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Historical Weather Service | Meteorological Monsters

The Johnstown Flood


On May 31st, 1889, a dam burst upstream from Johnstown, Pennsylvania. Although ample warnings were given, these were in general disregarded by the people of Johnstown and other downstream towns. The result was over 2,000 people killed within a few minutes. The following is an account of that terrible day:

"Friday, May 31st, 1889. The day before had been a solemn holiday. In every village veterans of the War for the Union had gathered; in every cemetery flowers had been strewn upon the gravemounds of the heroic dead. Now the people were resuming the every-day toil. The weather was rainy. It had been wet for some days. Stony Creek and Conemaugh were turbid and noisy. The little South Fork, which ran into the upper end of the lake, was swollen into a raging torrent. The lake was higher than usual; higher than ever. But the valley below lay in fancied security, and all the varied activities of life pursued their wonted round.

"Friday, May 31st, 1889. Record that awful date in characters of funereal hue. It was a dark and stormy day, and amid the darkness and the storm the angel of death spread his wings over the fated valley, unseen, unknown. Midday comes. Disquieting rumors rush down the valley. There is a roar of an approaching storm - approaching doom! The water swiftly rises. A horseman thunders down the valley: "To the hills, for God's sake! To the hills, for your lives!" They stare at him as at a madman, and their hesitating feet linger in the valley of the shadow of death, and the shadow swiftly darkens, and the everlasting hills veil their faces with rain and mist before the scene that greets them. "This is what happened: - "The heavy rainfall raised the lake until its water began to pour over the top of the dam. The dam itself - wretchedly built of mud and boulders - saturated through and through, began to leak copiously here and there. Each watery sapper and miner burrowed on, followers swiftly enlarging the murderous tunnels. The whole mass became honeycombed. And still the rain poured down, and still the South Fork and a hundred minor streams sent in their swelling floods, until, with a roar like that of the opening gates of the Inferno belching forth the legions of the damned, the wall gave way, and with the rush of a famished tiger into a sheepfold, the whirlwind of water swept down the valley on its errand of destruction -

"And like a horse unbroken,
When first he feels the rein,
The furious river struggled hard,
And tossed his tawny mane,
And burst the curb and bounded,
Rejoicing to be free,
And, whirling down in mad career,
Battlement and plank and pier, Rushed headlong to the sea!"

"According to the statements of people who lived in Johnstown and other towns on the line of the river, ample time was given to the inhabitants of Johnstown by the railroad officials and by other gentlemen of standing and reputation. In hundreds of cases this warning was utterly disregarded, and those who heeded it early in the day were looked upon as cowards, and many jeers were uttered by lips that now are cold. The people of Johnstown also had a special warning in the fact that the dam in Stony Creek, just above the town, broke about noon, and thousands of feet of lumber passed down the river. Yet they hesitated, and even when the wall of water, almost forty feet high, was at their doors, one man is said by a survivor to have told his family that the stream would not rise very high."

(In: "History of the Johnstown Flood" by Willis Fletcher Johnson. Edgewood Publishing Company, 1889.)


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