The Johnstown Flood of 1889

By: Nikki Hudak

On May 31, 1889, at around three o’clock in the afternoon, the South Fork Dam collapsed, releasing twenty million tons of water (  In the raging water’s path were the communities of Johnstown.  People were bustling around with their normal everyday activities.  Little did they know that their world soon would be changed.  The Johnstown flood became one of the worst natural disasters that the country has ever seen (Miller Aaron, 1-8)

There were various causes that led to the South Fork Dam collapsing and flooding of the small town of Johnstown.  After the flood, there were investigations on why the dam collapsed.  The investigation concluded that it was just poorly designed by the original engineer, William E. Morris, who had died before the dam collapsed. (source)  They also stated that the dam collapsed because of water running over the top of it.  That situation was “the worst possible thing that can befall an earth and rock dam,” wrote Frank.  The South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club, which at the time of the flood owned the dam, was never named responsible.  The investigators claimed Morris responsible because he did not engineer the dam to withstand severe storms, which were very common in the area, and he did not make the spill-way large enough. (source)  The original design, however, was different from what was actually built.  The dam was never completely finished due to financial issues of the state.  Another reason for the failure of the dam was that the original design of the spillway called for a main spill-way that was much bigger than what was built.  Investigators said even with the spill-way being shorter than originally planned it would not had failed so horribly if it had the culvert to aid with drainage and an emergency spill-way that was effective. (SOURCE)  The lowering of the dam for the railroad made the main and emergency spill-way.  The design of them made water drain if the level of the reservoir approached the top of the dam and made it a lot less effective.  It also did not help the situation that the placement of the screens in the main spill-way were not good.  Therefore, the real reason of the flood was the removal of the culvert pipes, the placement of the screens, and the poorly repaired center of the dam. (SOURCE)  The way the dam was reconstructed and the modifications most likely were causes of the flood also.  The dam should have been repaired by someone who was a professional dam engineer or someone more qualified to repair it than those who actually were involved. (Arron Miller, pages 1-8)   

Then came a huge down-pour on the night of May 30, 1889.  Walter Frank said “It was the worst down-pour that had ever been recorded in that section on the country.” (SOURCE)  The water just kept rising and rising as the day went on.  By ten o’clock a.m. on May 31st, the water was just less than a foot from hitting the top of the dam.  Workmen were told to cut a trench on the hillside west of the dam to try and get the path of water about to overflow to widen.  With all of their effort, just two feet in, they hit rock.  After that, men were sent to the repaired part of the dam to try and heighten it, but did not make much progress.  The water had reached the repaired part of the dam by eleven o’clock a.m., wearing away the mound the men had earlier created. Just a half hour later, fifty feet of the top of the dam gave way. (SOURCE)  John Parke got on his horse to the South Fork telegraph to warn people of the dam possibly collapsing. (SOURCE)  Many others tried to warn the people of Johnstown, too,  but the people were so used to these flood warnings that they just disregarded them.  The people of Johnstown were moving their furniture to the second floor of their homes to get it away from the rising waters, but little did they know that would not be nearly enough of a precaution of what was about to happen.  Then at around two o’clock p.m., a large section of the repaired section of the downstream side had washed away. (SOURCE)  All of this led to the big wave at 3:10 p.m. when the dam completely gave way and collapsed heading toward the small town of Johnstown and surrounding townships.  The water was moving at a rapid speed of forty miles per hour (SOURCE).  The “terrible wave” swept up houses, trees, and even trains going down the valley.  By the time the wave hit Johnstown, it did not even look like water anymore.  People said it just looked like a moving pile of junk.  The pile of junk stood thirty five feet tall (SOURCE).  Even the best swimmers could not swim in the treacherous conditions,  and most drowned.  Just in a few minutes Johnstown had been destroyed.  If people did not die instantly, they were swept down the valley to their deaths.  When the people thought it could not get worse, it managed to.  Those who did survive the wave were all stuck and caught in the debris, and eventually the pile of junk caught fire (SOURCE).

Finally came the terrible aftermath of the flood. Help came the next day, including doctors, nurses, Clara Barton, and the American Red Cross to provide medical attention, supplies, and shelter (SOURCE).  People from not just the United States but around the world heard about this disaster and sent food, clothing, and shelter.  With all of the unclean water and decaying bodies of humans and animals, doctors worried about diseases  ( it rained it poored).  Diseases did appear like typhus and typhoid.  The people who got these diseases were the ones helping clean the debris of the flood.  There were about fifty tents that were occupied by the relief corps from many cities in Southwestern Pennsylvania (SOURCE).  Because of the flood, the people in the district did not have any type of drainage.  The river then flowed over the thousands of dead bodies and the water from the river supplied Pittsburgh and Alleghany.  So people were even more terrified of diseases spreading to places the flood did not even happen (newspaper).  This disaster was also the first major one that the American Red Cross was involved in.   They helped feed, treat, and care for survivors.  They even built “Red Cross hotels” that helped house people (SOURCE).  About ten thousand men in the effort to clean the town, with so many other people helping, in just two weeks twenty miles of the Pennsylvania Railroad was rebuilt (SOURCE).  Then by the sixth week after the flood, all of the debris was removed from the river channels.  Johnstown received an announcement on June 9th that the Cambria Iron Works would help rebuild the town, making sure jobs were available to the people in the future (Miller Aaron, 1-8).

In conclusion, the Johnstown flood caused many deaths and destruction of the city.  The lives of the people of Johnstown were changed in a matter of minutes.  The flood is known to be one of the worst natural disasters and will always be known and remembered.

JAHA.  “It rained and rained.”   JAHA (Johnstown Area Heritage Association).  2013.  `  Accessed 2013.

Miller, Aaron.  “The Johnstown Flood of 1889.”  pages 1-8.  March 30, 2010.     

“Hundreds of Lives Lost: A Waterspout’s Dreadful Work in Pennsylvania.”  The New York Times.  1889.


Madison Walker is a Senior at the Shanksville-Stonycreek High School. She is the Student Council President, National Honor Society Vice President, writer for the school newspaper "Viklet",  member of Students Against Destructive Decisions, and Drama Club. Her extracurricular's include baton twirling for the New Centerville Spinnetts, Varsity Girls Soccer, and Track.  

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