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  Cover Story August 5th, 2010     
Untitled Document

by Kent Ballard


The South Fork Dam in Pennsylvania was a relic of technology, obsolete almost as soon as it was finished. It was originally made to act as a reservoir for one of the series of canals that allowed barge traffic to haul commerce and people in the eastern United States in the early 19th century. Completed in 1853, it was sold just a few years later by the state. The reason? Coming hard on the heels of America's canal system were the railroads. Steam and iron could haul more goods, and move them tremendously faster.

The dam and its reservoir, which became known as Lake Conemaugh, passed through several hands until it and the land surrounding it was purchased in 1879 by the South Fork Hunting and Fishing Club. A common enough name, but the “Club” was made up of some of the wealthiest and most powerful men in the United States, the great financiers and industrial giants of the day. Henry Clay Frick, known in many circles during his time as “America's Most Hated Man” and who topped one list as the “worst American CEO of all time,” the man who controlled eighty percent of the coal output in Pennsylvania, organized its purchase and invited fellow tycoons to join the exclusive club. This would give them a peaceful and elegant getaway from the grime and roaring steel mills of Pittsburgh. Many of the great “robber barons” of the 1880's happily chipped in.

The club's owners set to building mansion-sized “cottages” on the land and “redesigning” the dam that held back Lake Conemaugh. Their idea of “redesigning” led to the greatest loss of American civilian lives in one day to that time. The terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in 2001 claimed 2,995 lives. The Great Johnstown Flood would claim almost as many, 2,209. It was the worst catastrophe in the Unites States in its 113 year history, it would forever alter institutions, disaster relief work, and it was instrumental in changing the very laws we live by today.

After its sale by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, maintenance on the South Fork Dam was spotty at best. It was a huge earth dam, 930 feet long and 72 feet high. The various owners before the Club did minimal patching of leaks when they would spring forth. One individual even removed and sold the three cast iron discharge pipes for scrap. This left the South Fork Dam incapable of allowing a controlled release of water in the event of an emergency. Leaks and holes were patched with straw and mud, a practice continued by the wealthy Club. People living downstream were understandably concerned about this, but their complaints fell on deaf ears.

The South Fork Hunting and Fishing Club decided they would actually cut the dam down several feet to allow a carriage path to be built over it. They created a spillway for excess water to flow over, then placed a heavy grated fish screen over it to keep their expensive game fish from escaping. The fish screen was usually filled with woodland debris floating on the lake and only cleaned occasionally, allowing water to back up behind it. The lake itself was over two miles long, a mile wide, and normally stood sixty feet deep at the dam.

On May 30th, 1889, a furious thunderstorm blew in from the Midwest and torrential rain began falling. The U.S. Army Signal Corps, who kept weather records before the formation of the U.S. Weather Service, estimated that six to ten inches of rain fell over that portion of the country in 24 hours, the worst downpour they had recorded in Pennsylvania history. Rainwater on the sides of the steep mountains didn't soak in due to the rock and clay just under the surface. The topography of the area forced it to run downhill, and soon the little mountain brooks and creeks that dotted the area became raging streams, dislodging boulders and trees along their paths.

On the morning of the 31st, Elias Unger, who lived in a farm house just above the dam, saw Lake Conemaugh grossly swollen by the deluge. Despite the driving rain he ran out to examine the dam. To his horror, he saw the waters were about to crest all along the edge of the top. He quickly rounded up several men, some of whom frantically began trying to clear the plugged fish screen while others tried heroically to plug the several points in the dam that were now leaking badly. Twice Unger sent a man on horseback to the town of South Fork to telegraph warnings to the authorities in Johnstown, which lay at the bottom of the mountainous valley.

But the warnings were ignored. There had been many false alarms about the stability of the dam in the past, and Johnstown itself was already being flooded by the rising Conemaugh River. Residents and storekeepers were busily carrying goods and furniture up to the second stories of their buildings. Johnstown had suffered floods before, and to the residents this was merely another. They knew that flood waters would drop almost as quickly as they rose, and they expected to sit out the flood overnight, then go back down and clean up the mess as they had several times before.

By 1:30 PM Elias Unger and his small band of workers were exhausted. The debris in the fish screen was jammed in by tons of water pressure and the leaks were coming too quickly to plug. Unger and the other workers knew the dam could let go at any moment. They staggered to higher ground on either side of the dam. There was simply nothing more they could do but watch.

