Johnstown, PA
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"It is an erroneous opinion that the dam burst--it simply moved away..."

The dam was originally built by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania to be used as a reservoir for the canal basin in Johnstown. But as good ideas go the dam took so long to build that the canal system was obsolete by the Pennsylvania Railroad (PRR). The railroad eventually bought the Pennsylvania Mainline Canal and operated many sections of it for a number of years. While under the PRR’s ownership, the dam broke in 1862. But fortunately the lake was only half full and it was a dry summer.

The PRR sold this particular property to a congressman from Altoona (PA) named John Reilly. Reilly hoped (as many in the area did) that he would be able to sell it to a group interested in starting a resort. Interested buyers were so few that Reilly sold it to the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club at a loss.

The South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club started to repair the dam in 1879, and completed it in 1881. The club stocked the lake (which they called Lake Conemaugh) with one thousand black bass. The dam held for almost ten years, failing during one of the worst storms of the later nineteenth century.

In the early morning hours of May 31, 1889 Unger noticed that the level of Lake Conemaugh had risen considerably during the night of the thirtieth. Elias then made a quick calculation and estimated that the dam was rising 4-6 inches per hour. This scene alarmed Unger and around 10:00 AM he ordered 10-20 Italian laborers to start digging a spillway on the west end of the dam and to try to heighten the top of the breast. The immigrants worked heroically but the situation, unfortunately, grew worse. So Unger ordered a young graduate of the University of Pennsylvania, John Parke (who was also the club’s resident engineer), to ride to the nearest town (South Fork) and get a message to Johnstown about the condition of the dam. During Parke’s ride, water started pouring over the top of the dam and once the young man returned from South Fork saving the dam seemed like a hopeless cause. The water was rising faster than the men could build up the dam so at 2:45 PM Unger returned to his home above the South Fork dam due to exhaustion.> The rain continued as men worked tirelessly to prevent the old South Fork Dam from breaking. Elias Unger, the president of the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club, was hoping that the people in Johnstown were heeding the telegraph warnings sent earlier, which said that the dam might go. When it finally happened, at 3:10 P.M., May 31, 1889, the South Fork dam gave way spilling the entire contents of the 20 million-ton, Lake Conemaugh into the valley leading to Johnstown. An era of the Conemaugh Valley's history ended, and another era started. Over 2,209 people died on that tragic Friday, and thousands more were injured in one of the worst disasters in our Nation's history.