The Johnstown Flood

The Johnstown Flood was the largest loss of life from a man-made disaster in the US until 9/11. The cause of the disaster was the failure of the South Fork Dam located 14 miles upstream on the Little Conemaugh River. The South Fork Hunting Club had bought the property from the country to use a recreational area outside of the city. The group consisted of Henry Clay Frick, Andrew Carnegie, Benjamin Franklin Ruff, and other prominent members of high society. The original conclusion was that the flood was caused by “An Act of God” in that the unprecedented rainfall caused the dam to fail. However, the more likely cause for failure was due to modifications made by some of the club members such as removing the two-foot diameter drainage pipes, lowering the dam to fit carriages across it, and the installation of fish screens. Together, these “minor” changes impacted the structural integrity of the dam as well as prevent the lake from draining properly to lower water levels. Early in the morning on May 31, 1889, the South Fork Dam collapsed, giving way to a wall of water with a flow that equaled that of the Mississippi Delta. By the end of the disaster, over 2000 people had lost their lives.