Residents of the Pennsylvania steel town on that fateful May morning in the spring of 1889 heard a dull rumble in the distance that might have been the sound of thunder, and they noted a breeze blowing from the northeast that was probably accompanied by a strange muddy smell. . A train heading for Johnstown emitted a constant whine as if the whistle was stuck. As the roar grew, so did the wind, shaking trees and ripping wood from nearby buildings.
Then they saw it coming, and for most it was too late. One observer who survived the disaster remarked that the debris-filled wave looked like “a huge hill rolling over and over”. Huge boiler explosions expelled a black “death haze”. These were the last sounds and sights more than 2,200 people experienced as a 75-foot-tall tsunami of water and debris slammed into the small landlocked town.
“What seemed to make the most lasting impression was the cloud of dark spray hanging over the front of the wave…it was referred to as ‘the mist of death’ and would always be remembered”, wrote historian David G. McCullough in his 1968 book, “The Johnstown Flood.”
More than 130 years ago, entire communities in central Pennsylvania were wiped out in minutes as a 40-foot-tall tsunami-like wave ripped through the town of Johnstown, about 60 miles to the east of Pittsburgh. For years, the only thing that had protected the city from tragedy was a neglected dam and, ostensibly, people ignoring the warning signs of impending doom.
“No one could see the immense height at which this artificial dam had been built without fearing the enormous power of the water behind it…People wondered and asked why the dam was not reinforced, because it had certainly become weak, but nothing was done, and little by little they talked about it less and less,” said a resident of Johnstown in the 19th century.
The South Fork Dam was built in 1852 to provide a source of clean water to the area, according to Tata and Howard, a water consultancy and engineering firm. The dam was rebuilt just 10 years later after a minor breach. The reconstruction of the dam created Lake Conemaugh, a large man-made lake held back by the South Fork Dam.
Maintenance of the dam was transferred to the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club in 1881, which used the land around the lake to build a recreation area. This new area has been visited and appreciated by the club‘s elite clientele who traveled from Pittsburgh.
Several modifications have been made to the dam by the private club to improve the experience of their members. In order to maintain the fish population, the club installed fish screens in the spillway and blocked the drainage pipes from the dam, causing the lake to fill dangerously, especially during the spring rainy season.
Heavy rains in the spring of 1889 caused the water in the lake to swell, putting enormous pressure on the dam. As the debris accumulated in the lake, the fish screens added by the club acted as a trap and prevented water from moving through the weir, causing the debris to stay in the lake and raised the water level even further.
An artist’s illustration of the 1889 Johnstown flood, reproduced from a lithograph published by Kurz & Allison Art Publishers. (Library of Congress)
In late May, a spring storm brought heavy rain to the eastern United States, including central Pennsylvania. Water from the lake rose from the storm and began to spill over the top of the dam. People who saw the imminent danger were dispatched to the communities below to alert residents to evacuate.
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In years past, similar warnings have been given for minor seasonal flooding of the Little Conemaugh River, so few residents heeded that warning, unaware of the disaster that was about to unfold.
Just after 3 p.m. on May 31, 1889, the South Fork Dam collapsed, sending nearly 5 billion gallons of water rushing into communities below. In just 10 minutes, the large body of water tore through the communities of South Fork, Mineral Point, Woodvale and East Conemaugh.
May 1889 Flood, Main Street, Johnstown, PA. John Shultze’s house was pierced by a tree following the flood. (American Red Cross Archives)
Train engineer John Hess heard the roar of the flood moving towards the rail terminal where he awaited orders. Hess quickly strapped on his train engine’s whistle and drove it west where the flood would soon impact, warning residents of the impending powerful flood. Many residents of communities along the train’s track heard the continuous siren of the whistle and fled.
Everything in the path of the tsunami-like wave piled up as it rushed in, including barns, homes, and even city buildings. Trees, rocks, timber and railway carriages were swept away in the raging water as it inundated several communities.
About an hour after the initial collapse, water had pooled in a 40–foot–high wave that measured nearly half–mile wide and rushing at 40 miles per hour. This dangerous and deadly wave of water was on a direct path to hit Johnstown.
Within minutes, 1,600 homes were swept away and more than 2,000 people were killed, including 99 entire families, according to History.com. The wave was so strong that 170,000–the impound locomotives were thrown nearly 5,000 feet from the tracks. Debris, including houses, piled up on the stone bridge in Johnstown and burst into flames.
“The terrible rushing waters opened the breach with such increasing rapidity that soon after the whole lake blew up…It only took 40 minutes to drain those 3 miles of water,” said John Parke , engineer of the South Fork Club, on the day of the disaster. .
The people standing on the rooftops in this striking image are likely tourists who have come to view the flood destruction. (Johnstown Area Heritage Association)
Bodies were found up to 22 years later and up to 350 miles from Johnstown in Cincinnati. The Johnstown Flood of 1889 was the largest single-day loss of civilian life in the United States until the World Trade Center collapsed amid the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, according to the Johnstown Area Heritage Association.
The devastating 1889 flood was also an opportunity for the newly created American Red Cross, which was founded by nurse and Civil War hero Clara Barton in 1881. Barton and more than 60 volunteers arrived on the scene of Washington, DC, about five days after the flood. It became the first major disaster relief opportunity for the organization, which helped provide care and support to victims. In total, the Red Cross distributed new and used supplies worth approximately $211,000 and assisted approximately 25,000 people.
“The comprehensive media coverage of the Johnstown flood and the relief effort helped make the American Red Cross the leading disaster relief agency in the United States,” says the Johnstown Area Heritage Association.
Although this disaster was the most serious tragedy the city of Johnstown has seen in history, it would be far from the last catastrophic weather event. Almost 50 years later, in 1936, Johnstown was the center of another disastrous flood.
In March of that year, melting snow caused heavy runoff that amplified flooding caused by three days of heavy rain. Flood levels were as high as 14 feet and killed more than 20 people. Nearly 3,000 buildings were badly damaged and 77 were destroyed, causing damage estimated at $41 million.
About 40 years later, more severe flooding would hit Johnstown in the summer of 1977. A severe thunderstorm stalled over Johnstown and poured over a foot of rain over the town, overflowing several small streams. Water overflowed the canal system at Johnstown and several dams broke. About $300 million in property damage was caused by the flooding and 85 people were killed.
Today, a memorial for the victims of the Johnstown flood remains at the site of the disaster, in addition to a visitor center and museum. Each year on its anniversary, 2,209 luminaries are lit to honor each victim of the floods caused by the catastrophic event.
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