January 3, 2002
The Johnstown Flood
by John Templeton
Assembly Room, A. K. Smiley Public Library
Day of 1889 produced a deluge which filled, far beyond its capacity, an already swollen
man-made lake high in the mountains of Western Pennsylvania. When it crested and sent 20
million tons of water roaring down the Little Conemaugh River Valley, the flood laid waste
to Johnstown at the valley floor. It killed 2,209 and left the country aghast.
About the Author
John Templeton was born near New York City, raised near Pittsburgh and schooled at
Worcester Polytechnic Institute, George Washington University and the University of
Maryland, most of his professional work involved development, testing and operation of
heavy weapons, including the MINUTEMAN and MX intercontinental ballistic missiles. He
describes his most notable achievement as capturing the former Marjorie Roy. Their
four offspring have spawned nine grandchildren and two more in the succeeding generation.
THE JOHNSTOWN FLOOD
Johnstown is located in the Allegheny mountains, about 50 miles east of
The drainage is mostly westward in this region. Shown here is the Little Conemaugh with
its tributary the South Fork and the man-made South Fork Lake. The Conemaugh River which
flows through the Conemaugh Gap in Laurel Mountain and eventually to the Allegheny River
above Pittsburgh is fed by the Little Conemaugh and by Stony Creek which meet in
The Pennsylvania Railroad tracks cross the Alleghenys near the crest at Altoona, traverse
the famous Horseshoe Bend, and closely follow the Little Conemaugh to Johnstown and
Steel making was Johnstown's main industry in the late 1800's even exceeding Pittsburgh's
output in the earlier years.
Johnstown means flood and seemingly always has. The calamity that befell this little
western-Pennsylvania city over a century ago was the worst peacetime disaster Americans
had yet suffered. The deluge that swamped the Conemaugh Valley when a rain-swollen
man-made lake burst through a weak dam also stunned and shocked Americans in a way that
few catastrophes before or since have done.
Even now the scale of the great flood of Friday, May 31, 1889, overwhelms the
imagination: 20 million tons of water roaring down an Allegheny valley that drops 400 feet
to Johnstown at the valley floor. An inland tidal wave carrying enough water to make a
river 500 feet wide and 20 feet deep for 14 miles. Thundering down the valley, toppling
bridges, collapsing brick buildings, plucking locomotives and boxcars from tracks, the
flood laid waste to Johnstown in a little over an hour. It killed 2,209, nearly three
times the toll of the great San Francisco earthquake in 1906. It left the country aghast.
The flood was the biggest news story in a generation, and the subject of an endless
rush of books, poems, ballads and lantern-slide shows. At a time when federal disaster
relief didn't exist, Johnstown's recovery was achieved through one of the greatest private
charity campaigns ever mounted. The American Red Cross, only recently founded, won renown
as a national disaster relief agency for its work in Johnstown.
Because the lake that descended on gritty, industrial Johnstown was owned by a handful
of rich men who used it as their private playground, the flood became a social and
political symbol as well, reflecting the sharp class differences that persisted in America
and the emergent populist current that challenged them.
It began when a fierce rainstorm struck western Pennsylvania late on May 30, just a few
hours after Johnstown's Decoration Day parade had ended. By morning the relentless
downpour had dropped nearly seven inches on the green hogback hills that surround the
city. Two streams draining those hills, the Little Conemaugh and Stony Creek, meet at
Johnstown to form the Conemaugh River. Johnstown sits on a floodplain, and the steep grade
of the valley walls increases the risk. On the morning of the 31" the streams began
to wash over their banks and inundate the lower parts of Johnstown. The water rose
steadily as rain continued into the afternoon.
had been a recurrent menace in Johnstown. And just recently they had struck even more
frequently-seven times in the preceding eight years. The railroads and the steel mills had
filled in large sections of the steams, narrowing the channels that bore the flood tides
downriver. Timber cutting on the hillsides had increased the runoff. And worst of all
there was the South Fork Dam, a 37-year-old structure 14 miles above Johnstown on the
South Fork tributary of the Little Conemaugh.
lake created by the dam, originally built as a reservoir, was later purchased by a group
of Pittsburgh's wealthiest men and converted into a fishing resort complete with a
hotel-like clubhouse, a fleet of boats and lavish "cottages". Prominent
Pittsburgh industrialists such as Andrew Carnegie, Henry Clay Frick and Andrew Mellon were
among the members of the exclusive South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club. The club had made
some repairs on the deteriorating dam to create a fishing lake, but they were done without
an engineer's supervision and the work was slipshod. Hay and spruce boughs had been used
as fill, the capacity of the crucial spillway that siphoned off excess water had been
reduced, and the top of the dam sagged in the center. When they were done, the sportsmen
had a lake that spread out over 450 acres and reached a depth of 70 feet. The South Fork
Dam was a time bomb.
