— Note: The following was originally published in The Tribune-Democrat’s commemorative edition marking the 100th anniversary of the flood.
The 1889 flood was by far the worst, but certainly not the first flood for the citizens of Johnstown.
The first inundation recorded in the Conemaugh Valley was in 1808, only four years after the establishment of “Conemaugh Old Town.” That flood destroyed a Stonycreek River dam that provided water for an iron forge.
Flooding occurred in the fall months of 1816 to 1820 prompting the locals to dub them “pumpkin floods.” The flood of 1816 forced the first recorded evacuation of Johnstown, with residents seeking safety on Green Hill.
“In February, 1832, flood waters filled the channels for five days. Canal locks from Johnstown to Pittsburgh were damaged,” wrote Nathan Shappee in a 1940 doctoral thesis on the history of Johnstown. “The next destructive rise in the rivers happened in 1847 when the feeder dam on the Stonycreek broke. High water damaged the eastern end of the canal basin and flooded the town from Market Street to the Point.”
The bustling borough remained relatively dry until November 1859. Two years later, a flood washed away the original Franklin Street bridge and dunked parts of the downtown and Kernville.
While floodwaters were recorded only once each decade during the 1860s and 1870s, they returned with a vengeance in the 1880s. From 1880 to 1888, Johnstown had seven floods.
“After this last high water before the Great Flood,” Shappee wrote, “residents living near the Point began to find other houses.”
Some, at least, heeded nature’s warnings before it was too late.