Pennsylvania: Johnstown Flood National Memorial Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The Johnstown Flood of 1889 was a combination of natural disaster and the effects of human greed, neglect, error, and complacency.

Site Office

Johnstown Flood National Memorial

733 Lake Road

South Fork, PA 15956

ph.: (814) 495-4643

Web site: www.nps.gov/jofl/

A death toll of over 2,200 people, destruction of 1,600 homes and 280 businesses, and $17 million in property damage ensured a place for the Johnstown Flood in history. It was the media event of its day, brought nearly $4 million in contributions from people in eighteen countries, and was the first major disaster relief effort for the Red Cross, organized by Clara Barton only eight years before.

An Early Outpost

The first white settlers came to the valley surrounding Johnstown about 1771, and, after being abandoned several times, the area became a backwoods trading center. The population began growing significantly when the canal system from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh was finished. By 1889, ten thousand people lived in Johnstown proper, built on a nearly level flood plain at the confluence of the Little Conemaugh and Stony Creek Rivers in Cambria County, while a total of thirty thousand crowded into the narrow valley.

When completed, Pennsylvania’s canal system had too little water in the summer to be usable, so in 1836 the state legislature appropriated funds for a reservoir dam on the South Fork River. Completed in 1852, the canal system was made obsolete six months later by the new Pennsylvania Railroad.

Although the dam had originally been constructed according to the best engineering knowledge of the day, a series of alterations weakened it. In 1862 fire destroyed a tower that controlled five cast-iron sluice pipes set into the base of the dam. In 1875, Congressman John Reilly purchased the reservoir, removed the pipes and sold them for scrap, then resold the property four years later to Benjamin F. Ruff. In 1879, Ruff persuaded fifteen Pittsburgh men to form the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club. Members included Andrew Carnegie, Henry Clay Frick, Andrew Mellon, and railroad magnate Robert Pitcairn. Named president, Ruff continued the weakening of the dam: boarding up the holes left by the pipes, lowering the height several feet so two carriages could drive abreast on its top, and installing a bridge over the spillway and under it a screen of iron rods to keep in the fish with which the lake was to be stocked. Lake Conemaugh, was a mile across and two miles long, drained sixty square miles of mountainside, was seventy feet deep in the spring and contained water weighing twenty million tons.

The alterations to the dam apparently caused concern to no one except downstream industrialist Daniel J. Morrell of the Cambria Iron Works. He sent his own engineer to inspect the altered dam and offered to help pay for making it safe. The offer was declined. Morrell died in 1885, Ruff in 1887, and two years later, retired hotel owner Elias J. Unger was named club president and manager, and he took up fulltime residence at the lake.

A Flood Zone

The first recorded flood was in 1808, when a small dam across Stony Creek, put in as a millrace for one of the first forges, was breached. As the years went by, floods became more serious because timber was being stripped off the mountainsides to provide lumber, and the river channels were narrowed to make room for buildings and bridges. Thus, a smaller volume for the river had to handle more runoff.

In 1881 heavy rains caused serious damage to the dam, and later, during a flash flood, rumors flew that it was about to break. These rumors were renewed each year, but the dam held, and in spite of repeated floods, an attitude of complacency developed.

The spring of 1889 brought a heavy snowfall followed by frequent and heavy rains. On May 29 at the South Fork Club seven inches fell. On May 30 the sky was lighter , the wind had lessened, and people who lived in areas which had been flooded assumed the storm was over and the waters would recede. However, during the night, heavy rains and high winds returned, and the heavy storm water tore big holes in the saturated ground. By morning rivers were rising faster than one foot per hour, and men arriving for their shifts at the Cambria mills were told to go home and take care of their families. By l0:00 a.m. schools had closed. At noon the water level in Johnstown was at a record high, and after Stony Creek ripped out the Poplar Street and Cambria City bridges, George T. Swank, editor and proprietor of the Johnstone Tribune started a running log of events.

