Historical Markers
Johnstown Flood Historical Marker
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Johnstown Flood

Laurel Highlands/Southern Alleghenies


Marker Location:
Junction US 219 & PA 869, 1 mile South of South Fork

Dedication Date:
August 18, 1947

Behind the Marker

Black and white photograph of the view of downtown Johnstown Stoneycreek River on left of photo.
View of downtown Johnstown Stoneycreek River on left of photo. Johnstown sits...
It had been raining heavily for two days. The water in the rivers had risen so high that folks began to wonder whether the South Fork Dam would give way, as it had back in 1862. But year after year the dam had held, so the people of Johnstown stopped worrying. Sure, it might give way someday and flood the city with water, but floods were a common occurrence in Johnstown, and the dam would probably not break in their lifetimes.

In the meantime, unbeknownst to the residents below, the directors of the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club had made modifications to the dam. They had cut its height to permit two lanes of traffic across the top and added barriers in the overflows that would prevent fish from spilling into the river below. The barriers also caught debris and undermined its ability to contain the water rising above its peak. Repaired back in 1879, the year that the directors had purchased the reservoir and land along its shore for wealthy Pittsburgh families seeking a summer retreat, the dam had a four-foot bulge in the middle. It also lacked discharge pipes at the base of the dam that would permit its owners to drain water from the reservoir.
Debris from the Johnstown Flood piled up against the Pennsylvania Railroad's Stone Bridge and caught fire. More than 2000 people died in the disaster, and some were burned alive in the fire at the bridge.
Debris from the Johnstown Flood

On the morning of May 31, 1889, after a night of heavy rainfall, club president Elias Unger was alarmed to find that the water level of the lake had risen more than two feet since the previous evening. As the waters continued to rise, Unger ordered last-ditch efforts to prevent the lake from overflowing and dispatched a member to the nearest town to telegraph a warning to Johnstown. Immigrant laborers toiled through most part of the day, first to increase the height of the dam, and then to dig spillways and remove the obstructions in the overflows.

At approximately 3:00 p.m. on May 31, 1889, the South Fork Dam gave way. In less than forty-five minutes, twenty million tons of water poured into the valley below. Roaring down the narrow path of the Little Conemaugh River, a seventy-foot wall of water, filled with huge chunks of dam, boulders and whole trees, smashed into the small town of Mineral Point and swept away all traces of its existence. Next in line was Woodvale, a town of about 1,000, that the torrent smashed with equal ferocity. Scouring its way towards Johnstown, the flood picked up several hundred boxcars, a dozen locomotives, more than 100 houses and a growing number of corpses.

The residents of Johnstown heard the speeding wall of death, a roar like thunder. Next they saw the dark cloud and mist and spray that preceded it, and were assaulted by a wind that blew down small buildings. Next came the great wall of water sixty-three feet high that smashed into the city, "crushing houses like eggshells" and snapping trees like toothpicks. It was all over in ten minutes. But there was more yet to come. The flood met its first serious resistance at the Pennsylvania Railroad's Stone Bridge, which saved the lives of thousands by not breaking. After dark, however, the thirty acres of debris, at places forty feet high, that had piled up behind the bridge caught on fire and burned through the night, blanketing the ravaged town in a dark cloud of acrid smoke.

Image of flood debris backed up behind the bridge.
30 acres of flood debris backed up behind the bridge and then caught fire. Some...
Even as the waters were receding, hundreds of journalists descended upon the city to report on the deadliest natural disaster in the nation's history. When the count was completed, they would report that the flood had killed 2,209 people and leveled four acres of downtown Johnstown. The reporters wrote wrenching stories of tragedy and heroism, accompanied by photographs and illustrations of the horrific damage. To help the thousands displaced by the flood, people from across the country sent money, clothing and food. markerClara Barton and the recently formed American Red Cross arrived to provide medical assistance and emergency shelter and supplies. Several of the club members, including markerAndrew Carnegie and markerHenry Clay Frick, also supported the relief and rebuilding efforts with donations.

In the weeks and months that followed, the city gradually rebuilt. The markerCambria Iron Works, Johnstown's major industry and employer, reopened just days after the devastating event. With the rebuilding also came questions about why the South Fork Dam collapsed - and who was to blame. "I hold in my possession today..." engineer John Fulton told a large gathering soon after the flood, "my own report made years ago [1880], in which I told these people... that their dam was dangerous. I told them that the dam would break sometime and cause just such a disaster as this."

Wreckage from the 1889 Flood. The building in the background is the Cambria Iron offices
Wreckage from the 1889 Flood. The building in the background is the Cambria...
In the months that followed, newspaper editors, engineers, lawyers, pundits and politicians all weighed in on the causes of the tragedy. To the residents of Johnstown and many people across the nation, blame lay clearly with Andrew Carnegie, Henry Clay Frick and the other wealthy and prominent Pittsburgh businessmen who as members of the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club owned the dam, and thus were responsible for its collapse.

"Fifty thousand lives," wrote Harrisburg newspaperman J. J. McLaurin, "in Pennsylvania were jeopardized for eight years that a club of rich pleasure seekers might fish and sail and revel in luxurious ease during the heated term." Concluding that dam repair and inspection had been botched by wealthy amateurs, engineers, too, weighed in against the club members. In the damage suits filed against members of the club for their negligence, the courts, however, concluded that the collapse of the dam was an "act of God." No court awarded compensation to any victims of the flood.

In the August 1889 issue of the North American Review, Major John Wesley Powell, director of the U.S. Geological Survey, offered his own assessment of the lessons to be learned from Johnstown. Observing that the dam had never been "properly related to natural conditions," Powell concluded that "[m]odern industries are handling the forces of nature on a stupendous scale .... Woe to the people who trust these powers to the hands of fools."

Continuing to rely on the moral character and expertise of property owners - despite the tragedy at Johnstown - Pennsylvania took no action to provide for state inspection of privately owned dams. The Commonwealth did not pass the first state dam-inspection law until 1913, two years after the collapse of the Bayliss Dam had markerflooded the town of Austin and killed seventy-eight people.
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