The Story of the Johnstown Flood 1889
The Rains Come to Johnstown
Everyone knows the tragic story of the Titanic, the elegant and "unsinkable" ocean liner that hit an iceberg and sank on her maiden voyage from England to New York in 1912, killing 1,514 souls. The enormity of this event has somehow imprinted itself on the public's mind and captured the imagination. Few are aware, however, of an even greater calamity that occurred some twenty-three years earlier in the state of Pennsylvania, U.S.A. It is a story that deserves to be told and to hold an equal place in the collective memories of today's generation - the horrific story of the Johnstown flood.
Johnstown Before the Flood
The Stage Is Set
The morning of May 31, 1889, dawned dark and rainy on the southwestern Pennsylvania city of Johnstown. Many residents woke to find that the lower floors of their homes and businesses were being flooded, due to the heavy rains that had prevailed through the night. They were accustomed to this, as their city was built in a valley beneath a mountainous area, and between the banks of two converging rivers. Many times before, heavy rains or fast-melting snows in spring had caused flooding in the area, and residents and merchants there were used to going into flood mode, which meant moving their household goods and merchandise to upper floors until the waters subsided. This task occupied the community on the morning of 31st May, as homeowners and merchants alike scrambled to salvage everything that they could from the rising waters.
About 14 miles above the city on the mountainside was the South Fork dam, which held back Lake Conemaugh. This lake was the property of the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club and was stocked with fish for the recreation of its prestigious members, which included millionaire Andrew Carnegie. A few small communities dotted the hillside between Johnstown and the dam, which on the morning of 31st was abuzz with frantic activity. Efforts were being hurriedly made to avoid a breakage of the dam, which threatened to send the waters of the lake surging uncontrollably down the mountainside toward the populated areas.
At first, an attempt was made to add height to the dam, but in the pouring rain, these efforts were simply being washed away as quickly as they were built. Next, they tried to dig a spillway to relieve some of the pressure on the dam, but this too was unsuccessful. It was thought that perhaps removing the large screens that kept fish corralled in the lake might be removed to ease the flow of the water. But before this strategy could be implemented, tragedy struck.
Deluge Heads for Johnstown
It was a few minutes after 3 in the afternoon, and residents of Johnstown were annoyed to realize that the flooding of their homes and businesses would not be receding by evening. They resigned themselves to their situation and were beginning to prepare makeshift suppers with what supplies they had with them on their second-floor refuge. Because the frantic telegraph messages that were sent from the contingent at the dam had not been relayed to Johnstown, the people had no way of knowing that the South Fork dam had just burst wide open, and a wall of water was barreling toward them.
The deluge of 20 million tons of water swept through the small towns of South Fork, Mineral Point, East Conemaugh, and Woodvale, wreaking death and destruction and gathering up a debris field of houses and barns, trees, animals and people, and anything else that lay in its path. Survivors from these hillside villages reported that the huge wave didn't even appear to be water, but resembled "a huge hill, rolling over and over." About 57 minutes after bursting through the dam, the waters surged with the force of Niagra Falls into the city of Johnstown. The wall of water and debris, traveling at 40 miles per hour, rose to a height of 60 feet as it bore down on the city, first pouring through the Cambria Iron Works, tossing railroad cars like matchsticks and rolling tons of barbed wire, which was manufactured there, into its deadly mountain of debris.
Flood! What it Was Like at Johnstown
Romey, Rescue Dog
Victims and Survivors
Those in the city of Johnstown who saw or heard the oncoming wave of destruction tried to warn others to prepare as best they could, since there was no hope of escaping the city to reach higher ground in time. People dashed up to attics and clambored onto rooftops, in hopes of being spared. Four of these were the members of the Kress family, who lived on Washington street. Charles Kress, his wife, child and housemaid had climbed onto the roof with the family dog, a large Newfoundland named Romey, to escape the onslaught. As the waters churned around the house, it shook with the tremendous force of the deluge, and suddenly Mrs. Kress, her little girl and the housemaid all slipped off the slick rooftop into the morass of swirling debris. Romey the dog leaped into the fray after his master's family and they latched onto him and were towed back to the edge of the roof, where Mr. Kress pulled them back to safety. Above is a photo of Mr. Kress with his rescued daughter and the hero Newfoundland, Romey.
Main Street, Johnstown After the Flood
Many survivors managed to weather the tragedy in attics and on rooftops, and others rode out the surge on pieces of lumber or other pieces of floating debris. A six-year-old girl named Gertrude Slattery was one of these. She survived the torrent by clinging to a "raft" composed of an old mattress which went hurtling down the main street on the giant wave. She floated past a house with a few dozen people huddled on the rooftop and called out to them. A man plunged into the churning waters and managed to reach the floating mattress and clamber up on it, next to little Gertrude, who clung to him with every ounce of her strength. As they passed another house, they saw some people who were leaning out a second story window, trying to pull others in as they were swept past. "Toss the child to me!" called out one man in the window, and Gertrude's rescuer actually threw the child with all his might in the direction of the open window, where she was caught and pulled in to safety.
The wall of debris tumbled through the town and approached the Stone Bridge, a sturdy arched railroad bridge that spanned the Connemaugh River. The bridge interrupted the flow of the flood for a time, and the massive collection of debris piled up against it, forming a huge mountain of refuse that caught fire, claiming at least 80 victims who were trapped in the flames by the bridge. The fire at the Stone Bridge burned for the next three days.
Destruction at Johnstown
When the waters finally receded, the path of utter destruction it had left behind was almost unfathomable. Four square miles had been completely decimated, including 1,600 homes where 99 entire families had perished. The mass of debris at the Stone Bridge covered 30 acres, and the task of clearing it was nearly insurmountable. When news of the great flood was reported nation-wide, help poured in, in the form of cash, supplies, building materials and Red Cross assistance for the survivors. (It was the first major disaster that the Red Cross was called upon to respond to)
In all, the Johnstown flood claimed a total of at least 2,209 souls, 695 more than would die 23 years later in the Titanic disaster. Many bodies were never found, and there were over 750 bodies that were found who were never identified. They were buried in the "Plot of the Unknown" in Grandview Cemetery, Johnstown, where a memorial statue stands to this day. Incredibly, bodies continued to be found for months and even years after the flood, some as far away as Cincinnati. The last victim of the flood was reportedly found in 1911, twenty-two years after the disaster.
Today, the anniversary of the tragedy is marked every year on 31st May, and there is a museum in Johnstown that chronicles the horrific events of that day. Next time someone brings up the Titanic disaster, they should be reminded that a far more costly tragedy, in terms of loss of life, occurred one rainy afternoon in May of 1889 at the ill-fated city of Johnstown, Pennsylvania.
© 2016 Katharine L Sparrow