Skip to comments.The Day Lake Conemaugh Destroyed Johnstown
Posted on 04/13/2021 4:28:11 AM PDT by Kaslin
One hundred and thirty-two years later, the truth of what happened here in May 1889 is still difficult to put into words.
Standing on the very soil where Col. Elias Unger, the last president of the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club, had his home overlooking Lake Conemaugh, you can see from the distance where the Pittsburgh elite had their grand fishing club and elaborate cottages along the shoreline.
Look right and you can also see the remnants of the poorly maintained dam that once held back their pristine private lake. It gave way on May 31, 1889, after days of relentless rain, sending 20 million gallons of water raging down 14 miles toward the city of Johnstown.
With each inch and foot and mile, the force of the water gathered and carried with it trees, boulders, dirt, barns, animals, mud, people (dead and alive) and houses. It flung them all at the unsuspecting town, killing more than 2,000 and causing millions of dollars of damage.
The people of Johnstown had spent that day preparing not for a horrific catastrophe but for the typical post-storm flooding from the Little Conemaugh and Stonycreek rivers. They moved their perishables to the upper stories of their buildings, as they often did to wait out minor floods.
"They had little idea of the fate that awaited them," National Park ranger Doug Bosley, who manages the three sites that make up the Johnstown Flood National Park, said.
On that morning of May 31, club officials were frantic. They understood the 2-mile-long, 1-mile-deep lake was at its breaking point. "By 3 in the afternoon, those that had gathered to try to stop the inevitable watched in horror as the dam gave way," Bosley said.
It is said that it hit the town and its people with the force of Niagara Falls.
"Most people only heard it coming," Bosley said. "Those who saw it and lived described it as a rolling mountain of dirt and trees, building over 40 feet high."
A life-sized diorama of that wall of debris is the first thing that greets those entering the visitors center, which overlooks the completely intact Unger home. In addition to the wealth of artifacts and scale dioramas, visitors can feast their eyes on a gripping film called "Black Friday," which leaves the viewer feeling as if he or she were in Johnstown when the flood hit.
Across what was once Lake Conemaugh, the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club remarkably still stands. So do the elaborate and ornate cottages once owned by industrial America's famed robber barons. The National Park Service has purchased the club and several of the homes and is painstakingly restoring them.
It is well worth the visit.
None of those club members ever came back after that horrific day. They just left their homes and their resort and walked away. Nor were they ever held legally responsible. The death toll became a national scandal, and their role in the neglect of the dam's structure made headlines for years.
The elite playground, within months, became a coal town.
You can stand where the dam broke and look down in one direction and out in the other over the expanse of the former lake that emptied off this Appalachian plateau. Once again, it is hard to write any words that do justice to what was lost that day.
Railroad tracks now run where the lake once stood. The long-long-short-long whistle of an oncoming freight train routinely echoes through the valley as it approaches.
The body carried farthest by the ill tide was found in Cincinnati, Ohio. The last body was found in 1911. All told, 99 families perished in the flood, including 396 children. One hundred and twenty-four women and 198 men were widowed. Ninety-eight children were orphaned, and one-third of the dead, or 777 people, were never identified, according to the Johnstown Area Heritage Association.
Walking around the places here, two things stand out. First, one can understand why the lake was built in this spot. The majestic scenery all around is soul-lifting. One is also struck by the dedication that went into preserving this critical moment in American history, first by the locals and then by the National Park Service.
The year 1889 is critically important in the development of our nation. We were 24 years past the ravages of the Civil War and well into the societal shifts that the Industrial Revolution was causing our country.
We had added four new states that year -- both Dakotas, Montana and Washington -- the most in 101 years. Coke was first bottled in Atlanta, and the Gilded Age was about to peak. We were changing, and with this moment at the lake, our popular views of the elite were changing as well. This moment, the disappearance of Lake Conemaugh and 2,000 of the inhabitants below, was a pivotal one in shaping how we would regard one another going forward.
Pennsylvania already instituted an enduring memorial.
“71 years later, drinkers still paying ‘Johnstown Flood Tax”
Make that 132 years.
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Part of the upgrades was a movie to be shown in the museum. They engaged Charles Guggenheim to direct and Len Cariou to narrate. They needed actors (not extras mind you) for the movie and my friend's mom asked some of us and I agreed.
The movie ended up winning an Oscar that year for best short documentary. The movie is shown in the museum to this day, and my friends and I were all credited actors in it.
At my friend's mom's viewing, I told him that when I started dating my wife, I was able to impress her with the fact that I was an IMDB credited actor in an Oscar winning movie, and she thought I was BS'ing until I showed her. I told my friend that I would always be in debt to his mom for that opportunity.
There’s a lesson here.
the flood tax was for the 1936 flood not the 1889 dam related flood. The geography of the area causes floods every several decades.
15 years after 1936 the legislature wanted to create a permanent state liquor tax, they decided to use the existing Johnstown Flood tax as a short cut to that goal. If it didn’t have that name it would be called something else, but either way there would still be a permanent state liquor tax and it is not earmarked for flood relief.
“...the 2-mile-long, 1-mile-deep lake...”
Maybe one mile wide, but no way a mile deep. The dam was 72 feet high.
There were no stores, no timber locally to build homes. Nearest lumber sources were 60 miles away. Firewood was scarce, it was tall grass prarie that was still the home of Buffalo, antelope, turkey and deer.
