“The Johnstown Flood”


A distraught father tells a stranger about his share of the Johnstown tragedy. He, his wife, and his children had sought shelter from the flood in the upper part of the house, but the waters tore them from his grasp. He was rescued, but his family died


There have been many histories of the Johnstown Flood. One of the more recent is David G. McCullough's _The Johnstown Flood_ (Simon and Schuster, 1968), one of the first works of this noteworthy historian.

Johnstown is about 60 miles almost due east of Pittsburg, on the line of the Pennsylvania Railroad. Interestingly, it is not on one of Pennsylvania's major rivers; the stream which caused the flood was the Little Conemaugh River, which joins Stony Creek (or "the Stony Creek," as the locals called it) at Johnstown to become the Conemaugh River, which eventually becomes part of the Kiskiminetas River, which flows into the Allegheny. McCullough, p. 24, describes both the Little Conemaugh and Stony Creek as fast but not particularly large. Stony Creek, because it was deeper, was considered the more dangerous at the time.

Johnstown was a fast-growing town; according to McCullough, p. 23, it had tripled in size in less than three decades. The reason was industrialization; Johnstown made steel and steel products such as plows and rails. It can't have been a very comfortable place to live, with all the pollution and the noise and the cheap company houses, but it was doing well. At least for the company bosses.

What made it vulnerable was a man-made lake. A few miles above Johnstown on the Little Conemaugh was the hamlet of South Fork, where South Fork Creek joined the Little Conemaugh. A bit more than a mile above the town on South Fork Creek was a great dam, built some forty years before to create a lake variously called the Western Reservoir or the Old Reservoir or Lake Conemaugh. The dam itself, made of earth, was sometimes called Three Mile Dam -- which was not very accurate (it apparently was a reference to the size of the lake behind it, but exaggerated). Still, it was an impressive structure, some 72 feet high and 900 wide. And the water usually was within six or seven feet of the top (McCullough, pp. 39-41). The total area of the lake was about 450 acres. The surface level was some 450 feet above Johnstown.

The building of the reservoir was one of those things that give government projects a bad name. The Pennsylvania legislature in 1836 had approved $30,000 to build a reservoir. The final cost, though, was $240,000. Worse, according to McCullough, p. 50, "two years after it was finished the whole thing would be obsolete and of no use whatsoever."

The whole thing was a boondoggle. Pennsylvania was jealous of New York's Erie Canal and wanted its own water transport system, even though that meant running a canal across the mountains! The idea was to haul barges over the passes using railroads. It all worked, more or less, but it needed more water than was reliably available. So the Conemaugh was dammed to supply a steady flow of water in the summer (McCullough, p. 52).

Unfortunately, the whole project was a money pit, and construction was halted at times because the state of Pennsylvania couldn't come up with the cash. And this even though the South Fork dam was built of earth rather than rock because it was cheap to hire people to move dirt. The thing was finally completed in 1852.

Then the Pennsylvania Railroad finished laying track across the state. The big fancy canal system, which couldn't possibly compete on price with the railroads, instantly lost any purpose, and within two years, Pennsylvania was trying to sell it -- and found no buyers. Finally the Pennsylvania Railroad itself bought the canal -- not for the canal itself but for the land it rested on. They paid a low price -- and, naturally, stopped doing any work on the canals and on the useless (to them) dam maintaining the Western Reservoir (McCullough, p. 54).

Not long after, on June 10, 1862, the dam failed for the first time (McCullough, p. 54). The surviving records aren't really good enough to indicate why, but that break was not repaired until 1879. The repairs were, however, rather casual; it appears that little work was done on the dam's foundations (which had been undermined by the first break), and the pipes which relieved pressure, which had failed, were not replaced. The goal, after all, was not to control water flow; it was simply to built a country club for rich men who wanted to fish and breath clear air (McCullough, pp. 56-57).

The locals were somewhat worried -- even the regular spring runoff frequently caused water to fill some of the low-lying streets of Johnstown, and the floods were growing worse each year as the rivers were more tightly channeled and deforestation increased runoff (McCullough, pp. 64-65). But there were enough people who thought the town was safe to make it impossible for the worriers to do anything about a reservoir outside their jurisdiction. A manager of the local ironworks at one point sent an engineer to look things over, and he sent a dire report -- but the club owners refused to pay any attention (McCullough, pp. 73-74) even though the ironworks offered to help pay the costs (McCullough, p. 75).

The dam, in fact, had been rendered even more vulnerable than the engineer had noticed: The top had been lowered to allow a two-lane road across the top, meaning that the spillway to relieve pressure on the dam were barely below the dam's new crest (and the great danger to an earth dam was that water would go over the top and erode the soil). The spillway itself had had bars installed to keep fish from escaping -- but which also meant that the spillway could easily be blocked by rubbish. It is also likely (though not certain), that the vulnerable center of the dam sagged below the edges. McCullough, p. 76, concludes that, at the center, the top of the dam was only four feet higher than the spillway.

