The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

The Johnstown Flood 125th

May 25, 2014

Perfect storm of events led to massive tragedy

— Using picks and shovels, a dozen or so Italian laborers desperately attempted to save the earthen South Fork Dam on the morning and afternoon of May 31, 1889.

They tried to open a spillway on the west side and raise the center of the breast with dirt and rocks.

It was a vain endeavor.

By the time they stepped onto the dam, a nightmare was inevitable; the structure was going to break and send 20 million tons of water along the path of the Little Conemaugh River until it crashed into downtown Johnstown. There would be death and destruction. The workers kept trying, though, at the directive of Elias Unger, president of a corporation that maintained the dam and South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club, and engineer John Parke. More dirt, more rocks, more desperation.

But the futility of the effort became obvious, so Unger, Parke and the workers stepped off the dam.

Finally, around 3 p.m., with onlookers standing along the shoreline, the breast gave way, unleashing the fury of Lake Conemaugh.

‘That awful current’

“Oh, it seemed to me as if all the destructive elements of the Creator had been turned loose at once in that awful current of water,” Unger later recalled.

 South Fork Dam failed after the water level rose 4 to 6 inches per hour, according to Unger’s calculations. Streams flowed over the top and through cracks after a powerful storm, which started in the Midwest, dumped up to 10 inches of rain onto the region during the previous 24 hours. And, although the deluge played a major role in the disaster, other natural and man-made factors contributed, too.

The ground was saturated from weeks of frequent rain.

A previous owner removed discharge pipes and sold them for scrap.

Then, Benjamin F. Ruff, founder and first president of the club, fatefully decided to lower the top of the breast. He wanted members to enjoy a stunning view of the lake when riding carriages atop the dam.

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The Johnstown Flood 125th
  • Johnstown 1881.tif 'How ill to e'er forget': City forever marked by tragic waters of South Fork Dam

    Frightened and resilient, a group of Johnstown citizens gathered inside the Fourth Ward schoolhouse the day after a horrific flood destroyed much of their city.
    Their task was almost incomprehensible. More than 2,000 individuals had died when a wave of water, unleashed by the collapse of the South Fork Dam, slammed into the town on Friday, May 31, 1889. A smoldering debris pile clogged the confluence where the Little Conemaugh River and Stonycreek River come together to form the Conemaugh River. The groans of the dying could still be heard. Homes, businesses, possessions ... all gone.
    Confusion, terror, uncertainty.

    May 25, 2014 5 Photos

  • Woodvale.TIF A deadly, destructive path: Powerful water wall flattened anything in its way

    Those living in Johnstown and other Conemaugh Valley communities in 1889 were well aware of the threat represented by the huge impoundment of water behind the South Fork Dam.
    A wet spring, leading up to a record-setting overnight storm May 30 had rivers out over their banks in many areas, including downtown Johnstown.

    May 25, 2014 5 Photos

  • House w dam in background.JPG 'It's still controversial': Debate rages over culpability of wealthy club members

    One hundred twenty-five years have passed since the industrial leaders of the day – with names like Carnegie, Mellon and Frick – last relaxed and recreated on the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club’s Lake Conemaugh shores.

    And it’s been nearly as long since engineers of the day publicly – and controversially – exonerated their club from liability of the 1889 Johnstown Flood – an ever-debated, and still evolving, story that continues to fascinate today, Johnstown Area Heritage Association President Richard Burkert notes.

    May 25, 2014 5 Photos

  • flood_trail_map.jpg CONTEST | Virtual flood tour will be a trip for prize winner

    Greater Johnstowners have, for generations, grown up with stories of floodwaters tearing through the city - many lived through the most recent disasters. Valley dwellers are literally surrounded on all sides by living history.
    What if taking a leisurely springtime stroll through the scenic backdrop of the Great Johnstown Flood of 1889 could land you a fantastic prize? The Tribune-Democrat is giving away a 3-day, 2-night hotel stay for one lucky hiker who treks through the historic Path of the Flood Trail.
    All you’ve got to do is walk.

    May 25, 2014 1 Photo

  • Minor flood Main St.JPG Floods plagued city for decades

    The 1889 flood was by far the worst, but certainly not the first flood for the citizens of Johnstown.

    May 25, 2014 2 Photos

  • Lake map.JPG New answers to old questions: UPJ researchers use high-tech tools to dig into mysteries of flood

    Shoddy work and compromises during the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club’s reconstruction and maintenance of the former state-owned dam have long been recognized as the primary cause of the South Fork dam’s failure and the devastating flood of 1889.

    May 25, 2014 1 Photo

  • Dam empty.JPG Perfect storm of events led to massive tragedy

    Using picks and shovels, a dozen or so Italian laborers desperately attempted to save the earthen South Fork Dam on the morning and afternoon of May 31, 1889.
    They tried to open a spillway on the west side and raise the center of the breast with dirt and rocks.
    It was a vain endeavor.

    May 25, 2014 1 Photo

  • Stone Bridge partly cleared.jpg Bridge a site of death, destruction, fascination: Span still standing, drawing visitors

    For Ken Smith, the Stone Bridge spanning the Conemaugh River just outside Johnstown’s business district is inspiring, an example of the power and stability of a structure built with integrity and intelligence.

    Smith is a civil engineer who lives more than 400 miles west of Johnstown, but thinks everyone in his business needs to make what he termed a “pilgrimage” to the seven-arch stone structure that played a major role in the devastating 1889 Johnstown Flood.

    May 25, 2014 3 Photos

  • St Johns Convent.tif Heaven-sent: Churches were city's saving grace

    All of Johnstown’s churches were either destroyed or damaged by the 1889 Johnstown Flood, but that did not stop the congregations from continuing to minister to the community while rebuilding the churches.

    May 25, 2014 1 Photo

  • Grandview Unknown Plot.tif Terrible toll visible at hillside cemetery: 1,222 victims of flood buried there

    Grandview Cemetery serves as the final resting place for former war heroes, a drugstore chain founder and a list of once-powerful politicians.
    But its perhaps best known for a plot honoring hundreds of nameless men and women – a 777- headstone memorial to the unidentified victims of Johnstown’s 1889 flood.

    May 25, 2014 1 Photo


What is the biggest key to reducing gun violence in Johnstown?

Tackling the area's drug problem.
Controlling folks moving into city housing.
Monitoring folks in treatment centers and halfway houses.
Tougher sentencing by the court system.
More police on the streets.

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