Tuesday, May 31, 2011

May 31, 1889




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.



1889




2011

31 comments:

bobbie said...

Wow ~ just WOW!!! Great post ~

Quarter Life Crisis said...

It's amazing to learn what isn't in the history books. Thanks Dr. Grumpy!

evilsciencechick said...

I went to school there (University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown). There's a very interesting flood museum filled with horrible yet fascinating pictures and written accounts. Today you'd hardly know anything happened, and you think "nothing like that would ever happen today!" I'm not so sure...

Anonymous said...

I live in North Carolina but I used to have my students read a book called Head for the Hills about the Johnstown flood. A disaster that can still teach us things today.

Anonymous said...

my great-granmother lived in Johnstown and survived that flood as a small child. The force of Mother Nature is amazine and terrifying at the same time.

Pam said...

I'd read about it before, but nothing so graphic. Chilling.

ERP said...

Yup, pretty famous where I grew up (not near Johnstown but close enough to know the lore). I went to med school with two people from there who lost relatives in the flood.
I love how this same sort of crap is continued today. Policians who thump fiscal conservatism don't want to spend the necessary $ to keep our infrastructure safe until some disaster occurs. Just look around the country and you'll find reports of crumbling roads and bridges that local municipalities and states claim not to have enough Money to pay to fix it.

Gen said...

C'mon Dr. Grumpy, "it's" isn't possessive. It's its.

Anonymous said...

Wow! I remember reading about it in grade school, but without much detail. I had no idea it was so devastating. (In the early 80s enough science fiction fans knew about it that someone made up flyers for a convention to be held in Johnstown, Floodcon. The big enticement? In return for buying a membership, you could nominate for Guest of Honor the SF-related celebrity you'd most like to see drowing on live video feed.) - AE Silas

PA Honeybee said...

I learned about this flood in a Women's Studies class I took in college, I'm sure only because Clara Barton founded the Red Cross. We learned about it in a fair amount of detail. You jogged my memory and as I read, I began to remember this event. A good reminder that some things overlooked can spell disaster in the future. However, when it is government that is not being proactive, it is usually the people not in politics who reap the repercussions.

Chicken Little said...

Thanks for the reminder. I worked there in 1977 with the Conservation Corps after a much smaller flood. It really was true devastation on a scale never scene before.

M.Brayfield said...

Another factor in the flood was the way the reservoir was built. I can't remember if the bottom of the reservoir was concave or convex, but it was the opposite of what it should have been and that contributed to the problem.

I'm something of a student of disasters, so yeah I'd heard of this one, but I'm glad you mentioned it. I believe part of what cause the fire in the debris at the bridge was a locomotive.

Cal said...

Had never heard of it, terrible disaster!

The Mother said...

I've been taking a course on the history of structural engineering--the mistakes made and the arrogance of those who made them are absolutely fascinating--as are the heroism of those who picked up the pieces. Interesting, but sad.

carol said...

Wonderful story. My grandmother was born in 1879 and lived in Missouri at the time of this flood. When I was a child, whenever we went by train from Cleveland (where we lived) to Baltimore (where her son lived), I heard the story of the Johnstown flood as we passed through the town -- she still remembered the horror stories from her childhood. She wouldn`t let me use the washroom on the train anywhere near Johnstown for fear of starting another flood!

kitten said...

i remember reading about the johnstown flood, on my own and not having it taught in class.

one of the other reasons the spillway was not opened was that the lake had been stocked with fish to be caught by the rich business owners who had fishing camps/vacation homes around the lake. but as you said, no one was held accountable.

and that sort of continued till today, to the more recent disaster at new orleans during the hurricane, and why were the flood gates not opened earlier in the recent weeks so that there was NOT the major flooding in lousiana, and that the water could have been diverted more safely.

ahh, the stupidity of man.

Lani said...

I grew up not far from Johnstown and my Dad was a big history buff. I've been to the Johnstown Flood Museum many, many times and it is an amazing place. Thank you Dr. Grumpy for honoring it and the lives lost that day so many years ago with this wonderful post.

Shalom said...

"At 3:10 p.m. the damn collapsed explosively."

"None of the businessmen who'd owned (and neglected) the damn could be held responsible"

I think you've got an extra N there. Unless you intended to put the word "thing" in there afterwards.

Grumpy, M.D. said...

Dam! Okay, I fixed it. And it's.

smocha said...

Fascinating

chrissoup said...

PBS' American Experience produced an excellent documentary on the flood.
http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/films/TheJohnstownFlood/

LCL said...

I actually had heard of this, even though I'm a lifelong left coaster. I took a train ride from Philadelphia to Slippery Rock. The train follows the route of the flood. During the ride someone gave a travelogue over the PA, "at this spot 200 died", etc. Memorable!

Kat's Kats said...

Thanks for this one! It's the most graphic one I've come across. I've learned about it in school, discussed it with my dad (the font of all historical knowledge) and run across it in books. Another story showing that we must always remember to learn from our (and others) mistakes.

Dave said...

You left out the another tragedy of this disaster. In order to rebuild the state legislator instigated the Johnstown flood tax of 10% on all alcohol sales. This "temporary" tax actually was never removed and is now at 18%

Anonymous said...

A large and detailed lithograph showing the disaster and related small scenes (little human interest stories surrounding the main scene) was made. I've always known about the flood because a copy of the lithograph is on display at The Tavern restaurant in State College, PA, where I grew up. As of Mother's Day weekend, it's on the wall behind and to the left of the cashier's counter, so I got to have a good long look at it. After 51 years of visits to the restaurant, the picture still brings goosebumps. And the food is excellent and reasonably priced! --Vikya

Maha said...

All I have to say is wow! That's horrible and fascinating and just goes to show that the more things change, the more they stay the same. I don't know too much about American history (besides the big stuff taught in school) so your posts are very educational for me!

Old MD Girl said...

Great story, Grump.

Shay said...

David McCullough wrote an excellent book on it (not-so-creatively titled "The Johnstown Flood"). One of the best pieces of historical writing I've ever read, well written and incredibly informative.

Packer said...

Similar , Paterson NJ flood of 1903. Failures of earthen dams . Amazingly enough they are still being built to hold back farm waste, and even lakes. I live in a lake community with an earthen dam that is half a mile long. The state has required rip rap and spillways to be installed so the level can never go above 50% of the height of the dam.

Louise said...

Amazing story! Always worthwhile to visit your blog, good sir.

Anonymous said...

Very interesting article. I'd never heard of the flood before.

Just one thing, on a point of pedantry: "its" is possessive; "it's" means "it has" or "it is". You've misused the possessive almost all the way through.

But a good article none the less.

 
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