- 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
One man who unmistakably set out to do something about the danger of the South Fork dam, before May 31, 1889, was Daniel J. Morrell, president of Cambria Iron and the biggest man in Johnstown. A Philadelphian and a Quaker, Morrell had taken charge of Cambria Iron before the Civil War, when the company was in serious financial trouble. In short order he became one of the greatest ironmasters of his day, a strong voice in the Republican party, a man who looked upon Andrew Carnegie as an upstart in the business. When the Pittsburgh men bought the old dam in 1879 and announced what they planned to do with it, the Cambria Iron Company, as one of its executives later said, was “considerably exercised.” The following year, after the new owners had completed their repairs, Morrell sent his chief engineer, John Fulton, to look the job over. The report from Fulton was that the dam had been inadequately repaired, leaving a large leak that was causing trouble; that discharge pipes were needed, so that the water level could be lowered if necessary; and that a thorough overhaul was called for. The report had no visible effect on the club management. Benjamin Ruff replied by saying that the repairs already made were adequate and ended by flatly stating to Morrell, “You and your people are in no danger from our enterprise.” Morrell refused to let it go at that. He wrote Ruff that the dam was a “perpetual menace to the lives and property of those residing in the upper valley of the Conemaugh.” He urged that some way be provided for lowering the water “in case of trouble” and offered to have Cambria Iron help foot the bill. The club declined the offer. The matter was dropped. In 1885, four years before the dam broke, Daniel Morrell died at the age of sixtyfour. Two years after that, Benjamin Ruff died.
When the rains began on the afternoon of Thursday, May 30, 1889, there was only one club member at the lake. He was Colonel E. J. Unger, a retired Pittsburgh hotel proprietor, who was president of the club and lived on a farm along the lakeshore. With him was twenty-three-year-old John Parke, who had been recently hired as a resident engineer. There was also a superintendent of the grounds, and a gang of Italian workmen who had been hired to dig trenches for a new indoor plumbing system. It was a busy time for Colonel Unger. The season was soon to begin, and some two hundred visitors were expected.
The rain was cold and came down steadily through the afternoon and on into the evening. By eleven that night it was a deluge, with great crashes of thunder that echoed through the mountains. No one could remember a worse storm. In the morning a pail left outside would have eight inches of water in it. At dawn young John Parke would go down to the lake to find that overnight the water at the dam had risen two feet. He would then move quickly to the opposite end of the lake, where South Fork Creek, its main feeder and ordinarily about two feet deep, was strippins; limbs off trees five feet above the ground.
In Johnstown Thursday afternoon the crowds were back from the cemetery by the time the rain started. It had been the customary sort of Decoration Day. The Reverend H. L. Chapman, who lived on the park, said the city was “in its gayest mood, with flags, banners, and flowers everywhere.” There were parades and speeches and plenty of visitors in from the neighboring towns of Somerset, Altoona, and New Florence.
By nightfall there was a good deal of flood talk about. There had been eleven days of rain already that month, after a fourteen-inch snowstorm in April that had melted almost as suddenly as it had come down. The rivers were already running high. The rain hammered down all night.
Friday morning a heavy mist hung over the city. The sky was dark. That the valley was in for a bad time was very clear. A landslide had caved in the stable at Kress’s Brewery before sunup. By seven o’clock the rivers were rising fast. Cambria Iron sent its men home at seven to look after their families. At ten o’clock the superintendent at the Gautier wire works ordered a shutdown, after some of the men reminded him that the ground where he stood had once been under four feet of water before the mill was built. Main Street was already under water; a teamster had driven his wagon into a cellar excavation and drowned.
At noon the Poplar Street and Cambria City bridges went. Rowboats were moving past front doors rescuing stranded families. This was becoming a springtime routine for Johnstowners, one of the rites of the season. The Stony Creek and Little Conemaugh were rising at better than a foot an hour. At precisely onethirty, Henry Wilson Storey, the historian for Cambria County and quite a tall man, telephoned the Tribune to report that he was standing in water “up to his middle.”
By now hundreds of families had seen enough. The water had never been this high, even in the worst floods. They began moving out, struggling through the water to the high ground. Some went a little sheepishly, dreading the looks they might get when the storm had passed and they came back down again.