Johnstown Flood, May 31, 1889


Robber Barons and other very wealthy people owned a dam above Johnstown, Pennsylvania, at a hunting club.  The dam was known to be deteriorating, but the very wealthy did not want to foot the bill to fix the dam.

Bridge and Cambria Iron Works, showing 30 acres of debris in the river - Johnstown Flood

30 acres of debris in the river, bridge and Cambria Iron Works in the background - Johnstown Flood, May 31, 1889 - Library of Congress photo at Johnstown Flood Museum

In a rainstorm, on May 31, 1889, the dam broke.  More than 2,200 people died in the flood and fires that followed.

It is impossible to describe briefly the suddenness with which the disaster came. A warning sound was heard at Conemaugh a few minutes before the rush of water came, but it was attributed to some meteorological disturbance, and no trouble was borrowed because of the thing unseen. As the low, rumbling noise increased in volume, however, and came nearer, a suspicion of danger began to force itself even upon the bravest, which was increased to a certainty a few minutes later, when, with a rush, the mighty stream spread out in width, and when there was not time to do anything to save themselves. Many of the unfortunates where whirled into the middle of the stream before they could turn around; men, women and children were struggling in the streets, and it is thought that many of them never reached Johnstown, only a mile or two below.

At Johnstown a similar scene was enacted, only on a much larger scale. The population is greater and the sweeping whirlpool rushed into a denser mass of humanity. The imagination of the reader can better depict the spectacle than the pen of the writer can give it. It was a twilight of terror, and the gathering shades of evening closed in on a panorama of horrors that has few parallels in the history of casualties.

When the great wave from Conemaugh lake behind the dam, came down the Conemaugh Valley, the first obstacle it struck was the great viaduct over the South Fork. This viaduct was a State work, built to carry the old Portage road across the Fork. The Pennsylvania Railroad parallels the Portage road for a long distance, and runs over the Fork. Besides sweeping the viaduct down, the bore, or smaller bores on its wings, washed out the Portage road for miles. One of the small bores went down the bed of a brook which comes into the Conemaugh at the village of South Fork, which is some distance above the viaduct. The big bore backed the river above the village. The small bore was thus checked in its course and flowed into the village.

The obstruction below being removed, the backed-up water swept the village of South Fork away. The flood came down. It moved steadily but with a velocity never yet attained by an engine moved by power controllable by man….

“Johnstown is annihilated, ” telegraphed Superintendent Pitcarin to Pittsburg on Friday night. “He came,” says one who visited the place on Sunday, “very close to the facts of the case. Nothing like it was ever seen in this country. Where long rows of dwelling-houses and business blocks stood forty-eight hours ago, ruin and desolation now reign supreme. Probably 1500 houses have been swept from the face of the earth as completely as if they had never been erected. Main street, from end to end, is piled fifteen and twenty feet high with debris, and in some instances it is as high as the roofs of the houses. This great mass of wreckage fills the street from curb to curb, and frequently has crushed the buildings in and filled the space with reminders of the terrible calamity. There is not a man in the place who can give any reliable estimate of the number of houses that have been swept away. City Solicitor Kuehn, who should be very good authority in this matter, places the number at 1500.  From the woolen mill above the island to the bridge, a distance of probably two miles, a strip of territory nearly a half mile in width has been swept clean, not a stick of timber or one brick on top of another being left to tell the story. It is the most complete wreck that imagination could portray.

“All day long men, women, and children were plodding about the desolate waste looking in vain to locate the boundaries of their former homes. Nothing but a wide expanse of mud, ornamented here and there with heaps of driftwood, remained, however, for their contemplation. It is perfectly [accurate] to say that every house in the city that was not located well up on the hillside was either swept completely away or wrecked so badly that rebuilding will be absolutely necessary. These losses, however, are nothing compared to the frightful sacrifice in precious human lives to be seen on every hand.

“During all this solemn Sunday Johnstown has been drenched with the tears of stricken mortals, and the air is filled with sobs and sighs that come from breaking hearts. There are scenes enacted here every hour and every minute that affect all beholders profoundly. When homes are thus town asunder in an instant, and the loved ones hurled from the arms of loving and devoted mothers, there is an element of sadness in the tragedy that overwhelms every heart….

