Johnstown Flood

Johnstown Flood 1

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.

Johnstown Flood tree-houseThe 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. TheJohnstown Flood crushed house 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.

Johnstown Flood debris-house

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.

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25 thoughts on “Johnstown Flood”

  1. Hi Mary, In this day and age of instant communication, it’s hard to imagine an entire town not knowing a 60-ft. wall of water is approaching. Can you imagne what it sounded like? Such a tragedy . . . It’s amazing anyone survived. Those pictures are pure devastation.

  2. OMG, Mary, this is unbelievable. And the people ignored the warning that was sent. What an awful tragedy, but certainly worth remembering. Can’t wait to hear more about your new book.

  3. Hi Mary, I am so thrilled to hear you will have another book out soon. All the women in my family are addicted to your books, and you can’t possibly write fast enough to suit us!
    I would also like to thank you for the Christian encouragement your books have provided me. My husband has dealt with several serious illnesses over the past few years, and you have cheered me and lightened the load on numerous occasions. I love your humor and your feisty heroines. God bless you!

  4. Really look at that top picture. Can you imagine the mess. Train cars, trees, houses, a factory full of barbed wire twisting through it all. Of course dead bodies, not to mention animals.

    Then it slams into that bridge and catches fire.

  5. What a remarkable and devestating tale! Thanks, Mary, for sharing this story. It’s hard to comprehend a debri fire lasting 3 days when everything was soaked from flood waters to begin with. I loved the fast thinking and heroic efforts of Unger and Hess. Makes the imagination wonder what other heroic feats took place that history didn’t record.

  6. Yeah I cannot imagine facing this! It must have been pure terror! I live in the Pittsburgh area so I grew up hearing about the flood and it’s devastating effects from a young age.

  7. I started to write about the World’s Biggest Inclined Plane…which still exists. Was built to be an escape area from the flooding. But the actual Johnstown Flood was so interesting that I never got to the Inclined Plane.
    I have some questions about it and I still didn’t read enough to really understand it.
    Maybe another time. 🙂

  8. Fantastic blog and pictures, Mary. I remember reading a Readers Digest condensed story on this when I was a child, and it was absolutely terrifying! Wow. I cannot imagine such a thing, even with your very descriptive writing. Whew. oxoxxoxoxo

  9. Think of all the dams and levees there are in teh country….New Orleans comes to mind. We all depend on those things so much.
    I remember a … I guess you’d call it a levee, a dirt wall built up around a creek, that collapsed in heavy rain. It’s weird but I’d never really recognized that dirt wall for what it was all those years. I drove over a bridge…a small one, little more than a culvert really…many, many times, on flat land. And when that levee collapsed and I could see the big hole in it, I realized all the dirt work that had been done to keep that little flood-prone creek in it’s banks.
    So…multiply that by about ten zillion. This just flooded a field, and it was a big mess and expensive to fix, but no city in it’s path thank heavens.

  10. I live outside of Pittsburgh and the Johnstown Flood has always been well known to us. We’re suppose to learn from our mistakes but after what happened in New Orleans…

  11. Gosh, Mary, I can hardly imagine a 60 foot wall of water coming down the line. What a interesting blog. The pictures really say it all, don’t they?

  12. Mary, those pictures are amazing – especially the one with the tree trumk through the ‘window’.

    I don’t think I’d ever have enough nerve to live downriver from a dam. I’ve always lived on flat ground either in bushy Northern Ontario or here on the Canadian prairies. We do have dams here – one south and one northwest of me – but I just drive past and wave.

    You got a new book coming out? Yay!

  13. When I was in fourth grade I had to do a book report/diorama on The Terrible Wave, by Marden Dahlstedt, which is about the Johnstown flood.

    I had at least one nightmare about that book. The destructive power of water is amazing.

  14. What a interesting post! I can remember being in a flood when I was a teen! We lived near the river and my best friends dad was a lock keeper on the river. I was staying with my friend when we had the flood. She live right below Dix Damn on the river locks. Dix Damn is an electric power plant. Dix Damn started opening up their gates and my friend house flooded. We stepped out of the house in to a boat. That was the strangest feeling to step out of a house into a boat. I will never forget it.

  15. Mary,
    I picked up a book somewhere several years ago. It is titled THE JOHNSTOWN HORROR!!! or VALLEY OF DEATH, Being A Complete And Thrilling Account Of The Awful Floods And Their Appalling Ruin by James Herbert Walker. It was published in 1889. It is illustrated with drawings and contains first person accounts. The chapter headings and title page blurb sound like a dime novel. It covers the disaster, the destruction and death, the clean-up, and the outpouring of aid. Part of the title page blurb follows.

    “Thrilling Tales of Heroic Deeds; Narrow Escapes from the Jaws of Death; Frightful Havoc by Fire; Dreadful Sufferings of Survivors; Plundering Bodies of Victims, etc.
    Together with
    Magnificent Exhibitions of Popular Sympathy; Quick Aid from every City and State; Millions of Dollars Sent for the Relief of Stricken Sufferers.”

  16. Hi Mary, I grew up in Johnstown and know the story and knew some of the survivors (now deceased). Here is a little tid-bit as the wall of water raced through the valley the air pressure was great enough to blow apart some of the wooden house before the water hit them. The reason the wall of water got so tall is due to a stone railroad bridge below South Fork. it held the water up like a dam, when the water broke through it generated all the power. Another fact is the telegraph message did make it to Johnstown, but there was not enough time to react. Also look into the PRR train that was ahead of the wall of water, It’s race down the valley in reverse with it’s wistle tied open to give a signal of the coming disaster along with another account of a passenger train on a siding in Conemaugh with first hand reports from the passengers.

    I hope I’ve fed a little fuel to your fire.


  17. I recall as a boy reading about the flood and seeing the pictures. One of the books I read had pictures of the large vacation homes around the lake.
    I always what became of the lake area, the vacation homes, and the lake area?


  18. I recall as a boy reading about the flood and seeing the pictures. One of the books I read had pictures of the large vacation homes around the lake.
    I always what became of the lake area, the vacation homes, and the club?


  19. I am reading (or listening, in fact) to a book on the Johnstown Flood and am doing further reading. Your pictures, and your blog, provide another dimension to this horrible tragedy. Thanks for sharing.

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