Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Like “The Fury of Hell”

Environmental Impacts and Legacies of the Johnstown Flood

122 years ago today, the unfortunate citizens of Johnstown, Pennsylvania began the slow and painful efforts of recovery following the devastating "natural" disaster which forever changed their town and their lives...

The city of Johnstown, Pennsylvania “was a booming coal-and-steel town filled with hardworking families striving for a piece of the nation's burgeoning industrial prosperity. In the mountains above Johnstown, an old earth dam had been hastily rebuilt to create a lake for an exclusive summer resort patronized by the tycoons of that same industrial prosperity, among them Andrew Carnegie, Henry Clay Frick, and Andrew Mellon.” Despite years of neglect, the dirt wall stood quiet. That all changed on May 31, 1889.[1]

In some ways, it was “progress” which caused the Johnstown Flood, which claimed well over 2,000 lives. The mountain retreat of the South Fork Hunting and Fishing Club had created numerous strains on the surrounding landscape. The dam had been shortened to widen the road across it while chains and logs had been placed over sluices to avoid fish escaping from the man-made lake. According to environmental philosopher George Perkins Marsh, “Man is everywhere a disturbing agent. Wherever he plants his foot, the harmonies of nature are turned to discord.”[2] The club at South Fork was no exception to this observation.

Why was the lake created in the location that it was? In reflection, it could not have been constructed in a worse place, exactly fourteen miles upstream from a major industrial city. As a result of neglect, the dam was an accident waiting to happen. In fact, it had broken a number of times in the past, beginning in 1862. The creation of the dam led to numerous environmental consequences. Nearly a century later Rachael Carson wrote of such degradation of the natural world: “The history of life on earth has been a history of interaction between living things and their surroundings....Considering the whole span of earthly time, the opposite effect, in which life actually modifies its surroundings, has been relatively slight. Only within the moment of time represented by the present century has one species -- man -- acquired significant power to alter the nature of his world.”[3]

Environmental historian William B. Cronon briefly speaks about the consequences of dams in his Changes in the Land: “Especially toward the end of the eighteenth century, the building of dams for mills and canals prevented not only alewives but also larger fish from returning upstream....”[4] In the case of South Fork, fish had actually become trapped in the lake by the same devices that would cause flooding. Allowing the fish escape to surrounding streams might upset the customers, they thought.

The environment could have contributed to the Johnstown Flood in more ways than one. The wealthy retreat in the mountains was established as a getaway from the hustle and filth of Pittsburgh, so the patrons could “keep in touch” with nature. In a way, nature was what brought people like Carnegie and Frick to South Fork. This yearning to return to natural parks and environments is explained quite well by Frederick Law Olmstead: “It is a scientific fact that the occasional contemplation of natural scenes of an impressive character, particularly if this contemplation occurs in connection with relief from ordinary cares, change of air and change of habits, is favorable to the health and vigor of men and especially to the health and vigor of their intellect beyond any other conditions which can be offered them, that it not only gives pleasure for the time being but increases the subsequent capacity for happiness and the means of securing happiness.....Men who are rich enough and who are sufficiently free from anxiety with regard to their wealth can and do provide places of this needed recreation for themselves. They have done so from the earliest periods known in the history of the world...”[5] Because of the great wealth of the tycoons at South Fork, they were quite able to afford and enjoy nature. Meanwhile, hard-working steelworkers worked laborious twelve hour days fourteen miles downstream. Had it not been for that longing of nature, the club may have never been founded and the dam would not have been reduced in size and strength.

After the dam burst and much life was lost, many in the general public demanded that the club owners be brought to justice for their “criminal negligence.” This was never to happen. However, government began to take a more active role in assuring public safety in such matters. It was especially during the Teddy Roosevelt administration that government became more progressive in public works projects and safety.

Over the following decades, numerous organizations were formed to utilize such practices. It was “...first railroads, then public utilities, and other large-scale business entities fell under the purview of newly created federal commissions - ancestors of today's regulatory agencies.”[6] One such program that was implemented in the Western Pennsylvania region was the Johnstown Flood Protection Management System, which is one of many programs used to monitor water and geological patterns in the area.