“It is impossible to describe the appearance of Main street. Whole houses have been swept down this one street and become lodged. The wreck is piled as high as the second-story windows. The reporter could step from the wreck into the auditorium of the opera house. The ruins consist of parts of houses, trees, saw logs and reels from the wire factory. Many houses have their side walls and roofs torn up, and one can walk directly into what had been second-story bed-rooms, or go in by way of the top. Further up town a raft of logs lodged in the street, and did great damage. At the beginning of the wreckage, which is at the opening of the valley of the Conemaugh, one can look up the valley for miles and not see house. Nothing stands but an old woolen mill….”

Seen from the high hill across the river from Johnstown, the Conemaugh Valley gives an easy explanation of the terrible destruction which it has suffered. This valley, stretching back almost in a straight line for miles, suddenly narrows near Johnstown. The wall of water which came tearing down toward the town, picking up all the houses and mils in the villages along its way, suddenly rose in height as it came to the narrow pass. It swept over the nearest part of the town and met the waters of Stony creek, swollen by rains, rushing along with the speed of a torrent. The two forces coming together, each turned aside and started away again in a half-circle, seeking an outlet in the lower Conemaugh Valley. The massive stone bridge of the Pennsylvania Railroad Company, at the lower base of the triangle was almost instantly choked up with the great mass of wreckage dashed against it, and became a dam that could not be swept away, and proved to be the ruin of the town and the villages above. The waters checked here, formed a vast whirlpool, which destroyed everything within its circle. It backed up on the other side of the triangle, and devastated the village of Kernville, across the river from Johnstown.

The force of the current was truly appalling. The best evidence of its force is exhibited in the mass of debris south of the Pennsylvania bridge. Persons on the hillsides declare that houses, solid from their foundation stones, were rushed on to destruction at the rate of thirty miles an hour. On one house forty persons were counted; their cries for help were heard far above the roaring waters. At the railroad bridge the house parted in the middle, and the cries of the unfortunate people were smothered in the engulfing waters. 

Extract from: Willis Fletcher Johnson, History of the Johnstown Flood…. Edgewood Publishing Company, 1889.

What is the moral to this tale?

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4 Responses to Johnstown Flood, May 31, 1889

  1. george.w says:

    Wait; I got that wrong. An engineer probably had a hand in the original construction of the dam by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, but then the club bought it and didn’t consult one when they had workmen raise it and install the grate.

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  2. george.w says:

    No engineer was consulted in the design of the dam, or when workers were instructed to raise it and place a grate over the spillway to keep the fish from escaping into the Little Conemaugh river.

    The manager of the South Fork Hunting and Fishing Club curtly responded to the mayor’s concerns; “You and your people are in no danger from our enterprise.”

    A nearly perfect conservative motto: fits financial “innovation”, oil drilling rigs, energy trading, toxic waste handling, DDT, food additives, cosmetics, climate change, lots of stuff.

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  3. Jim says:

    Hi Nick!

    I’ve been away a few days due to a perfect storm of internet connection problems and life circumstances.

    And I come back to find you spouting a bunch of…

    …truth. (Heh. Had ya goin’ didn’t I?)

    Actually, I would only add that Republicans, while they have certainly made an art form out of it, are hardly alone in cosseting the obscenely wealthy. If I have discovered anything in observing my fellow Democrats over the last 20 years, it is that — despite a Bernie Sanders here and a Sherrod Brown there — they are becoming fairly proficient when it comes to kissing the hindquarters of the bloated rich.

    Thankfully, we’re still the lesser of two evils. And we still have some real champs going to bat for ordinary Americans. (I’m not sure a single Republican exists who fits that description in the House or Senate.) But I’d sure love to see more of these alleged “Socialists” the Tea Party keeps hand-wringing about.

    For being a bunch of Socialiats, we’re sure acting like kissing cousins with the plutocrats.

    I hear ya though. And the Johnstown flood is, sad to say, far from being the most recent example of reckless homicide by way of selfishness and greed. The names of 11 BP Oil workers and 29 Massey Energy miners can almost certainly be engraved on any monuments we wish to erect in memory of the victims of plutocratic avarice.

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  4. Nick K says:

    The moral of the story is to not trust in the good natures of the robber barons and keep the safeguards of society in place.

    Unless of course you’re a Republican then the moral of the story is that its good that 2000 poor saps died so they quit being parasites on the bodies of the robber barons.

    (And $5 says that not one conservative here will say one word in protest to what I just said)

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