- 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
Because of the great friction created by the debris and by the rough terrain of the valley itself, the bottom of the mass of water moved much slower than the top, causing the top to continually slide over the front of the advancing wall. This created a violent downward smashing of water, that would crush almost anything in its path. After the disaster, engineers calculated that a man caught under it would have had about as much chance as if he had been standing directly under Niagara Falls.
Past Mineral Point, a work train driven by engineer John Hess sat on the Pennsylvania tracks pointed downstream. Hess heard the water coming, realized what was happening, and, like some mythical folk hero, he put on full steam, tied down his whistle, and went shrieking toward East Conemaugh and the railroad yards where the two sections of the day express sat waiting.
For three hours passengers on board had been looking out the windows or gathering in clusters along the aisles to talk about the storm and the dam up the river that they had been hearing about. Twice their trains had been moved back from the river, as the water moved closer. Twice they had seen the tracks they had been standing on wash out. At the sound of Hess’s whistle a conductor and brakeman entered each coach and asked the passengers please to move out of the train and up onto the hillside, and please pto move as quickly as possible. About half of them made it.
Seconds later Hess and his engine came barrelling into the yards. He leaped to the ground, ran to his home in time to get his family to higher ground. The whistle of his engine was still blasting away when the water hit the yards.
There was a sixteen-stall roundhouse in the yards, machine shops, thirty-three locomotives, a lot of rolling stock, and the two passenger trains. The flood smashed everything. The roundhouse was crushed, as one onlooker said, “like a toy in the hands of a giant.” The passenger trains were ripped apart; a few cars caught fire; others swirled about rolling over and over in the onslaught. Twenty-two of the passengers were killed. Now railroad cars, rails, ties, locomotives weighing as much as eighty tons, and quite a few human corpses were part of the tidal wave.
Woodvale got it next. Woodvale was small, prosperous, pretty as any place in the valley. The woolen mill was there, so was a brick tannery and, nearby, the Gautier Works; so too were rows of clean-looking frame houses and a horse-drawn streetcar line that ran down to Johnstown. About 1,200 people lived in Woodvale. Unlike East Conemaugh, Woodvale got no warning. It was all over in five minutes. The only building left standing was the woolen mill, and there was only part of that. The wire works had sent up terrific geysers of steam when the water hit its boilers; then the whole of it seemed simply to lift up and slide off with the water. The tannery went and so did the streetcar shed and sixty-eight horses. When the water had passed, the town was nothing but a mud flat strewn with wreckage and bodies. The official figure for Woodvale’s dead would later be set at 314.
It was now not quite an hour since the dam had given way. The rain was still coming down, but not so hard; and the sky was not so dark as it had been. In Johnstown many people thought the worst was over; the water in the streets even seemed to be going down some.
At ten minutes after four the flood hit Johnstown.
For years afterward, survivors of the Johnstown flood would talk and write about the sight of the wall of water coming down on the city, and about the sound it made. Over and over they would describe how it “snapped off trees like pipestems” or “crushed houses like eggshells” or picked up locomotives (and dozens of other enormous objects) “like so much chaff.” But what seemed to make the most lasting impression was the cloud of dark spray that hung over it. “The first appearance was like that of a great fire, the dust it raised,” wrote George Swank, editor of the Tribune . Another eyewitness, a Civil War veteran, saw it as “a blur, an advance guard, as it were a mist, like dust that precedes a cavalry charge.” One man’s first reaction was “that there must have been a terrible explosion up the river, for the water coming looked like a cloud of the blackest smoke I ever saw.”
The sound, more often than not, was compared to thunder. Many spoke later of how the water roared, how houses shuddered. One man said the water sounded like the rush of an oncoming train. And another said, “And the sound. I will never forget the sound of that. It sounded to me just like a lot of horses grinding oats.”
The devastation and drowning of Johnstown took about ten minutes. For most people they were the most desperate minutes of their lives, snatching at children and running for high ground, clinging to rafters, window ledges, anything, as their houses were smashed to kindling or wrenched from their foundations. But there were hundreds, on hillsides, on rooftops, in the windows of tall buildings, who just stood stone-still and watched in dumb horror. One of these was Editor Swank, who later in the Tribune described what he saw from his second-floor office on Franklin Street.