Late spring is the time of year when reservoirs in the Appalachian Mountains are still running high from winter snowmelt and spring rain. A combination of these factors and what some say was a poorly constructed dam resulted in one of the worst natural disasters in U.S. history 124 years ago in a small steel producing Pennsylvania town.
On this day in 1889… heavy rain had already fallen and continued into the daylight hours across west-central Pennsylvania’s small, but booming steel-producing town at the time, Johnstown.
“It commended to rain here on Thursday night at 9 o’clock, May 30, 1889. It rained very hard up till Friday noon, May 31st. All the streams that empty into the reservoir were overflowed; large trees and logs of all kinds went into the reservoir; it took logs away from my place that had been here for forty years,” said John Lovette, a sawmill owner along the South Fork Creek.
Story Image: Weather map from May 31, 1889 courtesy of NOAA's Central Library showing low pressure across the Great Lakes with rain showers and a southeast wind for much of the northern Appalachians. Johnstown, Pa., is highlighted on the map.
What many didn’t realize is that a lake 450 feet higher in elevation than the downtown and several miles northwest of the city was filling up to its limit and was at the verge of bursting at the seams.
Shortly after Noon EST on May 31, 1889, a message in Morse code from someone at the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club at Lake Conemaugh was sent to officials in downtown Johnstown advising residents that the lake's dam was going to break and send a wall of water down into the valley. So many false alarms on the potential dam breakage had been sent time and time again in the past that everyone blew this one off without even second guessing.
The time on the clock was 3:30 p.m. to 3:45 p.m. EST when the sound of thunder echoed across the Laurel Highlands as the Lake Conemaugh dam, which many believed was poorly constructed in the first placed, finally broke away. Twenty-million tons of water, the equivalent of 7,260 Olympic-sized pools, stormed down 450 feet of terrain at speeds of up to 40 mph, destroying everything in its path and completely swallowing Johnstown in a matter of 10 minutes.
People tried effortlessly to flee from the raging water, but many didn’t stand a chance. In less than 10 minutes, 2,209 of Johnstown’s 30,000 residents perished in the flood. Adding insult to injury, fires flared up in the flood water, killing 80 more people. There were many bodies not identified and hundreds of missing people were never found. The flood of 1889 was the greatest single-day civilian loss of life in the United States before September 11, 2001.
Story Image: Survivors stand by homes destroyed when the South Fork Dam collapsed in Johnstown, Pa. Photo courtesy of the Associated Press
News traveled a lot slower in the late 1800s but amazingly early the next morning a relief train from nearby Pittsburgh arrived in Johnstown. As time continued, folks from Cincinnati and even Paris, France, launched relief efforts to help in the recovery.
Johnstown had a reputation of significant floods even before the big one hit on this day in 1889. Years with other floods include 1808, 1816, 1817, 1818, 1819, 1820, 1837, 1847, 1859, 1861, 1867, 1875, 1880, 1881, 1883, 1884, 1887, 1889, 1907, 1936 and 1977.
Johnstown recovered from the 1889 flood 5 years later. Although not nearly as deadly and catastrophic as the one in 1889, the two other well-known floods were on St. Patrick`s Day in March 1936 with another in July of 1977.
If you would like to visit the Johnstown Flood Memorial and see the remains of the South Fork Dam that failed on May 31, 1889, click here.