In Parts I and II I relied on a book written the year of the flood, 1889, by Willis Fletcher Johnson, thinking it would be the most authoritative. [1] Subsequently I obtained the most authoritative book by Pulitzer Prize winning author David McCullough who had access to 79 more years of scholarship on the subject than Johnson who had to dig his facts literally from the muddy remains of Johnstown. One change resulted: wealthy residents lived nearest the river and the poorest lived up Prospect Hill.

In Parts I and II I relied on a book written the year of the flood, 1889, by Willis Fletcher Johnson, thinking it would be the most authoritative. [1] Subsequently I obtained the most authoritative book by Pulitzer Prize winning author David McCullough who had access to 79 more years of scholarship on the subject than Johnson who had to dig his facts literally from the muddy remains of Johnstown. One change resulted: wealthy residents lived nearest the river and the poorest lived up Prospect Hill.

Johnstown’s topography and weather combined to create floods almost annually in the Spring. Johnstown Valley through which the Conemaugh River flowed was 15 miles long beginning at the Stoney Creek Dam in the East to the western extreme of Johnstown. The Valley included 9 boroughs in addition to Johnstown creating a total population of 30,000 the day of the flood. Additionally, the hotels were full due to the Memorial Day holiday and a convention.

The mountains were so close to the river the sun didn’t reach the river until mid-morning and departed by early afternoon. Logging had stripped the hills of trees making rain water flow faster into the river. The river had been narrowed by commercial development constricting the controlled flow of the river and forcing more water over its banks into the town.

The impoundment area of the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club’s lake was 60 square miles having 6 streams from the crest of the Alleghenies 14 miles East flowing into the lake formed by their dam. When full, it contained 20,000,000 tons of water—all of which picked up speed as it dropped 450 feet in elevation on its way to downtown Johnstown May 31, 1889. In short, the Valley was designed by man and nature to receive flood waters.

And, it did flood almost annually seven times between 1880 and 1889 with the three in 1885, 1887, and 1888 being ‘bad.’ Every flood made the people scared the dam would break During the1885 flood Stony Creek which feeds the Lake rose 3 feet in 45 minutes.

Citizens had good reason to fear the dam breaking because it did in 1862 and was not repaired properly. It went unattended 22 years [1857-1879] during which time its metal discharge pipes used to lower the water level during floods had been removed and sold for scrap. The Pittsburgh group purchased the property in 1879 but never installed drainage pipes. Hence, the day of the flood caretakers had no way to lower the water level in the lake.

This was a poorly constructed and repaired dam which in the best of times presented a hazard for folks in the Valley, but was highly hazardous in flood times. The two greatest defects of dirt dams was the possibility of water flowing either over its top or its end. They had lowered its height several feet to widen the top enough to permit two carriages to pass. Worse, the middle of the dam ‘sagged’ such that the middle was 4 ft. lower than the ends!

Nine years earlier the Cambria works had sent mining engineer and geologist John Fulton to inspect the dam. His report mentioned the problem of the absence of drainage pipes to lower the water level as well as a “large leak” cutting away the embankment. Club owners ignored the warning writing in their reply to Fulton’s report, “We consider [Fulton’s] conclusions of no value…[and] you and your people [Cambria works] are in no danger from our enterprise.” The Cambria works were so alarmed by the condition of the dam that they offered to share the repair costs recommended in Fulton’s report.—to no avail.

It rained heavily the night before and the morning of May 31st. The Cambria Works told the seven o’clock shift to go home. The rain had started throughout the Midwest and by the time it hit Pennsylvania, it was the worst downpour to ever hit that part of the country. It is estimated that seven inches fell at the Lake. The Signal Service called it the most extensive rainfall of the century with 6-8 inches falling in twenty-four hours over the lake’s impoundment area.

By noon water was from two to ten feet deep all over town and already the worst flood on record. By eleven a log boom in Stony Creek had burst sending a wild rush of logs into bridges and streets. For a time water in Stony Creek rose eighteen inches an hour and the current was an estimated six miles an hour.

“Ample time was given to the inhabitants by Railroad Officials and other gentlemen of standing and reputation. In hundreds of cases this warning was utterly disregarded, and those who heeded it early in the day were looked upon as cowards, and many jeers were uttered by lips that now are cold.”[1]

It had oft been said during past floods, “Sometime, that dam will give way, but it won’t ever happen to us!....The townspeople like those who live in the shadow of Vesuvius, grew calloused to the possibility of danger.” As in the Aesop fable in which the shepherd boy cried “Wolf!” once too often, “People got tired of hearing about a disaster that never happened.” [2] Sounds like some in the pews.

[1] Johnson, Willis Fletcher, History of The Johnstown Flood, Phil.: Edgewood Pub. Co., 1889,

[2] McCullough, David, The Johnstown Flood, NY: Simon & Schuster, 1968, 66.