The Devastating 1889 Johnstown Flood Killed Over 2,000 People in Minutes
When a dam gave way after unprecedented rainfall, it sent a wall of water barreling toward a Pennsylvania town of 30,000 people.
by Alex Q. Arbuckle via Mashable on February 5, 2017
On the morning of May 31, 1889, Elias Unger, the president of Pennsylvania’s South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club, awoke from a night of heavy rain to an impending catastrophe.
Just below his home, swollen by ongoing rainfall, the artificial reservoir of Lake Conemaugh appeared to be on the verge of overwhelming the notoriously leaky South Fork Dam impounding it.
Unger sent urgent warnings to nearby towns and rallied a crew to try to relieve the pressure on the dam by creating spillways, to no avail.
An hour and a half after Unger ordered his men off the eroding dam, it collapsed, freeing 20 million tons of water to charge downstream.
The torrent plowed through the town of South Fork, destroyed the Conemaugh Viaduct and erased the village of Mineral Point, picking up houses, trees, debris and momentum.
Railroad cars and miles of barbed wire were added to the churning mountain of debris as it rolled over factories in the town of Woodvale.
An hour after the dam’s failure, a 60-foot wall of water and debris smashed into the thriving 30,000-person community of Johnstown at 40 miles per hour.
People who had settled into the upper floors of homes to wait out the floodwaters suddenly found their buildings uprooted and floating away.
Thousands of people were swept away in moments. The mass of debris continued downstream before getting clogged against the Pennsylvania Railroad’s Stone Bridge, forming a temporary dam that sent the water bouncing back upstream again.
The mountain of debris piled against the bridge quickly caught fire. Dozens of people who had managed to cling to floating bits of houses were swept directly into a deadly inferno.