Johnstown, PA
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Johnstown, PA
THE GREAT FLOOD OF JOHNSTOWN, PA
In 1889 the South Fork dam burst, flooding the valley with water and destroying the city of Johnstown, Pa and over two thousand lives.

Extra, extra. All across Pittsburgh, newsboys hawked their papers, spreading word of the catastrophic event that had taken place on May 31, 1889, less than 80 miles to the east. "Johnstown wiped out...Thousands of men, women, and children killed... The horrifying news accounts on the Saturday after the great Johnstown flood were riddled with inaccuracies, but the overwhelming truth remained: the South Fork dam had broken, flooding the valley with an avalanche of water that destroyed the city of Johnstown, claimed more than 2,000 lives, and injured thousands of others.

The South Fork dam was originally created for a reservoir on the western slope of Allegheny Mountain to supply extra water during the dry months for the Johnstown to Pittsburgh branch of the new canal system. The canal was part of a travel system called the Main Line canal, created to compete with New Yorks Erie Canal. As part of the Allegheny Portage Railroad, the canalalong with a series of inclined planes and the Pennsylvania railroadserviced the state from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh.

Work began on the Western Reservoir above South Fork in 1838, with $30,000 appropriated for the project. The state engineer who designed the dam estimated a year to completion. With one lengthy delay due to lack of finances and another caused by a cholera epidemic, 15 years passed and another $210,000 was spent before the dam was finally completed on June 10, 1852the same year the Cambria Iron Works was founded. The dam was made obsolete less than two years later when the Horseshoe curve in Altoona, Pennsylvania was completed, joining Philadelphia to Pittsburgh completely by rail. The canal was put of out business.

The Pennsylvania Railroad later purchased the canal and Portage Railroad for the right of ways, but the dam remained unused, and nothing was done to maintain it.

The dam first broke in 1862, five years after the state sold it to the Pennsylvania Railroad. The Union army had been marching through the Pennsylvania mountains on their way to Richmond when they were hit by heavy thunderstorms. The massive overflow from hundreds of creeks and runs had the Johnstown Tribune speculating for the first time over what could happen if the South Fork dam broke. Eight days later, on June 10, it happened.

The exact size of the break is not known, but little damage was caused. The lake was only half full and the watchman at the dam had released much of the pressure by opening valves. For the next seventeen years the threat of damage from the dam breaking was nonexistent. The lake remained little more than a pond, ten feet deep at its deepest point. Its purchase in 1879 was to change all that.

Benjamin Ruff purchased the 400-acre reservoir and 70 acres of land around it for two thousand dollars. His plan was to create a sportsman and vacation retreat for other wealthy Pittsburghers. Ruffs method of repairing the earth dam included dumping in rock, mud, hay, tree stumps, and almost anything else he could get his hands on. What his method didnt include was an engineer to supervise the work. The discharge pipes removed by the previous owner and sold for scrap were not replaced and many local bystanders looked askance on the construction.

On Christmas day, 1879, less than two months after work was begun, a downpour washed away the repairs and work was discontinued until the following summer. Heavy rains again caused serious damage in February of 1881. The repair work was finally completed in March of that year.

Ruff called his new resort the South Fort Hunting and Fishing Club. Although its membership roster was closely guarded, its prominent members were later revealed to include steel tycoons Andrew Carnegie, Henry Frick, and Andrew Mellon. The water in the reservoir was raised considerably and in June it was stocked with 1,000 black bass.

Almost before the club opened for business rumors about the dam started. On the morning of June 10, 1881, during a flash flood, word spread through Johnstown that the dam was about to break. The Cambria Iron Company sent two men to the lake in order to make a critical inspection. Although they found the water at close to two feet from the breast of the dam they were unconcerned, reporting that the dam looked perfectly solid.

Over the years many people voiced concerns about the dam but it became something of a local joke, when each year nothing happened. That this would be the day the dam would break was often said, then laughed off as an impossibility. Besides, some thought, even if the dam did break they were far enough away that nothing would happen. But one man was concerned enough about the dam to try to do something about it.

From the time that Ruff had purchased the dam and raised the reservoirs water level the head of the Cambria Iron Company, Daniel J. Morrell, expressed concerns about the dam. Morrell was also President of the Savings Bank and the First National Bank, the water company and the gas company, a powerful citizen in his own right. The Pittsburgh steel tycoons had enough respect for him to elect him president of the American Steel and Iron Association. Cambria Iron Company was a major Johnstown employer with an enormous concentration of holdings in the area. They had much to lose if the dam ever broke. He sent Cambrias top engineer, John Fulton, to inspect the dam accompanied by three club members and another engineer sent from Pittsburgh. Fultons report was a serious indictment of the condition of the dam and Morrell forwarded his findings to the clubs president, Ruff.

