Many thousand human lives-
Butchered husbands, slaughtered wives
Mangled daughters, bleeding sons,
Hosts of martyred little ones
[Worse than Herod’s awful crime]
Sent to heaven before their time:
Lovers burnt and sweethearts drowned,
Darlings lost but never found!
All the horrors that hell could wish,
Such was the price that was paid for—fish!

Many thousand human lives-

Butchered husbands, slaughtered wives

Mangled daughters, bleeding sons,

Hosts of martyred little ones

[Worse than Herod’s awful crime]

Sent to heaven before their time:

Lovers burnt and sweethearts drowned,

Darlings lost but never found!

All the horrors that hell could wish,

Such was the price that was paid for—fish!

This poem expresses the rage many felt for the wealthy 50 co-owners of the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club and their Lake Conemaugh dam that burst in 1889, killing 2,208 residents of the six towns and settlements hugging 14 miles of the banks of the Conemaugh River downstream from the dam.

The Terrain

Pennsylvania is one of the states having significant rainfall all 12 months of the year due primarily to its location where three weather fronts meet i.e., Arctic from the north, Atlantic from the East, and Gulf from the southwest.

Johnstown lay 60 miles east of Pittsburgh in foothills of the Allegheny Mountains, a 400-mile sliver of the larger Appalachians between Williamsport, Pennsylvania, and Bristol, Tennessee. The river’s S-shape in the Johnstown valley slowed the river’s velocity as it flowed down from upstream in the frequent floods that brought water into cellars of the poor’s houses near the river. Even in “ordinary” times, the waters of spring floods flowed into the Cambria Iron and Steel works huddled beside the river at Johnstown. Bluffs hundreds of feet high along this populated 14-mile stretch of the river created a natural basin, quickly inundating homes in heavy rains locally or upstream. These hills caused the problem but also provided the solution i.e.,”I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my help.” (Ps.121:1-2.)

Six hamlets, villages and towns lay beside the Conemaugh River in the S-shape it forms from the dam to Sang Hollow 14 miles south. In the middle lay the Queen City of the Valley, Johnstown. At the time, the rivers and streams were clear and clean enough for the game fish, object of the invective in Reed’s poem.

In the two days prior to the flood, 8.6 inches of rain fell in the 12,000 square mile catchment area upstream from Lake Conemaugh. By Saturday, May 31, 1898, water was 4 feet high and rising in the streets of Johnstown. Water began overflowing the dam. This should have provided ample warning to all before the dam broke about 2:50 p.m. Then, 3.8 billion gallons of water was set free to begin flowing to Johnstown 65 minutes downstream. [1]

The first settlement to be hit was South Fork. The village was built on high ground, so only 20 to 30 houses were destroyed and four people killed. At Conemaugh, the Pennsylvania RR viaduct, a 78-foot high stone arch bridge, momentarily blocked debris and piled up for seven minutes until the structure was swept away. The delay, however, caused the waters to build up so that the flood waters were higher and mightier when they reached the one-street village of Mineral Point one mile downstream. The waters left no structures, topsoil or even sub-soil, only bedrock! By then the flow of 420,000 cubic feet per second was comparable to that of the Mississippi River at its delta.

Next to be hit was the village of East Conemaugh, where one witness described the water as almost obscured by debris resembling “a huge hill rolling over and over.” “From his idle locomotive in the town’s railyard engineer John Hess heard and felt the tumbling of the approaching flood. Throwing his locomotive into reverse, Hess raced back toward East Conemaugh, the whistle blowing constantly. His warning saved many people who reached high ground. The flood picked up the locomotive and floated it aside. Hess himself survived but at least 50 people died, including about 25 passengers stranded on trains in the town.” (Internet)

Warnings?

When, on June 18, 1815, Napoleon realized that the battle of Waterloo was lost, his final orders to his troops were, “All is lost! Save yourselves if you can.” Many things about the situation in Johnston the afternoon of May 31, 1889, should have alerted old timers to run to the hills, saving their persons. Instead, many stayed—and died—saving their possessions.

Periodic floods earlier should have provided sufficient warning. (More warning than we get now on television of impending tornadoes.) Hydraulic engineers had inspected the dam and its vulnerability in catastrophic deluges, but their reports went unheeded by the dam’s owners.

Johnny Cash’s Lament*

I hear the train a comin,

it’s rolling ‘round the bend

If that train was mine

I bet I’d move it on

A little farther down the line.

When I hear that whistle blowing,

I hang my head and cry.

[1] Johnson, Willis Fletcher Johnson, History of the Johnstown Flood, Edgewood Pub.Co.,

* Folsom Prison Blues