The Great Johnstown Flood - May 31, 1889


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A view taken from the stairway to Prospect Hill.

Western Union Telegram to Hastings


Manuscript Group 145: Daniel H. Hastings Papers, General Correspondence, 1889, Western Union Telegram to Hastings, 6/5/1889 from W.F. Hallstead; and Manuscript Group 218: Photograph Collections, Stereoscopic Views, "The Great Johnstown Flood, May 31, 1889. A view taken from the stairway to Prospect Hill. In the distance are the Stone Bridge and the great mass of burning debris. To the right is the Cambria Iron Works, and to the left is the Millville school house, afterwards used as a morgue." American and Foreign Scenery published by Robert K. Bonine of Tyrone, PA

One of the most devastating tragedies ever to afflict Pennsylvania was the "Great Johnstown Flood" that occurred on May 31, 1889. The amount of property destroyed and the number of lives lost were unprecedented.

Pennsylvania is especially susceptible to floods. The state is on several "major west-east storm tracks." Its average of forty-two inches of rainfall annually is deceiving, for at times large amounts of rain fall in single storms. Some of the precipitation comes in the form of snow, large quantities of which melt suddenly either when the average January temperature of twenty-nine degrees rises suddenly during a warm spell or in the spring thaw. The state's major rivers and many of its streams have shallow beds that flow through flat land, which restricts the amount of water that they can hold. Before the European settlers arrived, trees covered 95% of the state, preventing heavy run off during storms. Large scale lumbering during the 1800s removed this barrier along many waterways. As a result, serious floods that caused significant loss of life and property damage have occurred throughout the state, including Johnstown, during the past two centuries.

Several of these conditions contributed to the "Great Johnstown Flood of 1889." The town had grown rapidly- from 1,269 in 1850 to nearly 30,000 in 1889. It had thirty-six churches, twenty schools, a library, two opera houses, a roller skating rink, and a park. Many of the town's buildings were constructed with wood. Local lumbermen and operators of saw mills laid bare the original forests on the surrounding hillsides. Stony Creek, the Little Connemaugh River, and the Connemaugh River that flowed through the town became narrower for different reasons. Personal and industrial waste was deposited in them and officials of the Pennsylvania Railroad and the Cambria Iron Company who wanted more space for their operations filled parts of them.

Nevertheless, the "Great Johnstown Flood" differed from others there and elsewhere in that on May 31, 1889, twenty million tons of water that formed a wall thirty-six feet high traveled fourteen miles going approximately forty miles per hour struck the town. The water came from Lake Connemaugh, 450 feet above Johnstown, when the earthen dam that had held it gave way. Known initially as the Western Reservoir or the South Fork Dam, its original purpose was to provide water for the Pennsylvania Canal, which was part of the state transportation system that carried passengers and freight between Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. Completed in 1852, it was thought to be the largest dam of its type forming the most extensive reservoir in the United States. The dam was seventy-two feet high, 931 feet long and formed a lake over sixty feet deep that covered an area two miles long.

After 1854, when the Pennsylvania Railroad built the Horseshoe Curve, facilitating continuous rail service across the state, traffic on the canal declined, and the reservoir was no longer necessary. By 1880, it had become the property of the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club. Among its sixty or so members were such nationally prominent industrialists, bankers, and attorneys as Andrew Carnegie, Henry Clay Frick, Andrew W. Mellon, and Philander Knox. They built "cottages," stables, and boat houses; partied in the clubhouse; fished and held regattas on the lake; hunted on the grounds; and neglected to maintain the dam. The discharge pipes had been removed, and screens were placed across the spillway to keep the fish from escaping. This meant that it would be difficult, if not impossible, to control the lake's level. The center of the dam sagged because of inadequate repairs after a previous break. Warnings from a few perceptive individuals fell on indifferent ears of the club's officials. As for the vast majority of Johnstown's residents, the heavy rains of May 1889, the storms of the month's last few days, and the rising water in the streets, seemed not to alarm them. They had experienced previous floods that had spawned rumors that the dam would break. Little did they know what awaited them on the afternoon of May 31.

