Head for the Hills: Johnstown Flood

View of the broken dam looking from bed of lake (Credit: Library of Congress)

View of the broken dam looking from bed of lake (Credit: Library of Congress)

The year was 1889. The South Fork Dam in Pennsylvania had existed since 1838 when construction began on it (but was not actually finished until 1852). For years there had been talk about the possibility of the dam giving way and unleashing the body of water called Lake Conemaugh, which was held behind the dam. So far those fears had come to naught although there had been a scare in 1862. Over the years the lake had switched hands before landing itself in the holdings of wealthy businessmen. It was this group who constructed a resort around the lake, calling it the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club.

With the lake came the responsibility of keeping up the dam. Unfortunately it would seem that despite its continual deterioration only very small efforts were made to keep it in working order. In 1880 inspections revealed the dam was seriously lacking and it was surmised that if the lake’s water levels reached a certain height the dam would go. The club president brushed the warnings away and, in effect, told the man that he was completely wrong. In Woodvale, the Cambria Iron Company went so far as to offer to help pay the expenses of repairs. But no. The club wanted to hear nothing more of it. But it was only a matter of time before something bad happened. That day was May 31.

The morning of 31 May 1889 was turning out to be very uncomfortable. The rain was coming down and all morning the two rivers around Johnstown had been steadily rising. Parts of town were already flooded and being abandoned as townspeople evacuated their homes for higher ground. Before noon rolled around several bridges were destroyed by the rising rivers. Sadly, one life had been claimed; a man helping evacuate a family was drowned.

Like the rivers, Lake Conemaugh was steadily rising. Those present at the club feared for the dam and efforts were underway to build the dam up and dig spillways. But everything was happening so fast that the work was met with little success. A man named John Parke raced into South Park, the town located below the dam, to warn people. But his arrival was not regarded as seriously as could be hoped. There had always been talk of the dam going, but nothing had ever happened. The townspeople had grown accustomed to living in the dam’s shadow and although they may have talked, most believed the dam would hold. Parke also recommended Johnstown be warned.

Debris in Johnstown (Credit: Library of Congress)

Emma Ehrenfeld was on a telegraphist on duty in South Fork when Parke’s warning came. When a man came by to tell her to warn Johnstown she was skeptical. She called up another station and got that operator’s opinion. From him she learned that the lines to Johnstown were down due to flooding. The operator assured Ehrenfeld that he would get someone to take the message to Johnstown though. The message eventually arrived, but like South Fork the town largely disregarded the danger. Another message soon followed to state that water was spilling over the South Fork dam. But still the majority of people remained indifferent to the disaster about to take place.

Around 3:00 p.m. the dam gave way. Lake Conemaugh spilled down the mountainside, greedily licking up whatever was in its path. In a little more than half an hour the reservoir had emptied itself and was racing across the Pennsylvanian landscape. The telegraph tower Ehrenfeld had been occupying with two others was destroyed, but not before the trio escaped it. After tearing through South Fork and claiming the first of its victims, the flood went through Mineral Point, East Conemaugh and then to Woodvale. So far it had left behind scraps of land that little resembled the towns they had once been. Woodvale lost over 300 people before the flood moved onto Johnstown. By that time the flood was mde up of more than water. It carried tons of debris, barbed wire and corpses

At about 4:07 p.m. the flood hit Johnstown. Townspeople who seen, or rather, heard it coming were often too shocked to do anything but watch it come hurling towards them, a dark ugly mass that stood about 36 feet high in the middle. For others there was not enough time to react. Traveling in front of the wave was a strong wind which was strong enough to collapse small buildings.

Smashing through Johnstown the waves smacked into a hill which it bounced off of and then took off in several directions. Some of the water managed to reach areas that the Conemaugh River had been unable to. The quick current carried homes, trains and people away on wild rides. Victor Heiser was coming out of the family barn when he noticed his father in the second-story of their home waving Heiser back into the barn. Heiser scrambled in and onto the roof. The barn was swept away and when it neared other waterborne houses he jumped from structure to structure. Hesier would survive the ordeal but he would lose both of his parents to the flood.

Debris at the stone bridge (Credit: Library of Congress)

Piles of debris came to rest at a surviving stone bridge. Among its contents were houses which still held living people. Anywhere from 500-600 people were trapped in the pile. When it caught fire the tortuous screams of the dying carried across town. Some brave souls were able to rescue individuals from the flames, but the majority of the trapped died. In a town that had lost electricity, the flames lit up areas of Johnstown.

The night was long and difficult. Some buildings were still standing and provided shelter for the dying and living. Fires were feared and the possibility of one building, Alma Hall, collapsing was also thought of. Thankfully they held up.

In the aftermath more than $3,000,000 was raised worldwide. In the States Americans rallied to send in supplies, money and people to lend a hand. Suffice it to say the boomtown Johnstown and its resilient population did rebuild, but the Johnstown Flood which claimed 2,209 lives would forever hold a place in the memory of Americans.

Source: McCullough, David. The Johnstown Flood: The Incredible Story Behind One of the Most Devastating Disasters America Has Ever Known.

55 thoughts on “Head for the Hills: Johnstown Flood

  1. Here’s something some of you may be interested in:

    Being a Titanic buff I noticed a few parallels with the Johnstown story and the Titanic.

    First there was a novel called “Futility or the Wreck of Titan” that seemingly predicted the sinking of the Titanic. It was written years before Titanic’s sinking. The same was true of Johnstown. A novel titled “Put Yourself in His Place” had been written years prior to the disaster; it had some uncanny resemblances to the Johnstown Flood.