Witnesses said the entire dam “just moved away” at 3:10 PM and twenty million tons of water, all of Lake Conemaugh, began to move.


Residents of nearby South Fork, who had been watching the progress of the flooding lake all day, had mostly removed themselves to higher ground and were saved. Still, the mass of water swept away more than twenty houses and claimed its first four victims. Further down the mountain stood the mighty Conemaugh Viaduct, a 78 foot high stone railroad bridge. Debris carried by the flood waters jammed against the arch, forming a temporary dam that held for seven minutes while thousands of tons of water per minute cascaded down. This only increased the force and velocity of the deluge, for when the bridge collapsed the next town downstream was the small single-street hamlet of Mineral Point, home to about 30 families. When rescue workers later reached Mineral Point, all they found was bare rock.

The small town of East Conemaugh was next in line. The surge had torn loose so many things, was carrying so much debris, that one survivor said that it no longer looked like water, instead, “a huge hill, rolling over and over.” Fifty people died there, but the toll would have been many times higher had it not been for one man—railroad engineer John Hess. Hess heard the terrible roaring coming down the mountain and knew the local concerns about the South Fork Dam. Instinctively, he realized what had happened.

Hess grabbed a rag and tied down his train whistle, then yanked his throttle into reverse and began backing up towards East Conemaugh as fast as his locomotive could go. Alerted by the screaming train whistle approaching their town, many people fled to high ground just in time. Hess bravely stayed at the throttle until the howling surge of water and debris caught up with his train. The locomotive was shoved off the tracks and tumbled, but by some miracle John Hess survived.

Woodvale was a small industrial town practically on the doorstep of Johnstown. Nearly a third of its population was killed when the flood roared through. The Cambria Ironworks were flattened, and when the surge hit the Gauliter Wire Works the cold water exploded the steam boilers in the factory, sending hundreds of rolls of barbed wire into the floodwater. For a few residents of Johnstown, seeing the black geysers of smoke from the blown boilers was their first warning that something horrible was about to engulf them. In the already-flooded portion of Johnstown, people felt secure on their second stories, and on the few still-dry streets neighbors rushed back and forth to help others carry furniture upstairs. Then with a roar and a blast of wind, the flood surge hit Johnstown itself. It was forty to sixty feet high and a half-mile wide.

The flood hit Johnstown almost as a solid mass instead of a wall of water. It carried portions of other towns, farm animals, human beings both alive and dead, freight cars, miles of barbed wire, railroad ties and rails, trees, anything and everything that had stood in its fourteen mile run down the mountain. No one had expected it. No one had warned them. Those in the streets instantly turned to run, and almost as instantly they were swept under and crushed. Some darted into buildings and ran upstairs with the water racing right behind them. Many caught in the onrushing water were entangled and pulled under by the barbed wire from the factory just uphill of them.

The flood surge went through the center of Johnstown like a huge fist, destroying everything in its path. Sturdy wood-framed houses were ripped from their foundations and spun into splinters, carrying their occupants to their doom. The flood surge split and began rolling up individual streets, but the main body carried on until it slammed into the Stone Bridge, which allowed the Pennsylvania Railroad to cross the now-flooded Conemaugh River. This was the bottom of the region. The flood could no longer run downhill quickly, it had to spread outwards and up. And it was still coming down in an unimaginable torrent.

The sheer pressure of the flood surge still rolling down the mountain shoved a wall of smashed rubble up against the Stone Bridge, which formed yet another dam. But this bridge held and halted the waters. With tons of water still coming every second, the flood reversed direction and began to race upstream, angling off in the channel of the Stoney Creek River, which joined the Conemaugh at Johnstown. Although it too was flooded and out of its banks, the surge actually reversed the river for several minutes until gravity regained control and a second great wave crashed into Johnstown, only this time from a different direction.

The debris pile at the Stone Bridge was over seventy feet high and tightly bound by endless strands of barbed wire. Some people, still alive, were trapped by this wire. Those floating in the roiling waters swam for it as a refuge, others simply drifted into it. But soon the debris pile caught fire. No one is sure why. It could have been a kerosene lantern, floating on debris, that smashed against the massive pile, which covered a thirty-acre area. Or it could have been hot coals from a stove carried along by the flood surge. Whatever the cause, the portion of the debris pile that was shoved up above water level caught fire and began burning furiously. Eighty people died there, many of them entangled in barbed wire and unable to free themselves as the inferno grew closer. The fire would burn for three days and nights.