Meanwhile, at the lake, workers were trying without success to throw up a ridge of earth to increase the height of the dam. Local onlookers advised Unger to tear out the bridge and the iron mesh spillway, but he did not want to lose the fish. At noon, when he finally ordered the spillway cleared, it was too late: the debris was jammed in. By 2:00 p.m. the water was running over the center of the dam, which at 3:10 p.m. “just moved away.”

As the water smashed down the valley it took out everything in its path, including soil down to bedrock. Those people who had not fled to high ground in time either were killed instantly or went racing downstream on their own rooftops. Where the river curved, the water would slam against the hillside and create a backwash; several strong railroad bridges briefly dammed the water and then released it to flow more violently; the debris and the friction with the hillside also caused the top water to travel more rapidly, so that a “surf” effect developed, pounding debris and bodies deep into the mud and making later retrieval difficult.

In Johnstown, the floodwaters had actually begun to recede. Most people, perched in upper stories, never saw the water coming, but they heard it. The water hit Johnstown harder than anything it had encountered in its one-hour, fourteen-mile course from the dam. It bounced off the mountain in its path and washed back up two miles, carrying debris and people with it. The devastation took just ten minutes.

The massive stone-arched Pennsylvania Railroad bridge on the downriver side of Johnstown had been protected by a curve in the river and held. Debris piled up forty feet high in a forty-acre area, and as night came on it caught fire. Editor Swank, who had been watching everything from his Tribune office window, wrote that the fire burned “with all the fury of the hell you read about–cremation alive in your own home, perhaps a mile from its foundation; dear ones slowly consumed before your eyes, and the same fate yours a moment later.” Rescue parties worked through the night to free people trapped alive in the burning pile, but still an estimated eighty died. The finest and newest hotel in town, the Hulbert House, had been used by many people seeking a safe refuge. It collapsed almost the instant it was hit by the flood. Of the sixty people inside the building only nine survived.

Roads were impassable. The railroad had been destroyed. Every telegraph and telephone line to the outside was down. There was no drinkable water, little food, and no stores from which to obtain either. However, townspeople organized and mobilized at dawn, and newspaper reporters, the first of whom arrived that morning by foot, publicized the tragedy, bringing aid from all over the country. In two days more than one thousand people came to help the twenty-seven thousand who needed aid.

By June 4 thousands more had arrived, including Clara Barton and her newly organized American Red Cross, which set up tent hospitals, six hotels with hot and cold running water, kitchens, and laundries. In five months she distributed nearly a half million dollars’ worth of blankets, clothing, food, and cash. Upon her departure she was presented with a diamond locket by the people of Johnstown, and was later feted in Washington at a dinner attended by President and Mrs. Benjamin Harrison.

By the end of the month a book on the disaster had been published, and within six months, a dozen would appear. Newspapers carried sensational stories for weeks and published extra editions, all of which sold out. Songs were written, several of which became best-sellers. Sightseers with picnic baskets arrived and bought souvenirs. Cash contributions from around the world would total more than $3.7 million.

Those bodies not identified were numbered, their descriptions recorded, and buried; one out of every three bodies would never be identified. Hundreds of people who were lost would never be found; it is supposed that some simply walked away and never came back. Not for months would there be any realistic count of the dead, and there would never be an exact, final count. Two bodies would be found as late as 1906. Ninety-nine whole families had been wiped out; ninety-eight children had lost both parents; hardly a family had not suffered a death. The flood had killed about one out of every nine people. In spite of assiduous cleanup, including the sprinkling of four thousand barrels of quicklime over the area, typhoid broke out, affecting 461 people and killing 40.

The faults of the dam were made public. In Pittsburgh, members of the South Fork Club met and officially decided that it would be best to say nothing. Lawsuits were brought, but the club had no assets except the now worthless site, and, widespread negative publicity notwithstanding, no one was awarded anything. Cyrus Elder, who had lost his wife and daughter and his home, and who was the only local member of the club, concluded, “If anybody be to blame I suppose we ourselves are among them, for we have indeed been very careless in this most important matter and most of us have paid the penalty of our neglect.”

