One of the worst disasters in the history of Pennsylvania as well as the United States occurred on 31 May 1889. A major storm had been building over the western half of the United States for days. On May 30, a deluge hit southwestern Pennsylvania, resulting in more than 8 inches (20.3 cm) of rainfall and leading to the Johnstown Flood. Eight inches (20.3 cm) of rainfall is not normally a catastrophic occurrence, but several other factors had a hand in the Johnstown Flood.
The area’s geographic features, which remain the same today, played a major part in the Johnstown Flood, which is also referred to as the Great Flood of 1889. The city of Johnstown, founded in 1793, is situated at the juncture of the Stonycreek and Little Conemaugh rivers. These two rivers come together to form the larger Conemaugh River. Because the city of Johnstown is surrounded by waterways, it was often prone to flooding at least once a year due to thawing snow or heavy rains caused by annual storms. The year 1889 was no different.
Johnstown also was home to Lake Conemaugh, which was formerly known as the Western Reservoir. Lake Conemaugh, created by blocking off a section of the Little Conemaugh River, was initially built for use in the canal system of Pennsylvania in a time before steam engine transport was popular. The reservoir, which was completed in 1852, was held at bay by the South Fork Dam. The dam had problems from the very beginning, and it was a major contributing factor to the Johnstown Flood.
The dam, which was never structurally sound, had collapsed once in 1862, causing only a minor flood since at that point it was only half full. The reservoir passed through the hands of many owners, all of whom made their own modifications. One owner is recorded to have removed the drainage pipes so that the dam could never be fully emptied for repairs. In 1879, the reservoir and dam were bought by the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club, an illustrious getaway for notable names of the time, including steel magnate Andrew Carnegie.
The fishing club made additional harmful modifications to the body of water, including the addition of screens over the spillway. This allowed fish to remain in the reservoir, but also caused a buildup of silt and debris that added to the poor drainage of the dam. On the day of the flood, the water in the streets had already reached a height of 10 feet (3.045 m), but a little after 3 o'clock in the afternoon, the South Fork Dam burst. It unleashed more than 20 million tons (18,143.69 kg) of water onto Johnstown and the surrounding areas.
For the rest of that night, survivors huddled in masses on floating rooftops, grasping debris to keep from drowning. Some survived, many more were injured and 2,209 people died. Five days after the event occurred, Clara Barton and the organization she founded several years earlier, the American Red Cross, arrived to administer relief and supplies to the struggling survivors of the flood. Of the victims, 99 entire families perished, 98 children were orphaned and 777 victims were never identified. The flood created 124 widows and 198 widowers.
Many properties were damaged or destroyed. The aggregate amount of property damage was $17 million (USD). More than 4 miles (6.44 km) of the city of Johnstown were destroyed, leading many to claim that the Johnstown Flood was one of the worst natural disasters in United States history.