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The Horrifying Story Of The Johnstown Flood That Killed Over 2,000 People

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.

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  • The Flood Began With The Destruction Of A Massive Dam

    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. 

  • Citizens Were Caught Off-Guard By The Flooding

    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. 

  • Dead Bodies Were Everywhere

    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.

  • Some Survived The Flood Only To Burn To Death

    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. 

  • For Johnstown Residents, Flooding Was A Normal Part Of Life

    Even before the disaster of May 1889, Johnstown residents were used to frequent flooding. The town was built on a flood plain, so the community was subjected to a serious amount of water every year. 

    Floods could be caused by a number of things, such as snow that melted too fast or a particularly torrential downpour. Because of this, when the South Gate Dam broke and the town began to flood, residents quickly moved their valuables upstairs and made plans to wait out the storm in the upper floors of homes and buildings.

    This time, however, the waters were too strong, and buildings provided little protection. 

  • The Flood Produced 14 Miles Of Debris

    Perhaps the most astonishing thing about the Johnstown flood of 1889 is the sheer size of the calamity. At the time of the incident, engineers estimated the floodwaters were moving as quickly and powerfully as Niagara Falls.

    People who were present for the destruction described the waters as 40 feet high and half a mile wide. Allegedly, the sound of rushing water was so loud that it could be heard in other towns. 

    The flood damaged South Fork, Mineral Point, Woodvale, and East Conemaugh before it reached Johnstown. By the time it arrived, it was carrying roughly 14 miles of debris picked up along the way. Pieces of buildings, barns, and even bodies were found among the wreckage.