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America's worst flood - Johnstown in 1889

  • Plaques on the Johnstown City building indicate the level of flooding of 8.5 feet in 1977, 17 feet in 1936, and 31 feet during the Great Flood of 1889.
    Plaques on the Johnstown City building indicate the level of flooding of 8.5 feet in 1977, 17 feet in 1936, and 31 feet during the Great Flood of 1889.
Published June 04. 2011 09:07AM

Recent rains of nearly Biblical proportions deluging the Northeast after creating record flooding of the Mississippi River, recall the worst flood in American history, which occurred 122 years ago in the city of Johnstown, Pa.

Johnstown is a sister city to Bethlehem, Pa. another great steel town which was able to rise from the ashes of their idle blast furnaces to become a tourist destination.

Like Jim Thorpe -former Mauch Chunk - Johnstown periodically flooded with record freshets of over 30 feet, as in 1861 when rain, melting ice, and logs destined for downstream sawmills smashed the dams of the Lehigh Navigation, sending a tsunami-like wall of water down the Lehigh River.

Although the damage, which destroyed the upper division of the Lehigh Navigation, was extensive, it was small compared to what happened on May 31, 1889. That day, a storm-breached dam released an 89-foot high wall of water into a valley of 30,000 Johnstown residents, destroying most of the homes and killing 2,209 people, more than twice as many people as any other flood in U.S. history.

Located near a plentiful supply of coal, iron, water and wood, Johnstown had everything necessary for iron production. It also had excellent transportation systems, including the Allegheny Portage Railroad and later, the Pennsylvania Railroad. In the late 1800s, its Cambria Iron Works was the leading iron and steel producer in the country.

The Johnstown Flood Museum, a French Gothic style structure, designed by Addison Hutton of Philadelphia, and listed on the National Register of Historic Places, replaced the former Cambria Iron Works Library which was destroyed in the flood. The current building was the gift of Andrew Carnegie, an investor in the Cambria Iron Works, and was the first of more than 2,500 Carnegie libraries in the world.

Two rivers flow through Johnstown, the Stonycreek and Little Conemaugh River. Their confluence, which becomes the Conemaugh River, is just above the Stone Bridge. Fourteen miles above Johnstown is the two-mile long Lake Conemaugh reservoir.

The Little Conemaugh River was dammed between 1838 to 1853 by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania for the state's Main Line of Public Works canal basin in Johnstown. The project created the South Fork Dam, which at 931 feet long and 72 feet high, was the largest earthen dam yet built. When no longer needed for the Allegheny Portage Railroad, the Commonwealth abandoned the dam.

The dam deteriorated as leaks developed, drainage pipes were salvaged for scrap, and a portion of the dam collapsed. The dam was bought by the Pennsylvania Railroad, which flipped it to private interests to be developed as a vacation community, the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club. The lake front community soon attracted 61 wealthy Pittsburgh financiers and industrialists.

The club raised the level of the lake but neglected maintenance on the dam, thus compromising safety features. With each passing year, the danger of a breach grew as the enormous earthen dam continued to weaken.

A Memorial Day storm rained through the night, overflowing the 450-acre lake, and eroding the dam. In 36 minutes, 20 million tons of water surged down the Conemaugh Valley, destroying everything in its path.

The sole obstacle to the ravaging floodwaters was the Conemaugh River Stone Bridge. Here, a 30-acre mountain of debris - 15 feet higher than the bridge - accumulated and caught on fire, burning for three days.

No one was held responsible for the failure of the South Fork Dam.

A fledgling American Red Cross led by Clara Barton came to Johnstown with 50 doctors and nurses and set up tent hospitals. The team stayed on for five months to coordinate relief efforts. The Johnstown flood helped establish the American Red Cross as the leading emergency relief organization in the nation.

A nearly 900-foot high Inclined Plane and funicular was constructed as a means for evacuation in future flooding. Cambria Iron reopened and grew, and Johnstown became more prosperous than ever.

The Cambria Iron Works was sold to the Bethlehem Steel Company in 1923, and closed in 1992. In 2001, the Johnstown Redevelopment Authority acquired three key structures within the complex from Bethlehem Steel to return the buildings to a viable industrial, commercial, and tourist site.

For additional information, see the Johnstown Area heritage Association,

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