The Great Johnstown Flood, Pennsylvania 1889

The Great Johnstown Flood of 1889

Experience the scene of America's deadliest flood!

Why Visit Johnstown?

Taught as a regular part of High School curricula for over a century, the Great Johnstown Flood is a fascinating combination of natural disaster, humanitarian tragedy, triumph of compassion, and "trial of the century."  Discover what happened to cause the deaths of over 2200 people, the rise of the American Red Cross, and the roles of the richest men in the world.

Travel & Lodging

Set in the rolling green hills of central Pennsylvania east of Pittsburgh, Johnstown is at once the stereotypical "rust belt" town and a scenic window to the past.

By Car -- Most people will visit Johnstown by car.  The roads into the valley are a bit winding, but it's an enjoyable scenic drive from any direction.

Airports -- The closest major airport is Pittsburgh International.  Regional airports are located at Arnold Palmer at Youngstown, Greensburg-Jeanette, Somerset County, and Altoona-Blair County.

Lodging -- Central (old) Johnstown has only two chain motels.  Several more are nearby in eastern Johnstown along U.S. 219.

The Flood

Google Earth view looking west from the site of the South Fork Dam, down the Conemaugh River towards Johnstown.  The remanants of the dam are located south of the town of South Fork along Highway U.S. 219.

The Great Johnstown Flood occurred on May 31, 1889. Johnstown's population at the time was about 30,000. The South Fork Dam, which held back the waters of Lake Conemaugh, collapsed after several days of heavy rain, sending a wall of water down the valley towards Johnstown. The flood killed over 2,200 people and destroyed much of the town.

The dam was originally built to provide water for the Pennsylvania Canal, but after the canal was abandoned, the dam was sold to private owners who neglected its maintenance. The dam was weakened by heavy rain, and the water level rose to dangerous heights. Despite warnings from concerned citizens, the dam's owners did not take action to prevent the disaster.

When the dam broke, a massive wave of water and debris swept down the valley, destroying everything in its path. Houses, buildings, and people were swept away by the rushing waters. The disaster was one of the worst in American history, and it prompted significant changes in the regulation and management of dams and reservoirs across the country.

Google Earth view westward to Johnstown along the Conemaugh River.  Blue arrows show the direction of the flood.

This closer view shows that central Johnstown is located at a pair of big bends in the river.  When the flood came racing in, it swept completely over the town.  

Debris from destroyed structures piled up at the "old stone bridge," carrying many victims with it. When the debris caught fire, the screams of people trapped in the debris created one of the most tragic scenes in American history.  

This physical model in the Flood Museum shows progression of the flood waters via the greenish lights.  This first scene shows Lake Conemaugh, held back by the fateful South Fork Dam.

The model shows inundation of Johnstown.  The flood pushed its way upstream (toward the bottom of the picture) a good distance.

The Damage

The most famous picture of the flood damage is this one (and many variations) of the Schultz home impaled by a large tree trunk.  Imagine what Johnstown's residents went through while their entire town -- practically every building -- was swept away by the 40 mile per hour wall of water.

The flood debris at the old stone bridge, scene of unimaginable tragedy.

The Johnstown Flood Museum has this replica of the flood debris.  It's sobering to stand by it and imagine being tangled and trapped inside.

Built only a few years before the 1889 flood, the bridge was expanded a few decades later, covering the original stone facade.  Today, the bridge is lighted in memory of the flood victims.  You can see the live webcam and read more information here:   link 

The Dam

This photo in the Flood Museum shows the remnants of the dam not long after the flood.
     The South Fork Hunting and Fishing Club owned the lake and the dam.  Their primary interests being in hunting, fishing, and recreation, they paid very little attention to the dam.  It was built hap-hazardly of rocks, dirt, and even logs.  No one was in charge of its maintenance.  The top was lowered to accommodate wagons crossing the top.  A screen was installed on the meager spillway to prevent fish from escaping downstream, so that when the flood came, it clogged, pushing water over the top of the dam.  To make matters worse, the drain pipe under the dam (a protective measure against flood levels) had been removed and sold for scrap.  It was a recipe for disaster.

This sign is at the site of the dam remnants, and quotes a witness who saw the rising waters and initial deterioration of the dam.

The dam was essentially built by amateurs, there being no laws or engineering standards at the time for dam construction.  This diagram shows it neat and orderly inside, but eyewitness accounts describe it more like something built by incompetent beavers.

The yellow line outlines the northern remnant of the dam, viewed from the south side.

This is the rock-covered down-stream side of the dam.

The Scandal -- "The Trial of the Century"

So, who was responsible for this terrible tragedy?  These four men were the primary owners of the club and dam, and they were among the wealthiest men in the world at the time.  In fact, a recent analysis showed that based on how much of the national economy he controlled and translating that into today's American economy, Andrew Carnegie was the wealthiest American ever.

The legal battle was complex and contentious. The club argued that the flood was an act of God and that they could not be held responsible for the disaster. However, prosecutors presented evidence that the club had ignored warnings about the dam's condition and had failed to take necessary steps to prevent the catastrophe.

The trial ended with a verdict of not guilty for the club's members. The jury found that the flood was indeed an act of God and that the club could not have foreseen the disaster. However, the public outcry was significant, and the legal battle played a role in shaping public opinion about the responsibilities of dam owners and the need for government oversight of such structures, resulting in laws forbidding private ownership of dams (of a certain size), and dam construction engineering standards.

My opinion is that the club members broke no laws (because no laws governing dam ownership, engineering, or maintenance existed at the time), and therefore the verdict was correct despite the incredible tragedy that resulted. It should be noted that Andrew Carnegie poured a lot of money into Johnstown afterwards, including the building that now houses the Flood Museum. He spent the rest of his life giving away his vast fortune, which continues today.

The American Red Cross

If there were ever a silver lining to a natural disaster, it was the first disaster relief effort of the fledgling American Red Cross.  Clara Barton is certainly one of the most amazing women in American history.  She masterfully mustered resources for flood relief, including huge amounts of needed supplies, money, and even significant monetary donations from other countries.  She knew what the flood victims needed, and how to get it.  Her Red Cross "hotels" famously housed refugees during reconstruction of Johnstown.  I stand in awe of this remarkable woman, whose example and efforts continue well over a century later.  How many individuals can ever say that?

Further Reading
I highly recommend David McCullough's "Johnstown Flood."  It contains many eyewitness accounts of the flood, and brings the minute-by-minute events and personal terrors to vivid life.

Most Popular Posts

The San Andreas Fault: I-15 to I-5

Mouth of the Columbia River