On May 31, 1889, the world took notice of a small town in Pennsylvania. Johnstown, PA had always been prone to flooding, but nothing could compare to the tumult that unfolded after a nearby decrepit dam gave out.
When the flooding began, the area's telegraph lines were down, preventing anyone from warning the citizens of Johnstown about the impending disaster. All in all, the flood caused millions of dollars worth of damage and claimed over 2,200 lives.
There's something primordially terrifying about looking at pictures of floods, perhaps because they remind us of how quickly nature can reduce society to a state of ruin.
Thankfully, this sad story is not without its bright spots. The Red Cross provided substantial aid to the town, and rebuilding efforts began almost immediately. Additionally, newspapers were filled with heroic rescue stories as 12 countries (in addition to the United States) pitched in to help the survivors get back on their feet.
In 1889, the South Fork Dam was the biggest earth dam in the United States. Composed solely of dirt and stone, it measured a staggering 900x72 feet and contained Lake Conemaugh (which was at the time the country’s largest man-made lake).
The lake was about two miles wide, a mile long, and 60 feet deep. This was a lot for the earth dam to hold, especially since it had been left to atrophy as railroads dethroned canals as the preferred means for moving good.
When the dam finally gave out, there was little anyone could do to quell the raging waters.
Since it had been raining, the citizens of Johnstown were prepared for some flooding, but none of the town's residents expected the nearby South Fork Dam to break. After an engineer noticed a large chunk of debris lodged in the dam's spillway, they realized it was going to give.
The engineer rushed back to the town of South Fork to try and send a warning, but unfortunately, the area's telegraph lines were down, so the message fell on deaf ears.
By all accounts, the Johnstown flood's death toll is staggering. An 1889 newspaper article described the scene:
The torn, bruised and mutilated bodies of the victims are lying in a row on the floor of the planing mill which looks more like the field of Bull Run after that disastrous battle than a work shop.
Bodies were also brought to the local school, and the smell of rotting death was “sickening.”
The ferocity of the storm littered the town with corpses. No part of Johnstown was unscathed, as human remains were found in the library, the church, beneath a signal tower at the railroad, and crammed inside most other alcoves.
Though efforts were made to identify the deceased, many of the bodies were mutilated beyond recognition, making it impossible to establish their identities.
The people of Johnstown's troubles didn't end after their homes were ravaged by floodwater; some especially unlucky residents also endured a fire. As survivors of the flood clung to debris to stay afloat, many were pulled to the Pennsylvania Railroad Company’s Stone Bridge, which was rapidly collecting wreckage. Suddenly, the bridge caught fire, roasting many who had managed to endure the initial onslaught of water.