A storm was brewing near Johnstown, Pennsylvania on May 30th 1889. The next day, it brought rains and minor flooding that didn’t bother the townsfolk too much — heavy rains have come and gone before. Little did they know that later in the afternoon, death and destruction would visit.
The Damned Dam
In the Allegheny Mountains, fifteen miles above Johnstown, the storm brought downpour over a 450-acre manmade lake. It was a development owned by the rich folks of the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club.
To make the lake, Club members shabbily rebuilt a five-decade-old dam, hoping to create a summer resort experience that catered to Pennsylvania’s richest. They served billionaires like Andrew Mellon, Henry Clay Frick, and the legendary philanthropist Andrew Carnegie.
Yet regardless of the warnings issued by local engineers, the privileged spent next to nothing to maintain the dam’s integrity.
On May 31st, at around 3:15 pm, the dam burst. It let out twenty million tons of water in its wake. In forty minutes, the lake was empty — its waters rushing towards Johnstown with a strength similar to Niagara Falls.
The water fell down the mountain at about forty miles per hour, taking with it trees, boulders, and soil. As it came closer to the town, telephone poles, railroad equipment, and cabins joined the siege.
In 4:00 in the afternoon, all of this slammed into Johnstown. The flood carried away homes, people, and livestock. News reports claimed that around 15,000 structures were shattered, and 2,209 people died.
In less than fifteen minutes, the entire city was swept away.
Given the historic death toll, authorities set up makeshift morgues all around the town’s remains. One-third of the bodies in the town were so badly mutilated that their identities were never identified.
I suppose a number of those bodies were part of the hundreds of people labelled as missing by hopeful families.
While the country wanted to help after hearing the news, aid came in slow as trains and roads needed for transportation were destroyed. But once they were rebuilt, thousands of tents, food, and clothes came in.
The relief efforts were also historic given the participation of Clara Barton, the founder of the American Red Cross. She stayed in Johnstown’s for five whole months, cementing the organization's reputation as the number one agency for disaster relief.
As more and more facts about the event came to light, people demanded that members of the South Fork Club be held responsible. Newspapers argued that disaster was preventable and was caused by the club member’s negligence.
But it isn’t surprising that the billionaires were never held legally responsible for the event.
In the present day, a memorial and museum can be found in Johnstown commemorating the flood. It is a tribute to the lives lost and resilience demonstrated in this historic disaster.
- Johnstown Flood by David McCullough
- The Cause of the Johnstown Flood by Walter Frank
- Revisiting the Timing and Events Leading to and Causing the Johnstown Flood of 1889 by Uldis Kaktins, Carrie Davis Todd, Stephanie Wojno and Neil Coleman