Johnstown Flood

This flood was one of the most devastating in U.S. history, killing more than twenty-two hundred people. Caused by mismanagement of an artificial lake, the flood was also the first major disaster responded to by Clara Barton’s American Red Cross. It thus represents both a high and a low point in nineteenth century American history.

Summary of Event

A floodplain city in Pennsylvania, Johnstown lies below the confluence of the Little Conemaugh and Stony Creek Rivers, at the base of the steep and narrow Conemaugh River Gap, through which drain many square miles of mountain watershed. Annual floods were taken in stride by Johnstown’s residents, but in 1889, a confluence of natural and human events resulted in a much more devastating flood. The disastrous flood of 1889 killed more than 2,200 people and destroyed 1,600 homes and 280 businesses. Johnstown flood (1889)
Pennsylvania;Johnstown flood
[kw]Johnstown Flood (May 31, 1889)
[kw]Flood, Johnstown (May 31, 1889)
Johnstown flood (1889)
Pennsylvania;Johnstown flood
[g]United States;May 31, 1889: Johnstown Flood[5640]
[c]Disasters;May 31, 1889: Johnstown Flood[5640]
[c]Environment and ecology;May 31, 1889: Johnstown Flood[5640]
Ruff, Benjamin F.
Unger, Colonel Elias J.
Carnegie, Andrew
[p]Carnegie, Andrew;and Johnstown flood[Johnstown flood]
Barton, Clara
[p]Barton, Clara;and Johnstown flood[Johnstown flood]

Rapidly melting snow and heavy rain over several days gathered in the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club’s Lake Conemaugh, where the pressure caused the badly maintained dam to burst and send twenty million tons of water rushing down the fourteen-mile Conemaugh River Gap. The water scraped the dirt down to bare rock and swept away trees, houses, people, steel plants, railroad tracks, cars, and locomotives. It boomeranged off the arched stone bridge in Johnstown, creating a tidal wave that returned to strike the city following the initial deluge.

Neglect and parsimony by the South Fork Club’s owners and bad judgments by its engineer and director were compounded by complacency on the part of those living downstream from the dam. The first recorded flood in the Conemaugh River Gap occurred in 1808, and floods were a fact of life for all those living in the valley. They occurred not only in the spring but also after heavy rain. Over the years, as timber was cut off the mountainsides and the river channel was narrowed to accommodate buildings, the floods grew worse. From 1881 to 1888, seven floods were recorded, three of them serious. Each year, there were rumors that the dam would break. However, the ten thousand residents of Johnstown and some twenty thousand others living in the valley were accustomed to gathering in the upper stories of their homes until the waters receded, then cleaning up and resuming their business.

Lake Conemaugh was an artificial lake originally built to augment the summer water levels in Pennsylvania’s canal system. Its construction took longer and cost much more than was planned, and six months after the dam was completed in 1852, the Pennsylvania Railroad Pennsylvania;railroads started operations between Pittsburgh and Philadelphia. The railroad was a faster, more convenient, and more reliable mode of transportation than were canal Pennsylvania;canals boats. The canal system was put up for sale, and in 1857 it was purchased by the railroad for $7.5 million. Five years later, during a heavy June rain, the dam broke. Little damage was caused, however, because a watchman opened the release valves before the level of the lake rose too high.

The reservoir, then only about ten feet deep, was abandoned until it was purchased for $2,500 by Congressman John Reilly Reilly, John in 1875. Four years later, he sold it at a loss of $500 to Benjamin F. Ruff Ruff, Benjamin F. , a real estate broker. Reilly recouped some of his loss by removing and selling off five cast-iron sluice pipes, installed when the dam was built and controlled from a nearby wooden tower that had been destroyed by fire in 1865. Four years after purchasing the property, Ruff formed the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club and prevailed upon fifteen prominent and wealthy Pittsburgh men to buy shares in it. The charter members—including Andrew Carnegie, Carnegie, Andrew
[p]Carnegie, Andrew;and Johnstown flood[Johnstown flood] coke king Henry Clay Frick, banker Andrew Mellon, and Pennsylvania Railroad division head Robert Pitcairn—named Ruff as the club’s president.

Ruff immediately boarded up and filled with debris the stone culverts through which the sluice pipes had run and created a lake one mile by two miles in size that normally contained twenty million tons of water and was seventy feet deep. He stocked the lake with fish. Club members built cottages on its shore and drove carriages across the dam, which had been lowered several feet to accommodate them. When Ruff Ruff, Benjamin F. died in 1887, Colonel Elias J. Unger, a retired Pittsburgh hotel owner, was named club president and manager and moved to the lake. The melting snow of April and the heavy rains of May, 1889, raised the water level in the lake, causing some concern, but Unger’s first thought was to prevent the fish from escaping.

Receding flood waters in central Johnstown.

