Johnstown Flood of 1889

May 31, 2001


Provided by: GLOBE at Night
Summary authors & editors: Jim Foster

On this date in 1889, more than 2,200 people lost their lives in a tragic flood in Johnstown, Pennsylvania. Today, 112 years later, the Johnstown Flood remains the deadliest flood in our nation's history, and it's second to only the Galveston Hurricane of 1900 in terms of the number of lives lost. The above photograph shows the aftermath of the flood.

Founded in 1794, Johnstown had a population about 30,000 in 1880. Johnstown had been built on a flood plain at the fork of the Little Conemaugh and Stony Creek rivers. Because the growing city had narrowed the river banks to gain building space, flooding had increased during the following decades. Fourteen miles up the Little Conemaugh, a 3-mile long lake (Lake Conemaugh) was held 450 feet higher than Johnstown by the old South Fork Dam. Although the earthen dam had been poorly maintained, it had always held in the past, but luck was about to run out.

At 4:07 in the afternoon of May 31, 1889 the inhabitants heard a low rumble that grew to a roar. Following a night of heavy rains, the South Fork Dam had finally broken, sending 20 million tons of water crashing down the narrow valley. The wall of flood water grew at to a height of 60 feet, crashing downhill at 40 miles per hour. Everything in its path was leveled.

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