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125 Years Later: Remembering Johnstown's 'Great Flood,' American Red Cross's First Disaster Relief Effort

By Michael Kuhne, AccuWeather.Com Staff Writer
June 2, 2014; 2:00 AM ET

Due to the negligence of some of the country's most prominent industrialists, coupled with days of heavy rain, the single greatest disaster of the 19th century would occur in under 30 minutes as a tremendous surge of floodwater swept the city of Johnstown, Pennsylvania, away in its devilish current.

The catastrophic failure of the South Fork Dam located 14 miles upriver from the glowing steel city would drown 2,209 souls, cause $17 million in damages, mobilize the American Red Cross's first peacetime relief effort and become one of the foremost news stories and scandals of the era.

Shortly before 3:10 p.m. on Friday, May 31, 1889, the dam collapsed due to poor maintenance and accumulating rain, sending a surge of water down the Little Conemaugh River, almost instantly sweeping away the nearby towns of South Fork and Mineral Point.

Johnstown, Pa. (Photo/Michael Kuhne)

Lake Conemaugh, the reservoir housed by the dam, was roughly the volume and size of Manhattan, located 300 feet in elevation above Johnstown, according to Ti Sanders' 1983 edition of 'The Weather is Front Page News.'

The roar of 20 million tons of water moving with the force of Niagara Falls would prompt engineer John C. Hess to tie his locomotive-whistle down in warning and shift his train in reverse.

Hess' screeching whistle sounded as he barreled down the mountain trying desperately to stay ahead of the flood's crest near the village of East Conemaugh. Hess' attempt would serve as the final warning to the 55,000 residents in the valley below that imminent death was upon them.

Hess survived by fleeing his locomotive at the last minute, which was picked up by waves up to 60 feet high. The surge of floodwater continued to pick up debris, houses, trees and stunned onlookers as it cascaded down the river toward Johnstown.

"It was like a hurricane through a wooded country," Hess recalled in an interview.

"It was a roar and a crash and a smash; I can't tell what it was like, but the first thing I heard was a terrible roar in the hollow and the next thing was a crash something like a big building going to pieces."

According to the Johnstown Flood Museum website, the flood swept several locomotives weighing 170,000 pounds as far as 4,800 feet. It took nearly 40 minutes for the massive volume of water to drain completely.

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One boy, rescued 10 miles downstream, would later describe his terrifying experience, according to Sanders' book.

"But soon, we saw houses being swept away and we ran up to the floor above...in my fright, I jumped on the bed," he said.

The boy's bed would be pushed through the roof of the home as the water rose, carrying him away in the deluge.

"I would see people, hear shrieks and then they would disappear."

By 3:30 p.m., the rolling hill of water and debris slammed into Johnstown.

In 10 minutes, the city would be completely annihilated. Bodies of flood victims were found as far away as Cincinnati, Ohio, and as late as 1911, according to the Johnstown Area Heritage Association's website.

The dam, which often leaked due to poor maintenance, faulty construction and neglect, was nearly 100 feet high and 900 feet across. While flooding was not uncommon to the city, which sits at the confluence of the Little Conemaugh and Stonycreek rivers, the notion of the dam bursting was so common to Johnstown residents during heavy rain that warnings often went ignored, Sanders' book reports.

(Video/The History Channel)

The reservoir sat on the grounds of the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club, owned by some of America's biggest financiers. The club served as a private retreat for its 61 members, including steel tycoons Andrew Carnegie and Henry Clay Frick.

"The cause of the calamity, it is admitted by the President of the South Fork Fishing Club, the proprietor of the artificial Conemaugh Lake, was the weakness of the dam alone. No cloudburst or waterspout occurred to compel it - the frailty of the dam and the tremendous pressure of water behind it was the only cause of the catastrophe," the New York Times reported.

Despite the fact that it was widely known that the dam was neglected, no successful lawsuits were ever filed against the organization's members.

More suffering would follow into the evening hours as debris began to collect, up to 40 feet high and 30 acres wide, along the only remaining bridge in Johnstown, the old Stone Bridge.

Fires would erupt in the tangled web of timber and gnarled steel, trapping as many as 80 survivors who were burned alive in the cold, damp night. The fire burned for three days.

In the darkness, surrounded by raging currents, more than 264 survivors would find shelter in the city's tallest structure, Alma Hall, holding on to one another for support until daybreak.

Kurz and Allison Rendition of Johnstown Flood (Photo/ AccuWeather Photo Gallery)

Rev. Dr. David Beale and his family had managed to make it to the third floor of their home and were able to rescue others floating on wreckage. Fearing collapse, the group were able to make it to Alma Hall, according to the Johnstown Area Heritage Association's website.

"Other notable Alma Hall stories include that of James Walters, a lawyer, who was washed out of his home on Walnut Street, onto a floating roof, and was thrown by the force of the water through a window into his own office in Alma Hall," the website said. "Despite having suffered two broken ribs himself, Dr. William Matthews tended to the wounded by the dim light of distant fires and delivered two babies. It was, according to Beale, 'a night of indescribable horrors.'"

Relief for Johnstown would come from across the nation and 12 foreign counties. As the story of the catastrophe grew, becoming one of the nation's top headlines, questions about the integrity of the dam and the neglect at the hands of America's wealthy industrialists sparked public outrage.

The burial site of the 777 unidentified flood victims. (Photo/Michael Kuhne)

The extensive news coverage helped raise more than $3.5 million in donations from citizens around the world.

American Red Cross Founder Clara Barton, 67, who had mobilized battlefield relief efforts during the Civil War decades earlier, arrived in Johnstown with five Red Cross workers from Washington, D.C., five days after the flood. In addition, the Philadelphia Red Cross also came to the city's aid.

"The exhaustive news coverage of the Johnstown flood and the relief effort helped establish the American Red Cross as the major disaster relief agency in the United States," Johnstown Area Heritage Association reported. "Barton stayed in Johnstown until Oct. 24, 1889, and the grateful people of Johnstown gave her a gold pin and a locket, set in diamonds and amethysts, as a farewell present."

In the aftermath, 777 victims would remain unidentified and are buried in Johnstown's Grandview Cemetery at the "Unknown Plot."

"The flood killed 2,209 people, but it brought the nation and the world together to aid the 'Johnstown sufferers,' the National Park Service's website said. "The story of the Johnstown Flood reminds us all 'that we must leave nothing undone for the preservation and protection of our brother men.'"

The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of AccuWeather, Inc. or AccuWeather.com

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