Many lessons can be learned and many comparisons can be drawn when discussing the Johnstown Flood in the context of American Environmental History.

Johnstown, May 30, 1889. 4 p.m.

As picnickers were cleaning up their lunches and children concluded their Memorial Day festivities, the rains began to fall. The black clouds were part of a low pressure system that was bringing massive amounts of moisture from the Gulf of Mexico. Train dispatcher Charlie Culp sat at his telegraph in Pittsburgh reading the latest weather reports. He had watched this storm dump massive amounts of rain all along its path, starting on Wednesday in Arkansas and Tennessee and spreading north into Kentucky, West Virginia and Eastern Ohio. Following a particularly wet spell earlier in the month, Culp knew that the dropping barometer did not bode well for Western Pennsylvania. That rain was tracking directly towards Central Pennsylvania and would loom and downpour over the region for another two days.[7]

The watershed was pounded with an overwhelming level of rainfall. Over eight inches had hit the area on May 30. The month of May had been the wettest so far that year. In fact, nine to twelve inches of precipitation had fallen upon Harrisburg and central parts of the state in the days before the flood.[8]

Johnstown was a sooty industrial town. The factory city was largely owned and operated by Wood, Morrell & Company, “the largest iron and steel producer in the United States.” Although considered fair employers, their environmental practices left much to be desired. River banks were narrowed by years of continuous tipping of smelter waste. Mountains were deforested leaving bare rock exposed to the elements. An unstable earth dam fourteen miles up a valley, on the South Fork Branch of the Little Conemaugh River, held back Lake Conemaugh, a privately owned South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club, whose members included Andrew Carnegie and Henry Clay Frick.”[9]

Johnstown was both blessed and cursed by its position on the confluence of the Stoneycreek and Conemaugh Rivers. The town was spread across one of the very few notable pieces of flat floodplain in this very hilly part of Pennsylvania. The rivers provided water for the steel mills as well as a place to dump it when they were finished with it. The coal and iron ore were mined from the region and carried there by the Pennsylvania Railroad (PRR). The valleys provided a route through the rugged, deeply eroded plateau which would also allow goods to be moved to major markets throughout the Northeast and the Midwest. Johnstown’s location on the PRR Mainline connected the region and its goods to New York and Philadelphia to the east and Chicago to the west. The mills and the dozens of trains that passed through every day cast a pall of smoke and a film of soot over Johnstown. During the last week of May 1889, the rainy weather made the gray city even more dismal than normal.[10]

These two rivers, so important for transportation, and a modest sized patch of flat land on which to build a city, were prone to flooding. At the headwaters of the Ohio River watershed, they would normally rank among the nation’s most obscure rivers. But the topography of the Appalachian Plateau and the specific location of Johnstown smack dab on the confluence of the two rivers conspired to make the community the hydrologic drain for several counties. When a poorly maintained dam on the South Fork tributary was added to the mix, it was a recipe for disaster.[11]

On the morning of May 31, at 7:44 a.m., Hettie Ogle, the dispatcher for Western Union in South Fork, sent out a message that the water had risen twelve feet in twenty-four hours. Three hours later she telegraphed that her gauge was six feet higher after two more inches of rain. Around lunchtime, the gauge was washed away and Hettie reported that the “water was higher than ever known, can’t give the exact measurement.”[12]

Downpours of three inches on Johnstown were often enough to cause flooding. The extraordinary dampness of the late spring thaws did not make matters any easier. Testimony to how bad things were came from the pandemonium that ensued on the tracks of the Pennsylvania Railroad. Long before anything went wrong on the South Fork, the tracks were underwater at the village of Wilmore and several express trains were being held upstream in Lilly. The railroad was trying to get a repair train to a landslide west of Wilmore but had trouble even getting there because of the backup of traffic. Dispatcher Culp halted all traffic between Cresson, twenty miles east, and Sonman, fifteen miles west of Johnstown. Shortly after noon, Culp got word from his superintendent, Robert Pitcairn, that they had received word there was concern over the South Fork dam breaking.[13]

