Chapter 2

    Twenty miles up Conemaugh creek, beyond the workingmen's villages of South Fork and Mineral Point, was Conemaugh lake. it was a part of the old and long disused Pennsylvania Canal system. At the head of Conemaugh creek, back among the hills, three hundred feet or more above the level of Johnstown streets, was a small, natural lake, When the canal was building, the engineers took this lake to supply the western division of the canal which ran from there to Pittsburgh. The Eastern division ended at Hollidaysburgh east of the summit of the Alleghanies, where there was a similar reservoir. Between the two was the old Portage road, one of the first railroads constructed in the State. The canal was abandoned some years ago, as the Pennsylvania road destroyed its traffic. The Pennsylvania company got a grant of the canal from the State. Some years after the canal was abandoned the Hollidaysburgh reservoir was torn down, the water gradually escaping in the Frankstown branch of the Juniata river. The people of the neighborhood objected to the existence of the reservoir after the canal was abandoned, as little attention was paid to the structure, and the farmers in the valley below feared that the dam would break and drown them. The water was all let out of that reservoir about three years ago.

    The dam above Johnstown greatly increased the small natural lake there. It was a pleasant drive from Johnstown to the reservoir. Boating and fishing parties often went out there. Near the reservoir is Cresson, a summer resort owned by the Pennsylvania road. Excursion parties are made up in the summer time by the Pennsylvania Company, and special trains are run for them from various points to Cresson. A club called the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club was organized some years ago, and got the use of the lake from the Pennsylvania Company. Most of the members of the club live in Pittsburgh, and are prominent iron and coal men. Besides them there are some of the officials of the Pennsylvania road among the members. They increased the size of the dam until it was not from a hundred feet in height, and its entire length, from side to side at the top, was not far from nine hundred feet. This increased the size of the lake from three miles in length and a mile and a quarter in width. It was an irregular oval in shape. The volume of water in it depended on the time of the year. Some of the people of Johnstown had thought for years that the dam might break, but they did not think that its breaking would do more that flood the flats and damage the works of the Cambria Company.

    When the Hunting and Fishing Club bought the site of the old reservoir a section of 160 feet had been washed out of the middle. This was rebuilt at an expense of $17,000 and the work was thought to be very strong. At the base it was 380 feet thick and gradually tapered until at the top it was about 35 feet thick. It was considered amply secure, and such faith had the members of the club in its stability that the top of the dam was utilized as a driveway. It too two yeas to complete the work, men being engaged from '79 to '81. When it was under process of construction the residents of Johnstown expressed some fears as to the solidity of the work, and requested that it be examined by experts. An engineer of the Cambria Iron Works, secured through Mr. Morrell, of that institution, one provided by Mr. Pitcarin, of the Pennsylvania Railroad, and Nathan McDowell, chosen by the club itself, made a thorough examination. They pronounced the structure perfectly safe, but suggested some precautionary measures as to the stopping of leaks, that were faithfully carried out The members of the club themselves discovered that the sewer that carried away the surplus or over flow from the lake was not large enough in times of storm. So five feet of solid rock were cut away in order to increase the mouth of the lake. Usually the surface of the water was 15 feet below the top of the dam, and never in recent years did it rise to more that eight feet. in 1881, when work was going on, a sudden rise occurred, and then the water threatened to do what it did on this occasion. The workmen hastened to the scene and piled debris of all sorts on the top and thus prevented a washout.

    For more than a year there had been fears of a disaster. The foundations of the dam at South Fork were considered shaky early in 1888, and many increasing leakages were reported from time to time

    "We were afraid of the lake," said a gentleman who had lived in Johnstown for years; "We were afraid of that lake seven years ago. no one could see the immense height to which the artificial dam had been built without fearing the tremendous power of water behind it. The dam must have had a sheer height of 100 feet, thus forcing the water that high above its natural bed, and making a lake at least three miles long and a mile wide, out of what could scarcely be called a pond. I doubt if there is a man or woman in Johnstown who at some time of other had not feared and spoken the terrible disaster that had now come.

    "People wondered, and asked why the dam was not strengthened, as it certainly had become weak; but nothing was done, and by and by they talked less and less about it, as nothing happened, though now and then some would shake their heads as if conscious the fearful day would come some time when their worst fears would be transcended by the horror of the actual occurrence."

