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Debris above Pennsylvania Railroad bridge
The Johnstown Flood (or Great Flood of 1889 as it became known locally) occurred on May 31, 1889. It was the result of the failure of the South Fork Dammarker situated upstream of the town of Johnstown, Pennsylvaniamarker, USAmarker, made worse by several days of extremely heavy rainfall. The dam's failure unleashed a torrent of 20 million tons of water (4.8 billion U.S. gallons; 18.2 million cubic meters; 18.2 billion litres). The flood killed over 2,200 people and caused US$17 million of damage. It was the first major disaster relief effort handled by the new American Red Cross, led by Clara Barton. Support for victims came from all over the United Statesmarker and 18 foreign countries. After the flood, victims suffered a series of legal defeats in their attempt to recover damages from the dam's owners. Public indignation at that failure prompted a major development in American law‚ÄĒstate courts' move from a fault-based regime to strict liability.


Founded in 1800 by Swissmarker immigrant Joseph Johns, Johnstown began to prosper with the building of the Pennsylvania Main Line Canalmarker in 1836 and the arrival of the Pennsylvania Railroad and the Cambria Iron Works in the 1850s. By 1889, Johnstown was a town of Welsh and German immigrants. With a population of 30,000, it was a growing industrial community known for the quality of its steel.The high, steep hills of the narrow Conemaugh Valley and the Allegheny Mountains range to the east kept development close to the riverfront areas, and subjected the valley to large amounts of runoff from rain and snowfall. The area surrounding Johnstown is prone to flooding due to its position at the confluence of the Stony Creek and Little Conemaugh River, forming the Conemaugh River, whose upstream watersheds include an extensive drainage basin of the Allegheny plateau. Adding to these factors, artificial narrowing of the riverbed for the purposes of early industrial development made the city even more flood-prone. The Conemaugh River immediately downstream of Johnstown is hemmed in by steep mountainsides for approximately ten miles. Today, a plaque at the scenic overlook on Pennsylvania Route 56 about four miles outside of Johnstown cites this gorge as the deepest river gap in the entire United States east of the Rocky Mountains.

South Fork Dam and Lake Conemaugh

High above the city, near the small town of South Forkmarker, the South Fork Dammarker was originally built between 1838 and 1853 by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvaniamarker as part of a canal system to be used as a reservoir for a canal basin in Johnstown. With the coming-of-age of railroads superseding canal barge transport, the lake was abandoned by the Commonwealth, sold to the Pennsylvania Railroad, and sold again to private interests.

Henry Clay Frick led a group of speculators including Benjamin Ruff to purchase the abandoned reservoir, modify it, and convert it into a private resort lake for the wealthy of Pittsburghmarker, many of whom were closely associated with Carnegie Steel. The changes included lowering the dam to make its top wide enough to hold a road, and putting a fish screen in the spillway (that also trapped debris). These alterations are thought to have increased the vulnerability of the dam. They built cottages and a clubhouse to create the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club, an exclusive and secretive mountain retreat. Membership grew to include over 50 wealthy Pittsburgh steel, coal, and railroad industrialists.

Lake Conemaughmarker at the club's site was in elevation above Johnstown. The lake was about long, approximately wide, and deep near the dam. The lake had a perimeter of to hold 20 million tons of water. When the water was at its highest point in the spring, the lake covered over .

The dam was high and long. Between 1881 when the club was opened, and 1889, the dam frequently sprang leaks and was patched, mostly with mud and straw. Additionally, a previous owner removed and sold for scrap the 3 cast iron discharge pipes that previously allowed a controlled release of water. There had been some speculation as to the dam's integrity, and concerns had been raised by the head of the Cambria Iron Works downstream in Johnstown. Carnegie Steel's chief competitor, the Cambria Iron and Steel Company, at that time boasted the world's largest annual steel production. However, no major corrective action was taken, and the flawed dam held the waters of Lake Conemaugh back until the disaster of May 31, 1889.

The Great Flood of 1889

On May 28, 1889, a storm formed over Nebraskamarker and Kansasmarker, moving east. When the storm struck the Johnstown-South Fork area two days later it was the worst downpour that had ever been recorded in that part of the country. The U.S. Army Signal Corps estimated that of rain fell in 24 hours over the entire region. During the night small creeks became roaring torrents, ripping out trees and debris. Telegraph lines were downed and rail lines were washed away. Before daybreak the Conemaugh River that ran through Johnstown was about to burst its banks.

On the morning of May 31, 1889, in a farmhouse on a hill just above the South Fork Dam located about upstream, Elias Unger, the president of the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club at the time, awoke to the sight of Lake Conemaugh swollen after a night-long heavy rainfall. Unger ran outside in the still-pouring rain to assess the situation and saw that the water was nearly cresting the dam. Unger quickly assembled a group of men to try to save the face of the dam by trying to unclog the spillway which was blocked by the broken fish trap and debris caused by the swollen waterline. Other men tried digging another spillway at the other end of the dam to relieve the pressure but without success. Most remained on top of the dam, some plowing earth to raise it, while others tried to pile mud and rock on the face to save the eroding wall.

