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The Johnstown Pennsylvania Flood of 1889 was more a man-made Tsunami than flood by Mother Nature. Yes, there was flooding first, when a torrential storm arrived on Memorial Day 1889. The two rivers that flanked the steel mill town swelled and flooded the riverfront. But this was normal for a river town and the residents thought nothing of rolling up their carpets and carrying them upstairs. It wasn’t until the aging dam burst upriver that the real staggering tragedy and loss of life occurred.
The South Fork Dam was completed 37 years earlier in 1852. Lake Conemaugh sat for twenty-two years in an isolated, forested valley, 14 miles upriver from Johnstown. An investor named Benjamin Ruff later bought the lake and turned it into a mountain retreat for the wealthy elite of Pittsburgh. The “SOUTH FORK FISHING & HUNTING CLUB” was born with millionaires like Henry Frick, Andrew Carnegie, and Andrew Mellon as its charter members. For ten years, it was THE summer retreat of choice for the millionaires of Pennsylvania and their families. When the lake was full, the pristine water stretched three miles long and over a mile across. A large clubhouse and numerous luxury cottage dotted the shoreline.
FIVE key mistakes were made with the South Fork Dam that doomed it to its fateful collapse.
FIRST, large cast iron pipes were originally built into a culvert at the base of the breast to control the level of the lake when needed. A prior owner removed them and sold the pipes for scrap metal! In an effort to avoid costly repairs, the new South Fork Fishing & Hunting Club did not replace them. Though the dam did have a spillway for overflow, this still left no means to ever drain the lake when badly needed repairs were necessary.
SECOND, the Club added a screen of cast iron bars across the spillway to prevent their precious bass and trout from escaping. Sport fishing was one of the draws for wealthy gentlemen, along with small game hunting along the shores. Unfortunately, it also caught all the branches and forest leaves that fell each season. There was no longer any way for them to simply float out, decreasing the spillway’s effectiveness in times of high rains.
THIRD, a minor break in the breast during the Civil War left the dam badly in need of repairs. The owners of the South Fork Club had only the exposed side of the breast repaired in 1881, since the lake could no longer be drained. They had their workers only patch it haphazardly with rocks, hemlock, mud, hay, and even cow manure! Plus they chose a gentleman from Pittsburgh with no engineering credentials to lead the repair.
This led, over the years, to a gradual sagging of the dam’s center!
By 1889, the middle of the breast had dipped by about two feet lower than either end.
FORTH, around the same time, the Club owners actually had the entire breast of the dam lowered three feet to accommodate a wider carriage road across the top. You see, the owners wanted it wide enough for two carriages to be able to pass each other going either to or from the Clubhouse. This would be so as not make their wealthy guests have wait in line at either end of the dam. Heaven forbid there be such an inconvenience!
FIFTH and finally, the Club owners had two unqualified steel mill inspectors come to Lake Conemaugh and examine the dam a few years before the collapse. This was because local witnesses were increasingly alarmed the dam’s shoddy state. The ‘inspectors’ stated that “The South Fork Dam was perfectly safe to withstand all the pressure that can be brought to bear on it by the waters of Lake Conemaugh.” Well, history tells us how inaccurate those 2 men were.
That spring, the lake was already full from a heavy winter snow melt coming off the Allegheny Mountains. When heavy rains that weekend from a mid-west ‘Storm of the Century’ finally brought the waters up and over the breast, it was only a matter of time before disaster struck. The aged dam finally burst, releasing 20 million tons of water in a matter of minutes. John Parke, the Hunting Club’s young engineer galloped his horse to the nearby village of South Fork to warn the residents.
At 4:00 pm on a Memorial Day weekend in 1889, a tsunami of lake water 35 FEET HIGH travelling 45 MPH rushed down the narrow South Fork River valley like a runaway train. It collected miles of deadly debris along the way, wiping away a railroad trestle and four smaller villages. Just before Johnstown, it took away a large rail yard and even a barbed wire steel mill before finally slamming brutally into the city and its unsuspecting citizens.
The poor souls had no warning other than an unearthly roar coming from up the river valley.
The wave hit Johnstown hard. It destroyed hundreds of homes, killing thousands of residents, and wiped entire city blocks off the map. Those who didn’t die instantly, drowned in the rising floodwaters laced with the remains of the bridge, steel mill and railyard. A mountain of wreckage jammed like a second dam at the thick arches of the Stone Bridge over the Conemaugh River just outside of town. The wooden debris eventually caught fire due to numerous gas leaks. Whirlpools formed due to the steep mountainsides surrounding the city. Johnstown became in essence a second swirling Lake Conemaugh.
By the time the sun rose the next morning, the dazed survivors discovered a mangled city covered in mud, debris and corpses. Over 2,200 souls lost their lives, including 400 children and 100 complete families. Clara Barton and the newly formed Red Cross rushed in by train to help the hungry, homeless survivors. Reporters swarmed to the scene and the entire nation was in shock over the sheer cope of the disaster. Bodies were found downrive in the Ohio as far at Cincinnati.
Oh, and what of the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club and its wealthy Pittsburgh owners? Surely their part in the disaster led to them paying a heavy price. Well, think again. Thanks to some high-priced Pittsburgh lawyers, they were never held accountable. Not for the deaths or damages by what was legally deemed by judges in the courts “an Act of God.” Pennsylvanians considered them Robber Barons who had gotten away with murder.
The remains of the South Fork Dam still exist today. The flanking sides of the old breast are a carefully preserved National Memorial managed by the U.S. Parks Service. Railroad tracks now runs through the valley, next to the quiet South Fork River. If you are ever in southwestern Pennsylvania, near Pittsburgh, I highly recommend a visit to both it and the rebuilt, modern city of Johnstown.