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May 25, 2014

'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.

“Everything about us was in inextricable confusion, showing the effects of the terrific convulsion through which nature and humanity had passed,” wrote the Rev. David Beale in his book “Through the Johnstown Flood.” “Here were uprooted trees, houses upturned or demolished, furniture of every description – hardware, woodenware, parlor ornaments and kitchen utensils, mattresses, bodies of horses, cattle and swine, corpses of men, women and children, railroad cars and locomotives – overturned or on end, and pressing down upon the half-buried bodies of the drowned.”

Despite the enormity of the situation, the individuals who met inside the schoolhouse outlined a plan to rebuild their community, which was founded as Conemaugh Old Town by Joseph Johns, a Swiss-German immigrant, also known as Joseph Schantz, in 1800. Under the general leadership of A.J. Moxham, the citizens formed committees: finance, dangerous buildings, police and others.

‘Sympathy and help’

But the residents of Johnstown were not alone.

Donations arrived from across the country and the world.

“The responses from within and without the State have been most generous and cheering. North and South, East and West, from the United States and from England, there comes the same hearty, generous response of sympathy and help,” said Pennsylvania Gov. James Addams Beaver. “The President, Governors of States, Mayors of cities, and individuals and communities, private and municipal corporations, seem to vie with each other in their expressions of sympathy and in their contributions of substantial aid. But, gratifying as these responses are, there is no danger of their exceeding the necessities of the situation.”

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