The Conemaugh Calamity

Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper

June 15, 1889

The Conemaugh Calamity

The cause of the frightful calamity which recently visited the Valley of the Conemaugh, in Pennsylvania, can be fixed without difficulty. The dam at the reservoir of the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club was improperly constructed. Originally built to create a reservoir for a feeder to the Pennsylvania Canal, it was abandoned when the canal became useless, and was then taken up by the Sportsman’s club, the relief-gates permanently stopped up, and gravel, clay and mud used to raise the embankment to a height far beyond that of the original structure.

While the wealthy gentlemen constructing the club were enjoying their summer outings in the hills above, observant men- some of them practical engineers- living in the valley below, predicted that an awful calamity would some day put an end to the dam and to the fishing-club’s existence. Among those who had such forebodings was a mine-owner of Cambria County, whose property adjoined the reservoir. He endeavored to induce the sheriff of the county to stop the work when the sporting-club was rebuilding the dam. The sheriff consulted an employee of the Cambria Iron Company, and declined to interfere because the employee made a report favorable to the reservoir work.

It is certain that the residents of South Fork, Conemaugh, Woodvale, and Johnstown, in the Conemaugh Valley, were in constant dread of the consequences of the bursting of the reservoir. Repeatedly, during time of flood, reports had been circulated that the reservoir dam had broke, and finally, when this report proved to be true, the people were incredulous, and their incredulity is responsible in part for the loss of life. Beyond these facts, it is in evidence that, before the bursting of the dam, those in charge of the reservoir foresaw the impending disaster and endeavored to avert it by opening a sluice-way on one side, and thus lessen he pressure on the dam. They employed a large force of men in this work, and pressed it in all possible haste. In spite of their efforts, however, the rising waters reached the top of the dam, and on Friday afternoon, shortly after two o’clock, the overflow began.

Everyone familiar with the construction of masonry knows that few reservoir dams are intended to withstand this tremendous test of their strength. Reservoir dams are usually constructed with sluice-ways, which are expected to offer abundant relief without permitting an overflow. Overflowing waters, where the depth approaches anything like that of the South Fork Reservoir, exert a tremendous force, and operate with powerful leverage to throw down the heaviest mason-work. When the South Fork Reservoir was built, it is said that large pipes had been fixed in the bottom and so arranged that all the water back of the dam could be released. In addition to these, a sluice-way was constructed at one corner of the dam about a dozen feet below the top. It was here that the overflow found vent. But the waste-pipes went to ruin, and were not repaired when the dam was reconstructed and enlarged. The reason for this neglect of ordinary precautions on the part of the sporting club is said to have been that its members feared the escape of the fish with which the lake was stocked. Whether to not this club is responsible for the damage remain to be seen. It has been asserted that an indemnity bond of $3,000,000 was required before work was permitted to be finished, but it is denied that the bond is on record.

During Friday morning, before the dam gave way, some of the employees at the reservoir were sent, on three or four different occasions, to warn the people in the valley of their danger, but the warning evidently was not so impressive as to receive much attention. The final courier whose warning meant something, and was listened to, lost his life in his effort to save the people of the valley. Mounted on a great bay horse, he rode down the highway, passing from the reservoir through Conemaugh to Johnstown, and shouted with all his strength,”Run to the hills, the reservoir is breaking!” The people , who had again and again heard similar warnings, but never from a affrighted man on horseback, were appalled. Some believed him to be a wandering maniac, perhaps a victim himself of the storm and the flood beyond. Other, and no doubt a majority, looking at the pale face and the striking attitude of the excited courier of death, rushed from their homes to the hillsides; while some were soon engulfed in the flood. Hardly had the rider reached Johnstown Bridge before the great black wave of water, from twenty to forty feet high, which, with accelerating speed, had rolled down the fourteen miles from the reservoir, flung itself upon the doomed community and almost swept it from existence.

Then followed a climax of appalling ruin, then followed a scene which, in its agony, death, and devastation, has never had its parallel in this Republic. With one great swoop over 3,000 houses of brick and of wood, hotels, stores, dwellings, factories all were sent crashing, tumbling, and floating down the roaring torrent. The seething mass, speckled with human creatures praying for life, was hurled against the great stone arched of the Pennsylvania Railroad bridge.

Above the roar of the flood, the crash of falling timber, and the swirl of rushing waters were heard the groans of the dying, the wails of the mangled, and the agonizing cries for help from strong men, fainting women, and helpless children. It was a maelstrom of desolation, a wilderness of death where not a flutter of the wings of peace nor a sign of the hand of Providence were distinguishable.


Pennsylvania- The terrible Conemaugh Valley Disaster- Heart Rending Scenes at Johnstown- Identifying the dead. From a sketch by C. Bunnell (About 12 men building wooden caskets, covering bodies with blankets, and carrying caskets away. Women kneeling down to lift loved ones into boxes.)

Pennsylvania- The Frightful Calamity in the Conemaugh Valley- Twelve thousand persons perish in the pitiless floods- Johnstown, a city of twelve thousand population, blotted out.-from sketches by J. Becker.

A race for Life- A gravel-Train runs away from the advancing flood., (inset) rescued by railroad men.(A locomotive is racing down the track laid between high rocks, high flood waters bearing down behind it. The inset is of railroad workers pulling someone to safety from the roaring water.)

The great calamity strikes the Cambria Iron Works. The Great Calamity in the Conemaugh Valley- Scenes and Incidents from sketches by Bunnell and others.(A drawing of the Cambria Iron works, flood waters rushing over and through it. Large groups of people are standing on the hillsides watching the scene as people on rafts and hanging on to pieces of debris are being washed away in the foreground.)

The Railroad Bridge, Where a thousand Houses, piled together caught fire, and were burned with their inmates. Sketch by J. Becker. (Bodies and debris are rushed against the bridge. They are piled high and in flames.)

The Valley of Death- Recovering the bodies of victims. Sketch by J. Becker (The bodies of the dead are strewn everywhere. Men are clearing them away on stretchers.)