It all began when Henry Clay Frick, Andrew Carnegie, and several other Pittsburgh moguls decided to create an exclusive getaway in the Allegheny Mountains near the little town of South Fork. They bought a piece of property near Little Conemaugh Lake, formed when the Conemaugh River had been dammed up some 40 years earlier.
The earthenware dam had been part of an extensive canal system that became obsolete as railroads replaced canals as a means of transporting goods. As the canal system was abandoned, so too, was maintenance on the dam.
The lake behind the dam was two miles long, and reached a depth of 70 feet. The dam was poorly designed, even more poorly maintained, and had failed twice in its history. Its previous owner had removed five overflow pipes and sold them for scrap, thus limiting the ability to control excess water behind the dam.
The new owners lowered the dam to make its top wide enough accommodate their carriages, added a fish screen in the spillway to keep the fish from escaping (and also, incidentally, trapping debris, making it even more difficult to control the amount of water,) and finally, patched the leaks mostly with mud and straw. Then they built a number of three-story, fourteen-room mansions euphemistically called, cottages, and created the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club, which was so exclusive membership was by invitation only.
Less than 15 miles away on the valley floor sat the city of Johnstown. The spring of 1889 was a particularly wet one in western Pennsylvania, and flooding had been a problem in Johnstown since its founding. Complicating the problem, the clearing of timber in hills around the town had increased the area’s problems with water runoff.
A huge rainstorm struck western Pennsylvania at the end of May. Heavy rains on May 31, 1889 made waters rise in some streets of Johnstown. But that had happened before and no one was duly alarmed.
However, at the South Fork Dam, the lake was rising as much as six inches per hour and eventually began to breach the dam’s earthen wall. As the wall appeared to be doomed, men at the dam tried to warn the town by telegraph. Some residents of Johnstown, afraid of a dam break, climbed into their attics, where they would be trapped.
At 3:10 pm the dam failed and 200 million tons of water, at times as deep as 60 feet, rushed down the valley toward Johnstown. The water tore large trees out by their roots and essentially destroyed everything in its path.
Before hitting the main part of Johnstown, the flood surge hit the Cambria Iron Works in the town of Woodvale, sweeping up railroad cars and barbed wire. Of Woodvale’s 1,100 residents, 314 died in the flood. Boilers exploded when the flood hit the Gautier Wire Works, causing intense, choking black smoke, and miles of barbed wire being added to the flood waters.
People in the path of the rushing flood waters were often crushed as their homes and other structures were swept away. Thirty-three locomotives some weighing 80 tons were pulled into the raging waters, creating even more hazards. Some people in Johnstown were able to make it to the top floors of the few tall buildings in town, however, whirlpools brought down many of these taller buildings. A bridge downstream from the town caught much of the debris and then caught fire because of a buildup of chemicals such as lime. Some people who had survived by floating on top of debris were burned to death in the fire. Reportedly, one baby survived on the floor of a house as it floated 75 miles from Johnstown.
The village of East Conemaugh was next. One witness on high ground near the town described the water as almost obscured by debris, resembling “a huge hill rolling over and over”. From his idling locomotive in the town’s rail yard, engineer John Hess heard and felt the rumbling of the approaching flood.
Throwing his locomotive into reverse, Hess raced backward toward East Conemaugh, blowing the whistle constantly. His warning saved a number of people who managed to reach high ground. When the flood hit, it picked Hess’ locomotive and tossed it aside; Hess himself survived, but at least 50 people died, including about 25 passengers stranded on trains in the town. The onrushing water formed waves like surf, and moved at about 20 to 40 miles per hour.
Five days following the disaster, a new organization called, The American Red Cross arrived, with its founder, Clara Barton (1821-1912.) The Red Cross initially set up a tent to distribute food, clothing, and supplies, and sent 40 volunteer doctors and nurses to Johnstown. They next built housing and a hospital, and saw to the daily needs of the dispossessed. Barton herself stayed in Johnstown for more than five months overseeing relief efforts.
Americans were outraged that a slipshod dam built for the pleasure of wealthy vacationers had contributed to thousands of deaths. The final total was 2209, a third of whom were buried without names since they couldn’t be positively identified.
In the years following the disaster, many people blamed the members of the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club for their modifications to the dam and failure to maintain it properly. The club had bought and redesigned the dam to turn the area into a vacation retreat in the mountains. They were accused of failing to maintain the dam properly, so that it was unable to contain the additional water of the unusually heavy rainfall.
The club was successfully defended by the firm of Knox and Reed whose partners Philander Knox and James Hay Reed were both Club members. The Club was never held legally responsible for the disaster, because the court held the dam break was an Act of God, and granted the survivors no legal compensation.
As a result, in the 1890s, state courts around the country adopted adopted Rylands v. Fletcher, a British common-law precedent which had formerly been largely ignored in the United States. Basically, the law defines strict liability for landowners for damage caused by dangerous substances which escapes from their land and damages others.
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