We hear a lot about flooding these days. Hurricane Katrina reminded us that those who are exposed to wave wash or flooding need to have federal flood insurance. In 2007, remnants of the first hurricane of the season to make U.S. landfall brought little wind to Texas, but tons of water. Flooding covered the Southwest. Then, weather turned bad in the upper Midwest, the Chicago rivers overflowed, and people took to rowboats.

The “Worst” Disaster?

Despite many claims that Hurricane Katrina was “the worst disaster,” in comparison with other American catastrophes, it was only perhaps in the top 10, maybe even top 15. What about the 1900 Galveston hurricane that wiped out the city? Or the one that hit the Florida Keys in 1936? Or the Mississippi River flood of 1927? What about earthquakes, and Sept. 11? And what about the more than 2,000 people killed by the May 31, 1889 flood in Johnstown, Pa.?

The Johnstown flood serves as a reminder that our infrastructure bears watching, that over-confidence can kill, and that the cry of “Wolf!” is not always a false alarm. The Johnstown story is a story of millionaires, of railroads, of 19th century communications, of weather, and of geography. It is largely a transportation story.

The Canal Era

The seeds of the Johnstown flood were planted in the early 19th century when the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania decided to challenge New York’s Erie Canal with a cross-state canal of their own. It was a major construction project called the Main Line Canal, and it ran from Philadelphia to Hollidaysburg, at the foot of Allegheny Mountain. From there, a unique series of inclined planes were employed to haul canal barges up one side of the mountain and down the other, using ropes “as thick as a man’s leg.” It was here that John Augustus Roebling, the man who built the Brooklyn Bridge, stepped in and designed an iron cable to replace the often-shredding ropes, making the portage over the mountain easier. On the west side of the mountain was the narrow-gauge Portage Railroad, which led to the continuation of the canal along the Conemaugh River. But to feed the canal, a reservoir was built on South Fork Creek in 1838. It required a dam, and created a lake called the Western Reservoir.

A few years after the canal reached the Allegheny River, following the Conemaugh through the small town of Johnstown, the construction of the Pennsylvania Railroad completed its tunnel and route through the mountains, making the canal obsolete. The state elected to sell it for $1 million, but had no buyers. Eventually, the railroad bought it and used much of it as additional right-of-way space. It also kept the narrow gauge Portage Railroad, which had built a high stone viaduct over the Conemaugh, just beyond where the Little Conemaugh and the South Fork Creek merged to form the larger river. In Johnstown itself, the Stony Creek also merged with the Conemaugh, and to tap the growing commerce of Johnstown, the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad had built a line into the town from the south along Stony Creek.

A New Earthen Dam

The puny dam and reservoir built for the canal had created little more than an overgrown puddle on South Fork Creek. In 1879, at a cost of $17,000, the dam was built considerably higher, until it stood some 72 feet above the creek, and contained a lake several miles long. There were several farms in the valley below the dam, one having a bridge over the creek. A roadway was built over the crest of the dam, and another long roadway ran to the southeast of the lake, now known as Conemaugh Lake.

A number of wealthy Pittsburgh businessmen had purchased the dam, lake, and the surrounding property, stocked the lake with game fish, and built a clubhouse and summer cottages along the shore and hillside on the southeast side. The nearest village was South Fork, built at the convergence of the Little Conemaugh and the South Fork Creek. A bit further west was the pretty little village of Mineral Point, just west of the Portage — now Pennsylvania Railroad — high stone viaduct.

The men who owned the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club, nicknamed the “Bosses Club” by one Pittsburgh newspaper, were mostly millionaires. Membership was $800, a large sum in the 1880s. The names included Andrew Carnegie, the steel magnate; Henry C. Frick, who had cornered the coke business, a vital product in steel-making; and Henry Phipps, Jr., Carnegie’s partner. Other members included Carnegie empire members such as John Leishman, the banker Andrew Mellon, and Philander Chase Knox, Carnegie’s lawyer. Big shots of the Pennsylvania Railroad, Pittsburgh glass manufacturers, department store owners, even a DuPont or two, were members.

