The Johnstown Flood disaster of 1889 was more a man-made tsunami than flood. Yes, there was flooding first when torrential rains arrived on Memorial Day 1889 and the two rivers that flanked the steel town swelled. But it wasn’t until the dam burst upriver 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. An investor 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 and their families. 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 metal! 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 and leaves 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 had 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 in line. 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 Allegheny Mountains. When heavy rains from a 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 in a matter of minutes.
At 4:00 pm on a Memorial Day weekend in 1889, a wave of lake water 35 FEET HIGH travelling 45 MPH rushed down the narrow river valley like a runaway train. It collected miles of deadly debris along the way, wiping away four smaller villages, a large rail yard and even a steel mill before finally slamming into Johnstown and its unsuspecting citizens. The wave destroyed hundreds of homes, killing thousands, and wiped entire streets off the map. The wreckage jammed at the thick arches of the Stone Bridge over the Conemaugh River and eventually caught fire! By the time the sun rose the next morning, over 2,200 souls lost their lives, including 400 children and 100 complete families.
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