The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA


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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