(Library of Congress)

By May 31, the rivers were rising at a rate of more than one foot per hour. Men arriving for their 7:00 a.m. shift at the Cambria Mills were told to go home. At 10:00 a.m., schools were dismissed. At 11:00 a.m., a log boom up Stony Creek burst, sweeping away two bridges in Johnstown. Meanwhile, John G. Parke, Jr., the young, new South Fork Club resident engineer, observed the floating debris and the rising level of the lake with some concern. Colonel Unger finally ordered the spillway cleared of debris, but it was too late: Water was flowing over the top of the dam, leaks were observed at its base, and at 3:10 p.m., the dam collapsed outward.

Trees and farm buildings were the first to go. As the forty- to sixty-foot-deep torrent crashed downward, creating mountainous backwashes each time it hit a twist in the valley, it began to claim lives. It engulfed railroad tracks, equipment, and stone bridges, as well as the village of Mineral Point. It swept onward, over railroad cars, houses, human corpses, and the village of Woodvale and its woolen mill. One out of three Woodvale inhabitants drowned. The torrent next flowed over the Gautier barbed wire works before bursting into Johnstown just fifty-seven minutes after it had left the lake.

People did not see the floodwaters coming, but they heard them. They felt the wind and saw the dark spray that preceded the deluge. The water bounced off the side of the mountain, washed back two miles upstream, and returned to Johnstown with renewed ferocity. The arched stone Pennsylvania Railroad bridge held, protected by a curve in the river. Against it, the river piled all its debris, which by now included many human bodies, as well as living persons struggling to survive in the floodwaters. As the debris piled up to a forty-acre area, stoves in smashed but partly intact buildings set those buildings on fire. Rescuers worked through the night but were unable to save all the victims.

As Saturday dawned, those still alive searched the mud and debris and the few buildings still standing, finding bodies and body parts, both human and animal. Roads were impassable, the railroad had been destroyed, no telegraph or telephone lines were working, and there was no drinking water and little food. Soon, however, rafts were built, and people on the hillsides opened their homes to survivors. Farmers brought food, water, and clothing. A temporary hospital and a morgue were set up, a police force was organized, and survivors were asked to register at a temporary post office.

On Sunday, the first train came through, bringing newspaper reporters, volunteers, doctors, nurses, work crews, police, firefighters, supplies, tents, and coffins. Two days later, Clara Barton Barton, Clara
[p]Barton, Clara;and Johnstown flood[Johnstown flood] and her newly organized American Red Cross Red Cross volunteers arrived for a five-month stay to set up and operate a tent city. The disaster represented a baptism of fire for the organization. At her departure, Barton would be presented with a diamond locket, and upon her return to Washington, D.C., she would be feted by President Benjamin Harrison Harrison, Benjamin
[p]Harrison, Benjamin;and Clara Barton[Barton] .

By the end of June, sightseers rode the railroad to picnic and buy souvenirs of the flood, including the books about the disaster that had already been published. Contributions, eventually totaling more than $3.7 million, poured in. Typhoid Typhoid fever broke out, killing an additional forty people. Blame was placed on the members of the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club, but they stayed away and remained silent. The exception was Andrew Carnegie, Carnegie, Andrew
[p]Carnegie, Andrew;and Johnstown flood[Johnstown flood] who with his wife visited that summer and were prevailed upon to build a new library in Johnstown. Unger also returned and lived out the remainder of his life above the old lake site. Suits were brought against the club, but there was nothing to award.

Although careful descriptions were made of all the unidentified bodies before they were buried, one-third of the bodies found were never identified. Hundreds of victims were never even found. It was months before there was any realistic count of the dead and missing, and an exact count was never made. It is estimated that one out of nine residents was killed by the flood. Two bodies were found as late as 1906. However, Johnstown was rebuilt on its original site.


The story of the Johnstown flood is a significant part of history, not only because of the tremendous loss of life and the dramatic way in which it was lost but also because it exemplifies enduring facets of the human experience. On one hand, the Johnstown story is one of greed and unwillingness to take responsibility; on the other hand, it reveals the generosity of strangers and the indomitability of the human spirit. The South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club has been resurrected as a historical organization and charges ten dollars per year for membership. The breached dam stands, grass-covered and diminished, at the end of a dry field. It may be viewed from a museum operated by the National Park National parks, U.S. Service. In the city itself, where the arched stone bridge still spans the now-quiet river, museums and the Chamber of Commerce tell the story of Johnstown’s major tourist attraction.

Further Reading

  • Burton, David H. Clara Barton: In the Service of Humanity. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1995. Sympathetic yet critical biography of the woman who helped minister to the victims of the Johnstown Flood.
  • Degen, Paula, and Carl Degen. The Johnstown Flood of 1889: The Tragedy of the Conemaugh. Philadelphia: Eastern Acorn Press, 1984. An illustrated period photographic text, showing firsthand the devastation caused by the flood.
  • McCullough, David. The Johnstown Flood. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1968. The definitive account of the flood, written by a well-known historian.
  • National Park Service. Johnstown Flood National Memorial. Accessed February 28, 2006. The official Web site of the national memorial dedicated to the victims of the Johnstown Flood. Includes information on the history of the flood and its impact on the environment and community.
  • Walker, James Herbert. The Johnstown Horror!!! Or, Valley of Death. Philadelphia: H. J. Smith, 1889. This is the definitive history written at the time, although according to McCullough, it contains many errors.

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