Two areas appeared to be of serious concern: 1) There was no discharge pipe to reduce or take the water out of the dam for needed repairs. 2) An existing lack of repairs had left a large leak, which appeared to be cutting a new embankment. Since the water could not be lowered, reaching the existing leaks seemed to be impossible. Fulton further stated that if the present level of 40 feet of water should ever reach 60 feet it would only be a matter of time until the former cutting was repeated. And should this break occur during a season of flood, considerable damage might ensue. Fulton advised a thorough overhauling of the present lining on the upper slope and the construction of an ample discharge pipe to reduce or remove the water to make necessary repairs.

Ruff considered the dam to have been repaired sufficiently and denied the need for further repairs. Morrell then requested the Pennsylvania Railroad look into the matter, since they had the greatest investment next to Cambria. The railroad sent two engineers; one agreed with Fultons report and the other thought everything was fine. The railroad chose to agree with the optimistic assessment.

Morrell was not satisfied. He again went to Ruff and offered to have Cambria Iron pay part of the cost to ensure that the dam was absolutely safe. Again he was refused. Morrells death in 1885 was the end of any real push for the dam to be repaired.

It rained hard that Memorial Day, May 30, 1889. This was the first job for the clubs new resident engineer, John Parke, Jr. and loathe to do anything that might anger his new employers, he turned a blind eye on all that was wrong at the dam. Despite the heavy downpour, Parke was confident that the rain would let up and the already high level in the reservoir would not rise appreciably. But when he woke up on Friday morning he discovered that he had been wrong. The rain had continued through the night and the water was just four feet below the top of the dam.

Colonel Unger, the clubs president, had spent a restless night. Warnings he had previously received from the clubs caretaker had been ignored, but he could no longer brush aside the danger. In the morning he finally made the decision to remove the grating over the spillway, but it was too late. The gratings were so rusty and covered with debris that they could not be lifted. An attempt to cut a sluiceway in the west side also failed. At just fourteen inches of digging the workmen hit solid bedrock. Their only hope was that the extra dirt shoveled into the face of the dam would strengthen it enough to hold.

Parke finally realized there was no way to save the dam. At 11:30 a.m. he got on his horse and rode into South Fork to warn the people of their danger. He also sent two men to the South Fork telegraph tower to get word to Johnstown and other towns in danger of flooding. The first message said only that the dam was in bad condition. But another message sent at 1:52 reported water pouring over the top of the dam. Worse news was to follow.

The people of Johnstown should have had three hours warning before the floods arrival, but most of them didnt. As the water rose to cover the downtown area, most people thought it was nothing more than a typical springtime nuisance. Johnstown was no stranger to flooding. The creeks would overflow during times of heavy rains and the downtown area received regular dunkings. While some people were quick to head for higher ground, many others just rolled up their carpets, stacked their furniture, and headed for the second floor. Most doomsayers were still being laughed at and even those who had taken wagons and headed for the hills were sure that they would soon be walking sheepishly back to town.

Meanwhile, word was being passed along the telegraph regarding the dam. A train engineer passed along the information that the dam was about to break to two young men, Alexander Adair and Richard Eyre. The two men tried to spread the word to others, but most people shrugged and said, Weve heard that one before. Adair and Eyre headed for the hills themselves at 3:15 p.m. The first big break in the dam occurred just after three oclock. A ten foot deep slice was washed out of the center. At 3:10 the lake came rushing out of the dam, speeding its contents toward Johnstown.

Many people reported hearing a roar before seeing the huge torrent of water. People raced for the hills and family members were quickly separated. Those remaining inside of wooden buildings soon found themselves being washed along with the flood waters or smashed by heavy debris. Many people who had sought refuge in stone buildings discovered that the rocks strength was no match for the force of the waters: instead of being carried along like those in wooden houses, the walls smashed down upon them.

The flood was out to destroy everything in its path. Trees were uprooted, trains swept away and bridges smashed. But one structure that held fast proved as great a danger as the flood itself. A thirty foot high pile of debris, logs, and homes were jammed against the Stone Bridge along with almost three thousand men, women and children. Many crawled out themselves, but petroleum had spilled from an overturned freight car and the wreckage was on fire. People who had barely escaped the water themselves worked ceaselessly to pull survivors away from the flames. At least three hundred people were killed at the fire.

In the aftermath of the flood, reports were in that 10,000 people had been killed in the disaster. But the final official count was 2,209. Of these, 967 were never found.

Many scavengers and treasure seekers quickly swarmed over the wreckage, but the overwhelming response to the disaster was an outpour of help. Farmers who knew nothing of the disaster arrived for market day and promptly distributed all their food and blankets to survivors. Money, food, and clothing quickly poured into the area and were distributed by the American Red Cross and other volunteers who had flocked to the area. Johnstown was rebuilt, but the dam never was.

Today the Johnstown Flood Museum educates outsiders about the events of that day. But no marker exists at the site of the tragedy. It will not be forgotten.

Written by Cassandra Lott
Copyright 2002 by PageWise, Inc