Conclusion: Any serious rise in the water level, unless water was released in an orderly way, would result in the overtopping and destruction of the dam. And, because the pipes at the bottom had been removed, there was no possible way to release water. Not only was the dam a disaster waiting to happen, it was a disaster that couldn't even be repaired, because the lake could not be lowered! (McCullough, p. 77).

McCullough, p. 41, estimates the weight of the water at 20 million tons. That's 18 million cubic meters, or 18 thousand million litres, or 5 thousand million gallons.

The flood was the result of a very major storm, first observed in Kansas and Nebraska on May 28, 1889. The next day, it dumped rain from Kansas to Michigan and Indiana. Then it arrived in Pennsylvania. The storm was described as the worst storm ever recorded in the western parts of that state. In the Johnstown area, rainfall totals were usually in the six to eight inch range, though Pittsburg suffered only an inch and a half of rain (McCullough, pp. 21-22). Johnstown was already starting to fill with water before the dam went out (McCullough, p. 79); by the second day of the downpour, the flood was higher than even the previous 1887 record (McCullough, p. 82). Some people left town, but others, with strong houses or on slightly higher ground, stayed behind. It appears that, at some point, a message was telegraphed to the townspeople saying the dam was in danger, but the text has been lost and it is not clear just what it said; in any case, it does not appear to have changed people's behavior much, perhaps because similar messages had been sent in the past (McCullough, p. 87). A rider also took a message, and there were attempts to telephone Johnstown, but many of the lines were down (McCullough, p. 93).

The dam was now so full that it could not be ignored; workers were reportedly trying to cut a new spillway and to raise the central weak point (McCullough, p. 90). But there were too few, and it was too late. An attempt to clear the original spillway, now largely blocked by debris, also failed. By about noon, water started going over the top of the dam, and there were leaks lower down as well (McCullough, p. 95). At 1:52 on May 31, a message went out that water was going over the top of the dam. Word that the dam was in the process of failing reached Johnstown around 2:45 (McCullough, pp. 96-97). It appears that, by 3:00, workmen were refusing to do any more work on the dam itself and were simply trying to clear the spillways. Then, at 3:10, the whole thing crumbled (McCullough, p. 100).

Estimates of how long it took the lake to drain ranged from about half an hour to forty-five minutes. This makes the total amount of water flowing at any given moment roughly equal to Niagara Falls (McCullough, p. 102).

The first place to be affected by the flood was the town of South Fork, where the first casualties occurred (McCullough, p. 105). But the town was mostly on hillsides above the valley of South Fork Creek. It wrecked a bridge and a low-lying mill, but most of the town survived. Johnstown, nine miles away in a straight line but thirteen along the course of the river, would not fare so well, nor would the hamlets in between.

Unfortunately, there was a great bend in the Little Conemaugh a couple of miles below South Fork, and a great railroad viaduct cutting across it. The wreck of this viaduct, plus the miscellaneous refuse picked up along the way, seem to have temporarily blocked the flow of the flood, allowing it to build up another big pressure head (McCullough, pp. 107-109). The village of Mineral Point was next to feel the flood; it was nearly destroyed, though only 16 people were reported killed (McCullough, p. 111). There was quite a tangle as trains in the area had to be halted or re-routed (and places had to be found to put them while the lines were repaired and trains diverted). McCullough, p. 122, says that at least 23 train occupants died, in part because the train's crews did little to warn the passengers that they might need to flee.

Then it was the turn of the towns of East Conemaugh and Franklin, which were largely flooded and saw at least 28 people killed. Then the flood reached Woodvale, a relatively new town of about 1000 people. It had no warning at all, and was almost completely submerged. 250 houses were destroyed, and 314 people listed as killed (McCullough, p. 127). It was still only about an hour since the dam had broken.

Finally the flood reached Johnstown. The best guess is that the crest arrived in the town at 4:07 p.m., and took ten minutes to pass through the town (McCullough, p. 147). Slowed slightly by the wash up the valley of Stony Creek, the flood built another dam of debris at a bridge below the town, which later caught fire (McCullough, p. 149). Hundreds of people were trapped in the debris pile, though it is estimated that only about 80 died in it (McCullough, p. 173). The debris would eventually have to be dynamited to clear the river (McCullough, pp. 227-228).

But even once the fires died down and the waters ran downstream, the ordeal was not over. Probably in excess of 5000 people huddled on the hills above Johnstown (McCullough, p. 184), often ill or injured, with their homes destroyed in the valley below. And the weather at the time was bitterly cold (McCullough, p. 197).

