Johnstown Flood

View of the Wreck

Timely Warning to Escape.
Timely Warning to Escape

Each visitor to the scene of the great disaster witnessed sights and received impressions different from all others. The following graphic account will thrill every reader:

The most exaggerative imagination cannot too strongly picture the awful harvest of death, the wreck which accompanied that terrible deluge last Friday afternoon. I succeeded in crossing from the north side of the Little Conemaugh, a short distance above the point, to the sandy muddy desert strewn with remnants of the buildings and personal property of those who know not their loss.

It is almost an impossibility to gain access to the region, and it was accomplished only after much difficulty in crossing the swiftly running stream.

Standing at a point in this abode of thousands of dead the work of the great flood can be more adequately measured than from any one place in the devastated region. Here I first realized the appalling loss of life and the terrible destruction of property.

It was about ten o’clock when the waters of Stony Creek rose, overflowed their banks and what is known as the “flats,” which includes the entire business portion of the city of Johnstown. The Little Conemaugh was running high at the same time, and it had also overreached the limit of its banks. The water of both streams soon submerged the lower portion of the town. Up to this time there was no intimation that a terrible disaster was imminent. The water poured into the cellars of the houses in the lower districts and rose several inches in the streets, but as that had occurred before the people took no alarm.

Shortly after twelve o’clock the first drowning occurred. This was not because of the deluge, it was simply the carelessness of the victim, who was a driver for the Cambria Iron Company, in stepping into a cellar which had been filled with water. The water continued to rise, and at twelve o’clock had reached that part of the city about a block from the point between Stony Creek and the Little Conemaugh.

Topography of the Place

Map of Johnstown
Map of Johnstown

The topography of Johnstown is almost precisely like that of Pittsburgh, only in a diminished degree. Stony Creek comes in from the mountains on the northeast, and the Little Conemaugh comes in from the northwest, forming the Conemaugh at Johnstown, precisely as the Allegheny and Monongahela form the Ohio at Pittsburgh. On the west side of Stony Creek are mountains rising to a great height, and almost perpendicularly from the water. On the north side of the Conemaugh River mountains equally as high as those on Stony Creek confine that river to its course. The hills in Johnstown start nearly a half mile from the business section of the city. This leaves a territory between the two rivers of about four hundred acres. This was covered by costly buildings, factories and other important manufactories.

When the waters of South Fork and Little Conemaugh broke over their banks into that portion of the city known as the “flats,” the business community turned its attention to putting endangered merchandise in a place of safety.

First Alarm

In the homes of the people the women began gathering household articles of any kind that may have been in the cellar. Little attention was paid to the water beyond this.

Looking from the “flats” at Johnstown toward and following the Pennsylvania Railroad tracks, which wind along the Little Conemaugh, the village of Woodville stands, or did stand, within sight of the “flats,” and is really a continuation of the city at this point.

The mountains on the south side of the Little Conemaugh rise here and form a narrow valley where Woodville was located. Next joining this, without any perceptible break in the houses, was the town of East Conemaugh. The extreme eastern limit of East Conemaugh is about a mile and a half from Johnstown “flats.”

A Narrow Chasm

The valley narrows as it reaches eastward, and in a narrow chasm three miles from Johnstown “flats” is the little settlement of Mineral Point. A few of the houses have found a place on the mountain side out of harm’s way, and so they still stand.

At East Conemaugh there is located a roundhouse of the Pennsylvania Railroad, for the housing of locomotives used to assist trains over the mountains. The inhabitants of this place were all employees of the Pennsylvania and the Gautier Steel Works, of the Cambria Iron Company. The inhabitants numbered about 1,500 people. Like East Conemaugh, 2,000 or 2,500 people, who lived at Woodville, were employees of the same corporation and the woolen mills located there.

Just below Woodville the mountains upon the south bank of the Conemaugh disappear and form the commencement of the Johnstown “flats.” The Gautier Steel Works of the Cambria Iron Company are located at this point, on the south bank. The Pennsylvania Railroad traverses the opposite bank, and makes a long curve from this point up to East Conemaugh.