New Beginnings

Everyone took it for granted that Johnstown would be rebuilt, and so it was. Some of the mills have closed, but the Gautier Mills, built by Cambria Iron Company and then rebuilt after the flood, have been continuously used since their construction. They were sold to Bethlehem Steel in 1923, more recently sold again, and now form a part of the Johnstown America Corporation’s steel making facilities. Redevelopment has eliminated some of the historic buildings, but many remain, and have become part of the area’s tourist attractions. During the Depression in the 1930’s, a multimillion-dollar project to build river walls to protect the city from future floods was designed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and constructed by unemployed steel workers and coal miners. Still, another serious flood occurred in 1977.

Places to Visit

The Johnstown Flood National Memorial is located in historic St. Michael, the site of the former South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club. The visitors’ center features exhibits, the film Black Friday, and walking tours of the dam site. Every May 31, over 2,209 candles are lit in commemoration of those who died in the flood.

The exhibits at the downtown Johnstown Flood Museum include a twenty-four-foot relief map with fiberoptic light and sound, as well as extensive exhibits and artifacts of and from the disaster and rebuilding. The telephone number for the museum is (814) 539-1889.

The Allegheny Portage Railroad National Historic Site atop Cresson Mountain, commemorates the first crossing of the Allegheny Mountains in 1834. This pioneer railroad ran for twenty years and is a part of the nation’s transportation heritage. The telephone number for this National Historic Site is (814) 886-6150.

The Inclined Plane, built in 1891, is advertised as the steepest vehicular inclined plane in the world. Cars carry passengers and vehicles up a 71.9-degree grade to a visitors’ center, restaurant, and observation deck. The telephone number for the Inclined Plane is (814) 536-1816.

Grandview Cemetery, located in the Westmont neighborhood, typifies nineteenth century cemetery design and includes a monument, erected in 1892, to the unknown victims of the flood.

Point Park and the stone bridge, the seven-arch stone bridge which withstood the flood, today form a background for an eternal flame commemorating the victims. Pasquerilla Performing Arts Center, located on the campus of the University of Pittsburgh in Johnstown, also houses the Southern Alleghenies Museum of Art. It can be reached at (814) 269-7200.

The Community Arts Center of Cambria County, located in the oldest original log house in the Johnstown area, is located in Westmont and includes a gift shop and art gallery. Its telephone number is (814) 255-6515.

Fort Necessary National Battlefield commemorates George Washington’s first military action and his only surrender. The park also manages the Mount Washington Tavern, a museum that once was a popular stagecoach stop along the National Road. The park is located along U.S. Route 40 in Farmington. The phone number for the park is (814) 329-5512.

Friendship Hill National Historic Site tells the story of statesman Albert Gallatin. It is located fifteen miles south of Uniontown along Pennsylvania Route 166. The telephone number is (814) 725-9190.

For Further Information
  • Degen, Paula, and Carl Degen. The Johnstown Flood of 1889: The Tragedy of the Conemaugh. Philadelphia: Eastern Acorn Press, 1984. Primarily a photographic history, this illustrated text tells the story of the flood through period photography. Available from the Johnstown Flood Museum.
  • McCullough, David. The Johnstown Flood. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1968. The author is a well-known historian, and this work remains the definitive history of the flood. An extensive bibliography is included. McCullough is also author of an article, “Run for Your Lives!” published in American Heritage Magazine (16, no. 4, 1966, pp. 5-11; 66-75) and available from the museum.
  • Walker, James Herbert. The Johnstown Horror: Or, Valley of Death. Philadelphia: H. J. Smith, 1889. Although obviously no longer available except by chance in libraries or antique bookstores, the book has provided information for this entry.
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