John Parke, an engineer for the South Fork Club, briefly considered cutting through the dam's end, where the pressure would be less, but decided against it. Twice, under orders from Unger, Parke rode on horseback to the nearby town of South Fork to the telegraph office to send warnings to Johnstown explaining the critical nature of the eroding dam. But the warnings were not passed onto the authorities in town since there had been many false alarms in the past of the South Fork Dam not holding against flooding, but which it did. Unger, Parke, and the rest of the men continued working to save the face of the dam until they were exhausted in which they abandoned their efforts at around 1:30 PM when they felt that their work was futile and the dam would collapse at any minute. Unger ordered all of his men to fall back to high ground on both sides of the dam where they could do nothing but wait.

During the day in Johnstown, the situation worsened as water rose to as much as in the streets of Johnstown. Then at around 3:10 PM (15:10), the South Fork Dam burst, allowing the 20 million tons of Lake Conemaugh to cascade down the Little Conemaugh River. It took about 40 minutes for the entire lake to drain of the water. The first town to be hit by the flood was the small town of South Fork. Fortunately, the town was on high ground and most of the people ran farther up the nearby hills when they saw the dam literally spill over. Despite 20 to 30 houses being destroyed or washed away, only four people were killed.

On its way downstream towards Johnstown, the crest picked up debris, such as trees, houses, and animals. At the Conemaugh Viaduct, a high railroad bridge, the flood temporarily was stopped when debris jammed against the stone bridge's arch. But after around seven minutes, the viaduct collapsed, allowing the flood to resume its course. Because of this, the force of the surge gained renewed impetus, resulting in a stronger force hitting Johnstown than otherwise would have been expected. The small town of Mineral Point, one mile (1.6 km) below the Conemaugh Viaduct, was hit with this renewed force. About 30 families lived on the village's single street. After the flood, only bare rock remained. About 16 people were killed.

The village of East Conemaugh was next to be hit by the flood. One witness on high ground near the town described the water as almost obscured by debris, resembling "a huge hill rolling over and over". Train engineer John Hess, sitting in his locomotive engine, heard the rumbling of the flood and, correctly assuming what it was, tried to warn people by tying down the train whistle and racing toward the town by riding backwards to warn the residents ahead of the wave. His warning saved many people who were able to get to high ground. But at least 50 people died, including about 25 passengers stranded on trains in the town. Hess himself miraculously survived despite the flood picking up his locomotive and tossing it aside.

Just before hitting the main part of the city, the flood surge hit the Cambria Iron Works at the town of Woodvale, taking with it railroad cars and barbed wire. Of Woodvale's 1,100 residents, 314 died in the flood. Boilers exploded when the flood hit the Gauliter Wire Works, causing black smoke seen by the Johnstown residents.

Some 57 minutes after the South Fork Dam collapsed, the flood hit Johnstown. The inhabitants of Johnstown were caught by surprise as the wall of water and debris bore down on the village, traveling at and reaching a height of in places. Some, realizing the danger, tried to escape by running towards high ground. But most people were hit by the surging floodwater. Many people were crushed by pieces of debris, and others became caught in barbed wire from the wire factory upstream. Those who sought safety in attics, or managed to stay afloat on pieces of floating debris, waited hours for help to arrive.
An artist's rendition of the scene at the Stone Bridge

At Johnstown, the Stone Bridgemarker, which was a substantial arched structure, carried the Pennsylvania Railroad across the Conemaugh River. The debris that was carried by the flood formed a temporary dam, stopping further progress of the water. The flood surge rolled upstream along the Stoney Creek River. Eventually, gravity caused the surge to return to the dam, causing a second wave to hit the city, but from a different direction. Some people who had been washed downstream became trapped in an inferno as debris that had piled up against the Stone Bridge caught fire, killing at least 80 people. The fire at the Stone Bridge burned for three days. Afterwards, the pile of debris there covered , and reached in height. The mass of debris took three months to remove, because of the masses of steel wire from the ironworks binding it. Dynamite was eventually used to clear it. As of 2009, the Stone Bridge is still standing, and is often portrayed as one of the images of the flood.


