Dams DisastersDisasters

Johnstown Dam Disaster

The Johnstown Flood (locally, the Great Flood of 1889) occurred on May 31, 1889, after the catastrophic failure of the South Fork Dam on the Little Conemaugh River 14 miles (23 km) upstream of the town of Johnstown, Pennsylvania. The dam broke after several days of extremely heavy rainfall, releasing 14.55 million cubic meters of water. With a volumetric flow rate that temporarily equaled the average flow rate of the Mississippi River, 2,209 people, according to one account, lost their lives, and the flood accounted for $17 million of damage (about $463 million in 2017 dollars).

The American Red Cross, led by Clara Barton and with 50 volunteers, undertook a major disaster relief effort. Support for victims came from all over the United States and 18 foreign countries. After the flood, survivors suffered a series of legal defeats in their attempts to recover damages from the dam's owners. Public indignation at that failure prompted the development in American law changing a fault-based regime to strict liability.

Johnstown DamThe total death toll was calculated originally as 2,209 people, making the disaster the largest loss of civilian life in the United States at the time. This number of deaths was later surpassed by fatalities in the 1900 Galveston hurricane and the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. However, as pointed out by David McCullough in 1968 (pages 266 and 278), a man reported as presumed dead (not known to have been found) had survived. In 1900, Leroy Temple showed up in Johnstown to reveal he had not died but had extricated himself from the flood debris at the stone bridge below Johnstown and walked out of the valley. Until 1900 Temple had been living in Beverly, Massachusetts. Therefore, the official death toll should be 2,208.

Ninety-nine entire families died in the flood, including 396 children. One hundred twenty four women and 198 men were widowed; 98 children were orphaned. One third of the dead, 777 people, were never identified; their remains were buried in the "Plot of the Unknown" in Grandview Cemetery in Westmont.

It was the worst flood to hit the U.S. in the 19th century. Sixteen hundred homes were destroyed, $17 million in property damage levied (approx. $497 million in 2016), and 4 square miles (10 km2) of downtown Johnstown were completely destroyed. Clean-up operations continued for years. Although Cambria Iron and Steel's facilities were heavily damaged, they returned to full production within a year and a half. More details