At what is known as the point where Stony Creek and the Little Conemaugh form the Conemaugh the mountains followed by Stony Creek take an abrupt turn northward, and the waters of the Little Conemaugh flow into the Conemaugh at right angles with these mountains.

A few hundred feet below this point the Pennsylvania Railroad bridge crosses the Conemaugh River. The bridge is a massive stone structure. From the east end of the bridge there is a heavy fill of from thirty to forty feet high to Johnstown Station, a distance of a quarter of a mile.

Within a few feet of the station a wagon bridge crosses the Little Conemaugh, five hundred feet above the point connecting the “flats” and the country upon the north side of the river.

The Cambria Iron Company’s Bessemer department lies along the north bank of the Conemaugh, commencing at the fill, and extends for over two miles down the Conemaugh River upon its northern bank.

Below the Cambria Iron Company’s property is Millville Borough, and on the hill back of Millville Borough is Minersville properly–the Second ward of Millville Borough.

The First ward of Millville was washed away completely.

While the damage from a pecuniary sense was large, the loss of life was quite small, inasmuch as the people had timely warning to escape.

Below the Pennsylvania Railroad Bridge at Johnstown, upon the south bank of the Conemaugh, was the large settlement of Cambria. It had a population of some five thousand people. At Cambria the mountain retreats for several hundred feet, leaving a level of two or three hundred acres in extent. Just below the bridge the Conemaugh River makes a wide curve around this level. About eight or nine hundred houses stood upon this level.

Below Cambria stands Morrellville, a place about equal in size to Cambria.

From this description of the location of Johnstown and neighboring settlements the course of the waters may be better understood when described. It was about ten minutes to three o’clock Friday afternoon when Mr. West, of the local office of the Pennsylvania Railroad at Johnstown, received a dispatch from the South Fork station, advising him to notify the inhabitants that the big dam in the South Fork, above the city, was about to break. He at once despatched couriers to various parts of the city, and a small section was notified of the impending danger. The messenger was answered with,

“We will wait until we see the water.”

Others called “Chestnuts!” and not one in fifty of the people who received the warning gave heed to it.

The Débris of Three Towns

With the waters standing several inches deep in the streets of the “flats” of the city the deluge from South Fork Lake, burst the dam and rushed full upon Johnstown shortly after five o’clock on Friday afternoon the last day of May.

First it swept the houses from Mineral Point down into East Conemaugh. When the flood reached East Conemaugh the town was wiped out. This mass of débris was borne on to Johnstown, reinforced by the material of three towns.

The Gautier steel department of the Cambria Iron Company was the first property attacked in the city proper. Huge rolls, furnaces and all the machinery in the great mills, costing $6,000,000, were swept away in a moment, and to-day there is not the slightest evidence that the mill ever stood there.

Swept From the Roofs

Westward from this point the flood swept over the flats. The houses, as soon as the water reached them, were lifted from their foundation and hurled against their neighbors’. The people who at the first crash of their property managed to reach the roof or some other floating material were carried on until their frail support was driven against the next obstruction, when they went down in the crash together.

The portion of the “flats” submerged is bounded by Clinton street to the Little Conemaugh River, to the point at Stony Creek, then back to Clinton street by way of Bedford.

This region has an area of one mile square, shaped like a heart, and in this district there are not more than a dozen buildings that are not total wrecks.

Ten per cent. of this district is so covered with mud, stones, rocks and other material, where costly buildings once stood, that it will require excavating from eight to twenty feet to reach the streets of the city.

Remnants of the City

Of the houses standing there is the Methodist church, the club house, James McMillen’s residence, the Morrell mansion, Dr. Lohman’s house and the First ward school building.

The Fourth ward school house and the Cambria Iron Works’ general office building are the only buildings standing on the north side of the river from the Pennsylvania Railroad bridge to the limits of the “flats.”

