The Johnstown Flood – By David McCullough

The Johnstown Flood by David McCullough

On May 31, 1889, the culmination of years of poor decisions resulted in the destruction of the city of Johnstown. Over the years leading up to this fateful day, the city of Johnstown was growing. This growth was the result of the nationwide demand for steel. Johnstown was more than happy to help feed the nation’s appetite for steel. However, decisions were made that resulted in the perfect scenarios so that when the biggest storm ever recorded hit the city of Johnstown, the city was not ready and one out of every ten people lost their lives.

While the storm that caused the flood was truly an Act of God to proportions that no one ever would have imagined, there were some decisions made around the city of Johnstown that could have spared the lives of many on that day.

Flowing through the city of Johnstown were two rivers, the Conemaugh river, and Stony Creek. As is typical with mountain rivers, the flow of the river is strongest in the spring and early summer with the winter snow runoff. The citizens of Johnstown knew what the high-water marks were of these rivers, but they decided because of their need for land to build houses for those who were working at the steel mills that they would build houses in the floodplains. The common thought was that the river would eventually get deeper since the water had nowhere else to flow.


Year after year, those individuals who had built houses in the floodplains experienced flooding in their living rooms. In the years leading up to the Johnstown flood, the citizens near the river would take their possessions upstairs and then wade across town and wait for the flooding to subside.

Another manmade cause of the Johnstown flood came from all the harvesting of timber to build houses in Johnstown. Because of the high demand for lumber, many of the hills around Johnstown had seen all the trees removed. Hills covered with trees act as a natural barrier in slowing down water runoff. The ground will suck up some of the water thus making it harder for flash flooding to occur.

While these two factors helped create the perfect storm that led to one of the greatest disasters in United States History, the biggest manmade culprit to The Johnstown Flood came from the construction and maintenance of the South Fork Dam. Construction of the South Fork Dam began in 1838. It was supposed to be a one-year project. However, just like many government-funded project, it went way over budget and was not finished on time. The dam was not finished in 1839 as promised, it was finished in 1853.

The state of Pennsylvania built this dam to help conserve water for the Pennsylvania Canal. The Pennsylvania Canal was built to compete with the Erie Canal as a way to ship goods from the East Coast to the Great Lakes. The Conemaugh river was one of the main sources of water for the Pennsylvania Canal and the lack of water in late summer early fall made it difficult to ensure that goods could consistently be shipped.

Within a year of the South Fork Dam being finished, the railroads had now been built and there was a direct line from Philadelphia to Pittsburg. The need for the canal and thus the dam were over. The state had no need for the dam so they sold the dam along with the canal to the Pennsylvania railroad. While the railroad could use the land that the canal was built, it had no need for a dam so it ended up selling the dam and the lake to private interests.

Eventually, the lake ended up being purchased by a bunch of millionaires in Pittsburg who loved to fish. These rich men were wealthy because of the growing steel trade. However, the richer they got, the more that they noticed that the pollution from all the steel factories was destroying their environment. They knew that the air was not good to breathe and the water was not safe to drink, let alone fish in. Their solution, a mountain retreat with their own lake stocked with fish. A private summer retreat.


By the time the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club was established, the dam was in serious disrepair. The club did not help the matter when they cut off the top of the dam so that it was wide enough for them to drive their teams of horses across the top of the dam to reach their private retreat. Furthermore, when the state had built the dam, there were some pipes that could be opened and closed to help regulate the water behind the dam. The Club plugged up these pipes because the levers were not working and it would be too expensive to fix. Besides, they wanted the biggest lake possible, they figured that when the water was flowing too fast, it would just flow through the spillway and everything would be just fine.

The South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club then put a screen over the spillway to ensure that none of their fish would go through the spillway. On May 31st, because of all the flash flooding, there was plenty of debris that did not go through the screen and thus started the chain of events that resulted in The Johnstown Flood.

On May 31st, the water was rising so fast that it was no longer escaping through the designated reinforced spillway. The water started flowing over the top of the dam. Within minutes of the water starting to flow over the top of the dam, erosion started to occur and before too long there was no dam at all and an entire lake of water came rushing down the valley towards the city of Johnstown.

While there were many manmade decision that helped attribute to the high death count on May 31, 1889, we must understand that this was already the storm of the century. As such, even before the dam broke, there were already so many people in the town of Johnstown who had abandoned their home because of the flooding. This was the biggest storm that had ever been recorded in Johnstown history.

The stories from many of the survivors of The Johnstown Flood are truly fascinating and David McCullogh does a masterful job sharing their stories. There were many times as I read this book where I tried to put myself in the head of the various individuals and how they were reacting to what they were seeing and hearing.

This book was very well researched as it will not surprise anyone who has read a David McCullogh book. Can you just imagine giving birth to a child in the attic wondering if the house was even going to be standing in five minutes? Can you imagine grabbing two of your children under each of your arms and telling the rest of the family to follow you, only to turn around a minute later and you are safe and there is no family following you but a massive body of water flowing by? Can you imagine being a young child floating on a rapid running river on a mattress that is about to capsize at any moment?


As one can imagine, there were plenty of lawsuits that were brought immediately after the Johnstown Flood, but none of these lawsuits resulted in any compensation for the victims. The laws had been written in such a way as to cut off the liability of the members of the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club.

In the same way that the nation rallied around the city of New York after 9/11, so too did this nation rally around the city of Johnstown after the flood. Gifts arrived from across the nation and around the world. Social clubs gathered provisions to ship to Johnstown. The public uprising of support was truly inspiring.

The most inspiring part of the story comes in the days following the flood when the citizens decided that they were going to rebuild their town. Within a couple of months, they had the steel mills running again and in the years that followed, they slowly rebuilt the town of Johnstown. The people of Johnstown pulled themselves up by the bootstraps. They understood that they could complain about the injustice or they could fight to get their lives back.

The Johnstown Flood is a good example that it is important to have balance in life. While it is great to grow and use all the resources that are around you, one needs to carefully think about the consequences of their decisions to ensure that they are not causing future long-term harm in the name of short-term profit. Every decision that we make has consequences and we should be held liable for the consequences of our decisions. Many people in Johnstown lost love ones because of the mistakes that they made in city planning. It was sad to read how the millionaires were able to escape liability for their poor decisions because they were able to write the laws in such a way to avoid liability.

I have read many of David McCullough’s books and I strongly encourage you to read this one. David McCullogh tells a great story that is well researched and full of vivid details. His writing style is such that one never wants to put the book down.


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