A torrent of water with a current as forceful as the mighty Mississippi was unleashed on Johnstown, Pennsylvania on this day in 1889. And by the time it was all over, 2208 people had met their demise and 99 complete families were wiped out as a result of a massive flood that caused the complete collapse of the South Fork Dam.
It’s impossible to fathom the chain of events that led up to this horrendous tragedy. By natural design, Johnstown had always been flood-prone as it sat nestled in a valley surrounded by the Little Conemaugh and Stony Creek Rivers which met and formed the Conemaugh River. Rainwater and melted snow streamed down from the surrounding mountains which exacerbated the tendency for the area to flood yearly. These folks were quite accustomed to the routine of flood preparation and on that fateful day set about to prepare their homes and businesses for the impending storm as they had so many other times, but this time was very different…
The South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club was working feverishly in an attempt to prevent the dam’s imminent collapse. They initially tried to heighten the level of the dam and when that didn’t work, they dug a ditch to channel the tremendous volume of water away from the earthen structure. But when these efforts proved futile, they finally made an effort to remove the screens that kept the river stocked with fish. But all was for naught as the unthinkable happened and the dam tragically failed.
The pent-up flood waters erupted with the force of Niagara Falls, carrying with it homes, livestock and most horrifically, the townspeople.
But thankfully the story doesn’t end there. When word of the flood and collapsed dam spread, aid and succor came from every direction. And good people did what good people always do: they stepped in to help in any way they could. Liked the flood waters themselves, emergency supplies of food, apparel and of course, money poured in while physicians and nurses from far and wide came to lend their medical expertise to those in desperate need.
Housing materials were sent to Johnstown in an effort to help rebuild the industrial town. In fact, Clara Barton and her peers at the Red Cross came to town and constructed buildings to shelter the displaced citizens and store much-needed supplies.
It’s hard to believe, but in just over a month after the complete destruction of Johnstown, Main Street was “up and running” again. And in just five short years, it would be hard to even envision the unrivaled destruction that was wrought by the failure of the South Fork Dam.