The men at the dam on the morning of the 31 O' watched anxiously as the enormous volume
of water pouring into the lake raised its level at a rate of six inches per hour. When
water began flowing over the crest of the dam and eroding its earthen face at midday, they
knew it was only a matter of time. One man rode to the two-mile distant village of South
Fork with a warning, and the railroad telegrapher there sent a message alerting Johnstown.
But tragically, when that and two subsequent warnings reached the city in the early
afternoon, it was too late. Johnstowners, grown inured to rumors that the dam could break,
had retreated to their attics. Now they were isolated and trapped by rising waters
The dam gave way at 3:10 P.M. The water first slashed a ten-foot-wide notch in the top
of the dam. Then the entire middle section caved in. The torrent spilled into the bed of
the South Fork and climbed its sides, tearing trees out by the roots, and creating a cloud
of dust and debris that whirled ahead of the flood. The wave smashed down the Little
Conemaugh valley, churning everything in its path. At one point, where the valley
narrowed, the water reached a height of 89 feet; the consensus among witnesses to its
awesome rush was that the wave was generally 30 to 40 feet high. The watchers at the dam
stared dumbstruck as the entire two-mile-long lake emptied in 45 minutes.
Roaring frightfully and rolling over itself, surflike, the great wave plunged at a
speed estimated variously at 20 to 40 miles per hour, billowing out and then hourglassing
in where the valley does. It ploughed through the streamside hamlet of Mineral Point,
leveling half of its 32 houses and killing 16 residents. Directly ahead was the larger
settlement of East Conemaugh, where several Pennsylvania Railroad passenger trains, Halted
by washouts, were parked on sidings near a roundhouse full of engines and tenders.
Engineer John Hess, who would deservedly become one of the many heroes of the Johnstown
Flood, was at the controls of engine No. 1124 pulling a work train 500 yards above East
Conemaugh, when he heard the flood coming='like a hurricane through wooded country,"
he described the scene. Hess tied his train whistle open and shrieked into town moments
ahead of the torrent, alerting hundreds of rail passengers and residents of the horror
coming their way. Hess leaped out and ran home in time to get his family up the hillside.
Passengers on the stalled trains saw the onrushing mass of waterborne debris seconds
after they heard Hess' whistle. To one of them it looked like "an advancing rotary
wave of black water, 40 feet high," freighted with "tree trunks lolling in the
air as they turned endwise and disappeared." Sprinting for the hill, the passengers
had to get over a ten-foot-wide gulley filled with water; several fell in and were carried
off, 22 passengers and a porter drowned scrambling for safety. The wave smacked into the
brick roundhouse and snapped up 50-ton locomotives like they were toys.
John Hess' quick thinking was probably the reason a 6-year-old named Elsie Sharer lived
through the flood. At 106 she still had a vivid recollection of it. "My father rushed
into the house and grabbed my two sisters and me." He said, "For God's sake, get
out, the dam's broke." We crossed a road and climbed a little grade and then it
struck, just that quick, fast as you could walk across this room. It looked like an ocean
with waves and surf, but it was the roar I remember best-a rolling sound like thunder, but
not like anything I've ever heard since. I think it took about an hour and a half for it
to pass. I didn't hear the train whistle but my dad did. I remember him talking about it
and I believe that's what saved us."
Johnstown, three miles downstream, occupied a rough-sided triangle of land squeezed
tight on two sides by the Little Conemaugh and Stony Creek, which .merge at the northern
point of the triangle. The main part of the city is no more than six blocks wide between
the streams; hills cut by the narrow river valleys rise abruptly on all sides. Johnstown
proper had a population of just over 10,000 in 1889 but another 20,000 lived in the
satellite towns and boroughs strung along the rivers.
Most of Johnstown was already under three to ten feet of water as the great wave came
crashing and clattering toward it, and rain was still falling. Though the warnings from
South Fork had reached a few people in town, most had no idea what was coming, and the
water in the streets made escape to the hills almost impossible. Many residents had moved
to the second floor of their houses and were trying to make the best of it, among them was
a young mother named Mary Strayer who thought it was something of a lark to cook eggs in a
tin cup over an upstairs oil lamp.
