Sunday, May 31, 2015
MAY 31 = The Johnstown Flood of 1889
"The morning was delightful, the city was in its gayest mood with flags, banners and flowers everywhere... we could see almost everything of interest from our porch. The streets were crowded with more people than we had ever seen before." - Reverend H.L. Chapman on Memorial Day
As the city of Johnstown celebrated Memorial Day that year, everything seemed to be looking up. The city was prospering on a wave of economic production brought about by the iron works and the steel mills of the nearby plants at Cambria and Pittsburgh. Life was good, but little did they know that their entire world would soon come crashing down around them. On May 31, 1889, the South Fork Dam high above them in the mountains burst open under unusually heavy rainfall. The waters of beautiful, serene Lake Conemaugh (above), playground the rich, then came rushing down the Conemaugh Valley and wrecked everything in its path, killing 2,209 people, leaving thousands more injured, and wiping out every town in its path, particularly the city of Johnstown 14 miles downstream. It was a weekend of death that none would ever forget.
The Lake, the Dam and the Club
The Southfork Dam had been constructed between 1838 and 1853 to
service the Erie canal. But soon the railroads came through the area, putting the canal out of business. So the whole dam was sold in 1879 to the Pennsylvania Railroad which was represented by Henry Clay Frick (below) and Benjamin Ruff, businessmen who sought to turn the whole reservoir and the dam into a weekend retreat for the rich men of the Pittsburgh steel industry. It was called the Southfork Hunting and Fishing Club, and a very exclusive club
Lake Conemaugh Destroys Everything in Its Path
John C. Parke mounted a horse and road ahead to the town of South Fork just ahead of the collapse to warn people there and to send telegraph messages to Conemaugh, and to Johnstown. But the messages didn't get to Johnstown due to telegraph line which had gone down in the rain storm, and those that got to Conemaugh were not believed... the idea of the dam bursting just seemed too wild to be true. On its way down the Valley, the raging torrent smashed whole towns and picked up a huge amount of debris as it rushed on with a flow rate that temporarily equaled that of the Mississippi River. The raging torrent wiped out the town of Mineral Point before hitting Conemaugh. Just before it got there, an alert engineer named John Hess who was
"It was like a hurri- cane through a wooded country. It was a roar and a crash and a smash... the first thing I heard was a terrible roar in the hollow and the next thing was a crash something like a big building going to pieces... I couldn't see it, but there was people told me afterwards that that house crushed together just about the time we left. We saw no flood; we saw a drift of large logs in the river, but the river was no higher than it was twenty minutes before that. I pulled the whistle wide open, and went into Conemaugh that way.." Hess said "The lake's broke!" and putting on his whistle - continuously - took his train flying into East Conemaugh just ahead of the killer wave and thus gave that town tell-tale warning that something was terribly wrong. This was just enough time to warn some of the residents to flee to higher ground, which Hess and his crew did as soon as they could go nor further (click on the map above for an enlarged view of the flood's path). Hess, who would become legendary because of his warning whistle, said later: "I didn't know what else to do. I couldn't see what else I could do."
Johnstown is Hit Without Warning
Unfortunately, for the people in Johnstown there was no warning whistle. They had flood waters before but nobody truly believed that the Dam would ever burst. So the torrent that came smashing into their town was a deadly surprise to everyone; most residents never even saw the water. They heard the sound of the debris tumbling towards them... a kind of low steady sound that grew until it became overpowering, It hit the town at around 4:07. George Heiser whose
The Methodist preacher who was quoted at the top of this posting, H.L. Chapman had gone to the front door of his strongly-built stone parsonage in his bedroom slippers at about 4:00 just in time to see a boxcar thrown by in front of his house. He quickly gathered up his family and they ran to the attic of their home where they and whomever the storm threw their way were trapped for hours by the flood waters. But unlike so many other buildings, the parsonage held in place. When Chapman looked out at the scene around him through a
"…I went to the window and looked out on a scene of utter desolation. The water, from eighteen to thirty feet deep, had spread like a lake all over the better part of town in the direction of the railroad bridge. Only one dwelling house, that of Dr. Lowman, on the corner of the park remained. On the left several large buildings, which stood on Main Street, had escaped being protected by our large stone church, which had resisted the force of the flood... But in the direct course of the flood, the large market house, the Episcopal Church, the large brick residence of Dr. L. T. Beam, and hundreds of others, showed no signs of ever having existed. The very trees in the park had been swept away, and an indescribable scene of desolation spread in every direction.... the mass of debris, accumulated at the railroad bridge, had caught fire, and cast a lurid light over the devastated city, otherwise shrouded in gloom…."
The Fire At the Bridge
A particularly horrific event was the flaming pile of debris which was caught at the railroad bridge. Nobody knows for sure what caused the fire, it may have been oil from a railroad tank car dumped into the pile
The total death toll in the Johnstown Flood of 1889 came to 2,209 people, many of whom were never identified. This made it one of the worst losses of civilian life in U.S. history up until the Galveston Hurricane of 1900 and the World Trade Center Terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. A huge amount of food and supplies came from all over the country to help and donations from all over the world totaled $3,742,818.18. Clara Barton showed up with her National Red Cross
"The Johnstown Flood" by David McCullough, Simon and Schuster, New York, 1968
"Darkest Hours" by Jay Robert Nash, Wallaby Books, New York, 1977