Historical Markers
Johnstown Local Flood Protection Project Historical Marker
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Johnstown Local Flood Protection Project

Laurel Highlands/Southern Alleghenies


Marker Location:
Point Park, Johnstown

Dedication Date:
October 21, 1999

Behind the Marker

The City of Johnstown as seen from the top of the Inclined Plane, flood waters.
The City of Johnstown as seen from the top of the Inclined Plane at 8am on March...
On March 16, 1936, rain poured from the skies over Pennsylvania and ran down into its rivers, already swollen by the spring snowmelt. Soon, the Stonycreek and Conemaugh rivers were rising eighteen inches an hour. At 2:00 p.m. the next day, the Stonycreek overflowed its banks and water once again flooded the streets of Johnstown. When the electric plant flooded, people huddled in darkness or fled to higher ground as rising rivers swamped Johnstown beneath fourteen feet of water.

When the waters receded the next day, twelve people were dead, 9,000 homeless, 60,000 in need of food, and Johnstown was covered in river muck and debris. The flood had also caused $50 million of property damage. On August 13th, President Franklin D. Roosevelt visited the city and pledged that the residents of Johnstown would never again have to face the floods. The next spring Johnstown flooded again.

Black and white photograph of town and flood walls.
Concrete retaining walls constructed by the Army Engineering Corp as part of...
Floods are, of course, a normal occurrence of nature. For thousands of years, the residents of Pennsylvania had witnessed their beauty and their fury. Early settlers never took exact measurements, so we don't know which were the biggest, but residents along the banks of the Susquehanna recorded fourteen major floods in the nineteenth century alone. Of these, the first solid figures come from the great St. Patrick's Day flood of 1865, when the waters crested at 33.1 feet in Wilkes-Barre and 27.5 feet at Williamsport, a record that would not be surpassed until the great flood of 1936. In 1907, the markerAllegheny River rose 36.6 feet above flood stage, covering the downtown Pittsburgh in water and causing $5 million in property damage. On the Delaware River, the great flood of 1955 claimed ninety lives and caused $100 million in damages.

The great storm of March 1936 unleashed floodwaters that ravaged the northeast and video mid-Atlantic states. Pennsylvania suffered the most damage. Floods killed eighty-four Pennsylvanians and destroyed or damaged more than 82,000 buildings. Flooding along the banks of the Susquehanna River caused $67 million worth of damage and forced 6,000 residents to evacuate the town of Sunbury, two-thirds of which was covered with water. In Pittsburgh the lack of potable water, electricity, and telephone service paralyzed the city, and buildings burned to the waterline because fire trucks could not navigate flooded streets.

Flooded Main Street near Vesper, Lock Haven, PA, March 18, 1936.
Main Street near Vesper, Lock Haven, PA, March 18, 1936.
In response to the devastation, Congress overwhelmingly passed and President Roosevelt signed into law the Flood Control Act of 1936, which unleashed a flurry of federally sponsored dam-building on Pennsylvania's rivers. The largest project was at Johnstown, where the Army Corps of Engineers between 1938 and 1943 constructed what was then the nation's largest flood-control system. To deepen and realign the channels of the Stonycreek and Little Conemaugh, the Corps excavated three million cubic yards of earth and rock, and built nine miles of side slopes with enough concrete to pave a two-lane highway sixty-two miles long.

In the twentieth century, the United States created the most extensive and elaborate system of water projects on earth. When completed in 1943, the Johnstown Local Flood Protection Project (JLFPP) joined a nationwide system of 8,000 dams and 25,000 miles of inland and intra-coastal navigation channels that included more than 200 locks and dams, tens of thousands of groundwater pumps, and millions of miles of canals, pipes, and tunnels.

Elsewhere in Pennsylvania the Army Corps of Engineers constructed a levee system along the Wilkes-Barre/Kingston stretch of the Susquehanna, and the $108 million Kinzua Dam on the Upper Allegheny. In the 1960s the Corps was also ready to build the Tocks Island Dam on the Delaware River, for water supply and flood control. The alliance of sportsmen, environmentalists, and others who banded together to prevent its construction was part of a growing movement for the preservation and protection of the nation's few remaining free-flowing rivers.

Several large structures with gaping holes where the flood waters ripped through.
Flood damage at the Solomon housing project, Johnstown, PA, July, 1977.
The residents of Johnstown rebuilt their city after the flood of 1936. After completion of the JLFPP in 1943, local boosters proclaimed that Johnstown was a "flood free city," to promote local economic development. The JLFPP did protect Johnstown from Hurricane Hazel in 1954 and from Hurricane Agnes in 1972, but the rain that poured down upon the valley on July 19, 1977, once again demonstrated our inability to control the forces of nature.

In just ten hours, thunderstorms dumped close to a foot of rain, which flooded into the rivers and streams above Johnstown and quickly breached the tops of dams. Six dams soon gave way and unleashed a flash flood of 128 million gallons of water that caused $300 million in property damages and resulted in eighty-five deaths. By comparison, the markerGreat Johnstown flood of 1889 -which had buried Johnstown under ten feet of water- killed more than 2,200 people, caused $325 million in damage, and left 50,000 people homeless in a seven-county area.

Later, the Army Corp of Engineers would insist that the JLFPP had greatly mitigated the effects of the 1977 flood by reducing the flood level in Johnstown by about eleven feet, and thus cutting damages by an estimated $322 million. Critics, however, argued that the straightening and smoothing of the channels had accelerated the speed of the flooding water and thus contributed to the loss of life.
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