Reverend H.L. Chapman on Memorial Day
As the city of Johnstown celebrated Memorial Day that year, everything seemed to be looking up. The city was prospering on a wave of economic production brought about by the iron works and the steel mills of the nearby plants at Cambria and Pittsburgh. Life was good, but little did they know that their entire world would soon come crashing down around them. On May 31, 1889, the South Fork Dam high above them in the mountains burst open under unusually heavy rainfall. The waters of beautiful, serene Lake Conemaugh (above), playground the rich, then came rushing down the Conemaugh Valley and wrecked everything in its path, killing 2,209 people, leaving thousands more injured, and wiping out every town in its path, particularly the city of Johnstown 14 miles downstream. It was a weekend of death that none would ever forget.
The Lake, the Dam and the Club
The Southfork Dam had been constructed between 1838 and 1853 to service the Erie canal. But soon the railroads came through the area, putting the canal out of business. So the whole dam was sold in 1879 to the Pennsylvania Railroad which was represented by Henry Clay Frick (below) and Benjamin Ruff, businessmen who sought to turn the whole reservoir and the dam into a weekend retreat for the rich men of the Pittsburgh steel industry. It was called the Southfork Hunting and Fishing Club, and a very exclusive club
it was, with members such as Andrew Carnegie and Andrew W. Melon. But the dam which held all of this opulence in place was not a very secure one. The dam was 722 feet high and 931 feet long. It was an earthenware dam which frequently sprung leaks which were poorly patched. Worst of all, there had been three cast iron discharge pipes at the bottom-center of the dam which had been sold for scrap in previous years. So when the rain came with such vigor that May 31, there had long since ceased to be any way to lower the water level in the lake. The spillways had been fitted with iron gratings to keep game fish from escaping, so they became clogged with debris. So frantic efforts by the resident engineer, John G. Parke to raise the top of the dam were not good enough in the huge thunderstorm, and at 3:10 the dam gave way, dumping the 20 million cubic tons of the lake down the valley.
Lake Conemaugh Destroys Everything in Its Path
John C. Parke mounted a horse and road ahead to the town of South Fork just ahead of the collapse to warn people there and to send telegraph messages to Conemaugh, and to Johnstown. But the messages didn’t get to Johnstown due to telegraph line which had gone down in the rain storm, and those that got to Conemaugh were not believed… the idea of the dam bursting just seemed too wild to be true. On its way down the Valley, the raging torrent smashed whole towns and picked up a huge amount of debris as it rushed on with a flow rate that temporarily equaled that of the Mississippi River. The raging torrent wiped out the town of Mineral Point before hitting Conemaugh. Just before it got there, an alert engineer named John Hess who was out repair- ing damaged tracks heard the tidal wave coming, and swung into action:
“It was like a hurricane through a wooded country. It was a roar and a crash and a smash… the first thing I heard was a terrible roar in the hollow and the next thing was a crash something like a big building going to pieces… I couldn’t see it, but there was people told me afterwards that that house crushed together just about the time we left. We saw no flood; we saw a drift of large logs in the river, but the river was no higher than it was twenty minutes before that. I pulled the whistle wide open, and went into Conemaugh that way..” Hess said “The lake’s broke!” and putting on his whistle – continuously – took his train flying into East Conemaugh just ahead of the killer wave and thus gave that town tell-tale warning that something was terribly wrong. This was just enough time to warn some of the residents to flee to higher ground, which Hess and his crew did as soon as they could go nor further (click on the map above for an enlarged view of the flood’s path). Hess, who would become legendary because of his warning whistle, said later: “I didn’t know what else to do. I couldn’t see what else I could do.”
