Run For Your Lives!


The lake and dam were owned by the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club, a private summer resort started by a group of wealthy “sportsmen” from Pittsburgh. There was a cavernous, three-story clubhouse halfway down the western side of the lake, with a deep front porch that ran the length of it and offered a good view of the water. There were flower beds and boardwalks that led to sixteen “Queen Anne cottages” close by along the shore front. There were rowboats and sailboats tied up at boathouses, a fleet of fifty canoes, and two small yachts. In 1889 there were sixtysix names on the membership list. Among them were such distinguished Pittsburgh names as Phipps, Chalfant, Laughlin, McClintock. Also among them were Andrew Mellon, Henry Frick and Andrew Carnegie.

The group had been organized in Pittsburgh in 1879 after one of their number, a Benjamin F. Ruff, had bought the dam and lake from a congressman named John Reilly who had bought it four years before from the Pennsylvania Railroad. When the club took possession of the property, the dam was in bad shape. It had been built in the late 1840’s to provide water during dry spells for the Johnstown canal basin that was part of a system of railroads and canals linking Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. About 1850 the water route was converted to steam railroad. Then the Pennsylvania Railroad bought up the whole system in 1857, and the lake was part of the package. What the railroad got was a lake it did not need, held back by a dam that had been deteriorating almost from the day it had been finished. Understandably, not much was done to improve it. In 1862, during a July downpour, a stone culvert at the base of the dam gave way and a sizable chunk of the wall washed out. But damage was slight, since the water level had been low.

After that the dam mouldered away for seventeen years until the Pittsburgh men bought it. By then the discharge pipes at the base had been removed and sold for scrap, and leaks were numerous. The leaks were patched, and the old break was fixed by dumping in stumps, straw, clay, brush, virtually anything at hand. It was a slipshod job, to say the least. When the work was finished, the dam was only slightly higher, but there was a sag in the center, where it should have been highest. The idea of giving the structure a major overhaul does not seem to have been considered.

The lake filled in, and it was not long until summer guests, under parasols and blue skies, were arriving in carriages from the depot down in South Fork and crossing over to the clubhouse side of the lake by way of the dirt road along the crest of the dam. On their right the steep face of the dam dropped away to the valley below. On their left was the smooth lake bordered by woods and meadows. It was a spectacular setting. It was no Newport or Saratoga, not by a long, long shot. It was, in fact, a rather simple and very peaceful mountain summer place, nothing very fancy or ostentatious. For some of the young sons and daughters of the well-to-do Pittsburghers, it may even have been something of a bore.

The club and the dam, as far as the people of Johnstown were concerned, were looked upon with mixed feelings. There was certainly a measure of pride to be taken from the idea that the Pittsburghers with all their money thought enough of the country around South Fork to want to summer there. There was also a measure of sporting fun to be taken out of the wellstocked lake. Off season, it was an easy matter for a Conemaugh Valley man or boy to slip onto the property and bring home supper. When the club tried to clamp down, it succeeded mainly in adding to the sport. Night fishing was taken up. Relations between members and natives became strained.

That there was serious concern in Johnstown about the dam is quite clear. How widespread it actually was is another matter. After the disaster, there were any number of local citizens who came forth to say they had long held deep fear of the dam and prophetic concern for all who lived beneath its shadow. Certainly they had ample cause for concern. Johnstown and the whole Conemaugh Valley seldom got through a spring without floods. In 1885, ’87, and ’88 there had been bad floods. Heavy snows in the mountains would cut loose during a sudden thaw, or a spring thunderstorm would slash down on the steep valleys, and the rock-bottomed mountain streams would run wild. In the flood of 1885, the Stony Creek rose three feet in forty-five minutes. There had been talk that year, and other years, about the dam breaking. But not many people had taken it much to heart. After all, the dam was owned by some of the most powerful and important men in the whole country. It had always held before, and people were fed up with hearing about a disaster that never happened. What was more, there were important men in Johnstown who said a break at South Fork would not make that much difference anyway. The dam was a long way off up the valley, they reasoned. When one leading citizen was asked, a few hours before the flood hit Johnstown, how much higher he thought the water would rise in the valley if the dam let go, his answer was, “About two feet.”