The thirty-foot-high rumbling mass of water with its spinning, bobbing cargo of houses,
trees, train cars, animals and screaming people slammed into Johnstown at 4:07. The
grinding onslaught bowled over most buildings in the northern half of the city. Wood-frame
houses splintered; imposing brick buildings simply disintegrated.
Mary Strayer was knocked to the floor when a locomotive struck her house. Running to a
window, she was horrified to see a mad torrent filled with people and animals rushing
past. A large piece of wreckage that was jammed against her house held it steady long
enough for Mary and her four-year old son to scramble onto the metal roof where she was
astonished to find 14 people hanging on desperately. The men snatched planks from the sea
of debris and made a precarious catwalk over the wreckage which Mary and others slowly
picked their way until they reached a house that had withstood the awful tide.
People improvised furiously; some struggled and died. Alfred Easterbrook fought to save
his wife and three children as his home broke into three chunks. Two parts of the bobbing
house pincered his daughter, but he managed to extricate her. Then he saw his younger son
underwater. "I dragged him out," he recalled, "and saw my wife's hair
floating on the water. I caught it and dragged her out." The Easterbrooks all
Tinsmith John Fenn and his family didn't fare as well. Fenn was killed two doors from
home when a piece of timber hit him. His pregnant wife and seven children were trapped in
their house as it floated on the current and filled with water. One by one, the children
slipped away and drowned. Finally something tore a hole in the roof and wedged the house
tight, and Mrs. Fenn crawled out. Her baby was born three weeks later, but survived only a
The hundreds of private dramas played out in those few terrifying hours a century or so
ago are remembered and retold by members of Johnstown families that go back that far. For
Earl Glock, an attorney who traces his Johnstown roots to the mid- 19 century, it's a tale
of teenage sweethearts who survived the flood together and became his grandparents. `My
grandmother's parents were killed in the flood along with two of their children," he
says. heir house was washed away. My grandmother was 16, and the Family story is that her
boyfriend, my grandfather Charles Glock, who was 19, rescued her and carried her to Green
Hill where it was safe. They married four months later.
The whirling wall of water encountered its first major obstacle at the recently built
stone railroad bridge just below the confluence of the two streams that bracketed
Johnstown. All of the upstream spans had collapsed, but the stone bridge held. Timbers,
houses, railroad cars, makeshift rafts and machinery crashed to a stop there, temporarily
blocking the path of the flood. In the next twenty minutes, before the water broke through
an embankment at one end of the bridge and resumed its wild rush, the backwash surged up
Stony Creek valley and back down again, engulfing the only parts of the city that had not
yet felt the full impact. Lawyer James Walters was washed away on the roof of his house
and whirled all over town before being pitched through the window of his own office
several blocks away from home. Floating houses and parts of houses, many
loaded with people, smacked one after another into the jam of debris at the bridge when
the flood tide resumed. Sometime around nightfall the debris at the bridge caught fire.
Hundreds of people trapped in the wreckage, some with their arms or legs pinned, now faced
the hideous prospect of waiting to burn to death.
Johnstown flood survivors would never forget the screams from the blazing wreckage
during the night. People beckoned piteously to would-be rescuers unable to get near them.
A railroad man at the bridge said the victims were like a lot of flies on flypaper,
struggling to get away with no hope and no chance to save them. The fire raged for
three days before it was put out. No one will ever know how many unfortunates died in the
flamesthe official estimate is 300.
Those who escaped both flood and fire spent the night in the few buildings stout enough
to survive; they huddled in dark clusters on the dark hillsides, or in trees and brush
where the deluge deposited them along downstream banks. 264 survivors gathered in a brick
building on the town's block-square central park. They elected floor commanders for the
three floors they occupied. They had suffered through the terrible night without any
certainty that the creaking building, with 10 to 20 feet of ugly water still lapping
around it, would last until dawn.
When daybreak came the survivors got their first look at the muddy, wreckagestrewn
wasteland Johnstown had become. An area roughly four miles square was ruined, much of it
scraped clean. Blunt-nosed train engines protruded from the mud. Houses and shops lay
every which way. Of the city's 300 businesses, only 20 had avoided serious damage.
Johnstown Tribune editor George Swank wrote, "or perhaps the wreck of a house that
the day before had stood miles away ....Dead everywhere you went, their arms stretched
above their heads almost without exception
The agonizing work of finding the dead, identifying them where possible and burying
them began immediately. A disproportionate number were children the final figures showed
that 45% of the victims whose ages were known were under 20.
Ninety-nine entire families were wiped out; 565 youngsters lost one or both parents, as
Earl Glock's grandmother had; 198 men became widowers overnight. The eventual toll of
2,209 included 755 who were never identified and scores who simply disappeared, many
probably burned beyond recognition at the bridge.
