It has been almost twenty years since the 1995 spring flood tore up the place around here and we all got to see the unbelievable power of large volumes of water. I thought it might be interesting then to look back at a horrific historic flood known as Johnstown. It was an event in Pennsylvania that made our 1995 flood look like a walk in the park.
While there are more than a few recorded events of catastrophic dam failures probably the most deadly is known as the Johnstown Flood. Johnstown is a story of the natural forces of nature being compounded by human miscalculation.
The Johnstown event occurred on May 31, 1889 near Pittsburgh Pennsylvania. Back then, 14 miles north of Johnstown , there existed a manmade lake known as Conemaugh. It had been built 20 years earlier by the State of Pennsylvania and then abandoned. It was taken over years later by a group known as the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club and developed into a rich man’s resort. The elite industrialists from Pittsburgh like Andrew Carnegie and Henry Frick built three story cabins on the lake’s edge. Many of these rich elite regularly escaped from Pittsburgh's industrial life to bask in the tranquility and beauty of Conemaugh which was nestled in a valley in the Allegheny Mountains.
There was much evidence that the South Fork dam at Conemaugh was not in the best of shape. Most were ignorant of this fact and some of the clubs controllers chose to ignore it. The previous owner had removed the discharge pipes and sold them for scrap. The dam had failed once before and required constant maintenance of leaks and weak spots. The spillway inlet had screens on it to prevent the fish from escaping downstream and the dam had actually been lowered four feet to allow horse buggies to cross. This left the top of the dam only three or four feet higher that the spillway. It was virtually impossible to relieve the pressure on the dam in any way or drain the lake for repairs.
The Johnstown populace knew very little of the idyllic, extravagant goings on at the South Fork club fourteen miles away. Any hunter or curiosity seekers were generally chased away from this 700 acre private club. Nobody concerned themselves about the dam except for the manager of the Cambria Ironworks in Johnstown, one Daniel Morrell. He was aware there were problems and the implications it could have on his ironworks. That ironworks incidentally employed 7000 men, mostly German, Irish and Welsh immigrants, immigrants that Carnegie and others in Pittsburgh had been systematically stealing from Morrell.
Johnstown back then was in fact a mini-Pittsburgh of 30,000 people. There were 27 churches, 123 saloons, three newspapers and two railway stations. Morell decided to send his chief engineer John Fulton, who was also a geologist, to investigate the dam's stability. Fulton met with the clubs president D.R.Ruff at the dam and noted that the damage done by the removal of the discharge pipes had never been repaired. He also noted that Ruff's claim that the leaks were spring water were false and that it was in fact dam water finding its way through. Ruff deliberately chose not to mention the fish screens and the lowered top to Fulton.
Fulton’s findings revealed that when all was said and done the dam was in fact: "an accident waiting to happen". Fulton’s report was read by Morrell and sent on to Ruff along with an offer to pay for half of the cost of repairs. Ruff dismissed the report and stated that: "you and your people are in no danger from our enterprise". Then on May 28, 1889 it started to rain. Hard!
A demon rain storm began to work its way into the Allegheny Mountains. It continued on the 29th and the rivers in the area began to rise a foot an hour. Eighty inches of rain fell that day and by the morning of the 30th things did not look good. The resort lake of Conemaugh had risen two inches overnight and was continuing to rise at an unbelievable inch every ten minutes. That might not seem like a lot but project one inch over hundreds of acres of lake surface and it becomes millions of gallons of water.
The fish screens on the spillway were plugged solid with runoff debris. Leaks had reopened everywhere at the 72 foot high dam's base. South Fork Creek, that emptied into the north end of the lake, was tearing branches off of trees three feet above its normal level.
The lackadaisical maintenance of the dam was coming back to haunt that elitist club. Its engineer, John Parke, realized that morning that water spilling through the cracks in the dam spelt disaster. He galloped south to South Fork, the most northerly of the communities above Johnstown and shouted a warning to everyone. Before returning north he dashed into the South Fork signal tower and asked the telegraph operator to warn Johnstown's 30,000 residents of the impending collapse of the dam. Before the operator could tell him that floods had taken out the line to Johnstown he was out the door and gone.
Returning to the dam, he along with other club members trying to clear the spillway watched helplessly as the 900 foot width of the dam began to disintegrate and later that afternoon it finally crumbled and melted away.
Twenty million tons of water was abruptly released and tore down the valley tree top high. Most of the town of South Fork was spared, being built on a hillside. The next village downstream, Woodvale, did not fare so well. Surrounded by some of the Little Conemaugh's steepest hills, almost all of its 250 buildings disappeared and one third of Little Conemaugh’s 1000 residents were sucked into the torrent heading south.
The flood took about an hour to reach Johnstown. The reason for this was a horrific one. It wasn't just pure dam water bearing down on the city. It was a horrendous mix of living and dead animals and people, houses, schools, factories, locomotives and train cars, bridges, roadbeds and virtually every tree that lined the Little Conemaugh river.
Within 10 minutes Johnstown's city center was swept away. The most devastating damage came when the flood tore into the Pennsylvania Railroad’s roundhouse. Thirty four mountain locomotives, each weighing over 80 tons, were catapulted into the city where they battered municipal buildings to smithereens.
Hundreds of stories were recorded later of survivors who floated along this mass of misery on mattresses, roof tops and tree trunks and were finally rescued downstream.
The furnaces of the Cambria Ironworks exploded as the flood swirled amongst them and the waters ripped loose 200,000 pounds of new barbed wire from the Gautier Wireworks sending a monster lacerator through the town. Probably the most amazing story of survival occurred 18 hours after most of the town was wrecked. Workers lifting corpses out of the Allegheny River at Pittsburgh, into which the Conemaugh flowed, pulled the floor of a wrecked home ashore. On it lay a five month old baby who had ridden alone and unharmed for some 75 miles on the flood swollen rivers.
In the end, over 2200 men, women and children were known dead and almost 1,000 more were missing and never found. Only one in three bodies was identifiable. Relief efforts came in immediately from all directions by train. Within hours Johnstown began to rebuild. Within days the men returned to work at the ironworks. The rich of the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club disappeared and never returned. Their mountain lake retreat was now just a huge mud flat.
By July of that year a civil case was brought against the club. No money was ever collected and no member was ever found liable for the disaster. History is chock full of stories with this type of unpunished endings.
The lesson from this tragedy, a series of human blunders complimented with a remarkable level of indifference and ignorance, is that just because people are in positions of responsibility does not necessarily mean that they are behaving responsibly.