The Johnstown Flood

Back on May 31, 1889, The South Fork Dam broke above Johnstown, Pennsylvania sending 20 million tons of water roaring down the mountain, gathering trees, houses and people as it crashed through the town. Then the railroad bridge, covered with oil – caught fire, trapping hundreds of people attempting to escape. The result? A destroyed town and the deaths of 2,200 people.

But the saddest part of the Johnstown flood was the “why?”.  The city was built on a flood plain at the ford of the Little Conemaught and Stonycreek Rivers. As the city grew to 30,000 people and new industries moved in (Cambria Iron, Pennsylvania Railroad), the land along the riverbanks was stripped of its trees so the companies had room to expand.

And there was an additional problem. Fourteen miles up the mountain on the Little Conemaugh, the South Fork Dam was built to create Lake Conemaugh – a place for the Pittsburgh rich to spend their summers. They developed the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club, made the lake even deeper and hid away from the problems of the world and their businesses – Andrew Carnegie, Andrew Mellon, bankers, congressmen …   But the club members had failed to keep up repairs and although no lawsuits were filed, are blamed for the destruction of Johnstown. Some of them did contribute relief funds after the flood.

No matter how you look at it, the Johnstown Flood is a sad historical event … an event that is largely due to people’s greed. First, stripping the river banks of their natural flood barriers and then the men on the mountain, ignoring warnings that the dam would break.

Since Johnstown is close to where we once lived, I have been there a few times.  Two museums – one in the town itself is in the old library that Carnegie built for the town after the flood. The other is a National Park Service visitor’s center on top of the mountain. Both have excellent videos (and I’m not one for spending my vacations inside visitor’s center watching videos – but these are fascinating.) You can also drive by the club house.

This time we went to the top of the mountain and again, I don’t have many pictures because I knew I had some from the last visit.

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