The Johnstown Flood

As many places in Texas are coping with the inundating effects of recent heavy rains, it seems timely to remember that it was on this day, 1 June 1889, that the nation learned that one of the greatest disasters in the history of the United States had occurred the previous afternoon, the infamous “Johnstown Flood.” More than 2,000 people and 99 entire families were killed, some 1,600 homes and businesses were wiped out, and more than $20,000,000.00 in damage was inflicted. An immense wall of water tore through Johnstown, Pennsylvania in less than ten minutes, nearly erasing the town from the face of the earth. Notably, in the aftermath of the disaster, Clara Barton and the nascent American Red Cross responded to coordinate the relief efforts, the first such task undertaken by that organization.

The flood was, in reality, a man-made catastrophe. Several days of heavy rains had caused all the streams and rivers in the region to rise to alarming levels, but the enormous flood was the result of the failure of an earthen dam on Lake Conemaugh, 14 miles upstream from Johnstown. The dam had originally been built in the 1830s as a reservoir for a canal system; the state later sold it to the Pennsylvania Railroad when the canals became obsolete. The lake was in turn purchased by a private hunting and fishing club whose membership included a constellation of fabulously wealthy Pittsburgh steel barons: Carnegie, Mellon, Frick, and Schwab. The club made extensive modifications to the dam, including lowering it to accommodate a roadway across it. These modifications are thought to have weakened the dam’s structural integrity.

In the late evening of 30 May 1889, the dam caretaker noticed major leaks in several locations on the dam. He and several laborers worked throughout the night and the next morning to try to effect emergency repairs and reinforcement on the dam. Because high water blocked roads and had downed telegraph lines, warning could not be sent to the people in Johnstown for several hours. When riders did reach Johnstown, most residents simply reacted as they usually did for flood warnings: they took refuge in the upper floors of their homes to ride out the high water. But the flood that came was no simple rising of the water level: a massive wall of water blasted through the town, carrying away whole houses and knocking down brick buildings. The wreckage was strewn for miles in the wake of the flood. Contemporary photographs show that broad swath of the town was essentially scoured clean by the force of the rushing waters, and much more of the town’s construction had suffered collapse or irreparable damage.

The resulting relief efforts saw donations pour in from around the globe. Money was received from as far away as Russia and the Ottoman Empire. The Red Cross had taken on a new role in responding to domestic disaster, and set a precedent that remains to this day. The South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club which owned the dam, never took responsibility for the disaster – though it was its duty to have maintained the structure – and no one ever brought a successful suit against the wealthy club. However, primarily because of the attention and outrage which was focussed upon the legal procedings, many states began adopting a British legal precedent which conferred liability on those who modified natural features, even if no negligence was proven.

The wealthy Steel Barons of Pittsburgh whose club owned the dam were by no means completely heartless, though their club never owned up to any liability in failing to maintain the dam. In the 19th century, liability was less broadly interpreted than it is today, and flooding was typically ascribed to the category of “an Act of God,” which precluded human liability. Though by today’s standards the club would probably have been deemed liable, it was not surprising that it was held harmless in the 1880s.

Carnegie, Frick, Mellon and others donated tens of thousands of dollars to the relief efforts. The steel barons contributed personally even if their club did not. This also was a more common pattern for 19th century disasters. Mellon, additionally set up an interest free building fund for residents, and Carnegie later built and endowed a library for the town.

All in all, perhaps they could have done more, but they definitely did not simply ignore their responsibilities all together. And, as I noted, liabilty law evolved as a direct result of this diaster.

Johnstown rebuilt, and exists to this day. And it still falls victim to periodic flooding. For a highly readable and complete account of the tragedy, take a look at historian David McCullough’s account in his 1967 work, The Johnstown Flood, (Simon & Schuster, ISBN: 06712071480)

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Jamie Rawson Flower Mound, Texas

Let your advance worrying become advance thinking and planning.

— Winston Churchill

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