By afternoon, Johnstown citizens such as Mrs. Anna Fenn began moving some of her furniture upstairs with the help of her six children, just in case a few inches of water would seep into the downstairs. Her husband was helping neighbors next door carry their furniture upstairs as well.[14]

Meanwhile, more than a dozen miles up the South Fork Creek, John G. Parke, a new resident engineer, was working with his team of laborers in a vain attempt to patch the spouting holes of the poorly kept South Fork Dam. He noticed that South Fork Creek, a small river which flowed in front of the dam, was a raging torrent of brown water and debris. Parke new their efforts were fruitless.[15]

The dam had been maintained by the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club, an elite resort that was the summer home to millionaire tycoons. The maintenance of the dam was low on the list of priorities for those who worked and lived there. In fact, the spillway had been reduced in size when the dam’s peak was widened (and made two feet lower) to put in a road for the club’s growing clientele. In addition, steel chains and netting blocked much of the two spillways that remained to prevent fish from escaping. The club’s guests would surely not be happy if they did not catch anything on their many fishing excursions.[16]

Parke rode a horse to the nearby town of South Fork, two miles away, to send a telegraph message to nearby Johnstown. He sent three messages. At 2:45 p.m., one final communiqué was sent, exclaiming, “THE DAM IS BECOMING DANGEROUS AND MAY POSSIBLY GO.” This message was sent out by telegraph but also a new device known as the telephone. Switchboard operator Hettie Ogle received this message and forwarded it onto the few who owned telephones. However, many of those who heard of the warnings ignored them. Ever since the 1860s, false warnings of the dam breaking had been numerous. This was just another false warning; or so they all thought.[17]

At 3:15, Parke’s workers continued to throw mud and rock over the sprouting holes in the dam’s wall. Suddenly, they heard thunderous rumbling sound from within the wall itself. With a thunderous roar, the impounded water broke through a 420 foot gap in one giant rush. At the force of Niagara Falls, the sixty to 100 mile per hour flow of water hit the village of South Fork first.[18]

A stereograph photo of the broken dam in 1889.

Hettie Ogle was one of the first to see the forty foot wave approaching near the small mountain hamlet and she passed on warnings to stations downriver. Soon after she tapped out, “This is my last message,” she, her daughter Minnie and six other people were driven upstairs by the rising waters. After speaking with her son Charles on the phone, the wave of water and debris finally ripped her office off its foundation and swept them away. Hettie’s body was never to be found. The only remnants that were discovered were the keys to her small telegraph office. (These keys are on display in the Johnstown Flood Museum.)[19]

Friction caused by the tons of debris and the mountainous terrain made the lowest part of the massive wave to move more slowly than the crest, creating a downward and violent surf. As the wave accumulated more debris, it became more powerful, bouncing off one mountain to the next in the narrow valleys. It moved at such a great force that it created a gust of wind ahead of it. When the wave hit the South Fork Branch, it struck full speed into the mountains and created a powerful backwash onto South Fork. Luckily, many of the village’s citizens made it into the hills before the wave ricocheted with great wrath.

J. J. McLaurin, a resident of the Johnstown area, recalled, “When the fatal break in the dam occurred, the skies wore a leaden hue, as if mourning for the region about to experience a direful visitation....Raindrops glistened on every leaf and blade of grass, nature’s subsidy of tears over the approaching horror.”[20]

By this time, the water was picking up railroad ties, freight cars, people, trees, and whole houses along the Little Conemaugh River. The wave and debris drove forward into a stone viaduct which was built by the Pennsylvania Railroad. For a short time, the debris had become clogged in the trusses of the bridge, making an impromptu dam. However, the viaduct could not withhold such pressure and it broke with an explosive force. From there, it annihilated over two dozen homes at the village of Mineral Point.[21]

This video shows how the flood waters rushed through the valleys north of Johnstown.