The Pennsylvania Railroad, from its station in Johnstown City nearly to Wilmore, a distance of seven miles, had a magnificent road bed of solid rock. From East Conemaugh to the point in Johnstown opposite the Gautier Steel Works, this road bed, ballast and all are gone. Only a few rails may occasionally be seen in the river below.

Freaks of the Flood

When the crash came in Johnstown the houses were crushed as easily by the huge mass as so many buildings of sand, making much the same sound as if a pencil were drawn over the slats of a shutter. Houses were torn from their foundations and torn to pieces before their occupants realized their danger. Hundreds of these people were crushed to death, while others were rescued by heroic men; but the lives of the majority were prolonged a few minutes, when they met a more horrible death further down the stream.

There is a narrow strip extending from the club house to the point which, in some singular manner, escaped the mass of filling that was distributed on the flats. This strip is about 200 feet wide, 300 long and from 3 to 20 feet deep. What queer turn the flood took to thus spare this section, when the surrounding territory was covered with mud, stones and other material, is a mystery. It is, however, one of the remarkable turns of the flood.

The German Catholic Church is standing, but is in an exceedingly shaky condition and may fall at any minute. This and Dr. Lohman’s residence are the only buildings on the plot standing between Main street, Clinton street, Railroad street and the Little Conemaugh.

The destruction of life in this district was too awful to contemplate. It is estimated that not more than one thousand people escaped with their lives, and it is believed that there were fully five thousand persons remaining in the district when the flood came down. The flood wiped out the “flat” with the exception of the buildings noted. The water was twenty feet high here and hurled acres upon acres of houses against the Pennsylvania Railroad bridge which held it and dammed the water up until it was forty feet high. The mass accumulated until the weight became so great that it broke through the fill east of the bridge and the débris started out of the temporary reservoir with an awful rush.

It was something near five o’clock when the fill broke. The water rushed across the Cambria flats and swept every house away with the exception of a portion of a brewery. There is nothing else standing in this district which resembles a house.

The Johnstown Post Office Building, with all the office money and stamps, was carried away in the flood. The Postmaster himself escaped with great difficulty.

The Break Two Hundred Feet Wide
The Break Two Hundred Feet Wide

The dam broke in the centre at three o’clock on Friday afternoon, and at four o’clock it was dry. That great body of water passed out in one hour. Park & Van Buren, who are building a new draining system at the lake, tried to avert the disaster by digging a sluiceway on one side to ease the pressure on the dam. They had about forty men at work and did all they could, but without avail. The water passed over the dam about a foot above its top, beginning at about half-past two. Whatever happened in the way of a cloud burst took place during the night. There had been but little rain up to dark. When the workmen woke in the morning the lake was very full and was rising at the rate of a foot an hour. It kept on rising until at two o’clock it first began breaking over the dam and undermining it. Men were sent three or four times during the day to warn people below of their danger.

When the final break came, at three o’clock, there was a sound like tremendous and continued peals of thunder; rocks, trees and earth were shot up into mid-air in great columns, and then the wave started down the ravine. A farmer, who escaped, said that the water did not come down like a wave, but jumped on his house and beat it to fragments in an instant. He was safe upon the hillside, but his wife and two children were killed. At the present time the lake looks like a cross between the crater of a volcano and a huge mud puddle with stumps of trees and rocks scattered over it. There is a small stream of muddy water running through the centre of the lake site. The dam was seventy feet high and the break is about two hundred feet wide, and there is but a small portion of the dam left on either side. No damage was done to any of the buildings belonging to the club. The whole south fork is swept, with not a tree standing. There are but one or two small streams showing here and there in the lake. A great many of the workmen carried off baskets full of fish caught in the mud.

Three Millions Indemnity

It is reported that the Sportsman’s Association, which owned the South Fork dam, was required to file an indemnity bond of $3,000,000 before their charter was issued. When the bill granting them these privileges was before the Legislature the representatives from Cambria and Blair counties vigorously opposed its passage and only gave way, it is said, upon condition that such an indemnifying bond was filed. This bond was to be filed with the prothonotary of Cambria county.

