At about 4:00 pm on May 31, 1889, a wall of water and debris more than 35 ft high roared through the western Pennsylvania mill town of Johnstown, population 30,000.1 In minutes the city was annihilated. Fires among the debris added to the carnage. An accurate death count was never possible—the number of dead exceeded 2200.
Johnstown lies on a flood plain at the confluence of 2 small rivers. Although both rivers had been at flood stage for several days, the deadly deluge issued solely from the gorge of one, the Little Conemaugh. The cause was an earthen dam that had given way.
The south fork of the Little Conemaugh had been dammed in the early 1850s to provide reserve water for the Pennsylvania Main Line Canal, built in 1836. Earthen dams were used to create supplemental water supplies for 19th century canal systems. Many of these dams can still be found in the hills along the routes of long-abandoned canals. The train whistle was the death knell for canals. In 1852 the Pennsylvania Railroad opened a link from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh, and the Main Line Canal became superfluous. The canal was abandoned and its properties and appurtenances sold to private interests.
Eventually, the Little Conemaugh property came into the hands of a consortium of wealthy Pittsburgh industrialists calling themselves the “South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club.” Members included Andrew Carnegie, Henry Frick, and Andrew Mellon. They repaired the dam, which had been breached during its years of neglect, and built palatial lakeside cottages and a 40-room clubhouse. Unfortunately, the dam repairs were not enough to hold back waters from the record rains of May 29 to 31, 1889. An estimated 20 million tons of water was released on the afternoon of the 31st.
Devastation in Jamestown was complete. Those who escaped drowning, fire, or trauma were left homeless. An accurate count of the dead was impossible; bodies were discovered years after the disaster. The cleanup took more than 5 years. Among others, Clara Barton arrived from Washington DC with a team of 50 doctors and nurses representing the newly organized American Red Cross.
The dam failure was traced to shoddy repairs by the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club. Its members were never held liable. More than a century later, the flood remains the deadliest US flood, and one of the dozen most lethal floods in human history.
1. McCullough DG. The Johnstown Flood
. New York: Simon and Schuster; 1968.