The May 31, 1889, flood in western Pennsylvania that devastated the industrial town of Johnstown and nearby communities that were home to 30,000 people left more than 2,200 dead. It was one of 19th-century America’s most famous disasters and arguably its worst.
Human errors of poor land management, deforestation, inadequate dam maintenance, and incompetent engineering combined with record-setting rains to launch this natural disaster, as telegraphed warnings went unheeded until it was too late.
It began a day after Memorial Day when the South Fork Dam, originally built in the 1850s as part of a canal system and used in the 1880s to create a fishing and hunting resort for wealthy Pittsburgh industrialists, failed after days of heavy rainfall, sending a tsunami like wall of water racing toward unprepared communities in the Conemaugh River valley below.
Within the space of 10 minutes, the torrent, sweeping trees, train cars, houses, and human and animal remains before it, had all but obliterated Johnstown, its iron industry, and most of its homes.
This staggering event and its long aftermath of identification, burial, typhoid control, clean-up, and economic recovery attracted national press attention, helping to launch the career of Philadelphia journalist Richard Harding Davis, later a successful globetrotting author.
And it was at Johnstown that Clara Barton, nurse-heroine of the Civil War, proved the capability of her eight-year-old American Red Cross to respond effectively to disasters, working tirelessly with her staff in the devastated town for five full months.
Governments, communities, and individuals across the United States donated almost $4 million to the recovery effort, while poet Walt Whitman honored the dead in verse.
Some critics, including surviving victims of the flood, blamed the disaster on the careless selfishness of members of the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club whose dam had given way. Members of this exclusive men’s club included titans of American industry, among them Andrew Carnegie and his lieutenant, Henry Clay Frick, and members of the Mellon family.
None of several lawsuits seeking damages for criminal negligence in the deaths, injuries, and monetary losses was successful. However, the Johnstown incident seemed to bolster evidence of indifference by the wealthy and powerful in America’s late Gilded Age. Combined with ongoing labor union agitation, this view compounded many Americans’ sense of growing national inequality and resentment.
The city of Johnstown was soon rebuilt. In 1977, after nine hours of hard rain, a 15-foot wall of water roared through the city, washing away a significant section of Johnstown and killing 76. It was a deadly and ironic coda to one of the nation’s most storied disasters.