It was “a barren waste, destitute of soil of soil as a block of granite, marked the site of what had been an inviting spot. Dismal was the spectacle to those who knew Mineral Point in its tranquil repose,” McLaurin stated in the aftermath.[22] The Mineral Point telegraph operator didn’t get the message from Hettie Ogle and it wasn’t until he saw people floating by on what was left of their houses that he knew something was amiss. When the peak of the wave went through, it took more than two dozen homes with it and stopped the clock on the railroad tower at 3:41 p.m.[23]

The raging waters continued on to the village of East Conemaugh and the railroad shops there. John Hess, an engineer with the PRR, heard the roar of water approaching him and his locomotive. With lack of regard for his own safety, Hess tied down the whistle of his train and sped into the village giving warning. “The dam has broken,” he yelled. The train raced ahead of the daunting wave, but it eventually caught up. Hess jumped off the locomotive right before the floodwaters smashed into it. The wave carried the train several miles with the whistle still shrieking its alarming warning, sounding like the terrified screams of the victims as it gushed downstream. Twenty-three other locomotives were thrown nearly a mile down river. John Hess survived and unquestionably saved many people’s lives with his warning.[24]

Using a unique combination of recreated black and white footage, archival film, and photos, documentarian Charles Guggenheim won an Oscar for his film The Johnstown Flood. This portion of the film chronicles the exploits of engineer John Hess.

The mammoth wall of water continued its path of destruction into Woodvale, ripping all of the town’s 225 quaint white cottages from their foundations and killing 314 (over one-fourth) of the hamlet’s population. At the same time, the Gautier Steel Works were wiped away as well, creating even more hazardous debris in the undying flow of water. At 4:10, the flood continued to race forward to the City of Johnstown.[25]

It took less than an hour for the wall of water to flow from the dam to Johnstown. The deadly wave had built up such a great momentum by this time that it pounded Johnstown with a stronger force than anywhere else. It took only about ten minutes until the entire city became a pile of rubble. The main body of the wave, carrying hundreds of tons of debris, sped westward until it slammed into the 550 foot Westmont Hill. This fateful impact divided the wave and created a furious and violent backwash. The wave was continuously bouncing off mountainsides and eventually split into three separate waves that traveled north, south, and east. The deeply incised river valley would turn a disaster into a catastrophe of unheard of proportions. It was literally a cyclone-like vortex of water and death, impossible to escape.[26]

At the Stone Bridge in Johnstown, which was fifty feet across and thirty-two feet above the waterline, tons of debris became clogged in the bridge’s arches, damming up the water. Many unfortunates were trapped in the debris itself and could not be reached.[27]

The PRR Stone Bridge following some debris removal by dynamite.

The loss of life was astronomical. Few had been able to escape the wave’s high speeds and deadly wreckage. Some had sought shelter in their homes. However, the force was so great that the homes were simply washed away. Those lucky enough to find safety in the upper floors of a sturdy brick building stood a far better chance at survival. In one Johnstown law office, fifty-two people spent the night in the top floor while the waters receded outside. At the Union Street School, over 200 resided there that night. The Johnstown Flood had finally come to an end, but the suffering and hardships were far from over.[28]

By 6 p.m. that evening, 200,000 pounds of near impenetrable rubble had become wedged at the Stone Bridge in Johnstown. The fuel material from the Cambria Ironworks and the PRR shops had spilled into the water and caught fire there. Survivors still trapped inside the debris suffered the excruciating fate of being burned alive. No one could reach them. Those beginning the recovery efforts on shore heard the terrifying screams of those people throughout the night. The flames lifted an eerie orange glow over the devastated city and its people. It was a most miserable night for all.[29]

Morning had brought little solace to the survivors of the flood. It was almost as if they were stranded in some foreign land. Nothing looked familiar. Those trying to find their houses couldn’t even locate the streets on which their homes were once located. To make things worse, there were no medical supplies, food, clothing, or tools to begin recovery efforts on a large scale. Nearly 500 would die from contaminated water sources and typhoid fever in the harsh aftermath of the flood.[30]

Recovery efforts for the dead began immediately.

