- 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
But most of Johnstown stayed put. And quite a few citizens had a fine time of it. A good example was Attorney Horace Rose, a respected civic leader and family man who should have had a lot more sense. Rose went over to Main Street after breakfast to look at how things were going, and stopped to pass the time with his friend Charles Zimmerman. “Charley,” he said, “you and I have scored fifty years and this is the first time we ever saw a cow drink Stony Creek river water on Main Street.” He then returned home and found it necessary to build a log raft in order to float himself over to his back porch. Once inside, like nearly every other father in town, he busied himself taking up carpets and furniture. He also “marked with sadness” that the water “with its muddy freight” had ruined his new wallpaper. Then he and his wife and four sons moved upstairs, where the morning took on the air of a family picnic. They boiled coffee over the grate, called to neighbors from the window, and joked about their troubles. After a while Attorney Rose went up to the attic, propped himself in a window, and passed the time shooting at rats struggling along the wall of a stable nearby. That there might be trouble at the South Fork dam never once entered his mind.
Before noon two sections of the day express from Pittsburgh to Philadelphia pulled into the big marshalling yards at East Conemaugh, three miles up the Little Conemaugh from Johnstown. Inside, some fifty passengers sat and waited. They were told there had been a landslide up the line, at a place called Lilly. The rain beaded on the glass of the windows, but beyond they could make out the brown surge of the river.
At one o’clock Mrs. Hettie Ogle, manager of the Johnstown telegraph office, moved her staff to the second floor. At three she sent a message to the manager of the Pittsburgh office: SOUTH FORK OPERATOR SAYS THE DAM IS ABOUT TO GO .
At 3:15 she put in a call to the Tribune to report that the Pennsylvania’s freight agent had called to say that the situation at the dam was getting worse by the minute. Mrs. Ogle’s telegram to Pittsburgh was to be her last. By 3:15 the water of Lake Conemaugh was already on its way.
Hours earlier, in the driving rain, Colonel Unger, John Parke, and their work crew had tried frantically to free the dam’s one spillway of the big iron grate that had been put in years before to keep the fish from washing out. The water was now running seven feet deep over the spillway. With the grate out, they hoped, the dam would have a chance. By eleven o’clock the lake was only about six inches from the crest and coming up fast. If the water started over the top, the dam was finished. At 11:30 the water was level with the top of the dam.
The grate was clogged with debris and would not budge. It was now only a matter of time. Already there were big leaks spurting water from the face of the dam. A frantic and futile attempt was made to cut a second spillway at the other end of the dam. The men could get nowhere in the rocky soil.
It was two miles down the valley to South Fork, and John Parke made it on horseback in about ten minutes. The wolf cry had begun again. Parke was young and not known in the area, which may have been part of the reason for the failure of his mission. But the telegraph operator thought enough of him and his warning to pass the word on down the line.
By the time Parke arrived back at the dam, the end was very near. Water was coming over the top in a big glassy sheet several feet deep.
Shortly after three o’clock the water sliced a huge notch out of the center. Then, with an awful roar, the dam just moved away. A small boy with the big name of U. Ed Schwartzentruver saw it happen from a nearby hillside. He had been there all morning with his friends, standing in the rain watching the excitement. Seventy-six years later, on his front porch on Grant Street in South Fork, not quite ninety years old and nearly blind, he would talk about it as though it had happened the day before.
“There was a man named Buchanan up there, John Buchanan. He kept telling Colonel Unger to pull out that big iron screen in the spillway. But Colonel Unger wouldn’t do it. And then when he would, it was too late. Then the whole dam seemed to push out all at once. Not a break. Just one big push.”
The water crashed down the valley tree-top high. A farm was destroyed in an instant. Giant chunks of the dam, boulders, logs, whole trees, were swept ahead of the wall of water, and began to build into what would be one of the flood’s most brutal killers, a grinding, crushing mass of debris.
At South Fork the damage was relatively slight. Some twenty houses were destroyed, and only two drowned. The little town sits on high ground; it was out of the direct path of the onslaught. Farther on, the water smashed into its first major obstacle, a seventyfoot-high stone viaduct. It held momentarily. Water and debris piled up to nearly ninety feet. Then the viaduct let go. The village of Mineral Point was next. It was wiped out. The water moved straight on down the narrow valley. It was travelling at about forty miles an hour, but its speed was fitful. At times, eyewitnesses said later, it would slow down as the debris clogged its path. For brief instants it would even come to a complete stop; then the whole seething mass would seem to explode, with trees and telegraph poles flying, and the water would rush forward again, even faster.