By the next day, Sunday, June 2, railroad crews had repaired the tracks connecting
Johnstown to Pittsburgh, 55 miles west. By then the press and the initial detachment of
relief workers were in town. Americans were starting to read the first shrill dispatches
from Johnstown and a cavalcade of help was on the way. Newsmen Jiad a wire to the outside
by late Saturday, and in the two weeks that followed Western Union transmitted an average
of 100,000 words a day from the stricken city.
The exhaustive press coverage stimulated a rush of private benevolence. Food, clothing,
medicine and other provisions began arriving. Morticians came-Johnstown's first call for
help requested cons and undertakers. Demolition expert "Dynamite Bill" Flinn and
a 900-man crew cleared the wreckage at the stone bridge. At its peak the army of relief
workers totaled about 7000. They carted off debris, distributed food erected temporary
housing and occasionally made a heartening discover-a parrot named Bob was found alive in
the wreck of one house, complaining that it had had "a devil of a time.
Clara Barton, the 67-year-old founder and leader of the American Red Cross, appeared in
town on June 5 and stayed into October, concentrating her formidable energy on housing;
1600 homes had been destroyed. The Pittsburgh-based Pennsylvania Relief Commission
coordinated fundraising, which brought in $3.7 million in gifts from around the world. The
commission made cash awards to widows (a generous average of $1,500 each), orphans and
others in need.
One of the 1400 carloads of supplies shipped to Johnstown carried blankets contributed
by members of the South Fork Hunting Club. Carnegie, Frick and the other club members had
nothing to say about the flood, but the press soon zeroed in on the shoddy repairs of the
dam as a major cause of the disaster. A coroner's jury deemed the dam owners
"culpable in not making (the dam) as secure as it should have been." An
engineering report cited the restricted spillway and the sag in the dam's crest as primary
factors in the dam's collapse. In.the end, however, the South Fork Club and its members
escaped all liability. Several lawsuits ended in verdicts that the flood was an act of God
and not the result of Man's negligence.
Of course, the Club members were among the most powerful men in the state; two, Andrew
Mellon and Philander Knox, later became cabinet members; juries may well have been
intimidated. With the lake drained and local sensibilities inflamed, the club abandoried
South Fork and broke up.
If dazed but resilient Johnstowners felt safe with the dam gone, they didn't have long
to enjoy it. Two years later the rivers overflowed after a storm, just as the city was
getting back on its feet. Another flood in 1902 washed out a bridge, and in 1907 the
entire downtown was once more underwater. In March 1936 two days of hard rain and a heavy
accumulation of snow in the hills combined to cause the worst deluge since 1889. The
rivers rose 18 inches an hour and peaked only five feet below the 1889 high-water mark.
Twenty-five people died.
Elsie Frum and her family were living close to the center of the town when the 1936
flood struck on St. Patrick's Day. "I got to the top floor and stayed there all
night," she recalled. "The water came up to the top step--there were 13-but no
higher. We lost everything downstairs-a piano, a stove and a refrigerator we still owed
$10 on." Elevenyear-old Earl Glock and his sisters spent the night with friends who
lived on high ground,
separated from their parents. "My reunion with my mother the next morning was one
of the most poignant memories of my life," he said. "Both of us thought the
other had drowned. There were rumors that another dam had burst. I was terrified."
Two years later the U . S. Army Corps of Engineers began deepening, straightening and
walling nine miles of the Johnstown rivers in what was then described as the most
extensive channel-improvement project in American history. When the $5-million
flood-control project was finished in 1943 the Chamber of Commerce boasted that Johnstown
was now "Flood-free."
The grim realization that a flood-free Johnstown was impossible dawned 34 years later.
One night in July 1977 nearly 12 inches of rain fell in seven hours. Dozens of mountain
streams cascaded over their banks, seven small dams gave way. And the water eventually
topped the concrete walls, 30 feet high at some points, guarding Johnstown. The depth of
the Conemaugh River at the tip of the triangle rose from a foot to 35 feet in ten hours.
This time 77 people were killed.
Johnstown had at last been purified of its illusions. "We learned that we're never
going to be truly secure," said Richard Burkhert, director of the Johnstown Flood
Museum. "People here are ambivalent, there's a tendency to suppress flood talk. But
in the renovation of the building funded by the National Park Service the boiler and the
rest of the mechanical guts are on the third floor." The refurbished building opened
officially on the centennial of the 1889 flood along with a new National Park Service
visitor center near the remains of the South Fork Dam.