A house that was almost completely destroyed in the flood.
The John Schultz house at Johnstown, PA after the flood.
Neatly skewered by a huge tree uprooted by the flood, the house floated down from Union Street to the end of Main.
Six people, including Schultz himself, were inside the house when the flood hit.
All of them survived.
View of lower Johnstown three days after the flood
Main Street after flood
The authorities averting looting on Main Street
The total death toll was 2,209, making the disaster the largest loss of civilian life in the United States at the time. It was later surpassed by the 1900 Galveston hurricanemarker and the 9/11 attacks (in which, coincidentally, one of the hijacked airlinersmarker crashed near Shanksvillemarker, just 20 miles south of Johnstown). Some historians believe the 1928 Okeechobee hurricane also killed more people in the U.S. than did the Johnstown Flood, but the official death toll was lower.

Ninety-nine entire families died in the Johnstown deluge, including 396 children. 124 women and 198 men were left without their spouses, 98 children lost both parents. 777 victims (1 of every 3 bodies found) were never identified and rest in the Plot of the Unknown in Grandview Cemetery in Southmont. An "eternal flame" burns at Point Park in Johnstown, at the confluence of the Stonycreek and Little Conemaugh Rivers, in memory of the flood victims.

Working seven days and nights, workmen replaced the huge stone railroad viaduct that had all but disappeared in the flood.

It was the worst flood to hit the U.S. in the 19th century. 1,600 homes were destroyed, $17 million in property damage was done, and of downtown Johnstown were completely destroyed. Clean-up operations continued for years. Although Cambria Iron and Steel's facilities were heavily damaged, they returned to full production within a year and a half.

The Pennsylvania Railroad restored service to Pittsburghmarker, away, by June 2. Food, clothing, medicine and other provisions began arriving. Morticians came by railroad. Johnstown’s first call for help requested coffins and undertakers. Demolition expert "Dynamite Bill" Flinn and his 900-man crew cleared the wreckage at the Stone Bridge. They carted off debris, distributed food, and erected temporary housing. At its peak, the army of relief workers totaled about 7,000.

One of the first outsiders to arrive was Clara Barton (1821-1912), nurse and president of the American Red Cross. Barton arrived on June 5, 1889, to lead the group's first major disaster relief effort and didn't leave for over 5 months. She and many other volunteers worked tirelessly. Donations for the relief effort came from all over the United States and overseas. $3,742,818.78 was collected for the Johnstown relief effort from within the U.S. and 18 foreign countries, including Russiamarker, Turkeymarker, Francemarker, Great Britainmarker, Australia and Germanymarker.

Subsequent floods

Floods have continued to be a concern for Johnstown. Johnstown has experienced additional major flooding in subsequent years, including 1894, 1907, and 1924. The most significant flood of the first half of the 20th century was the St. Patrick's Day Flood of March 1936, which also reached Pittsburgh and became known as the Great Pittsburgh Flood of 1936.

More recently, on the night of July 19, 1977, a relentless storm reminiscent of 1889 bombarded the watershed above the city and the rivers began to rise. By dawn, the city was under water that reached as high as . The seven counties disaster area suffered $200 million in property damage and 80 lost lives. Another 50,000 were rendered homeless as a result of the "500 year flood". Markers on one corner of City Hall at 401 Main Street show the height of the crests of the 1889, 1936, and 1977 floods.


In the years following the disaster, many people blamed the members of the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club for the tragedy. The club had bought and redesigned the dam to turn the area into a vacation retreat in the mountains. However, they were accused of failing to maintain the dam properly, so that it was unable to contain the additional water of the unusually heavy rainfall. Despite the accusations and evidence, they were successfully defended by the firm of Knox and Reed (now Reed Smith LLP), both partners of which (Philander Knox and James Hay Reed) were Club members. The Club was never held legally responsible for the disaster. Although a suit was filed, the court held the dam break to have been an Act of God, and granted the survivors no legal compensation.

Individual members of the club did contribute substantially to the relief efforts. Along with about half of the club members, Henry Clay Frick donated thousands of dollars to the relief effort in Johnstown. After the flood, Andrew Carnegie, one of the club's better known members, built the town a new library. In modern times, this former library is owned by the Johnstown Area Heritage Association, and houses The Flood Museum. Remnants of the dam are preserved as part of Johnstown Flood National Memorialmarker, established in 1964.

Effect on the Development of American Law

One of the major obstacles to the victims' ability to recover damages was the club's lack of resources. The wealthy club owners proved difficult to sue for at least two reasons‚ÄĒthe legal separation of their assets from those of the club and the difficulty in proving any one particular owner behaved negligently. Though the former reason was probably more central, the latter received a great deal of criticism in the national press.

As a result of this criticism, the 1890s saw states around the country adopt Rylands v. Fletcher, a British common law precedent that had been largely ignored in America. State courts' adoption of Rylands, which held that a non-negligent defendant could be held liable for damage caused by the unnatural use of land, foreshadowed the entire legal system's twentieth century acceptance of strict liability.

