Friday, May 31, 2013

May 31 (1889) Johnstown, PA Great Flood: "It appears that the loss of life was incurred through neglect and disbelief"

A house after the Johnstown flood in 1889
On this day in 1889, the South Fork Dam at the reservoir named Lake Conemaugh failed, releasing a torrent of water that killed 2,209 people, and leveled the town of Johnstown, PA. It was the most costly disaster, both in terms of lives and money, yet experienced.

Though the South Fork Dam had a long history of disfunction, most survivors of the Great Flood blamed the dam's failure on the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club, an exclusive resort located near the dam.

Club members were mostly wealthy Pittsburgh industrialists, including a young banker named Andrew Mellon. Repairs made by club owners--raising the lake level, and building cottages and a clubhouse to create a secretive retreat--made the area more vulnerable to massive flooding.

Despite evidence of its shoddy condition, no successful lawsuits were ever brought against club members for its failure and the resulting deaths downstream. The court held that the event was an Act of God, for which no one could be held responsible.

Below is a report of the flood printed in the Evening World, on June 1, 1889.

"King Death!...The stream of human bodies which has been washed down the river mingled with the wreckage of the houses, factories and other buildings have been something fearful to witness. At present it is utterly impossible to estimate, even approximately, the damage done... 

The foundation of the South Fork dam was known to be shaky a year ago, and leakages have been numerous. It appears that the loss of life at Johnstown was incurred through neglect and disbelief." 

Further Reading

Johnstown Flood Wikipedia entry

Johnstown Area Heritage Association

Johnstown, PA

Andrew Mellon Wikipedia entry

Also, check out David McCullough's book on the Johnstown Flood.

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Flannery O'Connor

You shall know the truth and the truth shall make you odd.