My daughter lived near Pittsburgh for a while and this story of the Johnstown Flood was something she talked about. I’ve always thought it was interesting and today I decided I’d write about it for Petticoats & Pistol.
The Johnstown Flood occurred on May 31, 1889. It was the result of the failure of the South Fork Dam situated 14 miles upstream of the town of Johnstown, Pennsylvania during a torrential rainstorm. The dam’s failure unleashed 4.8 billion gallons of water on the city and killed over 2,200 people.
The South Fork Dam, which formed a lake surrounded by wealthy homes, had been neglected for years. It frequently leaked and any repairs to it were hastily done with straw and mud. During a 24 hour long rainstorm, small creeks became roaring torrents, ripping out trees and debris.
On the morning of May 31, 1889, Elias Unger, awoke to see Lake Conemaugh dangerously close to cresting the dam. Unger assembled a group of men who tried to unclog the spillway, blocked by debris. Twice, Unger send telegraph warnings to Johnstown. But there had been false alarms in the past and the telegraphs were ignored. Unger and his crew worked all morning, finally abandoning the disintegrating dam at 1:30 p.m. Because the water had been overflowing all day, there were floodwaters in Johnstown’s streets of up to ten feet, and still the city was not abandoned.
At around 3:10 p.m. the South Fork Dam burst. The first town to be hit by the flood was the small town of South Fork. That town was on high ground and they were aware of the danger. Despite houses being destroyed or washed away, only four people were killed.
As the waters rushed downstream, it picked up debris. The debris was heavy enough that when it hit a 78-foot high railroad bridge, the flood temporarily was stopped by the stone bridge’s arch. But after around seven minutes, the bridge collapsed and the flood resumed its course. The water backing up for those seven minutes gave the floodwaters even more force when they hit the next town in it’s path, the small town of Mineral Point, one mile below the railroad bridge. The flood swept away every building in town and killed 16 people.
The village of East Conemaugh was hit next. By this time the flood was heavy with debris. A fast thinking train engineer John Hess, sitting in his locomotive warned people by tying down the train whistle and backing his train toward the town. His warning saved many, inlcuding Hess, even though the flood hit his train, picked it up and tossed it aside.
Now comes Woodvale. Just before it hit town, the flood slammed into the Cambria Iron Works at Woodvale. Now the floodwater is carrying railroad cars and barbed wire. Of Woodvale’s 1,100 residents, 314 died.
Some 57 minutes after the South Fork Dam collapsed, the flood hit Johnstown. The inhabitants of Johnstown were caught completely by surprise. The wall of water and debris reached a height of 60 feet in places. When the town was hit, people were crushed by pieces of debris. Many were caught in barbed wire from the wire factory upstream.
At Johnstown, a stone bridge, which was a substantial arched structure for a railroad bridge formed a temporary dam, stopping further progress of the water. The flood surge rolled upstream along the Stoney Creek River. This surge of water, flowing against the current, went as far as it could, then turned and flowed back to Johnstown causing a second wave to hit the city from a different direction. The debris piled up against the Stone Bridge caught fire and killed at least 80 people. It burned for three days. Afterwards, the pile of debris there covered 30 acres and reached 70 feet high.
Because of the metal and wire in the debris, a mass remained that took three months and dynamite to remove. The Stone Bridge is still standing, and is often portrayed as one of the images of the flood.
The total death toll was 2,209, making the disaster the largest loss of civilian life in the United States at the time.
Since there the Galveston Hurricane and the terrorist attack on the Twin Towers are the only events to kill more people in America.
I’ve got a new book releasing in March called Black Hills Blessing. I’m hoping by my next posting day, I’ll have a copy in my hot little hands to give away. It’s contemporary, not historical, set in and near a buffalo ranch in the Black Hills of South Dakot.
I’ll talk more about it soon. If you’d like details about my releases sign up for my newsletter through my website or blog.