Some houses not in the direct path of the flood surge still stood. The strongly-built Franklin Street Methodist Church deflected the surge, and saved the buildings on the street behind it. Among them was the parsonage of the church, located in the middle of town. When a side-surge came up his street Rev. H. L. Chapman opened his door to see what was making the horrible noise. What he saw was a boxcar being shoved down the street towards him and a man clinging desperately to the top of it. Chapman turned and ordered his family to flee to the attic immediately. Then, wisely, he ran into his study to turn off the gas fire. The surge hit his house and blew in the door, nearly bowling over Chapman as he ran up the stairs. Presently, the family noticed a man on their roof peering in one of the attic windows. Incredibly, it was the same man Chapman had seen atop the boxcar. When they opened the window to let him in, the man explained he had grabbed the branch of a tree in their front yard, climbed sideways through the tree, and dropped onto their roof. He was the first of several survivors they took in, a few other lucky people who had grabbed at the Chapman roof as they were swept by. The group huddled in the attic all night, terrified that the house would collapse. The roaring water tore the porches off the house, knocked over furniture and destroyed everything downstairs. The house trembled to its very frame. But it stood.

Those who survived in Johnstown did so mostly by luck, where they were at the time, what kind of buildings they were in, or if they were out of the paths of the most powerful flood surges that swept back and forth across the town. Attorney James Walters was simply washed out of his home and managed somehow to climb atop a floating roof that was being carried down Walnut Street by the flood. When the roof collided with Alma Hall on Main Street, the tallest brick building in town, the force of the impact threw him off the roof and through the window of his own office.

Alma Hall held 264 dazed and battered survivors in its upper floors that night, among them Dr. William Matthews. By the faint light of fires scattered across the town, he tended to the wounded, moving from person to person doing whatever he could for them, and delivered two babies, both of whom survived. Dr. Matthews ignored his own two broken ribs while doing this. Another refugee in Alma Hall was the Rev. Dr. David Beale, who, with his family, rescued several people floating by. But as time wore on, fewer and fewer of the bodies being tugged along by the waters were alive. When interviewed later, Beale would simply say it was “a night of indescribable horrors.”

One of those horrors was the fate of Anna Fenn. Her husband was helping a neighbor move furniture to his second floor when the house he was in was obliterated by the flood surge. Moments later the flood poured in the doors and windows of the Fenn home. Mrs. Fenn grabbed her baby and held it while her other six small children hung on to her dress. The water lifted them higher and higher off the floor and as the night wore on her children, one after the other, relaxed their grip as they drowned.

One source later quoted her speaking in the clipped, short manner often used by people who have experienced pain beyond words. “...our heads nearly touched the ceiling ... It was dark and the house was tossing every way. The air was stifling, and I could not tell just the moment the rest of the children had to give up and drown...what I suffered, with the bodies of my seven children floating around me in the gloom, can never be told.” Anna Fenn was pregnant at the time, and gave birth to a baby girl just a few weeks later. The child did not survive.

While survivors in buildings still standing rode out the night in their attics, or balanced on rafters, or atop floating debris, cried and prayed and shouted out the names of loved ones, the flood waters found their way into the channel of the Conemaugh River and eventually began to drain downriver. They still carried floating debris and people both alive and dead, some clinging desperately to wreckage. A lucky few were fished out of the raging river by townspeople downriver holding out poles and throwing ropes.

When the sun finally rose over what was left of Johnstown, it was unrecognizable to people who had lived there all their lives. There were no streets, just mountains of debris. The houses of relatives and loved ones were simply no longer there. It was, as Reverend Chapman said, “a scene of utter desolation.” When towns downstream saw the passing river choked with bodies and debris, the telegraph wires began humming, and soon the greatest rescue and recovery operation in American history began to unfold. Local towns, then nearby cities, and eventually the entire nation sent aid and supplies over the lone railway to Johnstown. The news spread across the country like wildfire. No disaster of this magnitude had ever been seen before on American soil.

Soon in Johnstown, an angel appeared. Her name was Clara Barton.

Clara Barton

Twenty-five years earlier, she and her band of volunteer doctors, nurses, and aides had set up medical camps to take care of wounded Civil War veterans. The International Red Cross had done the same during wars in Europe. But Clara Barton had long campaigned that the American Red Cross could be of great value in non-military disasters too, tornadoes, earthquakes, whatever befell the civil population.

