Johnstown, Pennsylvania was an idyllic little town located where the Little Conemaugh River and Stoney Creek joined to form the Conemaugh River. It prospered with the Cambria Iron Works and by the late 1880s had a population of 30,000. Upstream from the town was the South Fork Dam, which had been previously owned by the state as part of the canal system. As railroads began replacing canals, the dam was sold off to private interests. The dam passed through several different hands and one owner sold the drainage pipes for scrap. This meant the lake could never be drained to make repairs. The dam broke once in 1862, but the lake was only half full, so it was not a big deal. In 1878, the dam and lake were bought by South Fork Fishing & Hunting Club.
South Fork Fishing & Hunting Club was a 61 member club of Philadelphia’s richest industrialists. This included Andrew Carnegie, Andrew Mellon, Philander Knox and Henry Clay Frick. Amenities included a 47 room club house, which included a dining room seating 150, and 16 privately owned cottages. These cottages were not small affairs, but elaborate mansions along the lake shore. There was a regatta and pleasure trips on one of the clubs many yachts, sailboats or canoes. Members could also enjoy theatrical and musical performances. A perfect getaway for the city’s elite.
The club made some additions to the dam, but restoring the drainage pipes and making repairs were not among them. They did install fish screens along the spillways, so the expensive game fish, which the lake was stocked with, would not escape. This also caught debris and kept the lake levels from evening out. They also had the dam lowered so two carriages could pass at the same time. It was ripe for disaster.
On May 30, 1889, a storm blew up and it was the worst downpour that had hit that part of the country. Estimates said that 6 – 10 inches of rain fell in 24 hours. Surrounding creeks and rivers overran their banks. On the morning of May 31, Elias Unger, president of the South Fork Fishing & Hunting Club, woke to rising lake levels almost overtopping the dam. He assembled men to try to sandbag and dig channels to relief pressure then sent frantic telegrams to Johnstown. These were never passed to authorities as there had been false alarms before.
At 3pm that afternoon, horrified workers trying to relieve pressure on the dam watched as it “just moved away”. Water rolled into Johnstown picking up debris of houses, barns, animals and people, dead and alive, on its 14 mile journey. Engineers estimated the water hit the town with the same force as Niagara Falls. Witnesses describe it as a moving wave of debris 14 feet high and a half a mile wide. It got stopped at the Pennsylvania Railroad Company’s Stone Bridge, and debris gathered into a 40 foot high pile then caught fire. The fire burned for three days, and when it was out and the water receded, the debris pulled covered 30 acres.
The wave swept people far downstream. Bodies were found as far away as Cincinnati, and as late as 1911. 2,209 people were killed in the disaster, making it the largest civilian death toll at that time. 777 of them were never identified. 600 homes were destroyed and $17 million in property damage was done.
Reporters flocked to Johnstown and sensationalized the already horrific loss. Soon after there was an outpouring of money and aid for the survivors of the tragedy. Clara Barton took her newly established Red Cross to Johnstown and stayed for five months. Donations for the relief effort came from all over the United States and overseas. $3,742,818.78 was collected for the Johnstown relief effort from within the U.S. and 18 foreign countries. Survivors set up tents near where their homes used to be and tried to figure out what to do next.
Anyone at the South Fork Fishing & Hunting Club vacated the premises immediately. Some survivors stormed the place and broke into the clubhouse, but no one was harmed. However, they were not so lucky in the court of public opinion.
Headlines such as “Manslaughter or Murder?” and red “The Club Is Guilty.” began appearing. The public as well as the residents of Johnstown pointed the finger at the South Fork Fishing & Hunting Club. Some of the disaster relief came from club members, including Andrew Carnegie, who rebuilt the Johnstown library and donated $100,000. However, no club member admitted culpability.
The few lawsuits that were brought ruled the flood was an act of God. However, in the eyes of many Americans, this was one more example of the “robber barons” getting away with murder.
Sources available on request