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“I believe the dam has burst!”

Estimated reading time: 7 minutes

Photo above: 1937 view of the site of the old South Fork Reservoir Dam, the collapse of which caused the Johnstown flood of 1889. 

“I saw a number of children playing in the water in the street with a big dog hitched to a floating door. A youngster of two or three sat on the raft; while a boy of ten with his pantaloons rolled up high on his thighs led the dog, and four others, from eight to twelve perhaps, followed laughing behind, splashing the water, making waves to rock the floating door to terrify the youngster.

“I heard a man playing on the violin, after the fashion of a mountain fiddler, The Arkansas Traveler, and call out as if he were playing for a rural ball, ‘Ladies to the right!’

“A few seconds afterward, a shrill whistle sounded up the valley, followed by another, and a third in rapid succession. Startled men and women appeared at the doors and windows on both sides of the street.

” ‘There’s something up!’ cried one; ‘Fire!’ screamed another; while ‘I believe the dam has burst!’ exclaimed a third.”

Homes and burning buildings are washed away by floodwaters as debris is trapped at the Pennsylvania Railroad bridge; dead and dying people wash up on shore or are swept away while others attempt rescue, flee, or pray for relief.
Homes and burning buildings are washed away by floodwaters as debris is trapped at the Pennsylvania Railroad bridge; dead and dying people wash up on shore or are swept away while others attempt rescue, flee, or pray for relief.

The South Fork Dam, located on the south fork of the Little Conemaugh River, 14 miles upstream of the town of Johnstown, PA, had indeed burst. Writer Jane Jansen found herself trapped in downtown Johnstown at that exact moment.Jane Jansen; a story of a woman’s heritage in the heart of Appalachia. The Oliver Publishing House. https://www.loc.gov/item/09002240/">1

“The horses dashed through the water, which either by a descent in the street, or a rise in the Flood, suddenly rose above the floor of the carriage and wet my feet. I was on Bedford Street, and whether or not I could gallop thence to Green Hill and secure a place of absolute safety I did not know, and I saw no street running in the direction of the hill. I had little time, however, to consider what to do; for as I rose from my seat I heard an appalling roar descending the valley, and a succession of crashes that convinced me that Lake Conemaugh in reality had burst its bounds and was rushing down upon the city.

“The carriage being more on the sidewalk than in the street, I readily stepped to a porch and entered the open door [to its house]. The stairs were in front of me and I ran up them hurriedly.

“The din of the flood then attracting my attention, I went to a window facing the sound and looked out. 

1889 bird's-eye view of the Conemaugh Valley from Nineveh to the lake, Johnstown, Pa. : from personal sketches and surveys of the Pennsylvania R.R.
1889 bird’s-eye view of the Conemaugh Valley from Nineveh to the lake, Johnstown, Pa. : from personal sketches and surveys of the Pennsylvania R.R.

“I saw the rounded and ragged point of a great wedge of water, bearing upon it a toppling mass of trees and houses and railroad cards, parting the city in twain in front of me beneath a cloud of dust and spray, and leaving in its widening wake a great flattened area in which a few large houses and churches stood immovable, while other large and small houses tumbled together and rolled over and fell to pieces in a conglomeration of floating objects which seemed to comprise every structural thing made by man, from a railroad bridge to a cradle; and here and there in the midst of the wreckage scores of horses and hundreds of human beings—men, women and children—the dead floating as calmly as the drift-wood around them, and the living in as many phases of an agonizing struggle for existence in the awful cauldron of angry waters as there were individuals.”

The Great Johnstown Flood of May 31, 1889 is remembered as the worst disaster by dam failure in American history. In fact, it was the greatest single-day civilian loss of life in this country before a 1900 tidal wave in Galveston, TX killed 5,000 people. 2,209 lives were lost that afternoon, and property damages tallied $17 million (about $484 million today). The 1889 flood was the biggest news story of its era, and the biggest scandal, as many of the leading industrialists of the day were members of the South Fork Hunting and Fishing Club that owned the dam. The relief effort was the first major peacetime disaster for Clara Barton and the fledgling American Red Cross.FACTS ABOUT THE 1889 FLOOD. Johnstown Area Heritage Association. https://www.jaha.org/attractions/johnstown-flood-museum/flood-history/facts-about-the-1889-flood/">2

Postcard caption reads: "Scene Above the Famous Stone Bridge After the Johnstown Flood. May 31, 1889. Over 3000 Lives lost. Johnstown, Pa."
Postcard caption reads: “Scene Above the Famous Stone Bridge After the Johnstown Flood. May 31, 1889. Over 3000 Lives lost. Johnstown, Pa.”

“The South Fork Dam formed a water basin 12,000 feet long, averaged 1,000 feet wide and over 50 feet deep, thus holding back 16,000,000 tons of water,” explained the Pittsburgh Dispatch two days after the flood.Pittsburgh Dispatch. https://www.newspapers.com/image/76228626/?terms=%22south%20fork%20dam%22%20%22johnstown%2C%20pa%22&match=1">3“When the flood broke, in addition to the raging torrents that went rushing down the mountain side from the incessant rains, 16,000,000 tons, like a tidal wave 25 feet high, went rushing down, sweeping everything before it with irresistible destruction. Sixteen million tons of water! What a mighty force rushing down the mountain side with a fall of more than 500 feet. No wonder that it swept everything before it!”

“What the flood became for Victorian America was more or less a symbol for what was wrong with our country,” said Johnstown Flood Museum director Richard Burkert on the 100th anniversary of the flood. The Philadelphia Inquirer. https://www.newspapers.com/image/176727224/">4 “Back when no one gets a vacation, these rich guys are spending a vacation up there. And their pleasure lake breaks and brings death down upon the city workers here in Johnstown.”

What caused the South Fork Dam to give way? For one thing, the 72-foot-high earthen dam had been weakened by extraordinarily heavy rains of up to 10 inches in the 24 hours preceding the break. “Opinions of engineers on the cause of the failure of the structure varied,” said Dr. Leland R. Johnson in The Military Engineer.The Military Engineer, 66(429), 42-45. Retrieved May 14, 2021, from http://www.jstor.org/stable/44562705">5 “Some thought the center of the dam had settled during the years; others pointed out that the spillway was partly obstructed by a fish screen and bridge against which debris collected, thereby reducing spillway capacity.” The dam’s owners had politely shrugged off an 1880 engineering study warning that the dam was dangerous.The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, 82(2), 251-252. Retrieved May 14, 2021, from http://www.jstor.org/stable/20089088">6

“The millionaires of the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club never returned to the empty lake bed that was once their grand resort. The lodge fell into disrepair, became a sanitarium for a time, and now [as of 1989]  is a run-down bar and grill where nobody talks much about the flood.7 

South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club members by Lake Conemaugh in 1879,
South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club members by Lake Conemaugh in 1879,

“Flood survivors filed several lawsuits against the South Fork resort, but lost them all and never collected a cent. Only a few of the club members, most notably Andrew Carnegie, are known to have contributed to the relief effort.”

More articles on floods:

This old auto was trapped in the rising waters(Opens in a new browser tab)

They watched a house float down the river with a rooster on the rooftop(Opens in a new browser tab)

The flood trapped people before they knew what was upon them(Opens in a new browser tab)

The flood that convinced Huntington to build a flood wall(Opens in a new browser tab)

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