On This Day

johnstown flood, johnstown disaster
Associated Press
Survivors stand by homes destroyed when the South Fork Dam collapsed in Johnstown, Pa.

On This Day: Johnstown, Pa., Flood Kills More Than 2,000

May 31, 2011 06:00 AM
by Cara McDonough
On May 31, 1889, a huge storm and an ineffective dam led to one of the most lethal floods in American history, causing millions of dollars in damage.

Johnstown Devastated by Flood

The people of Johnstown had seen floods before; the town was built into a river valley on the Appalachian Plateau and at least once a year, the Little Conemaugh and Stony Creek Rivers would overflow into the streets.

But what happened on May 31, 1889, was different. According to Edwin Hutcheson’s 1989 book “Floods of Johnstown: 1889-1936-1977,” a failed dam made all the difference on that fateful spring day.

The South Fork dam controlled the waters of Lake Conemaugh, 14 miles upstream from the city. After days of rain, officials feared that the dam would fail. Unfortunately, they were right. By evening, according to Hutcheson, residents of the town of South Fork watched in horror as the dam “just moved away.”

The New York Times reported extensively on the flood at the time. According to the newspaper, a wall of water that reached up to 70 feet high swept down the river valley, carrying with it everything in its path, including “steel mills, houses, livestock and people.” 

Following the flood, officials and nearby residents feared the worst for Johnstown, but information was hard to come by because the town was unreachable for days. The Times reported that “a sense of apprehension will prevail until the cities … shall be heard from again.”

In the 1889 publication “History of the Johnstown Flood,” Willis Fletcher Johnson writes that the people of Johnstown and other nearby towns had been given ample warning about the potential for a flood. Yet “In hundreds of cases this warning was utterly disregarded, and those who heeded it early in the day were looked upon as cowards,” and as a result, many stayed put.

More than 2,200 died in the flood. Following the disastrous event, survivors set up tents near what had once been their homes and attempted to begin life again. The Red Cross launched a major rescue effort, building shelter for survivors to live in and warehouses to store donations the community received. Hutcheson reports that by July 1, Johnstown had recovered enough that stores on Main Street reopened for business.

Remembering the Flood

Although the flood occurred 120 years ago, its victims are well remembered online, in books and through memorials.

The Johnstown Flood National Memorial features a remembrance service every year in honor of flood victims. More than 2,209 candles are lit on the ruins of the South Fork Dam on the anniversary of the event. Interpretive trails are available in the area, and a play titled “An Interview with Colonel Elias J. Unger" is performed.

Survivors of the flood, and their stories, are remembered today as well. The Johnstown Flood Museum Web site shares several survivor stories, including the the tragic story of Anna Fenn Maxwell, who survived the flood but whose six children drowned, and the Rev. H.L. Chapman, who survived in his attic. “I think none of us was afraid to meet God, but we all felt willing to put it off until a more propitious time," Chapman wrote.

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