Johnstown Flood

We love history!  What I mean by that is the adults in this home love history and we drag the children in this home to any historic site we can get to.  In June we took a week-long vacation traveling from Maryland, through Pennsylvania, into New York, and back again.  It was a whirlwind, but so many wonderful places to see and visit… and of course, soak up the history!

Our first stop was Johnstown Flood National Historic Site.  The visitor center sits on the hill above where the South Fork Dam was located.  There is a video showing a brief history (a bit on the creepy side for my kids, focusing on the graves and ‘voices from the graves’ of the people who lost their lives), there is a map with lights showing the water’s path down the mountainside, and finally eye-witness accounts of folks who survived this massive natural disaster.

The South Fork Dam

The dam was originally built by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania to be used as a reservoir for the canal basin in Johnstown. But as good ideas go the dam took so long to build that the canal system was made obsolete by the Pennsylvania Railroad (PRR). The railroad eventually bought the Pennsylvania Mainline Canal and operated many sections of it for a number of years. While under the PRR’s ownership, the dam broke in 1862. But fortunately the lake was only half full and it was a dry summer.

The PRR sold this particular property to a congressman from Altoona (PA) named John Reilly. Reilly hoped (as many in the area did) that he would be able to sell it to a group interested in starting a resort. Interested buyers were so few that Reilly sold it to the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club at a loss.

The South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club started to repair the dam in 1879, and completed it in 1881. The club stocked the lake (which they called Lake Conemaugh) with one thousand black bass. The dam held for almost ten years, failing during one of the worst storms of the later nineteenth century.

Colonel Unger lived in a small yellow house up on the hill above the dam and the visitor center/museum sits beside his home now.

In the early morning hours of May 31, 1889 Unger noticed that the level of Lake Conemaugh had risen considerably during the night of the thirtieth. Elias then made a quick calculation and estimated that the dam was rising 4-6 inches per hour. This scene alarmed Unger and around 10:00 AM he ordered 10-20 Italian laborers to start digging a spillway on the west end of the dam and to try to heighten the top of the breast. The immigrants worked heroically but the situation, unfortunately, grew worse. So Unger ordered a young graduate of the University of Pennsylvania, John Parke (who was also the club’s resident engineer), to ride to the nearest town (South Fork) and get a message to Johnstown about the condition of the dam. During Parke’s ride, water started pouring over the top of the dam and once the young man returned from South Fork saving the dam seemed like a hopeless cause. The water was rising faster than the men could build up the dam so at 2:45 PM Unger returned to his home above the South Fork dam due to exhaustion.

At 3:15 PM the South Fork dam finally gave way spilling the entire contents of Lake Conemaugh into the valley leading to Johnstown. The result of the 20 million-ton lake was over 2,000 dead in the valley.

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