The official death toll stands at 2,209, but no one really knows how many people died when the South Fork Dam failed and Lake Conemaugh emptied into Johnstown, Pennsylvania, on May 31, 1889.
Johnstown Flood National Memorial commemorates one of the most devastating and deadly disasters in American history.
The South Fork Dam was built for the Pennsylvania canal system, but by the time it was finished the canals had been replaced by the railroad. Eventually, the dam and Lake Conemaugh were sold to the South Fork Fishing & Hunting Club as a private resort.
The club stocked the lake with black bass and maintained the dam for ten years. In 1889, after three days of non-stop rain, the lake had risen two feet. Engineers tried to warn the townsfolk, but at 3 p.m. the pressure of 20 million gallons of water proved too much. The dam burst.
The stories told by survivors send chills up your spine. Homes were swept up into the roiling waters. An entire train disappeared. By the time it reached Johnstown an hour later, the wall of water and debris rose 35 feet in the air. Then the thundering mass of water, wood, and steel crashed into the Stone Bridge. Debris that accumulated behind the bridge caught fire and killed a number of people who had survived the initial floodwaters.
At Johnstown Flood National Memorial you’ll see the remains of the South Fork Dam, where 2,209 candles are lit each year in memoriam. A film titled Black Friday recalls the flood and the remarkable recovery effort that followed.
Did You Know:
The American Red Cross exercised its first major peacetime disaster recovery effort following the Johnstown Flood. Clara Barton herself led a team that prepared meals, provided shelter, and distributed supplies to flood survivors.