Place  /  Antecedent

How America’s Most Powerful Men Caused America’s Deadliest Flood

A desire to fish created an epic 1889 flood.

Disaster was far from the minds of Pennsylvania magnates like Andrew Carnegie, Andrew Mellon, and Henry Clay Frick when they joined the secretive South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club. Founded in 1879, the club was designed to give the most powerful men in Pennsylvania a quiet retreat—a place to enjoy the magnificent wealth they had accumulated in the steel, railroad, and other industries.

The club owned a private, artificial lake where they gathered in a clubhouse and private cottages to mingle and enjoy the pleasures of nature. They picnicked, swam and fished, puffing on cigars and taking advantage of a rare chance to relax.

But the lake where so much wealth and power gathered was built on a shaky foundation. Before the club bought it, the unnamed reservoir was part of Pennsylvania’s canal system. Once it came into the hands of the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club, they modified it to their recreational interests. They added a fish screen onto the spillway—the structure built to keep water from building up too high and straining the dam. And most importantly of all, they lowered the dam, which sat right above Johnstown.

‘Like the Day of Judgment’

When an unusually strong storm hit the area on May 28, 1889, pounding the area with between six and 10 inches of water in just 24 hours, water levels at the dam began to rise. On May 31, Elias Unger, who managed the club, looked outside and began to worry about the rising waters He supervised a group of Italian laborers as they frantically dug a new spillway and tried to unclog the existing one.

They were too late. As the dam burst, a 30- to-40-foot-high wave rushed the 14 miles toward Johnstown. The flood was as wide as the Mississippi River and three times more powerful than Niagara Falls. As it hit Johnstown, all hell broke loose. Locomotives weighing 170,000 pounds were wrenched from railroad tracks and swept thousands of feet. Debris piled up 40 feet high; some caught fire as it hit bridges and buildings. People were sucked from buildings and tossed into a raging torrent.

“It was like the Day of Judgment I have since seen pictured in books,” Gertrude Quinn Slattery later recalled. “Pandemonium had broken loose, screams, cries and people were running.” Pets and people struggled to escape the rushing waters, but when the wall of water arrived, they were helpless. It was “a moving mass black with houses, trees, boulders, logs, and rafters coming down like an avalanche,” she wrote.