The Johnstown Flood

More than 2,000 Died in the Pennsylvania Disaster

Heavy rainfall caused water to rise in the streets of Johnstown, Pennsylvania in late May 1889. But nothing could prepare the townspeople for what was about to happen.

A dam on a hill 14 miles away burst. A wall of water sped toward the town, slamming into it like a gigantic bulldozer.

Johnstown was caught by surprise. Many citizens were drowned, crushed by debris, or simply swept away.

And it appeared that the calamity could have been avoided.

Here are the basic facts about the Johnstown Flood, with vintage photographs from the Library of Congress.

A Rainy Spring

View of Johnstown. Library of Congress

The spring of 1889 was particularly rainy in western Pennsylvania, and floods had been a problem in Johnstown since its founding.

Complicating the problem, the clearing of timber in hills around Johnstown had increased the area's problems with water runoff. 

A huge rainstorm struck western Pennsylania at the end of May. Heavy rains on May 31, 1889 made waters rise in some streets of Johnstown. But that seemed normal and didn't raise any alarms.

The Vacation Lake

A Destroyed Club House in Johnstown. Library of Congress

The dam that broke and triggered the great Johnstown Flood was located 14 miles away. The dam had been built to form a fishing lake for a private club, the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club.

The club was a vacation resort for wealthy citizens of Pittsburgh. Many club members were affiliated with Andrew Carnegie's U.S. Steel Corporation. 

Other prominent club members included banker Andrew Mellon, lawyer and politician Philander Knox, and industrialist Henry Clay Frick.

The man-made fishing lake at the club was two miles long, and reached a depth of 70 feet. The dam holding the water in the lake was poorly designed and poorly constructed.

It has been estimated that 20 million tons of water were held behind the slipshod dam.

The City of Johnstown

Brick Buildings Were Shattered by the Wall of Water. Library of Congress

Johnstown was built at the floor of a valley.

In 1889 it was a thriving little town with a population of about 10,000. Another 20,000 people lived in several surrounding towns and villages. Many Johnstown residents were immigrant workers in local steel mills.

The workers were mostly Irish, Cornish, Welsh, and German.

Johnstown is situated at the junction of two rivers, the Little Conemaugh and the Stony Creek. At the western end of the city they join to form the Conemaugh River.

The South Fork Dam Breaks

Shattered House in Johnstown. Library of Congress

On May 31, 1889 rain poured down relentlessly.

Men at the South Fork Dam watched in horror as the water in the lake rose as quickly as six inches per hour.

Water began to pour over the top of the dam's earthen wall, eroding the wall's outside. As the wall appeared to be doomed, men at the dam tried to warn the town by telegraph. Some residents of Johnstown, afraid of a dam break, climbed into their attics, where they would be trapped.

At 3:10 p.m. the dam broke.

A monstrous wall of water, at times as deep as 89 feet, rushed down the valley toward Johnstown. The water tore large trees out by their roots and essentially destroyed everything in its path.

Human Toll: More than 2,000 Dead

Pullman Cars and Locomotives Destroyed in the Flood.

As the wall of water rushed down the valley, a railroad engineer named John Hess blew his locomotive's whistle to alert the townspeople.

People who heard the train whistle realized what was happening and raced for a nearby hill.

The onrushing water formed waves like surf, and moved at about 20 to 40 miles per hour.

Massive tree trunks in the moving water acted like battering rams.

Train cars and even locomotives were pushed along by the water.

At 4:07 p.m. the wall of water hit Johnstown.

Buildings, whether made of timber or brick, disintegrated.

Many people were literally torn to pieces when their houses were destroyed.

More than 2,200 people were killed in the flood.

Aftermath of the Flood

The Flood Even Destroyed a Steel Mill. Library of Congress

With telegraph lines down, it took days for the full impact of the flood to be known to the outside world.

The Johnstown Flood was the biggest news story since the Civil War.

The founder of the American Red Cross, Clara Barton, personally oversaw relief efforts.

The owners and members of the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club were never held legally liable for the disaster.

It was estimated that as many as 900 victims of the flood were never found.

In 1989, on the 100th anniversary of the flood, 106-year-old survivor Elsie Frum was interviewed by news organizations. Her father had heard John Hess's train whistle and had gotten his family to safety, thus saving young Elsie's life.

Legend of the Johnstown Flood

Johnstown Flood Attraction at Coney Island. Library of Congress

Americans were outraged that a slipshod dam built for the pleasure of wealthy vacationers had contributed to thousands of deaths.

The wreckage of the Johnstown Flood was documented by photographers, and slide shows of photographs of the flood were a popular attraction in the era before motion pictures.

Most of the the photographs on this page were taken by a Pittsburgh photographer, and were apparently available for sale to the public. The casualty figure printed on the photographs is inflated, though it was perhaps believed to be accurate at the time.

At Coney Island in New York people paid to see a scale model of the Johnstown Flood.