Johnstown is Hit Without Warning
Unfortunately, for the people in Johnstown there was no warning whistle. They had flood waters before but nobody truly believed that the Dam would ever burst. So the torrent that came smashing into their town was a deadly surprise to everyone; most residents never even saw the water. They heard the sound of the debris tumbling towards them… a kind of low steady sound that grew until it became overpowering, It hit the town at around 4:07. George Heiser whose
store on Washing- ton St. was getting flooded sent his son Victor to the barn to look after the horses. When (above is a depiction of the flood in Harper’s Weekly) Victor stepped outside the barn he was frozen in his steps by the loud sound coming towards him. He then looked over to his house and saw his father motioning for him to go to the roof of the barn. When he did he saw no water, just a huge wall of debris, dark and pulsing with rooftops, boards, and trees uprooted. He then looked over and saw his own family home crushed like a wooden crate and swept away. The barn roof then tore away and took Victor on a wild ride on the flood water wherein he saw people he knew drowning, and in which he was nearly crushed by floating railroad freight cars until he came to rest in the nearby town of Kernville.
The Methodist preacher who was quoted at the top of this posting, H.L. Chapman had gone to the front door of his strongly-built stone parsonage in his bedroom slippers at about 4:00 just in time to see a boxcar thrown by in front of his house. He quickly gathered up his family and they ran to the attic of their home where they and whomever the storm threw their way were trapped for hours by the flood waters. But unlike so many other buildings, the parsonage held in place. When Chapman looked out at the scene around him through a window, he was dumb- founded:
“…I went to the window and looked out on a scene of utter desolation. The water, from eighteen to thirty feet deep, had spread like a lake all over the better part of town in the direction of the railroad bridge. Only one dwelling house, that of Dr. Lowman, on the corner of the park remained. On the left several large buildings, which stood on Main Street, had escaped being protected by our large stone church, which had resisted the force of the flood… But in the direct course of the flood, the large market house, the Episcopal Church, the large brick residence of Dr. L. T. Beam, and hundreds of others, showed no signs of ever having existed. The very trees in the park had been swept away, and an indescribable scene of desolation spread in every direction…. the mass of debris, accumulated at the railroad bridge, had caught fire, and cast a lurid light over the devastated city, otherwise shrouded in gloom….”
The Fire At the Bridge
A particularly horrific event was the flaming pile of debris which was caught at the railroad bridge. Nobody knows for sure what caused the fire, it may have been oil from a railroad tank car dumped into the pile
which was then set off by burning coal from one of the countless homes that had been thrown onto the mass. But whatever it was it made the carnage even worse. The railroad bridge had been shielded from the full force of the wave by the mountain, so it stood. But all of the accumulated debris, from railroad cars to barbed wire from the Cambria iron works plant which had been wiped out, to people swept up in the current were trapped up in a tall, tight pile at the bridge which burnt all night, slowly incinerating those people who had been caught there, perhaps eighty in all. According to one account, it burned “…with all the fury of hell that you read about — cremation alive in your own home.” Once the flood had receded the pile was measured to 70 feet high.
The total death toll in the Johnstown Flood of 1889 came to 2,209 people, many of whom were never identified. This made it one of the worst losses of civilian life in U.S. history up until the Galveston Hurricane of 1900 and the World Trade Center Terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. A huge amount of food and supplies came from all over the country to help and donations from all over the world totaled $3,742,818.18. Clara Barton showed up with her National Red Cross
organization on its first emergency, and performed wonderfully. But 99 entire families had been wiped out, and 396 children had been killed. 1600 homes had been destroyed, with 17 million dollars in property damage. And what of the Southfork Fishing and Hunting Club, whose poorly constructed and badly maintained dam had released all of this carnage on the communities below? They were successfully defended in court by Philander Knox (above), and James Hay Reed who were both club members. Although legal definitions of responsibility would change if future years, the dam break was ruled to have come about as a result of the rainstorm – an act of God – and the courts granted the survivors no legal compensation at all.
“The Johnstown Flood” by David McCullough, Simon and Schuster, New York, 1968
“Darkest Hours” by Jay Robert Nash, Wallaby Books, New York, 1977