The Johnstown Flood-May 31, 1889

Hi everyone,

Welcome back to this week’s blog post and thanks to everyone for checking in. For the first time in a while I have new material! On May 15th, we traveled from our home in Madison, Wisconsin to State College, Pennsylvania. Our original plan was to make the trip in one day. But a failed water pump delayed our arrival until noon on the 16th. I’m working on a piece to tell the story of our misfortune. Stay tuned for that in a couple of weeks.

Tomorrow, May 31st is the 132nd anniversary of the infamous Johnstown Flood. During our stay in State College, we made a day trip to see the site of the Johnstown Flood National Memorial. I’d heard of the flood either in high school history class or read about it in a book. In addition, a number of movies and documentaries were made over the years about Johnstown. While the National Memorial focuses on the deadly and disastrous flood of 1889, a flood in 1977 caused significant damage to the city. This caused several companies to move their businesses to less flood prone locations. The news of the more recent disaster might be where information about the city of Johnstown became stored away in my brain.

Johnstown is located in a narrow valley surrounded by steep hills in rugged, scenic southwest Pennsylvania. It’s about sixty-five miles straight east of Pittsburgh with a current population of about 20,000 people. At the height of the iron, steel and coal industries, Johnstown boasted a population of nearly 70,000. With the threat of floods and increased environmental concerns, those industries either scaled back or moved to other locations. As with a lot of industrial towns, they have adapted the best they could to new service industries such as health care and insurance.

The Johnstown Flood National Memorial is operated is operated by the National Park Service.

The nicely done Visitor Center provides details on what led to the flood that took over 2200 lives and destroyed Johnstown in less than ten minutes. By all accounts, Johnstown celebrated Decoration Day on May 30, 1889 (now Memorial Day) to honor deceased Civil War veterans with visits to the local cemetery, a parade, and other festivities.

Heavy rain began to fall that evening on already saturated soil and filled the South Fork Little Conemaugh and North Fork Little Conemaugh Rivers to flood stage. Early on the 31st, it was observed that Lake Conemaugh, backed up by the South Fork Dam, was dangerously high. Messages were telegraphed to towns down river to warn them to evacuate. The South Fork Dam was built years before, then abandoned, until a group of wealthy businessmen purchased the Lake and Dam for recreational and leisure purposes. Without the oversight by a qualified engineer, the dam settled and weakened due to the lack of maintenance. With the significant rainfall and debris blocking the spillway, the dam gave way. An estimated twenty-million tons of water was sent coursing fourteen miles down the Little Conemaugh River to Johnstown. It is said the wall of water was up to seventy-five feet high and traveled at the rate of forty miles per hour. Debris in the form of uprooted trees and buildings tore out bridges. In places, the debris caught fire that added to the disastrous effects of the water.

The Visitor Center was filled with photographs and artifacts from the flood. On the first level, there as a recorded, chilling, first-hand account by a flood survivor. He described his effort to save himself from being swept away by the flood waters. He was the only person in his family that survived.

There is a thirty-five minute movie that describes the lead up and aftermath of the flood. It is very well done but quite disturbing. We all walked out of the theatre a bit depressed by the loss of life and devastation that likely could have been avoided. As they say, “hindsight is 100%.” Those poor folks.

If there is one positive from that came from the Johnstown Flood of 1889, it was recognition of the aid provided by the American Red Cross. Clara Barton, then the President of the Red Cross and fifty volunteers arrived on the scene and supplied assistance for five months. Barton had visited Europe where she learned about the Red Cross movement. She came back to the US and organized the American chapter in 1881. The help Barton and the Red Cross provided to Johnstown gave the organization credibility. Word of the flood traveled around the United States and around the world. This news resulted in monetary support for the survivors and disaster clean up. Within a month, one of the largest employers was back in business. It demonstrated the resilience of the people.

After our stop at the Visitor Center, we drove down the hill to view the spillway and dam site.

From the parking lot, it’s a short walk on a level accessible path to the Spillway and Dam Overlook.

After crossing the bridge above the Spillway, we made our way to the observation overlook to see the failed South Fork Dam.

At the overlook, we could see where the dam gave way and sent all that water down the river to Johnstown. The dam was never repaired and a railroad track was built through the cut. I was happy the coal train cars were sidelined, it made it easier to determine the scale of the dam and the water it backed up.

Our final stop was at the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club located nearby in the Historic District in Saint Michael, PA. This was the club that owned the dam and lake that flooded Johnstown. Survivors took legal action against the owners but never recovered any money. It is said that the owners made significant donations for disaster relief but was considered by the locals as inadequate based on the scale of the damage.

I’m a big fan of parks, monuments, historic sites, and memorials managed by the National Park Service. They are well designed and educational. Johnstown is no different, it well worth a visit of a few hours to learn more about our nation’s history. With more time, visitors can visit the reportedly excellent local museum in Johnstown. One can also drive near or along the Little Conemaugh River to follow the fourteen mile journey the flood waters took from the Lake to the city. In addition to the historical significance, you’ll be awed by the scenic beauty.

Until next week, happy travels!



2 thoughts on “The Johnstown Flood-May 31, 1889

  1. Am glad you reminded me. This is one of my PA places to visit yet. Love getting my passport book stamped at the National Parks.

    1. If you have the time also check out the Flight 93 Memorial and the Allegheny-Portage Railroad National Historic Site. Both are close to Johnstown. We’ve been to Flight 93, sad but awesome. We didn’t have time to take in the Railroad site, saved for a future visit. Also, the museum in Johnstown is said to be very well done. It’s a joy to get our Passport stamped at these national treasures. Take care.

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