People also came to the dark realization that their loved ones were forever gone. Anna Fenn, who had watched her husband go off to help move their neighbor’s furniture before the flood, lost everything. John, her husband, and all six of her children had been lost. She had tried to hold onto her children during the flood, but one by one, they were pulled away from here until there were none left. Over 100 families were completely annihilated by the flood.[31]

The lost children of Anna Fenn.

Eventually, help arrived by the carloads in Johnstown. General H.D. Hastings and 580 men of the 14th Regiment from Pittsburgh came to restore order and aid in the rescue efforts. Looting had been a major problem after the flood. Bandits had been going around cutting off the ring fingers of the dead for jewelry as well as ripping anything of value from them. Fellow survivors were outraged by this and some of the thieves were shot or hanged on spot by angered posses.[32]

One of the best known recovery agencies arrived in Johnstown with tons of supplies on June 5th. The newly established American Red Cross, headed by Clara Barton, brought much needed food and supplies for all. Even a three story Red Cross Hospital was established in just days to feed and shelter the deprived survivors of Johnstown. New organizations and shelters such as this were being formed all over the area for the displaced. Such facilities would eventually feed 30,000 people each day. Over 6,000 volunteers and laborers trekked to Johnstown to aid in the cleanup and give service to the survivors. Aid came from as far away as Europe.[33]

Arthur Moxham of Johnstown too was given a great responsibility. It was he who oversaw the establishments of morgues as well as removing dead humans and animals from the wreckage. He also deputized a police force to enforce order. (They made their badges out of tin cans taken from the debris.) Much credit is due to Moxham for helping to coordinate such extensive efforts.[34]

At one of the morgues, McLaurin stated, “The coffins were stacked around the morgues, on the pavement and at the railway stations. They were the first thing to greet the stranger and send a frigid current down the spine of the visitor. Many were small as violin cases – for the great many babies and young children. The heaps lessened steadily, for bodies were dug out daily for five months.”[35]

By June 10, little of the congestion in Johnstown had been alleviated. Nevertheless, recovery efforts continued at an agonizing, but determined pace. “Fire in the whole,” Arthur Kirk yelled before he pushed down on the detonation plunger. A massive boom echoed through the valleys as he set off the explosive charge at the Stone Bridge. Kirk, a dynamite expert, had been brought in from Pittsburgh to clear the clogged mess of debris at the base of the structure. Explosives were the only way. A correspondent from the New York Sun reported that, “Dynamite added its horror to the mass of wreckage that lies above the railroad bridge. A half dozen times this afternoon the heavy thunder of the huge cartridges was heard for miles around and fragments of the debris flew high in the air while at a distance the crowd looked on in dreadful sorrow...”[36] Clean-up continued for months and years afterward. In many ways, the town never fully recovered. Although some industry returned to the area, Johnstown would eventually become one of those old steel towns of the “Rust Belt.”

No member or owner of the South Fork Fishing & Hunting Club was ever punished for not maintaining the dam, although many thought they should have. Even General Hastings angrily stated, “It was a piece of carelessness, I might say criminal negligence.” The Chicago Herald agreed, commenting, there was “no question whatever” as to the fact that near criminal negligence was involved on the club’s part.[37]

Over 2,200 people lost their lives as a result of the Johnstown Flood, a large portion of which were never found. 755 of those found were too badly decomposed or mangled to be identified.[38] Today, they all rest together in a memorial plot at Grandview Cemetery overlooking Johnstown. Many of these tombstones only have numbers on them. A monument with angels watches over them. The event remains the second deadliest natural disaster in our history, second only to the Galveston Hurricane. The June 14, 1889 issue of the Johnstown Tribune said it was like “the fury of hell...”[39]

Nobody of any age was spared from the devastation.

