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The Johnstown Flood

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By Pat Mestern

Anyone possessing a familiarly with various Hollywood attempts to portray the disastrous flooding of 1889, should plan a visit to Johnstown, Pennsylvania located on the western slope of the Allegheny Mountains. It was in this pleasant small city that more than 2,200 people lost their lives during a half hour of terror in May of 1889.

Your first stop should be the Observation deck of the steepest vehicular Inclined Plane in the world affords the magnificent view of the area which will assist to put the information you gather into perspective. By visually overseeing the valley, from the top of Yoder's hill, you can more fully understand why so much destruction could have occurred in such a short period of time. You can't miss the Inclined Plane. It is the most visible man made structure in Johnstown. The city lies in a valley bounded on three sides by the meandering Little Conemaugh and The Stoney Creek Rivers, which eventually form the Conemaugh River flowing toward Pittsburgh. Mountains surround Johnstown. People used to joke that the city lay in a bowl where the sun rose at 10:00 a.m. and set at 2:00 p.m.

In reality Johnstown is very prettily situated, but it has paid the price for beauty. Joseph Schantz, later known at Joseph Johns, laid out a townsite in 1800 calling it Conemaugh Old Town, Conemaugh being an Indian word. The name was officially changed to Johnstown in 1834. Today it is a thriving, vibrant business centre with handsome buildings and tidy parks. Visitors might think it just another pretty city. Don't let looks fool you. Johnstown has a most unusual history.

In the spring of 1889, the valley held in its bosom the recipe for disaster. Johnstown, which shared the area with nine other boroughs, belonged to Wood, Morrell & Company, the largest iron and steel producer in the USA. Although considered fair employers, their environmental practices left much to be desired. River banks were narrowed by years of continuous tipping of smelter waste. Mountains were deforested leaving bare rock exposed to the elements. An unstable earth dam fifteen miles up a valley, on the South Fork Branch of the Little Conemaugh River, held back Lake Conemaugh, a privately owned South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club, whose members included Andrew Carnegie and Henry Clay Frick.

On May 31, 1889, nature and man made folly combined to create one of the greatest disasters in U.S. history. "Thunder Gusts" burst across the mountains on May 30, with heavy rains continuing to fall through the night. It was one of the most phenomenal storms ever experienced in the area. South Fork Dam received more than seven inches of rain in a twelve hour period. When word was sent from South Fork around noon hour on May 3 that the dam was in danger of bursting, the warning went unheeded by many . . . 'Wolf' had been cried before.

Residents of Johnstown were used to flooding, surrounded as they were by water. During the 1880's no fewer than four floods were experienced, each worse than the other. Those that took the warning seriously and left for higher ground were the lucky ones. Despite gallant efforts to shore up the dam, it was breached at 2:45 p.m. expelling twenty million gallons of water with the force of Niagara Falls down the narrow valley. The lake drained in an amazing thirty-seven minutes. The wall bulldozing everything in its path, and tumbling debris ahead of it, became a lethal weapon. Survivors said the wall of death was preceded by mist, a roar, then a wind. When they looked, they saw not water but forty feet of debris roaring down on them.

The wall hit Johnstown at 4:07 p.m. and destroyed the city in ten minutes. Coursing across the valley, it hit Yoder's Hill and divided, half traveling up Stoney Creek crushing everything in its path before reversing its flow again. The other half screamed down the Conemaugh where the debris piled high against a long, stone railway bridge.

In the flood's aftermath it was determined 2,209 lives were lost and 27,000 people were left homeless. Donations poured in from around the world. Brave residents rebuilt their lives, businesses and homes. Eventually the U.S. Corp. of Engineers realigned, deepened and widened the river beds, reinforcing 9.2 miles of bank with concrete and steel.

Today the flood is documented at the Johnstown Flood Museum, housed in the former library built after 1889 with funds donated by Andrew Carnegie. Through an academy award winning film "The Johnstown Food" excellent displays and a relief map, the visitor is able to fully grasp the horrific events of May 31, and the heroic efforts of survivors. The museum also houses an extensive archive for those doing family and historic research. Drive fourteen miles north of Johnstown to the Johnstown Flood National Memorial in St. Michael where another excellent film "Black Friday" gives further insight into the disaster. Through large windows overlooking the former dam site, and by listening to the actual taped voice of a survivor, visitors experience the full impact of the flood and its aftermath.

Your last stop should be the Monument to the Unknown at Grandview Cemetery, dedicated in 1892. At night, seated in the restaurant at the Inclined Plane, high above the city whose lights twinkled below, we marveled at how tenacious and resilient the early residents of Johnstown must have been. There is a quiet reserve felt in Johnstown today, the same sort of reverence one might experience on civil war battlefields where thousands of lives were lost. The city has accepted the responsibility of keeping alive, the memory of the greatest disaster in U.S. history in terms of lives lost. What could be a macabre subject is treated with dignity and respect. The disaster is interpreted for the visitor by talented, caring people.

Johnstown, situated as it is in the Laurel Highlands of southwestern Pennsylvania has many amenities and is well worth a visit at any time of the year. Visitors have a large choice of restaurants. Mall, outlet, specialty and antique shopping is excellent. One can participate in walking tours, train trips or a driving tour along the "Path of Progress". The area hosts festivals, fairs and entertainments all year round. While in Johnstown, the Holiday Inn Downtown was "home base." I must say that after a day of "flood immersion" a room on the sixth floor had a certain sense of security about it although one need not worry today about Johnstown being swept away by the rampaging waters of any river.


  • For area information call or write
    • The Greater Johnstown/Cambria County Convention & Visitor Bureau
      One Market Place
      111 Market Street
      Johnstown, Pennsylvania 15901-1608

  • For information on the Laurel Highlands of southwestern Pennsylvania
    • #1-800-925-7669

  • For a Visitors Guide and Map, or write
    • The Laurel Highlands Visitors Bureau
      120 East Main Street
      Ligonier, Pennsylvania 15658-1297

  • For information on the Flood Museum contact
    • Johnstown Area Heritage Association
      c/o The Johnstown Flood Museum
      304 Washington Street
      Johnstown, Pennsylvania
      (Admission charged)

  • The Johnstown Flood National Memorial is located
    • in St. Michael's, fifteen miles from Johnstown.
      (Admission charged)

  • Grandview Cemetery is situated in the Westmount neighbourhood of Johnstown
    • For directions and information call #1-814-535-2652

  • Johnstown Inclined Plane & Restaurant
    • 711 Edgehill Drive
      Johnstown, Pennsylvania
      (Fee charged)

  • Johnstown Holiday Inn Downtown
    • 250 Market Street
      Johnstown, Pennsylvania 15901

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