Crying “Wolf!”

Several times during its reconstruction, heavy rains had washed out the new dam, but despite a bit of a surge in the Conemaugh as it passed through Johnstown, there had been no disasters. The Conemaugh flooded regularly anyway, and only the very poor of the town actually lived along its banks, primarily along the western side of the town, which had been formed from a number of smaller villages.

The dam had a spillway built to one side in the rock, to drain excess water and keep the South Fork Creek flowing. The dam itself was earthen, containing a lot of debris and logs from the hillsides and future lake bottom that had been cut down, although forest still lined the lake shore and the club area. There was a telephone at the clubhouse, but it was only activated in the summer.

Periodically, if there was a heavy rain, word would reach Johnstown that “the dam is failing,” but it never did. People trusted it. Besides, they thought, there were enough twists and turns in the several miles between Lake Conemaugh and Johnstown that any spillage over the dam in heavy rain would dissipate long before reaching the busy city. Even the viaduct would surely slow down any torrent.

In his 1968 book, The Johnstown Flood, historian and author David McCullough cites a story in the Johnstown newspaper, The Tribune, in which one Johnstown steel mill, the Cambria Iron Company, dispatched two of its men to inspect the dam after one of the warnings. They reported it as looking “perfectly solid,” with the water only a few feet below the dam’s top. The newspaper reported, “Several of our citizens who have recently examined the dam state it as their opinion that the embankment is perfectly safe to stand all the pressure that can be brought to bear on it, while others are a little dubious in the matter. We do not consider there is much cause for alarm, as even if the event of the dike breaking, there is plenty of room for the water to spread out before reaching here, and no damage of the moment would result.”

A Weather Phenomenon

The week before Memorial Day, May 31, 1889, had been wet. The Memorial Day parade in Johnstown was always a big event as there were still Civil War veterans in town who remembered, and the local cemeteries were carefully decorated. But this year had been wetter than usual. Had it not been late May, one might have suspected that a Gulf hurricane had crossed over the South, up the Ohio Valley and simply stopped over Western Pennsylvania. It had rained heavily for days.

One might also have suspected that it was like the weird weather that had blanketed the world for nearly three years after the explosion of Mr. Krakatoa in Indonesia in August of 1883 – but the last remnants of that phenomenon had ended in 1886. It was a stationary low pressure system that had gotten stuck over the Western Appalachians, part of a system ravaging the entire northeastern quarter of the nation. McCullough writes, “When the storm struck western Pennsylvania it was the worst downpour that had ever been recorded for that section of the country. The Signal Service called it the most extensive rainfall of the century for so large an area, and estimated that from six to eight inches of rain fell in 24 hours over nearly the entire central section. On the mountains there were places where the fall was 10 inches.” Johnstown’s holiday parade went on regardless of the rain.

The South Fork Club had hired 22-year-old John G. Parke, Jr. as a sort of resident engineer-caretaker for the clubhouse and dam. He was concerned by the amount of rain that was falling. He and another worker at the club took a boat out on the lake in the rain to inspect. Some other workmen were attempting to expand a second spillway at the north end of the dam, but were making little progress, as floating debris was collecting against the pipes leading to the spillway. The two rowed around the lake where they found that every creek and stream was overflowing its contents into the lake, with logs, fence posts and other debris washed from the sides of the embankments into the lake, all floating toward the dam. They tied up the boat at one, hiked up the creek a bit, and by the time they returned a short time later, the lake level had risen straining the boat on its anchorage. They were worried.