    There is not a shadow of doubt but that the citizens of Cambria county frequently complained, and that at the time the dam was constructed a vigorous effort was made to put a stop to the work. It is true that the leader in this movement was a citizen of Johnstown, but he was and is a large mine owner in Cambria County. His mine adjoins the reservoir property. he was frequently on the spot, and his own engineer inspected the work. he says the embankment was principally of shale and clay, and that straw was used to stop the leaking of water while the work was going on. He called on the sheriff of Cambria County and told him it was his duty to apply to the court for an injunction. The sheriff promised to give the matter his attention, but, instead of going before court, went to the Cambria Company for consultation. An employee was sent up to make an inspection, and as his report was favorable to the reservoir work the sheriff went no further. But the gentleman referred to said that he had not failed to make public his protest at the time and to renew it frequently. This recommendation for an injunction and protest were spoken of by citizens of Altoona as a hackneyed subject.

    Confirmation has certainly been had at South Fork, Conemaugh, Millvale and Johnstown. The rumor of an expected break was prevalent at there places, but citizens remarked that the rumor was a familiar incident of the annual freshets. It was the old classic story of "Wolf, wolf." they gave up the first floors to the water and retired upstairs to wait until the river should recede, as they had done often before, scouting the oft-told story of the breaking of the reservoir.

    An interesting story, involving the construction and history of the Conemaugh lake dam, was related by J.B. Montgomery, who formerly liven in western Pennsylvania, and is not well known in the West as a railroad contractor. "The dam," said he, "was build about thirty-five years ago by the State of Pennsylvania, as a feeder for the western division of the Pennsylvania Canal. The plans and specifications for the dam were furnished by the Chief Engineer of the State. I am not sure but it is my impression, that Colonel William Milnor Roberts held the office at the time. Colonel Roberts was one of the most famous engineers in the country. He died several years ago in chili. The contractors for the construction of the dam were General J.K. Moorhead and Judge H.B. Packer, of Williamsport, a brother of Governor Packer. General Moorhead had built many dams before this on the rivers of Pennsylvania, and his work was always known to be of the very best. In this case, however, all hat he had to do was to build the dam according to the specifications furnished by the State. The dam was built of stone and wood throughout, and was of particularly solid construction. There is no significance in the discovery of straw and dirt among the ruins of the dam. Both are freely used when dams are being built, to stop the numerous leaks.

Ruins Of Johnstown Viewed From Prospect Hill
Ruins Of Johnstown Viewed From Prospect Hill

    "The dam had three waste-gates at the bottom so arranged that they could be raised when there was too much water in the lake, and permit the escape of the surplus. These gates were in big stone arches, through which the water passed to the canal when the lake was used as a feeder.

    "In 1859 the Pennsylvania Railroad Company purchased the canal from the State, and the dam and lake went into the     possession of that company. Shortly afterward the Pennsylvania Company abandoned the western division of the canal, and the dam became useless as a feeder. For twenty-five years the lake was used only as a fish-pond and the dam and gates were forgotten. five years ago the lake was leased to a number of Pittsburgh men, who stocked it with bass, trout, and other game fish. I have heard it said that the waste-gates had not been opened for a great number of years. If this is so, no wonder the dam broke. Naturally the fisherman did not want to open the gates after the lake was stocked, for the fish would have run out. A sluiceway should have been built on the side of the dam, so that when the water reached a certain height the surplus could escape. The dam was not built with the intention that the water should flow over the top of it under any circumstances, and if allowed to escape in that was the water was bound to undermine it in a short time. With a dam the height of this the pressure of a quantity of water great enough it overflow it must be something tremendous.

    "If it is true that the waste-gates were never opened after the Pittsburgh men had leased the lake, the explanation for the bursting of the dam is to be found right there. It may be that the dam had not been looked after and strengthened of late years, and it was undoubtedly weakened in the period of twenty-five years during which the lake was not used. After the construction of the dam the lake was called the Western reservoir. The south fork of the Conemaugh, which fed the lake, is a little stream, not over ten feet wide, but even when there were no unusual storm it carried enough water to fill the lake full within a year, showing how important it was that the gates should be opened occasionally to run off the surplus."

    Mr. Mongomery was one of a party of engineers who inspected the dam when it was leased by the Pennsylvania Company, five years ago. it then needed repairs, but was in a perfectly safe condition if the water was not allowed to flow over it.

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