50 years prior to the flood an earthen dam had been built 450 feet above the valley to hold a reservoir of water for a canal. The dam fell into disrepair when canals were abandoned in favor of steam engines (as I had just learned at the Portage railroad). After falling into disrepair, the dam was purchased by a bunch of rich Pittsburgh industrialists (Carnegie and Mellon included) who wanted a place to summer. They bought the property and called themselves the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club. They filled the lake up to its maximum depth, lowered the top of the dam to build a road across and stocked the lake with exotic fish.
They soon found that the fish had been escaping the lake through the spill way of the dam, and fishermen down river had been catching them. Offended that common men were catching their expensive, exotic fish they came up with a simple way to prevent this; they placed a screen across the spillway to prevent fish from escaping. However during storms that spillway acted as overflow preventing the dam waters from over topping the earthen dam.
The Flood: Johnstown is located in a deep valley and its residents were quite used to spring flooding. There was even a standing joke in town that someday the dam would give way.On May 31, 1889 during a torrential rainstorm (6-10 inches of rain fell in 24 hours) the spillway became clogged with detritus and the water soon rose to the top of the dam, and over topped it. Throughout this, men were working frantically trying to divert the water. When they realized it was only getting worse they sent a telegraph down to Johnstown warning of impending doom but since the residents were used to floods, no one believed it. It finally burst and the entire dam collapsed at once.
One witness said "it simply moved away". Within 45 minutes the entire lake (20 million tons of water) had drained. The water rushed downhill at 40 mph and if it wasn?t for all the debris in the water the speeds could have been up to 90 mph. A wire works plant was in the path of the flood and barb wire was swept away by the water so many people got entangled in barb wire. One town along the way was reduced to bedrock because of the force of the water. Can you even imagine!? Not just the house or grass is gone; the entire town was stripped to bedrock.
Because Johnstown sat in a deep valley, many escaped by heading for high ground and could no nothing but helplessly watch the destruction.
The flood temporarily stopped when it came up against a viaduct and debris jammed against it but within a few minutes the viaduct busted and swept all the water and debris into Johnstown. Witnesses say all they could see was a mist and then a roar of thunder and then a wall of water 50 foot high came pushing through town. In 10 minutes four square miles of the town was completely destroyed.
The Aftermath: Thousands of people who had survived the initial flood wave were swept downstream and were stopped by an immense stone bridge at the far end of town. Here, accumulating debris piled up against the arches, forming an almost watertight dam of broken houses, trees, train cars, and bodies. It acted like another dam, causing the water to back up over the city. Then the entire mass of wires, wood, rail cars and bodies caught fire.
When it was over 99 entire families died, including 396 children. 124 women and 198 men were left without their spouses, 98 children lost both parents. 777 victims (1 of every 3 bodies found) were never identified. Some bodies were found as far away as Cincinnati and some were never found at all. Dynamite had to be used to clear out some piles of debris because they were so compacted. People didn't even know where to start looking for the remains of their houses or the bodies of their families because everything was gone, leaving them no clue where their house had even
Interestingly, this flood was the first major disaster relief effort of the American Red Cross and Clara Barton stayed for 5 months. It was also one of the most photographed disasters of its time. The dam and lake are long gone and Johnstown has since experienced several more major floods but none that equal that of 1889.
So now that you know the story let me tell you about my experience at the site. I entered the visitor center and I was checking out the exhibits when the ranger announced that the orientation movie would be starting. As I was walking into the theatre I noticed a sign on the door that said ?some of the film?s images may be unsuitable to children?. That should have been my first clue.
I almost left the theatre halfway through as it turned out to be a freakin? horror movie! The film is all in black and white and sounds like it?s narrated by the grim reaper. The most frightening part was when a little girl was shown playing with her dolls and then all of a sudden you hear what sounds like thunder and the window breaks, water sweeps in and the girl is frantically screaming and grabbing her dolls only to be washed away by the flood. There was a little bit of back story but the majority of the film consisted of utter destruction and people being swept away by rampaging waters to the backdrop of eerie music.
The film finally ended and the credits were rolling but the audience was glued to their seats because the narrator was listing those who had died and not been identified by saying things like ?female, aged 24, head burned off? ?infant, gender unknown? "male shoe, foot attached". Finally the lights came up and we were all just sitting there in shock. It was the most terrifying national park video I have ever seen. This isn't the video I saw but it's the closest I could find on YouTube.
If you would like to read more about it I highly recommend "History of the Johnstown Flood" which I found for free on Google Books. There are many more stories and it is written much better than my post. If you would like to read more about it I highly recommend "History of the Johnstown Flood" which I found for free on Google Books. There are many more stories and it is written much better than my post.
I don't know why people consider waterfront land downstream from a dam desirable property
Nor do I. The Schuylkill flows past Reading, PA which has a mountain on one side and rising land on the West side. I'd always regarded it as brewing trouble but the locals insisted only the waterfront of reading ever got wet.
In "72" a hurricane taught them otherwise. The flood crest was touching the Bingaman Street bridge before it ebbed and normally the water was 30 feet lower.
I worry about an old flood control dam up in Santiam Pass. A dam failure could be catastrophic depending on the time of year. I'd have between 30 and 60 minutes to clear out andget higher fast.
Harrisburg was certain they were safe from bad flooding till the winter when ice chunks damned the river by wedging against Harrisburg's RR bridges.
I'll believe corporations are persons when Texas executes one.: LBJ's Ghost