    Second there is a Titanic myth of a Newfoundland dog swimming around and saving people, supposedly belonging to First Officer William McMaster Murdoch. The Johnstown Flood also had, most likely not true, a Newfoundland saving a woman and a baby by swimming back and forth between land and water.

    Also there is the issue of the last song played by the Titanic which many believe was “Nearer My God to Thee”. With the Johnstown Flood a newspaper reported a family went sailing by in the tumultuous water singing “Nearer My God to Thee”. Likely a false report. Newspapers were issuing some pretty crazy stories at the time.


  2. I love David McCullough’s book about this flood. You might also look into the March 1936 flooding in the Mid-Atlantic states. Many cities had flood waters above the first floors of their buildings.


    • It’s a great read and easy to pay attention to.

      Thank you I will do that. Always on the lookout for possible blog content and of course to learn. 🙂 I live in a town that was hit hard by flooding in 1937 (Ohio River Flood). There are quite a few photos of the damage done and it truly is amazing.


  3. This story has always horrified and fascinated me! The photos just emphasize the tragedy. Is not believing the warnings possibly another similarity?


    • It really is interesting. Now that I’ve read McCullough’s book I can’t believe I’ve been putting it off for so long. He has such a gift for writing.

      Yes that could be another similarity although I think with the Johnstown Flood it was more blatant. With Titanic the warnings were not totally ignored. For instance Titanic was put on a course that the officers thought would steer the ship south of the ice field. Then there was the Mesaba message (it stated the existence of ice right in Titanic’s path) which never reached the bridge. But as many have pointed out, Titanic may not have slowed down even if the bridge had received the Mesaba message. It just wasn’t the habit of transatlantic captains to slow down unless it was completely impossible to proceed.


  4. My husband survived the second Johnstown Flood I think if memory serves me right was 1977. His neighbor was a little old lady who was a baby during the first one and lost both of her parents, her aunt and uncle raised her. The history of the Johnstown floods always was a point of interest to us.


    • So true, as a matter of fact my husband kept his wallet that still had mud in it. He got stranded and had to find higher ground and by morning his car was flooded up to the door handle. So he had to walk in it to find his way home. He said he could not imagine the earlier ones and the devastation they caused.


  5. I learned at the Clara Barton House that helping Jonestown after the flood was one of the first disaster relief efforts of the American Red Cross. My husband grew up in the area, and he clearly remembers the 1977 flood caused by Agnes.


    • McCullough wrote about Barton’s hand in the Johnstown Flood (she stayed there for months, helping with the recovery!). I’d like to write a post about Clara Barton. She led such a life!

      I was reading about the ’77 Flood. It was a lot of water at 130 million gallons, but the 1889 flood was 4.8 billion. Can you imagine that?!


  6. Great account as always, JG. What a terrible catastrophe. In a way it reminds me of the equally tragic disaster of the Vajont dam in the north Italian region of Friuli, which in 1963 also claimed some 2,000 lives – if you are interested to know more, here is a link about it: http://www.environmentandsociety.org/arcadia/expecting-disaster-1963-landslide-vajont-dam
    Notes to self: (i) beware of most “wealthy businessmen” owning structures potentially posing a threat to a community; (ii) beware of people who think they know better than flood or disaster warnings; (iii) never buy a house below a dam. 😉


    • Thank you so much for that link. So very interesting and the before and after photos help visualize just how bad it had been. I smell a potential blog post here.

      That’s a very good list, Stefano. You might also add never live or travel near a person who owns a Newfie. Those dogs have a tendency to be around when disasters involving water happen. I have nothing against the breed personally, mind you, but I wouldn’t want to be on a ship with one. 😉


    • Glad you found the link interesting, JG: I have to say, I would love to read a post from you with your take of the Vajont disaster.
      And excellent point regarding Newfies: my daughter keeps asking for a dog, and now that breed is definitely off the table! 😉


    • I’ll try to dig up some sources and hopefully have a post about this before the end of the year.

      I hope Newfie owners don’t see my comment, but I think that would be a good idea. 🙂


  7. What a nightmarish situation. I was unaware of the effect where a strong wind preceded the wave of water as it approached the town, and knocked down buildings; I suppose the only blessing for those who were in the path of the water and on foot was that the end came quickly.


    • It really was tragic. It had to be a shock; one moment someone is standing there going about their normal and then the next mowed down by winds, water or debris (in some cases not so normal, two neighbors were goofing around by passing coffee and tea to each other from house to house via broom).


    • Indeed it can. The failure of the dam certainly did little to strengthen “common” people’s trust in the wealthy businessmen at the time. It’s difficult to fathom – whole families lost. 😦


  8. What a riveting story! Gruesome descriptions! I read with my mouth open, and my stomach sick. We live in the base of a dam that used to be troubled by floods. Of course ours is constantly monitored by the Corps of Engineers, but it makes it a very poignant tale. That’ s a lot of lives lost. Think of the horror to survive the flood and burn in the fire. It’s going to take a while to get over this one!


    • It is amazing. And a shame too. I wonder how many lives could have been saved if the warning had only been headed?

      Nor can I. Will have to do some rooking around. 🙂


  9. What a tragic story, and how neglectful of all those people who ignored the warnings. Water is such a powerful force. I live in a city on top of a mountain and until 2011 it didn’t flood. Then we had weeks and weeks of rain, followed by more torrential rain in one day. The centre of the city was flooded by a wall of water, which then flowed down the mountainside and washed away homes and people. It was dreadful.


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