Father Boyle, of Ebensburg, said the records at the county seat had no trace of such a bond. He found the record of the charter, but nothing about the bond. As the association is known to be composed of very wealthy people, there is much talk here of their being compelled to pay at least a part of the damages.

The Rain Did It

It begins to dawn on us that the catastrophe was brought about not merely by the bursting of the dam of the old canal reservoir, but by a rainfall exceeding in depth and area all previously recorded phenomena of the kind. The whole drainage basin of the Kiskiminetas, and more particularly that of the Conemaugh, was affected. An area of probably more than 600 square miles poured its precipitation through the narrow valley in which Johnstown and associate villages are located. It is easy to see how, with a rainfall similar to that which caused the Butcher Run disaster of a few years ago, fully from thirty to fifty times as much water became destructive. The whole of the water of the lake would pass Suspension Bridge at Pittsburgh inside of from seven to ten minutes, while the gorge at Johnstown, narrowed by the activity of mines for generations past, was clearly insufficient to allow a free course for Stony Creek alone, which is a stream heading away up in Somerset county, twenty-five or thirty miles south of Johnstown. That the rainfall of the entire Allegheny Mountain system was unprecedented is clearly demonstrated to any one who has watched the Allegheny and Monongahela rivers for the past three days, and this view may serve to correct the impression in the public mind that would localize the causes of the widespread disaster to the bursting of any single dam.

Danger Was Anticipated

Charles Parke, of Philadelphia, the civil engineer in the employ of the South Fork Fishing Club, in company with George C. Wilson, ex-United States District Attorney, and several other members of the club, reached Johnstown and brought with them the first batch of authoritative news from Conemaugh Lake, the bursting of which, it is universally conceded, caused the disaster.

Mr. Parke was at first averse to talking, and seemed more interested in informing his friends in the Quaker City that he was still in the land of the living. On being pressed he denied most emphatically that the dam had burst, and proceeded to explain that he first commenced to anticipate danger on Friday morning, when the water in the lake commenced to rise at a rapid rate. Immediately he turned his force of twenty-five Italians to opening an extra waste sluiceway in addition to the one that had always answered before.

The five members of the club on hand all worked like horses, but their efforts were in vain, and at three o’clock the supporting wall gave way with a sound that seemed like distant thunder and the work was done.

The Governor’s Appeal

HARRISBURG, Pa., June 3, 1886.

–The Governor issued the following:–

“HARRISBURG, Pa., June 3, 1889. }


Johnstown Flood
Johnstown Flood

“The Executive of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania has refrained hitherto from making any appeal to the people for their benefactions, in order that he might receive definite and reliable information from the centres of disaster during the late floods, which have been unprecedented in the history of the State or nation. Communication by wire has been established with Johnstown to-day. The civil authorities are in control, the Adjutant General of the State cooperating with them; order has been restored and is likely to continue. Newspaper reports as to the loss of life and property have not been exaggerated.

“The valley of the Conemaugh, which is peculiar, has been swept from one end to the other as with the besom of destruction. It contained a population of forty thousand to fifty thousand people, living for the most part along the banks of a small river confined within narrow limits. The most conservative estimates place the loss of life at 5,000 human beings, and of property at twenty-five millions. [The reader will understand that this and previous estimates were the first and were far too small.] Whole towns have been utterly destroyed. Not a vestige remains. In the more substantial towns the better buildings, to a certain extent, remain, but in a damaged condition. Those who are least able to bear it have suffered the loss of everything.

“The most pressing needs, so far as food is concerned, have been supplied. Shoes and clothing of all sorts for men, women and children are greatly needed. Money is also urgently required to remove the débris, bury the dead, and care temporarily for the widows and orphans and for the homeless generally. Other localities have suffered to some extent in the same way, but not in the same degree.

