The breaching of the South Fork Dam one late spring day in 1889 forever changed the history of Johnstown, Pennsylvania as floodwaters destroyed much of the city. When all was said and done, over 2,200 people were dead; the largest loss of civilian life the United States had seen up to that point, only to be surpassed by the 1900 Galveston hurricane and the September 11th terrorist attacks.
Johnstown was a booming city during the waning years of the 19th century, nestled at the junction of two rivers in western Pennsylvania. The city was home to over 30,000 people and had thrived as a result of growing industry throughout the region, with steel being the predominant products of the local economy. Due to the topography surrounding the city, much of the settlement was kept close to the riverfront.
To the east of Johnstown (high above the city) was the South Fork Dam. Having been built over the course of fifteen years from 1838 and 1853 by the state, the dam created an expansive reservoir that provided water for the sprouting canal system of western Pennsylvania. Unfortunately, the age of canal transport was short-lived, being overtaken by the much more popular locomotive industry. As such, by the latter half of the century, the dam and reservoir were sold by the state to the Pennsylvania Railroad who thereafter sold it to private institutions.
19th century financier Henry Clay Frick fancied to turn the reservoir into a private resort for his wealthy associates. He was successful, and as part of the renovations of the property, the dam was lowered a few feet in order to make its top wide enough to carry a road across it and the relief pipes and valves that were removed were never replaced. In hindsight, it is thought that this alteration made the dam vulnerable. By 1881, the resort opened as the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club, a prestigious retreat for the wealthiest society had to offer at the time. It wouldn’t be long, however, before problems began to arise for the newly altered dam.
In the years following the club’s opening, the South Fork Dam sprang leaks often, though with the lack of relief pipes and valves it wasn’t possible for anything to be done to relieve the stresses placed onto the dam. It was only a matter of time that the infrastructure would fail and the reservoir would break through.
Disaster struck May 31, 1889. A strong area of low pressure brought the heaviest rainfall the region had ever experienced up to that point. The local U.S. Army Signal Corps reported 6 - 10 inches of rainfall in just 24 hours over the region. By the morning of the 31st, the reservoir was swollen, nearly cresting over the dam’s brim. Workers at the resort tried various ways to relieve the stresses the dam faced, including digging a ditch at the other end of the dam to allow some water to spill out. When it appeared nothing could be done to save the dam, an engineer at the South Fork Club ordered a message to be sent to the nearby town of South Fork where they could telegraph Johnstown to warn of the impending danger. Unfortunately, the warning was never passed on to the city, for there had been many false alarms in the past regarding the dam’s integrity.
Downriver, the rain was already causing flooding issues in Johnstown, with waters rising as high as ten feet, trapping many in their homes. It was mid-afternoon when the South Fork Dam breached, unleashing over 3.8 billion gallons of water. As flood waters rushed down the river valley, it ripped up trees and houses along the way, eroding much of the soil down to the bedrock. Train engineer John Hess was in his locomotive when he heard the rumbling of the approaching flood. Hess raced his locomotive ahead of the flood, blaring the whistle constantly to warn those along his path of the approaching danger. The flood soon caught up to the locomotive, but Hess’s life was spared.
It took fifty-seven minutes from the dam’s collapse for floodwaters to reach Johnstown. The rushing water reached speeds of 40 mph and a height of 60 feet in places. The debris that had been swept up in the flood caused many of the deaths, trapping people as it progressed through the city. The Stone Bridge at the far end of the city trapped much of the passing debris, creating a dam of destruction that caught on fire, further adding to the death toll. It would take three months for the mass of debris to be removed in the flood’s wake. Unfortunately, 2,208 people were killed with 777 never identified. Their remains were buried in the “Plot of the Unknown” at Johnstown’s Grandview Cemetery.
The Response and Aftermath
An investigation was launched in the months after the disaster, which ultimately concluded that the Club’s modifications had no impact on the dam’s vulnerability (though modern re-analysis suggests such changes cut the dam’s safe discharge capacity in half). Legally, some survivors blamed the members of the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club for their modifications to the dam, accusing them of failing to maintain the structure properly. In court, the Club was deemed not responsible for the loss of life or property, ruling the incident an “Act of God”, with no legal compensation paid out to survivors. Despite this, many of the wealthy club members donated millions of dollars to help the city recover. In the years that followed, American law was changed from a fault-based regime to one of strict liability.
One of the first outsiders to arrive in the devastated community was Clara Barton, who founded and was president of the American Red Cross, and helped lead the groups first major disaster relief effort. Barton would then remain in Johnstown for five months to assist survivors. Nearly $3.8 million ($123 million today) would be collected for the city’s relief effort, with donations coming from around the world, including Russia, Britain, Australia, and the Ottoman Empire.