The "Johnstown Flood" Tax

As a result of the damage from the 1936 flood, the Pennsylvania General Assembly imposed an emergency tax on all alcohol sold in the Commonwealth. The "temporary" 10% tax was initially intended to help pay for clean up, recovery, and assistance to flood victims. The tax was never repealed and in 1963 the tax was raised to 15% and again in 1968 to 18% (not including the statewide 6% sales tax). The nearly $200 million collected annually no longer goes to flood victims, however, instead going into the general fund for discretionary use by lawmakers.

The Pennsylvania Department of Revenuemarker states:
"All liquors sold by the LCB are subject to this tax which is computed on the actual price paid by the consumer including mark-up, handling charge and federal tax.
The first sale of liquor also is subject to the sales and use tax at the time of purchase."

In literature and music

Dark fantasy author Caitlín R. Kiernan made the Johnstown Flood the central focus of her 1994 short story "To This Water (Johnstown, Pennsylvania, 1889)", which appears in her collection Tales of Pain and Wonder. In the story, the flood serves as a catalyst for revenge in what is essentially a ghost story.

Bruce Springsteen's song "Highway Patrolman", from the Nebraska album (1982), references the event. The narrator of the song and his brother take turns "dancing with Maria, as the band played 'Night of the Johnstown Flood'". (This is an anachronism, since in 1982 there was still no song in existence bearing the title "Night of the Johnstown Flood.")

Catherine Marshall wrote a historical fiction novel Julie about a teenage girl in a small Pennsylvania town below an earthen dam not properly maintained by the Hunting and Fishing Club. Although set in the 1930s instead of 1889, this is a much researched account of the Johnstown Flood.

Brian Booker's short story A Drowning Accident, published by the literary periodical One Story (Issue #57, May 30, 2005), was largely based on and influenced by the Johnstown Flood of 1889.

Murray Leinster's two time travellers were unable to convince the Johnstown population of the coming disaster in his 1966 novel The Time Tunnel.

The Johnstown Flood is mentioned in Rudyard Kipling's book Captains Courageous as the disaster that wiped out the family of "Pennsylvania Pratt" (originally Moravian lay preacher Jakob Boller) causing his mind to give out. He briefly returns to reality, becoming his former self and recalling the disaster when a steamship runs down another fishing boat.

Pulitzer prize-winning historian David McCullough devotes an entire volume to the disaster in his book The Johnstown Flood.

Michael Dudek, a Johnstown resident and author, references the Johnstown Flood in his book "The Fairytale of the Morley Dog". The book is a fantasy about M. Morley's dog (famous to Johnstown residents) and his adventures. In the book, the dog is claimed to be seen saving children from the flood waters. A statue of M. Morley's dog, "Johnstown's best friend", used to stand in a park at the corner of Main and Market Streets. The statue has been removed for restoration.

The foreseen flood figured prominently in the plot of Paul Mark Tag's novel Prophecy.

Marden A. Dahlstedt, a young readers' author, wrote one girl's account of the flood in her 1972 book The Terrible Wave.

The flood was also the subject of William McGonagall's poem The Pennsylvania Disaster.

The flood was also mentioned in John Jakes' "The Americans", the final installment of The Kent Family Chronicles. Elenor and Leo find themselves in Johnstown when the flood takes place and Jakes gives an account of the experience of those in the town during the 24 hours prior to the flood, during the flood, and shortly after the flood.

It is the main topic of the Peg Kehret book The Flood Disaster. In the book, two students are assigned a project on The Johnstown Flood. They travel back in time using a time traveling device called the "instant commuter" to see the flood in person and help them with their project. Things go terribly wrong, however, when they become stuck in 1889 during the flood.

It was the putative inspiration for the album " Johnstown" by Canadian musician Oh Susanna.

The attempt to save the people of Johnstown from the oncoming flood is mentioned by the folksinger John Stewart in his song "Mother Country," in a recitation of heroic actions by Americans at various points in the country's history.

The Star Trek: The Original Series novel Rough Trails (third part of the Star Trek: New Earth mini-series) by L.A. Graf is a recreation of the Johnstown Flood set on another planet.

See also


  1. Lane, F.W. The Elements Rage (David & Charles 1966), p.129
  2. History of the Johnstown Flood, Willis Fletcher Johnson (1889), pp 61-64. Available on CD-ROM from [1]
  3. Lane, F.W. The Elements Rage (David & Charles 1966), p.131
  4. Jed Handelsman Shugerman, Note, The Floodgates of Strict Liability, 110 Yale L.J. 333 (2000) [2]
  6. Official PA state web site
  7. One Story - issue #57


  • David McCullough, "The Johnstown Flood", (1968); ISBN 0-671-20714-8
  • R. O'Connor, "Johnstown - The Day The Dam Broke" (1957).
  • Willis Fletcher Johnson, "History of the Johnstown Flood" (1889). [53876]

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