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"A Roar Like Thunder..."

On June 1,1889, Americans woke to the news that Johnstown, Pennsylvania had been devastated by the worst flood in the Nation's history. Over 2,200 were dead, with many more homeless. When the full story of the flood came to light, many believed that if this was a "natural" disaster, then surely man was an accomplice.

Johnstown in 1889 was a steel company town of Germans and Welsh. With a population of 30,000, it was a growing and industrious community known for the quality of its steel. Founded in 1794, Johnstown began to prosper with the building of the Pennsylvania Mainline Canal in 1834 and the arrival of the Pennsylvania Railroad and the Cambria Iron Company in the 1850’s.

There was one small drawback to living in the city. Johnstown had been built on a flood plain at the fork of the Little Conemaugh and Stony Creek rivers. Because the growing city had narrowed the river banks to gain building space, the heavy annual rains had caused increased flooding in recent years.

There was another thing. Fourteen miles up the Little Conemaugh, 3-mile long Lake Conemaugh was held on the side of a mountain - 450 feet higher than Johnstown - by the old South Fork Dam. The dam had been poorly maintained, and every spring there was talk that the dam might not hold. But it always had, and the supposed threat became something of a standing joke around town.

But at 4:07 p.m. on the chilly, wet afternoon of May 31, 1889 the inhabitants heard a low rumble that grew to a "roar like thunder." Some knew immediately what had happened: after a night of heavy rains, the South Fork Dam had finally broken, sending 20 million tons of water crashing down the narrow valley. Boiling with huge chunks of debris, the wall of flood water grew at times to 60 feet high, tearing downhill at 40 miles per hour, leveling everything in its path.

Thousands of people desperately tried to escape the wave. Those caught by the wave found themselves swept up in a torrent of oily, muddy water, surrounded by tons of grinding debris, which crushed some, provided rafts for others. Many became helplessly entangled in miles of barbed wire from the destroyed wire works.

It was over in 10 minutes, but for some the worst was still yet to come. Darkness fell, thousands were huddled in attics, others were floating on the debris, while many more had been swept downstream to the old Stone Bridge at the junction of the rivers. Piled up against the arches, much of the debris caught fire, entrapping forever 80 people who had survived the initial flood wave.

Many bodies were never identified, hundreds of the missing never found. Emergency morgues and hospitals were set up, and commissaries distributed food and clothing. The Nation responded to the disaster with a spontaneous outpouring of time, money, food, clothing, and medical assistance.

The cleanup operation took years, with bodies being found months later in a few cases, years after the flood. The city regained its population and rebuilt its manufacturing centers, but it was 5 years before Johnstown was fully recovered.

In the aftermath, most survivors laid the blame for the dam's failure squarely at the feet of the members of the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club. They had bought the abandoned reservoir, then repaired the old dam, raised the lake level, and built cottages and a clubhouse in their secretive retreat in the mountains. Members were wealthy Pittsburgh steel and coal industrialists, including Andrew Carnegie and Andrew Mellon, who had hired B. Ruff to oversee the repairs to the dam. There is no question about the shoddy condition of the dam, but no successful lawsuits were ever brought against club members for its failure and the resulting deaths downstream.

Source: National Park Service - US Dept. of the Interior

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