Part I covered the context and causes of the flood that hit Johnstown Pennsylvania, on May 31, 1889. Here we look at immediate consequences of the raging waters as they raced through the Johnstown Valley for the 52 minutes following the break in the dam.

Part I covered the context and causes of the flood that hit Johnstown Pennsylvania, on May 31, 1889. Here we look at immediate consequences of the raging waters as they raced through the Johnstown Valley for the 52 minutes following the break in the dam.

The first to discover the impending break in the dam was John G. Parke. Jumping into the saddle he started at breakneck speed down the valley shouting: “The dam; the dam is breaking.; run for your lives!!” Being near the dam, he raced down beside the South Forks Creek to the hamlet of South Forks where it merges into the Conemaugh River flowing west through the Johnstown Valley. Reaching the South Forks Station he telegraphed news of the break to Johnstown ten miles below. It was nearly an hour before the flood came in, “a solid wall of water thirty feet drown the mountain-bound town. Some heeded the note of alarm at Johnstown; others had heard it before, doubted and waited until death overtook them. Young Parke climbed up into the mountains when the water was almost at his horse’s heels, and saw the deluge pass.“[1]

“Less fortunate was Daniel Peyton, a rich young man of Johnstown. When he heard Parke’s message he sprang into the saddle and rode the pike toward Conemaugh, a village upstream from Johnstown warning, “Run for your lives to the hills! Run to the hills!” No one knew the man, and some thought he was a maniac and laughed. In a few moments, however, there came a cloud of ruin down the streets and narrow alleys, grinding, twisting, hurling, over-turning, crashing—annihilating the weak and the strong.

Racing on toward his hometown the waters were now forty feet high and gaining speed. It overtook Peyton’s big bay horse at the Pennsylvania Railroad multiple arch bridge east of Conemaugh. Dozens of people took heed of the warning and ran the hills. Several rail cars on the bridge were swept into the river along with the bridge. Peyton was found lying face upward, his gallant horse nearby.

Mrs. Ogle, manager of the Western Union telegraph office at South Forks, remained at her post sending out repeated notifications to the stations in danger farther down the valley. When every station in the path of the coming torrent had been warned, she wired, “This is my last message,” And it was.

The poor lived closer to the River in the cheaper houses that flooded more often. When the water and debris hit their flimsy houses, it didn’t move them off their foundations, it smashed then and their occupants to pieces. Homes of wealthier folks living farther—and higher up—from the river were separated them from their foundations and set afloat—giving their occupants a better chance of survival. The flood made class distinctions.

Miss Nina Speck was in Johnstown when the waters hit town. Racing back to her home up in Kernsville ,she reached it at four o’clock by which time the waters had reached her front porch. “We heard a roar as of a tornado or mighty conflagration. We rushed up-stairs and got out upon the bay window. “

A mighty wall of water raced down the Conemaugh Valley creating a mist and a terrible roar. Before it were rolling houses and buildings of all kinds, tossing over and over. Dislodged from its foundation by the enormous weight and thrust of the waters the Speck house drifted by gravity as a rudderless boat into downtown Johnstown where it lodged against a business building.

People floated by on roofs of other houses. From a second story window Nina Speck saw a young man drifting toward them. “I broke the glass from the frames with my hands and helped him in, and in a few minutes more I pulled in an old man. The water forced them up into the attic. Then we heard a lot of people on our roof begging us for God’s sake to let them in. I broke through the roof with a bed-slat and pulled them in. Soon we had thirteen in all crouched in the attic. The roofs of all the houses drifting by us were covered with people, nearly all praying and some singing hymns, and now and then a house would break apart and all would go down. On Saturday at noon we were rescued. I counted hundreds of bodies lying in the debris.”

“But while the flood was driving people to silent death down the valley, there was a sound of lamentation on the hills. Hundred who had climbed there to be out of reach saw the city disappearing. At half-past three there had been a Johnstown. At four thirty there was none.”


In 1889 Johnstown was the worst natural disaster in U.S. history but in 1900 it was surpassed by the Galveston hurricane bearing a storm surge driven by 145 mph winds that killed six to eight thousand. Last year Hurricane Maria year hit Puerto Rico killing only 1427, but it destroyed 527,000 houses and put 3.4 million back in the Middle Ages. Worst of all was the 9.0 underwater earthquake in the Indian Ocean in 2005 that killed 220,000 in 11 countries. It hit with a force equivalent to 11,000 Hiroshima-type atomic bombs. Nature inflicts more damage than man.

A business executive being told that half his ad expenditures were wasted replied, “But which half?” Unpredictability is the worst aspect of natural disasters. More next week.

[1] Johnson, Willis Fletcher, ‘The Johnstown Flood,’ Phil.: Edgewood Pub Co., 1899.