Two more disastrous floods hit Johnstown in the following decades, one in 1936, and the other in 1977, but neither quite as devastating as the one in 1889. Today, many protective measures are taken to ensure Johnstown’s safety from future mass flooding. The Johnstown Flood Protection Management System is one of many methods used to monitor water and geological patterns in the area. As a result of the previous floods, “the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers created the Johnstown Local Flood Protection Project along the Stonycreek, Little Conemaugh, and Conemaugh Rivers. Smaller Projects are located on every stream entering the City. The Johnstown Redevelopment Authority is responsible for maintaining five projects.”[40]

In reflection, one could draw many parallels between the Johnstown Flood and the more recent Hurricane Katrina. The dams and levees that were suppose to be protecting the cities ended up being their worst enemies. Both Johnstown’s and New Orleans’ flood prevention systems were neglected, not properly cared for, or improperly constructed. Because of the incompetence or laziness of a select few, thousands suffered as a result. Both events were even followed by crime sprees and mass looting. One of the major differences between the two disasters is that recovery efforts for the Johnstown Flood were actually more prompt than those of Katrina, a sad fact that makes little sense when considering modern technology.

Through the countless tragedies and following accomplishments caused by the Johnstown Flood, it has become one of the definitive moments of survival in times of disaster and a prime example of triumph of human will. The floods also demonstrate man’s dangerous complacency when it comes to threats posed by nature (and fellow man). Although the reconstruction efforts proved anything but easy, like New Orleans, the city of Johnstown would rebuild.

Works Cited

Degen, Carl and Paula, The Johnstown Flood of 1889, New York: Eastern National Publications, 2000.

Hope, John. Westsylvanaia Heritage Trail: Southwest Pennsylvania's Historic Places. New York: R B Books, 2004.

McCullough, David, The Johnstown Flood, New York: Simon & Schuster, 1968.

Shappee, Nathan D. A History of Johnstown and the Great Flood of 1889: A Study of Disaster and Rehabilitation. Pittsburgh, unpublished dissertation, 1940. (Used through the cooperation of Doug Richardson at the Johnstown Flood National Memorial.)

Online Resources (Refer to Footnotes for more information.)

Johnstown Area Heritage Association.

The Johnstown Flood Protection Management System.

Mestern, Pat. “The Johnstown Flood.”

Historic Weather Maps – The National Oceanic & Atmospheric (Original Maps were created by the U.S. War Department).

National Park Service – Johnstown Flood National Memorial. (Refer to Footnotes on eyewitness accounts and interviews.)

New York Times account of the flood.


[1] McCullough, Introduction.

[2] George Perkins Marsh: A Founder of Forestry -

[3] Carson in Merchant, 438.

[4] Cronon, Changes in the Land, 152.

[5] Frederick Law Olmstead on the Value of Parks, 1865. Merchant, 384-5.

[6] Lewis, Jack. From Laissez Faire to Environmental Regulation. Merchant, 513.

[7] Interview of Charles W. Culp, Pittsburgh Chief Train Despatcher. National Park Service. And NOAA weather map archives.

[8] Shappee, 243.

[9] Mestern, Pat. “The Johnstown Flood.”

[10] McCullough, 26-8.

[11] Shappee, 16.

[12] Ibid., 256.

[13] McCullough, 95-7.

[14] JAHA.

[15] McCullough, 99.

[16] Degen, 14-7.

[17] Degen, 20.

[18] Ibid., 23.

[19] JAHA.

[20] Degen, 22.

[21] Shappee, 264.

[22] Degen, 24.

[23] Statement of Victor Wierman, Assistant Engineer, Pittsburgh Division, Penna. R. R.

[24] Degen, 26.

[25] Ibid.

[26] McCullough, 106.

[27] McCullough, 108.

[28] Degen, 35.

[29] Ibid.

[30] New York Times account of the flood.

[31] McCullough, 195.

[32] Ibid., 226.

[33] Negen, 54-5.

[34] Ibid., 41.

[35] Ibid., 48.

[36] Ibid., 56.

[37] McCullough, 246.

[38] Hope, 43.

[39] Degen, 30.

[40] The Johnstown Flood Protection Management System.

1 comment:

  1. Horrible story--nearly all a result of millionaires' greed.