"JOHNSTOWN - 19TH CENTURY CALAMITY" Johnstown Flood National Memorial by mtncorg

Completed in 1853, the South Fork Dam was built across the South Fork of the Little Connemaugh River forming the two-mile long Connemaugh Lake whose waters provided a constant flow for the Pennsylvania Main Line Canal's turning basin in Johnstown. Johnstown, 14 miles downstream, was the western terminus for the Main Line Canal from where canal boats were then put on rail cars for their 36 mile journey over the Allegheny Crest via the %L[]Allegheny Portage Railway%L*. IN 1857, the Pennsylvania Railroad bought out the Main Line system with the dam included. The dam, along with the canals and the Allegheny Portage Railway were subsequently abandoned. The dam was sold in 1879 to a consortium of Pittsburgh industrialist - including Andrew Carnegie, Henry Clay Frick and Andrew Mellon - who called themselves the South Fork Hunting and Fishing Club. They wanted to use the lake as a summer resort. Even after the Club bought the dam, poor maintenance plagued the dam over the years and eventually time caught up with it. Extremely heavy rains poured over the surrounding terrain - 8 inches overnight! - and by the morning of May 31, 1889, waters swelled to the top of the dam. Last ditch attempts to reinforce the dam did little to avert what happened about 3:10 pm. The waters began to cut away at the dam in the middle first before, finally, the dam was simply pushed aside by the water's mass. The valley of the Little Connemaugh is fairly narrow and it funneled the waters directly onto Johnstown where over 30000 people lived. The 70-75 foot high wall of water took some 57 minutes to roar at speeds up to 40 mph to reach the unsuspecting town. In ten minutes, the town was flattened and some 2200 people were dead. It was the Apocalypse come early. Johnstown would take many years to recover from the events of that day.

In Johnstown, you can visit a Museum - housed in an old Carnegie library - devoted to the horrors that the town endured. An Inclined Railway takes you above the town where you can seek out the Grandview Cemetery containing the graves of many unknown victims of the catastrophe. Here, at the National Monument, you are at the site of the former South Fork dam, itself. This is where the horror started from. As the Grand Canyon explorer John Wesley Powell said after the Flood, "Modern industries are handling the forces of nature on a stupendous scale . . . Woe to those people who trust those powers to the hands of fools."

  • Last visit to Johnstown Flood National Memorial: Sep 2008
  • Intro Written Sep 28, 2008
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