“Late advices seem to indicate that there is great loss of life and destruction of property along the west branch of the Susquehanna and in localities from which we can get no definite information. What does come, however, is of the most appalling character, and it is expected that the details will add new horrors to the situation.

Generous Responses

“The responses from within and without the State have been most generous and cheering. North and South, East and West, from the United States and from England, there comes the same hearty, generous response of sympathy and help. The President, Governors of States, Mayors of cities, and individuals and communities, private and municipal corporations, seem to vie with each other in their expressions of sympathy and in their contributions of substantial aid. But, gratifying as these responses are, there is no danger of their exceeding the necessities of the situation.

Organized Distribution

“A careful organization has been made upon the ground for the distribution of whatever assistance is furnished. The Adjutant General of the State is there as the representative of the State authorities and giving personal attention, in connection with the Chief Burgess of Johnstown and a committee of relief to the distribution of the help which is furnished.

“A large force will be employed at once to remove the débris and bury the dead, so as to avoid disease and epidemic.

“The people of the Commonwealth and others whose unselfish generosity is hereby heartily appreciated and acknowledged may be assured that their contributions will be made to bring their benefactions to the immediate and direct relief of those for whose benefit they are intended.


“By the Governor, CHARLES W. STONE, Secretary of the Commonwealth.”

Alive to the Situation

Johnstown Flood
Johnstown Flood

The Masonic Relief Committee which went from Pittsburgh to Johnstown telegraphed President Harrison, urging the appointment of a national commission to take charge of sanitary affairs at the scene of the disaster. It was urged that the presence of so many decaying corpses would breed a pestilence there, besides polluting the water of the streams affecting all the country between Pittsburgh and New Orleans.

The disasters in Pennsylvania were the subject of a conference at the White House between the President, General Noble, the Secretary of the Interior, and Surgeon General Hamilton. The particular topic which engaged their attention was the possibility of the pollution of the water-supply of towns along the Conemaugh River by the many dead bodies floating down the stream.

The President was desirous that this new source of danger should be cut off, if any measures which could be taken by the government could accomplish it. It was suggested that the decomposition of so much human flesh and the settling of the decomposing fragments into the bed of the stream might make the water so foul as to breed disease and scatter death in a new form among the surviving dwellers in the valley.

Not Afraid of a Plague

Surgeon General Hamilton expressed the opinion that the danger was not so great as might be supposed. There would be no pollution from those bodies taken from the river before decomposition set in, and the force of the freshet would tend to clear the river bed of any impurities in it rather than make new deposits. The argument which had the most weight, however, with the President was the efficiency of the local authorities. Pennsylvania has a State Board of Health and is a State with ample means at her disposal, both in money and men, and if there is any danger of this sort her local officials were able to deal with it. This was practically the decision of the conference. The gentlemen will meet again, if necessary, and stand ready to render every assistance which the situation calls for, but they will leave the control of the matter with the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania until it appears that she is unable to cope with it.

Governor Beaver to the President

The following telegram was received by President Harrison from Governor Beaver, who made his way from York to Harrisburg:–

“HARRISBURG, Pa., June 3, 1889.

“To the PRESIDENT, Washington:–

“The Sheriff of Cambria county says everything is quiet and that he can control the situation without the aid of troops. The people are fairly housed and good order prevails. The supply of food so far is equal to the demand, but supplies of food and clothing are still greatly needed.

“Conservative estimates place the loss of life at from five thousand to ten thousand, and loss of property at from $25,000,000 to $40,000,000. The people are at work heroically, and will have a large force to-morrow clearing away the débris.

“The sympathies of the world are freely expressed. One telegram from England gives $1,000. I will issue a general appeal to the public to-night. Help comes from all quarters. Its universality greatly encourages our people. I will communicate with you promptly if anything unusual occurs.


Walker, James Herbert. The Johnstown Horror! or Valley of Death: being A Complete and Thrilling Account of the Awful Floods and Their Appalling Ruin. H. J. Smith & Co. 1889.

Search Military Records - Fold3

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Pin It on Pinterest

Scroll to Top