The Johnstown Flood

Trip Start Mar 04, 2005
Trip End Dec 31, 2014

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Flag of United States  , Pennsylvania
Saturday, June 16, 2012

We have moved homesites yet again and are now camped out in an area referred to as the Laurel Highlands.  Located in the Allegheny Mountain area of southwestern Pennsylvania, this is our second visit to this area.  We are back not only because this area is beautiful but also because we left quite a few things 'undone' last time!

First up on the list of things to do was a short drive from our campground to the city of Johnstown, PA.  This city is the site of one of the worst natural, some would argue man made, disasters in our nations history.  Johnstown in the last 1800's was a steel company town made up of German and Welsh families.  The town itself had been built on the floodplain at the fork of the Little Conemaugh and Stony Creek rivers.  Over the years the growing city had stripped forests from the surrounding hills and narrowed the river banks to gain building space. 

Of even more importance to the events that would occur on June 1, 1889 was the South Fork Dam.  Located fourteen miles up the Little Conemaugh river it created the two-mile long Lake Conemaugh.  The lake and dam were part of the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club, a private and exclusive club for the Pittsburg rich.  The dam was in poor condition when the club purchased it and alterations to it would prove devastating. 

On May 31, 1889 Elias Unger, the president of the South Fork Club awoke to the sight of the lake swollen after a night of torrential rain.  He quickly noticed that the water was nearly cresting the dam.  Warnings were sent to the towns downstream, including to Johnstown, that there was a very high chance that the dam would fail.  In fact, three warnings in total would be sent.  Mr Unger  gathered a group of men and attempted to do some repairs on the dam, but to no avail. 

At 3:30 pm on June 1,1889 a large gap was opened in the middle of the dam and in less than 40 minutes  the lake was drained.  This wall of water, traveling at the depth and velocity of Niagara Falls, made it's way downstream.  As it traveled it picked up debris along the way.  At times this debris caused it to choke up in the narrow valley it was passing through. But nothing could stop it's progress for long.  

The wall of water, over 36 feet in height and traveling over 40 miles per hour, full of debris including locomotives, buildings, boilers and all the barbed wire from a destroyed factory up river entered Johnstown.     Those who had heeded the warnings and headed to higher ground would relate that the ' streets grew black with people running for their lifes'. 

The water entered the town and was held back by the debris piling up along a train trestle over the Conemaugh River.  This estimated 45 acre mass held homes, machinery, freight cars, railroad track, bridge sections, boilers, telegraph poles, trees, animals and hundreds of people.  The oil soaked jam was immovable and held against the bridge by the current and bound tight by the barbed wire. 

Those who could escape this entanglement did.  For the folks who were trapped a truly horrible end lay in store for them.  The oil caught fire.  As rescuers worked in the dark to free people, flames spread over the whole mass, burning with "all the fury of hell", according to a Johnstown newspaper.  More than 80 people died at the bridge, some still in their own homes!

In all, over 2200 people would die on June 1, 1889.  Most within the 40 minutes it took for the water to travel from the South Fork Club to Johnstown.  It is estimated that 1 out of every 10 people along the rivers 14 mile path was killed.  Some other mind boggling statistics are that 99 entire families were lost.  396 kids under 10 died and 568 kids were left with one or both parents killed.  124 women & 198 men were left widowed.  Finally, 1600 homes and 280 businesses were completely destroyed.  Add to that that  many of  bodies were never identified and hundreds of the missing were never found and  you get an idea of just how complete the devastation was.  

The National Park site is located at the dam.  It's remains are still there, the lake is gone.  The visitor center has a well done display and a great movie.  The city of Johnstown has a musuem about the flood along with an award winning movie.  Included in the admission to this museum is admission to a museum covering the immigrant experience in this area.  It is very well done and definately worth visiting.   

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