Johnston Flood 1889

The Stone Bridge

The entire town of Johnstown, Pennsylvania was wiped off the map by a flood caused by the collapse of a dam. Engineers warned residents about an impending disaster, but the final break was so sudden that over 2,000 people lost their lives.


On My 30th 1899 a storm hit Pennsylvania that dropped a record 6-10 inches of rain on the area. The rain turned small streams into raging rivers, and poured into the Lake Conemaugh what had been a reservoir and had been turned into a private lake resort. On the morning of May 31st Elias Unger the President of South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club woke to realize that the dam that held the water of the lake in place was in danger of collapse. He and others tried their best to try to relieve the pressure that the swollen rain was causing, as water started cascading over the top of the dam. They telegraphed Johnson which was downriver from the dam, but their warning was not headed since there had been many false warnings in the past.

At 3:10 PM the dam gave way with 40 minutes the lake had drained completely. A tower of water headed down the valley that was bisected by the Little Conemaugh River. The first town to be hit was South Fork, the city was mostly on high ground and the people had seen the dam break and had rushed to high ground, only four people were killed there. For a short period the wall of water was stopped by the Conemaugh Viaduct a large railroad bridge. The bridge gave way, but it had created even greater hydraulic pressure. The next town was Mineral Point, it was destroyed, 16 people were killed. Next was East Conemaugh 50 people were killed including 25 who were on stranded trains. Next was the town of Woodvale where the Cambria Iron Works was located, it swept into town and took all before it, killing 314 people. 40 minutes after the dam gave way a 60 ft wall of water traveling at 40 miles of water hit the town of Johnson. The residents were caught totally by surprise. Debris built up along the Stone Bridge in the center of the town which soon caught fire killing 30 people. In total 2,209 people were killed in Johnston. 1,600 homes were destroyed and four square miles of the downtown were destroyed.

The relief of Johnston became a major national effort. Over 7,000 people poured in to Johnston to aid the survivors and bury the dead. Among those who came were Clara Barton who had founded the American Red Cross. She stayed in the city for seven months helping.