Locals had begun to gather at the dam, shaking their heads, and wondering if it would hold. Someone went down to the South Fork station on the Pennsylvania Railroad and had the operator send a telegram to Johnstown. “South Fork Dam is liable to break,” it read. “Notify the people of Johnstown to prepare for the worst,” signed “Operator.” The Johnstown freight agent received it a few minutes later, and passed the word on to a handful of people who happened to be around the station. Several read the message and laughed. A local minister heard the rumor that the dam might break. He went on writing his Sunday sermon. Word got around, slowly, but few responded. The heavy rain had caused a rail washout along the side of the river, stranding an express passenger train. Further up the valley another locomotive was stopped. With the heavy rain the engineer feared that the lower bridge might wash out, and elected to move the locomotive over it, and to higher ground. He had barely cleared the bridge when the dam broke.

Colonel Elias J. Unger was the resident president of the South Fork Club. He, too, had gone to the dam to inspect, and insisted that word be sent downstream that the dam was about to break. “But no one who was on hand that afternoon was prepared for what happened when Lake Conemaugh started for South Fork,” McCullough says. “‘Oh, it seemed to me as if all the destructive elements of the Creator had been turned loose at once in that awful current of water,’ Colonel Unger said. When the dam let go, the lake seemed to leap into the valley like a living thing, ‘roaring like a mighty battle.’”

A Drained Lake

In slightly over half an hour the entire lake had washed through the collapsing dam and drained down the South Fork Creek and Conemaugh River. Two farm families below the dam managed to escape, but the torrent tore out their houses and barns, carrying livestock, fences, trees, and anything else in its path down the valley. Near Mineral Point a cow managed to wedge itself against the bridge posts, but then lost its footing and was carried on down river. Locals gathered along the lake bottom to collect the fish still flopping in the mud.

The flow took boulders, trees, bridges and houses with it as it flowed. At the oxbow in the river, above which the Portage Viaduct stood, the debris piled up, momentarily blocking the deluge, but it quickly cut a new path and roared onward, carrying rails, ties, and railroad cars with it. Still the rain fell relentlessly.

Some said the wall of water that hit Johnstown was seventy feet high. It was likely only twenty feet, but that was a solid wall of water and debris that nothing–brick, rock, wood, or concrete–could resist. Certainly no human or animal could survive it. Buildings in the downtown area of the city were ripped from their foundations and smashed to pieces, their occupants inside. Houses were washed away and broken into bits. Anything that stood in the torrent’s path was gathered up and became a hammer to the next standing object.

“An appalling catastrophe is reported from Johnstown, Cambria County, the meager deals of which indicate that that city of 25,000 inhabitants has been practically wiped out of existence and that hundreds, if not thousands of lives have been lost,” The New York Times reported on Saturday, June 1, 1889. “The flood swept onward to the Conemaugh like a tidal wave, over twenty feet in height, to Johnstown, six or eight miles below, gathering force as it tore along through the wider channel, and quickly swept everything before it. Houses, factories, and bridges were overwhelmed in the twinkling of an eye, and with their human occupants, were carried in a vast chaos down the raging torrent.”

Thousands Killed in 10 Minutes

The flood, of course, ripped out the telegraph wires through the valley, severing communication to the outside world. Hugh trees crashed into the second and third floor windows of buildings along the main streets of the city, and the people, houses, animals, and everything else were ripped out and smashed to pieces. The Times reported that at one railway telegraph office 12 miles west of Johnstown nearly a hundred human bodies had floated by on the river. Another railroad operator reported counting 119 persons clinging to debris or ripped buildings as they floated by in the torrent.

The storm that had ravaged the mountainsides along the South Fork had damaged the entire state. Flooding was so bad that westbound trains from Philadelphia were stopped at Harrisburg. Eastbound trains halted at Pittsburgh. Help would not soon be arriving on the Pennsylvania Railroad.

There was, however, that second, competing route on the Baltimore & Ohio. In Railroad Avenue, Freeman H. Hubbard’s 1945 anthology of railroad stories and legends, he quotes B&O Engineer, Mark Ridenour, who had just arrived in Connellsville with Engine 610 when word of the flood was received. He and his crew steamed northward with volunteers to render whatever aid was possible.

