- Historic Sites
Run For Your Lives!
In the hills above Johnstown the old South Fork dam had failed. Down the Little Conemaugh came the torrent, sweeping away everything in its path
June 1966 | Volume 17, Issue 4
The southwestern corner of Cambria County, Pennsylvania, is high, burly mountain country with fast trout streams and miles of dark forest. The air smells clean and wonderful, even in the drab little coal towns tucked back in the hills, and the views are awesome, with far-off patches of green farmland under a sky filled with towering white clouds. Then, at Johnstown, it is as though the bottom dropped out of the old earth and left it angry and smouldering.
The city sits down in a great hole in the Alleghenies, along a gorge that is anywhere from 500 to 1,000 feet deep and has sides as steep as a sluice. It is shrouded in smoke most of the time, and you can hear it whistling and clanking from miles off. For, like Pittsburgh, which is seventy-five miles to the west, Johnstown is a steel center. Blast furnaces light up the sky at night; carloads of coal rumble along the main line of the Pennsylvania Railroad within a few blocks of the tree-shaded town square; and the rivers, the Stony Creek and the Little Conemaugh, are the color of a new baseball glove.
The rivers meet at Johnstown. The Stony Creek flows in from the south; the Little Conemaugh drops down the mountains from the east. At Johnstown they form the Conemaugh, which later joins the Kiskiminitas to the west, which in turn flows into the Allegheny above Pittsburgh. The rivers are really no more than big mountain streams.
Below “the Point,” where the rivers meet, a massive seven-arched stone bridge carries the Pennsylvania tracks across the Conemaugh. The bridge was built in 1887. It is one of the oldest structures in Johnstown and the city’s most haunting reminder of the horror that took place there seventy-seven years ago and gave to Johnstown, for better or worse, its fame as the Flood City.
The official memorial to the flood is up on the high ground, in Grandview Cemetery, where 777 white marble headstones are set out beneath a sculptured granite “Monument to the Unknown Dead.” These unknown dead are not quite a third of the people who died in the valley below, for in Johnstown, on Friday, May 31, 1889, within a few hours, more than 2,200 people were killed. The number of “missing” totaled 967.
The Johnstown destroyed by the flood was a bustling, two-fisted company town that seemed well on its way to farmland fortune. The company was the Cambria Iron Company, a fifty-million-dollar iron and steel empire that employed six thousand men, owned and operated its owin trains, tracks, coal mines, and coke ovens, a company store, a woolen mill, a brick works, and some 700 houses iqr its mill hands. Its principal products were steel rails arid barbed wire, the latter turned out in the Gautier Works, a subsidiary.
Before the Civil War, Cambria was the biggest iron works in the country. In 1861 the first Bessemer-type converter was set up there by William Kelly, tiie “Irish crank” from Louisville. With the war came boom times. After the war the age of cheap steel was unilgr way. By 1870 what had started out in 1800 as a backwoods trading center was a city with seven hotels, a library and night school, six breweries, and sixty-two saloons. By the time of the flood, there were 30,000 people living in the valley, in Johnstown and in a cluster of neighboring boroughs known as Kernville, Prospect, East Conemaugh, Franklin, Woodvale, Conemaugh, Cambria City, Millvale, Morrellville, Moxham, and Grubtown. Johnstown was the center of the lot, geographically and in every other way. There was an opera house on Washington Street, another on Main, and a park with a fountain; some of the commercial buildings were as much as four and five stories tall.
But then as now it was a steel town, and so not a pretty place. The workmen lived in cheap pine houses along the river flats, where, as a newspaper of the day put it, “loud and pestiferous stinks prevail.” Hundreds of them would die dreadful deaths in the flood; but hundreds more would fare better than many of their fellow townsmen who lived in big brick houses on higher ground or along such streets as Maple Avenue, in the Woodvale section. Maple Avenue looked like a green tunnel that May in 1889. The trees with their new leaves reached over the quiet street and sent long, soft shadows across neat lawns and white frame houses. When the flood had passed, there would be no trace of Maple Avenue.
The flood happened, as everyone knows, because “the dam busted” and sent a wall of water rushing upon the city and all poor mortals who had failed to “run for the hills.” The dam was Lake Conemaugh’s South Fork dam. Fourteen miles east of Johnstown, up South Fork Run, which feeds into the Little Conemaugh at the town of South Fork, it was said to be the biggest earth dam in the country at that time, and it held back what was supposedly the biggest manmade lake. The dam was just over 300 yards wide. It rose seventy-two feet above the valley floor and was wide enough on top for a two-lane dirt road. At the eastern end of the dam was a spillway cut through the solid rock of the hillside. The lake stretched back three miles and, in spots, was over a mile wide. In places it was better than a hundred feet deep. When the dam broke at 3:10 in the afternoon of May 31, it dumped about twenty million tons of water down into the valley. The whole lake emptied out in about thirtyfive minutes. The difference in elevation between the lake and Johnstown was just over 400 feet.