One of the worst disasters in American history happened today, and is mostly forgotten.
It was the Johnstown Flood. And unless you grew up in Pennsylvania, you may have never heard of it.
Johnstown, Pennsylvania had a population of 30,000 in 1889, and was growing rapidly due to the steel industry. Because of geography the area was prone to flooding, and so the South Fork Dam had been built to protect the city.
When the dam was built (1838 to 1853) it was considered quite solid, but by 1889 had fallen into disrepair. A group of businessmen had lowered the top of the dam to build a road over it, and occasional small leaks were patched with simple materials (like mud). The iron spillways (used to release water in order to prevent collapse) had actually been sold for scrap. Concerns had been raised about its safety several times, but, as always seems to be the case, nothing was done to correct them until it was too late.
On May 30, 1889 a HUGE rainstorm struck, dumping 10 inches (22 cm) of rain over several hours. Elias Unger, the president of a local hunting and fishing club, awoke the next morning to see the lake was almost to the top of the dam.
He quickly assembled a group of men, and, in the pouring rain, with the dam threatening to collapse and kill them, they frantically struggled to prevent disaster. Some worked at the top, piling muddy earth higher to raise its height. Others tried a create a new spillway to relieve pressure. On 2 occasions John Parke rode his horse to the nearest telegraph station, sending messages to Johnstown to warn them of the impending disaster. Both messages were ignored, as there had previously been similar false alarms during storms.
By 1:30 in the afternoon, Unger and his men realized that their efforts were futile, and disaster was inevitable. They gave up and retreated to high ground, and hoped that downriver in Johnstown their messages had been heeded.
At 3:10 p.m. the dam collapsed explosively.
20 millions tons of water from Lake Conemaugh were sent raging downhill toward Johnstown. As it poured down it picked up anything in its path, turning into a gigantic blob of debris. Trees. Homes. Barns. Farm animals. Boulders. It destroyed several smaller towns on the way to Johnstown, and a witness described it as "a huge hill rolling over and over". One small town of 40-50 homes utterly vanished, with nothing but bare rock left behind.
Locomotive engineer John Hess saved many lives in the community of East Conemaugh. He tied his train whistle down, and drove backwards toward the town, hoping they'd hear its screeching. Hess miraculously survived when he was thrown from his train as it was overtaken by the flood.
The flood struck the Conemaugh Viaduct- and stopped as debris blocked its way through the arches under it. But after a few minutes this structure collapsed, and the downhill torrent resumed. This brief stop, then resumption, actually increased the force of the water as it headed downhill.
Just outside Johnstown the flood became even more deadly. It hit the Cambria Iron Works, picking up buildings, railroad cars, factory machines, furnaces, piles of coal, metal plates, and LOTS of barbed wire- and added them to its swirling mass.
At 4:07 p.m. a wall of water and debris, 60 feet (18 m) high, traveling at roughly 40 miles per hour, struck Johnstown. Some frantically ran for attics, only to find the water was too high. Many were crushed or trapped by trees, barbed wire, and other debris that were part of the flood. A large portion of the town was utterly destroyed.
The Johnstown Stone Bridge (still standing today) partially stopped the flood's progression, as debris blocked the arches under it. Unlike the Conemaugh Viaduct, however, this held- and as a result a second flood wave was directed backwards at Johnstown, striking the ruined city from the opposite direction.
To make matters worse, the huge pile of debris trapped at the stone bridge (covering 30 acres and 70 feet [21 m] high) somehow caught fire. It killed 80 people who were seeking shelter on the bridge, and the flames quickly spread back into Johnstown, going to the structures that were still dry and standing. It burned for 3 days, killing many who had escaped the waters.
Two of the most courageous figures in the disaster were Hettie Ogle and her daughter, Minnie. Hettie was a Civil War widow, and she and Minnie were Johnstown's telegraph operators. As the flood roared down, Hettie frantically sent warnings to communities further downriver, saving countless lives. Rather than trying to save themselves the two stayed at their post, tapping out updates and repeated alarms until she sent "this is my last message" as the waters surrounded them.
All together 2,209 people died in a few hours. 396 were children.
800 of the bodies found weren't identifiable, and are today buried in a large "plot of the unknowns" in Westmont, Pennsylvania. An eternal flame is kept alight there in their memory.
The American Red Cross was only 8 years old, and had never handled a large disaster before. Clara Barton, its founder, personally led the efforts. She and her staff arrived in Johnstown as soon as they safely could (5 days later) and stayed there for 5 months. Their tireless work in such circumstances brought the Red Cross great recognition, helping to build it into the organization it is today.
None of the businessmen who'd owned (and neglected) the dam could be held responsible under the prevailing legal actions. American law was subsequently changed to make such people responsible for their actions, and the laws remain in effect today. It forever changed the American system of legal liability.
The stone bridge that partially stopped the flood still stands 122 years later, a grim reminder of the tragedy.