They came in 3 covered wagons pulled by teams of mules. There were no roads, just trails. The passage up Albany hill was spoken about by each generation in reflection. It was a long and steep hill, they would apply the teams until they gave out and scotch the wheels. Let them rest a while and then continue the struggle. Ultimately reaching the top.
We still have a 1 row planter that was towed behind one of the wagons. The wheels still roll on it, although it needs a new spring for the steel seat.
My father was born here, he spent all of his life here, except for 2 years during WWII. He was in Belgium, Germany and CZ; in the General Patch's 7th Army and in Patton's 3rd Army.
He met my mom in DC on his way to that. On his way back home in 1946, he had money for a train ticket to Texas wired to her. They were married in my grandparent's home the evening she arrived in Texas. (trains were late) They were married for 66 years.
Now I reflect on the events of November 3-4, 2020. And what I refer to as Pearl Harbor II. On that day an act of War by representatives of a number of foreign nations and International officials was committed against our country. And nobody seems to understand what the consequences are. But we MUST “deal with it”.
Reflection is important to know who we are and what we are made of. But the focus must always be forward. We are made of better stock than some of our complicit (traitorous) “leaders” in DC. And some of our International Corporations including most of the Mass Media.
I buried my son 6 years ago, buried my wife of 47 years in 2018, buried my WWII Vet father on March 13th. I remarried to a wonderful lady and am starting over at 73.
Now for my branch of the family it is my brother and I. Neither of us have surrendered to the hidden great evil that controls our nation. But we know that things are no longer the same.
It is Time. To deal with it.
I saw a show on the flood on the History channel. The dam had a lot of problems.
It had originally been built for a smaller lake. Instead of draining and rebuilding for the larger lake they simply built up the existing dam.
One of the last acts was a club member, I forget who, insisted the top of the dam be widened so he could drive across. They simply built up and widened the top until it was driveable.
The manager and several other people tried for about five years to have the lake drained and the dam rebuilt. The members declined every time.
Then the rains of 1889 came.
A couple of people believe that the combination of the Homestead strike in 1892 and the Johnstown flood of 1899 are what led Carnegie to sell out to J P Morgan in 1901. Could have been because Carnegie spent the rest of his life giving his money away.
The "temporary" tax was enacted in 1936 to help victims of the Johnstown flood. In the years immediately following prohibition, it was a 10 percent tax on liquor designed to help a community rebuild, according to a report published by the Pennsylvania Treasury." link
Salena Zito is a terrific columnist from Pa. Always worth reading her articles.
I caught that also - Thanks for the clarification!
I used to have an old book about the Johnstown Flood. It went deep into what happened before, during and after the dam broke.
After the flood the government used lots of powerful black powder to break up the debris piles and retrieve the bodies of those killed.
They also caught and immediately hanged looters. Most of them were “Eastern European low brows and Huns.”
Exactly. When I saw the title, I thought it must be a Selena Zito article.
That’s like when Thomas Sowell used to do his articles entitled Random Thoughts on the Passing Scene.
These weren’t just “Read me” articles. They were “Stop what you’re doing and red me now” articles
Many moons ago I was tasked by my (PA State College) professor to write a term paper on the Johnstown flood. I decided to see if I could dig a little deeper to find out the story behind the story.
The facts I found show that this was an example of Government screwing up and blaming someone else.
A good bit of the info is found here: https://www.cell.com/heliyon/fulltext/S2405-8440(15)30389-3
The State of PA designed and built the dam, and botched that process.
The dam was sold to the Pennsylvania Railroad and not maintained.
There was a partial breach of the dam in 1862.
In 1875 they sold the land parcel including the dam and former lake to John Reilly, a former congressman from Altoona.
A very significant change was the removal of the sluice or discharge pipes at the base of the dam and blocking the opening of the remaining stone culvert portion with hemlock planks. It is unclear when this occurred. McCullough, 1968 states that although Congressman Reilly sold the property at a slight loss, he made up for it by first removing the old cast iron discharge pipes and selling them for scrap.
The 5 years before the big flood it was not the members, but the State of PA that did not give permission to drain the lake.
“The [South Fork] Hunting and Fishing Club [sic], in repairing the breach of 1862, took out the five sluices [drainage pipes] in the dam, lowered the embankment about 2 feet, and subsequently, partially obstructed the wasteway [spillway] by gratings, etc., to prevent the escape of fish. These changes materially diminished the security of the dam, by exposing the embankment to overflow, and consequent destruction, by floods of less magnitude than could have been borne with safety if the original construction of 1851–1853 had been adhered to; but in our opinion they cannot be deemed to be the cause of the late disaster, as we find that the embankment would have been overflowed and the breach formed if the changes had not been made. It occurred a little earlier in the day on account of the changes, but we think the result would have been equally disastrous, and possibly even more so.…”
Looking at the cast list, it seems Cariou was the only “known” actor, and it was only his voice. What a great adventure it must have been to take part in that production!
Terrific post. Thanks.
It was a hoot. We did most of the filming on a hot summer day in June of 1988. I was in ROTC and had just got back home from Airborne School with my head shaved and they made me wear a bowler hat to look period correct. They had a couple of rain trees to simulate the storm and it was like being at a water park...we got drenched. It was a great time, and definitely some lifetime memories.
“visitors can feast their eyes on a gripping film called “Black Friday,” which leaves the viewer feeling as if he or she were in Johnstown when the flood hit.”
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