127 years ago today, on May 31st, 1889, a disastrous flood filled the streets of Johnstown, PA, killing over 2,200 people.
Johnstown housed around 30,000 residents at that time, including thousands of steel industry workers. None of them had any idea of the impending doom. While an engineer at the dam noticed that the debris-clogged earth dam, the United State’s largest, could potentially collapse, his attempts to relay the information to the people of Johnstown were in vain.
Shortly after 3:00 p.m. the South Fork Dam, owned by the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club, gave way to all of Lake Conemaugh, the largest man-made lake in the country at that time. The dam collapsed and released over 20 million gallons of water to roar towards Johnstown, 14 miles away, at speeds upwards of 40 mph. The great wave, measured to be between thirty five and forty feet high, demolished everything in its path, including homes, businesses, train engines, and a bridge downstream.
Surprisingly, the largest amount of casualties was not from the roaring waters, but from the large fire that resulted in the destruction of the bridge. The fortunate ones who were able to survive the waves of the flood by floating on pieces of debris, were later killed by this blaze. Bodies that were drowned and washed away, were found as far away as Cincinnati, Ohio. One report claimed that a baby was found alive, floating on a large piece of home flooring, 75 miles away. Another report claimed that a body was found in 1911, 22 years after the flood. 2,209 casualties were reported, with 99 full families killed. Over 750 victims were also either never identified or never found.
1,600 Johnstown homes were totally destroyed, part of the four square miles of the town that was completely demolished. $17 million in damage was done. If you were to convert $17 million in 1889 to today’s currency values, that would be over $450 million in property damage! The United States and 18 other countries worldwide collected a relief effort of over $3 million that was donated to help support the 25,000+ survivors that were then without food, water, clothes, or housing.
Residents gathered up debris to build temporary shelters. A Pittsburgh Penitentiary baked 1000 loaves of bread for the survivors. A Cincinnati delicatessen sent 20,000 pounds of cooked ham. A work force of over 10,000 men swiftly moved the recovery effort along and even allowed for the Pennsylvania railroad line to the east to be reopened in just 14 days. The American Red Cross also saw one of its first relief efforts in the aftermath of the Johnstown Flood.
By the 4th of July, Johnstown was essentially functional, but over five years of hard work were needed to completely rebuild and recover from the disaster.
This evening at 6:00 p.m., the Johnstown Flood National Memorial will be hosting a special remembrance service. Parts of this service include the placing of wreaths on both halves of the original South Fork Dam, lighting 2,209 candles around the visitor’s center and on the dam that will stay lit until the visitor’s center closes at 10:00 p.m.. The visitor’s center will also be showing “Black Friday,” a short film that recreates the Johnstown Flood. The film will be show at the fifteen minute mark of every hour. Admission is free all day.
More information, including facts, survivor stories, photos, and more can be found at the Johnstown Area Heritage Association‘s official website.