“At length,” said Ridenour, “we reached Johnstown. Scenes that met my eyes there could beggar description. We were among the first rescuers to arrive, and the doctors and nurses plunged into the job without delay. My fire boy was in a lather of sweat. He was wiping his face with a bandanna and leaning against the side of the cab.” The old locomotive was in poor shape, and “was smoking from every journal box… although, thank God, it had brought us to Johnstown.”

The Aftermath

Although the exact number who were killed may never be known, the conservative estimate was 2500, one tenth of the population of Johnstown, although the New York World headlines read, “10,000 Dead – Half its People Killed.” South Fork, where houses were built on the hillside above the river, lost but a few. The viaduct was cut off, but still stood, with tons of debris piled beneath it.

“The problems to be faced immediately were enormous and critical,” writes McCullough. “People were ravenously hungry, most everyone having gone 24 hours or more without anything to eat, and now there was virtually no food anywhere.”

He continues, “People had no money, except what change they may have had in their pockets at the time the water struck, and even if they did, there were no stores left at which to buy anything. There was no gas or electric light. Fires were burning in a dozen different places, and no one knew when a gas main might explode. Every telegraph and telephone wire to the outsides world was down. Bridges were gone, roads impassable. And with the dead lying about everywhere, plus hundreds of carcasses of drowned horses, cows, pigs, dogs, cats, birds, rats, the threat of a violent epidemic was very serious indeed.” There was no dry clothing, no medicine. Children wandered about, seeking parents who had been lost in the torrent.

There was no place to rest, no let-up of the rain. To make matters worse, a cold front was approaching. It may have been June 1, but frost had damaged crops in Iowa, and the Times was reporting that snow had fallen in the Great Lakes area. The weather over the entire eastern half of the U.S. was in turmoil. Gales were reported off Cape Hatteras, the Potomac was flooding, and Hagerstown, Maryland, had suffered “a terrific storm.” West Virginia was heavily hit with rain, washing out a Chesapeake & Ohio Railway bridge and carrying away lumber from a mill. Heavy rainstorms were flooding large parts of Indiana. Twenty-two inches of rain had fallen at Winamac and Wabash.

Lawsuits Threatened and Filed

Many held the owners of the South Fork Fishing & Hunting Club responsible for the disaster. They had paid for the construction of the dam, and had done little to strengthen it over the 10 years it had stood there. But it was that same collection of millionaires who were named to serve on the board of a Relief Committee. Their attorneys predicted lawsuits, and the Eastern newspapers were delightfully pointing fingers at the club owners. Carnegie had been in Paris, and moved on to his castle in Scotland. As a corporation, only the assets of the club were believed to be at risk. With no lake present, the fishing clubhouse was basically useless.

Litigation was filed against the club, and also against the Pennsylvania Railroad, as passengers on the express train that had been stranded in the valley were killed. Suits were also filed for lost or damaged luggage and freight. “Not a nickel was ever collected through damage suits from the … Club or from any of its members,” McCullough reports. “The Nancy Little case [one of the first to be filed] dragged on for several years, with the clubmen claiming that the disaster had been a ‘visitation of providence.’ The jury, it seems, agreed.”

There was, likewise, not much insurance to be collected. A few life insurance policies may have existed, but with entire families wiped out, beneficiaries were unlikely to collect. Although there were fires, most were the result of gas lines broken by the flood, with damage only to the wet debris.

If anything, the Johnstown flood story has a lesson for the 21st Century – dams can be damned dangerous infrastructures! It is suggested that a good 20 percent or more of the nation’s river levees are weak and could fail; there are thousands of earthen dams around the country which might also fail. An advertisement for something or other that ran this year shows two engineers, a man and a woman, inspecting a concrete dam and finding a crack with a drip. The man sticks his chewing gum in the crack, and they walk on. The pressure builds and the gum pops out, with a steady stream.

In the long run nature — the rivers and streams on which dams are built — will win. How long is the long run? Who knows? But for every home, every village, every person downstream from a dam, the Johnstown flood story has a warning.