At 3:15, the dam gave way, releasing the huge amount of water that raged downstream as if Niagara Falls had collapsed. Within a half to three-quarters of an hour, the entire lake emptied. The wall of water that seemed more like a "rolling ball" struck first the towns of South Fork, Mineral Point, East Connemaugh, and Woodvale, wiping out most of them. It hit Johnstown at 4:07, destroying four square miles of the city in about ten minutes. Approximately 1600 homes and 280 businesses, including much of the Cambria Iron Company, were leveled. Railroad cars and even locomotives were lifted, over-turned, and carried by the water; their tracks uprooted and twisted. The value of the property damaged or destroyed was placed at $17 million, or more than $300 million today.

More tragic was the loss of life. Over 2,000 people were killed and 900 were listed as missing; "99 entire families were lost"; and nearly 400 children under ten were killed. Many victims drowned when their homes were swept away. Others were burned to death when they were thrust into the debris that was held by the stone bridge at the juncture of the Stony Creek and the Little Connemaugh River, and the tangled mass caught fire.

By the next morning, Saturday, June 1, the waters had gone down, and the clean- up began. An outbreak of typhoid fever hindered the recovery and added forty more to the death toll. Rescue workers placed sick and injured survivors in emergency hospitals. The dead who could be found were placed in morgues where relatives and friends tried to identify them. One out of three bodies never were identified. Some corpses simply floated away, and were located months later in distant locations, one as far away as Cincinnati. Others that could not be found were listed among the missing. The stereoview presented here depicts not only the devastation to the city in the background, but the anguish and despair of its citizenry as well.

News of the disaster spread rapidly, appearing in some newspapers on Saturday morning. By mid-day, help began to arrive. Nearby farmers brought food and clothing. On Sunday, a "relief train" from Pittsburgh brought more of the same, as well as a boxcar of coffins. During the following days and weeks, supplies continued to arrive. Inmates of the Western Penitentiary provided 1,000 loaves of bread. Cincinnati's residents sent 20,000 pounds of ham. Residents of Detroit sent twenty-five dozen chairs. The people of Savanna shipped groceries, fish, cigars, disinfectants, whiskey, and other useful items. Contributions of provisions amounted to over 1,400 carloads that weighed seventeen million pounds. Financial contributions amounting to almost $4 million arrived from Pittsburgh businessmen, some of whom belonged to the South Fork Hunting and Fishing Club; New York policemen; a Baptist Church in Georgia; baseball players in Sedalia, Missouri; the Sultan of Turkey; and others. England's Queen Victoria sent her condolences to President Benjamin Harrison. Carnegie promised a new library. In addition, volunteers, including 1,000 workmen from Pittsburgh, police officers, and doctors arrived to assist in the relief and recovery. Clara Barton brought her workers to provide homes and infirmaries called "Red Cross Hotels" for the destitute, the first of which was completed on July 27. At first, prominent residents of Johnstown coordinated the efforts; however, state officials ordered Adjutant General Daniel Hastings and 500 national guard troops to control the city from June 8 to July 12, an assignment that helped to propel Hastings to Pennsylvania's governorship in 1895. The Western Union Telegram shown here is typical of many sent to him from concerned family members anxious for news of loved ones during the days following the flood. During the next few years, the survivors rebuilt their shattered lives and city.

In the aftermath of the "Great Johnstown Flood," emerged the question of responsibility for the disaster. According to a Pittsburgh newspaper, some clergy and others claimed that God had vented His wrath upon the city's sinful people, most of whom had to work ten or twelve hours a day, six or seven days a week, and had little time for sinning. Others more reasonably blamed human failures. For example, a few people observed that the banks of narrow mountain streams were not safe locations for towns. Floods there were inevitable and frequent. The consensus, however, was that the officials of the South Fork Hunting and Fishing Club were responsible because of their failure to keep the South Fork Dam in a safe condition. Hastings charged them with "criminal negligence." The headline of a Chicago newspaper editorial on the flood was entitled "Manslaughter or Murder?" It is certain that if the club's dam had not given way, the heavy rains would have caused just another incident of water in the city's streets; the tragedy would not have occurred. Despite public accusations, conclusions of coroners, juries, and numerous lawsuits, the club never was forced to take the blame, nor did it voluntarily accept responsibility. Only a few of its members assisted the victims of the flood that its officials had created by their irresponsibility.