The locals eventually decided to hold a town meeting to appoint a "dictator" to try to manage emergency operations (McCullough, p. 189). At first, there wasn't even enough paper to take notes about the descriptions and properties of the dead bodies (McCullough, p. 192). Lurid initial newspaper reports claimed ten thousand dead (McCullough, p. 203). McCullough, p. 193, notes that there was never an exact count of the dead; he lists 2209 as the "official" total (and gives this full catalog in an appendix) -- though he notes (p. 196) that two bodies were not recovered until 1906; it was obviously impossible to come up with an absolutely correct count. Of the bodies recovered, 663 would never be identified (McCullough, p. 194), in some cases because of decapitation by debris or burns so severe that features could not be made out. Plus many bodies were not discovered until they decomposed beyond recognition.

Nearly 400 children under age ten were killed, and 98 lost both parents. Hundreds more lost one parent (McCullough, p. 195).

The total population of the Conemaugh valley was believed to be about 23,000, so a tenth of the population was killed. The rate for Johnstown itself was higher, though only slightly.

Relief efforts began quickly, naturally enough, and often raised quite a bit of money (McCullough, p. 199; on p. 225, he notes contributions totalling over $3,700,000, and that's in 1889 dollars. The flip side is, Benet's _Reader's Encyclopedia_ lists the damage at ten million dollars). But there was at the time no organization really devoted to emergency relief -- no FEMA, and while the Red Cross existed, it was still fairly new and didn't have standard procedures yet; Clara Barton herself would lead the trek to Johnstown. (It would be the largest operation in Red Cross history to this time; McCullough, p. 231). Often volunteers would just wander into the Conemaugh valley and, having no idea what to do, simply added to the burdens of those who were doing their best. It would be several days before the Pennsylvania militia showed up (McCullough, p. 202), and in the interim, there was a lot of crime and mismanagement.

Fears of epidemics were felt as far away as Pittsburg (after all, the waters of the flood flowed into the Allegheny river); eventually men were assigned to try to clean up the river (McCullough, p. 209).

In a small stroke of luck, the weather was cold and wet for more than a week after the disaster. It made everyone miserable, but it also helped prevent disease and decay (McCullough, p. 229).

In the aftermath, attention naturally turned to the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club, the maintainers of the dam. There were of course engineers who had publicly stated their concerns about its construction. The newspapers had a field day with this, though often exaggerating the engineers' reports (McCullough, pp. 242-249). Some members of the club did contribute to the relief funds -- the Carnegie Company gave $10,000, e.g. (McCullough, p. 255), but many club members did not give, and the club as a whole offered nothing. Lawsuits eventually began to be filed, but there was a limit on what this could yield -- after deducting a mortgage, the club had assets of only about $15,000 (McCullough, p. 257). The members had more, of course, but the whole principle of a corporation is limited stockholder liability.

There are few records of the actual trials, since transcripts were not kept (McCullough, p. 258), but in the end the club was not held liable. McCullough

speculates that the great wealth and power of the club's members helped them.

Plus the great downpour was clearly natural. The only real fault was in the

construction of the dam, and only a few officers would have known about that.

McCullough seems to consider them guilty, and I would too, but they too got off. The people of Johnstown were apparently bitter (McCullough, p. 264), but they were helpless. Perhaps they derived some small consolation from the fact that the flood, while it didn't destroy the club (except for the dam and the lake), did cause it to shut down (McCullough, p. 264); there wasn't much point in a fishing club with nowhere to fish!

Johnstown would begin rebuilding, and the iron mills came back; there were soon jobs for all the remaining workers. But its prosperity seems to have been damaged; the town has only about 30,000 residents now (more than in 1889, but not as much as its pre-flood population growth would suggest). There were fairly major floods there in 1936 and 1977, according to _Merriam Webster's Geographical Dictionary_, though none to compare with 1889.

It is little surprise that the event produced songs; it was the biggest news of the day, and McCullough, p. 204, notes that a Pittsburg newspaper actually had to reduce the size of its pages to have enough paper to meet the demand. (Ironically, much of what they published was fiction, such as accounts of a messenger named Peyton who tried to warn people of the flood.) Laws believes this song to be too literary to be a purely folk composition; he suspects it of having been originally printed in a newspaper. McCullough, p. 221, mentions poems written about the event. A popular piece of 1889 was "The Johnstown Flood" of Joe Flynn; I haven't seen a copy to compare. - RBW

Historical references

  • May 31, 1889 - The Great Flood in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, kills about 2500 people


  1. Laws G14, "The Johnstown Flood"
  2. LPound-ABS, 61, pp. 135-138, "The Jamestown Flood" (1 text)
  3. DT 825, JAMESFLD
  4. Roud #3254
  5. BI, LG14


Author: unknown
Keywords: flood death family
Found in: US(MA,MW,NE)