The Johnstown Flood disaster of 1889 was more a manmade tsunami than flood. Yes, there was flooding first when torrential rains arrived on Memorial Day and the two rivers swelled. But it wasn’t until the dam burst that the real tragedy and loss of life occurred.
The South Fork Dam was completed 37 years earlier in 1852. Lake Conemaugh sat for twenty-two years in a green isolated valley, 14 miles upriver from Johnstown. A man named Benjamin Ruff bought the lake and turned it into a mountain retreat for the wealthy elite of Pittsburgh. The “SOUTH FORK FISHING & HUNTING CLUB” was born with millionaires like Henry Frick, Andrew Carnegie, and Andrew Mellon as its charter members. For ten years it was THE retreat of choice for the millionaires of Pennsylvania. When the lake was full, the pristine water stretched three miles long and over a mile across.
FIVE key mistakes were made with the South Fork Dam that could have prevented its fateful collapse.
First, cast iron pipes were built into a culvert at the base of the breast to control the level of the lake. A prior owner removed them and sold the pipes for scrap! In an effort to avoid repair costs, the Club did not replace them. Though the dam did have a spillway for overflow, this still left no means to drain the lake. Second, the Club added a screen of cast iron bars across the spillway to prevent their precious bass from escaping. Unfortunately, it also caught all the branches attempting to float out, decreasing the spillway’s effectiveness. Third, a minor break during the Civil War left the dam badly in need of repair. The Club repaired the breast by patching it haphazardly with rocks, mud, even manure! Plus they chose a gentleman with no engineering credentials to lead the repair.
This led, over the years, to a gradual sagging of the dam’s center!
By 1889, it dipped by about two feet lower than either end. Forth, the Club actually lowered the breast three feet to accommodate a wider carriage road across the top. You see, the owners wanted it wide enough for two carriages to be able to pass each other going to or from the Clubhouse and not make their wealthy guests wait. Fifth, the Club had two unqualified steel mill inspectors examine the dam a few years earlier. They stated that “The South Fork Dam was perfectly safe to withstand all the pressure that can be brought to bear on it by the waters of Lake Conemaugh.”
Well, we know how that ended. That spring, the lake was already full from a heavy winter snow melt coming off the mountains. When heavy rains from the Storm of the Century brought the waters up and over the breast, it was only a matter of time before the aged dam finally burst releasing 20 million tons of water. On a Memorial Day weekend in 1889, a wave 35 FEET HIGH travelling 45 MPH rushed down the river valley like a runaway train. It collected miles of debris along the way, wiping away four small villages before, finally slamming into Johnstown and its unsuspecting citizens. Over 2,200 souls lost their lives, including 400 children and 100 complete families.