When she got word of the destruction of Johnstown, no power on earth could stop her from going. She arrived just five days after the flood with the first five Red Cross volunteers, a number which would soon swell into a small army. Although Clara Barton was then 67 years old, she worked with the tireless energy of a person a third her age and would remain in Johnstown for over five months. It was the first major peacetime disaster relief operation ever undertaken by the American Red Cross.

Hospitals across the nation packaged medical supplies and sent them by rail. Doctors took leave from their practices throughout the region and boarded trains for Johnstown, setting up a hospital in the remaining buildings of the Cambria Ironworks. But as soon as telegraph service was restored to Johnstown the first request out of the city was for coffins and morticians. Everywhere one looked, there were dead bodies. Morbidly, bodies from the great flood were still being found years later, one identified as a Johnstown victim by faded but still readable documents found on his person, was discovered on the bank of the Ohio River near Cincinnati, 600 miles away, as late as 1911.


Temporary morgues were set up in several standing buildings. Morticians hurried about their work, embalming the dead and getting them buried as quickly as possible lest there be an outbreak of typhoid or cholera. At least a third of the bodies recovered were unidentifiable, battered beyond recognition. They were buried in Weston in “The Plot of the Unknown.”

Relief workers poured in from across the nation. At one point they numbered 10,000 volunteers, caring as best they could for the 25,000 survivors who needed to be fed, clothed, and receive medical attention. Governor James A. Beaver called out the Pennsylvania Militia to patrol the streets and keep order. Help came from everywhere. Even the prisoners at the Western Penitentiary in Pittsburgh baked a thousand loaves of bread per day destined for Johnstown. 100 newspapers and magazines sent reporters, photographers, and illustrators. Their reports tore at the hearts of Americans, and as usual, the nation responded with overwhelming generosity.

At one point the titanic debris wall at the Stone Dam had 900 men trying to pry it loose. The wreckage that didn't burn was wrapped tightly by barbed wire and it was eventually cleared by carefully-placed dynamite charges. As relief supplies poured in by rail cars, Clara Barton and the Red Cross set up a methodical system to give donated furniture, clothing, and food to the remaining population of Johnstown. Tents went up everywhere, but Clara Barton knew the coming bitter winter would freeze people trying to live in them. She sent out a call for lumber—trainloads of it—and carpenters. The first Red Cross “hotel” was built in an area cleared out by workers, then several more after that. A few store owners were allowed to set up shop in these hotels, and something resembling commerce returned when the Cambria Ironworks Company announced it would rebuild on the same site.

Inevitably, the survivors’ loss and shock turned to anger. Everyone knew that if the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club had maintained their dam properly, the dead thousands would still be alive. Multiple lawsuits were filed against the Club and its members, and each one was successfully defended by the law firm of Knox and Reed, representing the Club. It's of interesting note that Philander Knox and James Hay Reed were both members of the Club themselves. No guilt or culpability was ever assigned to the Club or its members, nor did any single member admit to any neglect or wrongdoing. The courts determined, under the laws of the day, that the disaster had been caused by “an act of God.”

The story of the suffering at Jamestown had been page one news across America for months. These legal findings enraged the American people who were already disgusted with the “robber baron” class and soon individual states began to adopt Rylands v. Fletcher, a British common law precedent, into their court systems. Rylands placed into law that a defendant could be held responsible for unnatural use of land, and eventually led to the twentieth century's American legal acceptance of strict liability.

The seemingly impossible cleanup in Johnstown was finally completed. Five years later, there was barely a trace of the tragedy that had claimed thousands of lives and destroyed four square miles of downtown Johnstown. Upon her departure, the grateful citizens of the city gave Clara Barton a gold pin and locket, set in diamonds and amethysts, and the American Red Cross had forever proved its worth to the nation.

Lake Conemaugh no longer exists. The South Fork dam was never rebuilt. Built into a river valley, Johnstown suffered minor flooding several times after that dark year, but never again will any of its citizens suffer a catastrophe that once gripped the entire nation.

About the Author: Kent Ballard lives in a rural area near Brazil, Indiana, where he is surrounded by trees, trees, and more trees. He and his wife, Tess, live the sometimes hard, but always good life, amongst nature.

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