Chapter 3

    Friday, May 31st, 1889. The day before had been a solemn holiday. In every village veterans of the War for the Union had gathered; in every cemetery flowers had been strewn upon the grave-mounds of the heroic dead. not the people were resuming the every-day toil. The weather was rainy. it had been wet for some days. Stony Creek and Conemaugh were turbid and noisy. The little South Fork, which ran into the upper end of the lake, was swollen into a raging torrent. The lake was higher than usual; higher than ever. But the valley below lay in fancied security, and all the varied activities of life pursued their wonted round.

    Friday, May 31st, 1889. Record that awful date in characters of funeral hue. It was a dark and stormy day, and amid the darkness and the storm the angel of death spread his wings over the fated valley, unseen, unknown. Midday comes. Disquieting rumors rush down the valley. There is a road of an approaching storm-approaching doom! The water swiftly rises. A horseman thunders down the valley: "To the hills, for God's sake! To the hills, for your lives!" They stare at him as at a madman, and their hesitating feet linger in the valley of the shadow of death, and the shadow swiftly darkens, and the everlasting hills veil their faces with rain and mist before the scene that greets them.

    This is what happened:--

    The heavy rainfall raised the lake until its water began to pour over the top of the dam. The dam itself-wretchedly built of mud and boulders-saturated through and through, began to leak copiously here and there. Each watery sapper and miner burrowed on, followers swiftly enlarging the murderous tunnels. The whole mass became honeycombed. And still the rain poured down, and still the South Fork and a hundred minor streams sent in their swelling floods, until, with a road like that of the opening gates of the Inferno belching forth the legions of the damned, the wall gave way, and with the rush of a famished tiger into a sheepfold, the whirlwind of water swept down the valley on its errand of destruction-

"And like a horse unbroken,
When first he feels the reign,
The furious river struggled hard,
And tossed his tawny mane,
And burst the curb, and bounded,
Rejoicing to be free,
And, whirling down in mad career,
Battlement and plank and pier,
Rushed headlong to the sea!"

    According to the statements of people who lived in Johnstown and other towns on the line of the river, ample time was given to the inhabitants of Johnstown by the railroad officials and by other gentlemen of standing and reputation. in hundreds of cases this warning was utterly disregarded, and those who heeded it early in the day were looked upon as cowards, and many jeers were uttered by lips that now are cold. The people of Johnstown also had a special warning in the fact that the dam in Stony Creek, just above the town, broke about noon, and thousands of feet of lumber passed down the river. Yet they hesitated, and even when the wall of water, almost forty feet high, was at their doors, one man is said by a survivor to have told his family that the stream would not rise very high.

    How suddenly the calamity is illustrated by an incident which Mr. Bender, the night chief operator which Mr. Bender, the night chief operator of the Western Union in Pittsburgh, relates: "At 3 o'clock that Friday afternoon," said he, "the girl operator at Johnstown was cheerfully ticking away that she had to abandon the office on the first floor, before the water was three feet deep there. She said she was telegraphing from the second story and the water was gaining steadily. She was frightened, and said many houses were flooded. This was evidently before the dam broke, for out man here said something encouraging to her, and she was talking back as only a cheerful girl operator can, when the receiver's skilled ear caught a sound on the wire made by no human hand, which told him that the wires had grounded, or that the house had been swept away in the flood from the lake, no one knows which now. At 3 o'clock the girl was there, and at 3.07 we might as well have asked the grave to answer us."

    The water passed over the dam about a foot above its top, beginning at about half-past 2. Whatever happened in the way of a cloud-burst took place in the night. There had been little rain up to dark. when the workmen woke in the morning the lake was full, and rising at the rate of a foot an hour. It kept on rising until 2 P.M., when it began breaking over the dam and undermining it. Men were sent three or four times during the day to warn people below of their danger. When the final break came at 3 o'clock, there was a sound like tremendous and continued peals of thunder. Trees, rocks and earth shot up into mid-air in great columns and then started down the ravine. A farmer who escaped said that the water did not come down like a wave, but jumped on his house and beat it to fragments in an instant. he was safe on the hillside, but his wife and two children were killed.

    Herbert Webber, who was employed by the Sportsmen's Club at the lake, tells that for three days previous to the final outburst, the water of the lake forced itself out through the interstices of the masonry, so that the front of the dam resembled a large watering pot. The force of the water was so great that one of these jets squirted full thirty feet horizontally from the stone wall. All this time, too, the feeders of the lake, particularly three of them, more nearly resembled torrents than mountain streams, and were supplying the dammed up body of water with quite 3,000,000 gallons of water hourly.

    At 11 o'clock that Friday morning, Webber says he was attending to a camp about a mile back from the dam, when he noticed that the surface of the lake seemed to be lowering. he doubted his eyes, and made a mark on the shore, and then found that his suspicions were undoubtedly well founded. he ran across the country to the dam, and there saw, he declares, the water of the lake welling out from beneath the foundation stones of the dam. Absolutely helpless, he was compelled to stand there and watch the gradual development of what was to be the most disastrous flood of this continent.

    According to his reckoning it was 2.45 when the stones in the centre of the dam began to sink because of the undermining, and within eight minutes a gap of twenty feet was made in the lower half of the wall face. through which the water poured as though forced by machinery of stupendous power. By 3 o'clock the toppling masonry, which before had partaken somewhat of the form of an arch, fell in, and then the remainder of the wall opened outward like twin gates, and the great storage lake was foaming and thundering down the valley of the Conemaugh.

    Webber became so awestruck at the catastrophe that he declares he was unable to leave the spot until the lake had fallen so low that it showed bottom fifty feet below him. How long a time elapsed he says he does not know before he recovered sufficient power of observation to notice this, but he does not think that more than five minutes passed. Webber says that had the dam been repaired after the spring freshet of 1888 the disaster would not have occurred. Had it been given ordinary attention in the spring of 1887 the probabilities are that thousands of lives would have been saved.

    Imagine, if you can, a solid piece of ground, thirty-five feet wide and over a hundred feet high, and then, again, that a space of two hundred feet is cut out of it, through which is rushing over seven hundred acres of water, and you can have only a faint conception of the terrible force of the blow that came upon the people of this vicinity like a clap of thunder out of a clear sky. It was irresistible in its power and carried everything before it. After seeing the lake and the open through the dam it can be readily understood how that outbreak came to be so destructive in its character.

    The lake had been leaking, and a couple of Italians were at work just over the point where the break occurred, and in an instant, without warning, it gave way and they went down in the whirling mass of water, and were swept into eternity.

    Mr. Crouse, proprietor of the South Fork Fishing Club hotel, says: "When the dam of Conemaugh lake broke the water seemed to leap, scarcely touching the ground. It bounded down the valley, crashing and roaring, carrying everything before it. For a mile its front seemed like a solid wall twenty feet high." The only warning given to Johnstown was sent from South Fork village by Freight Agent Dechert. When the great wall that held the body of water began to crumble at the top he sent a message begging the people of Johnstown for God's sake to take to the hills. He reports no serious accidents at South Fork.

    Richard Davis ran to Prospect Hill when the water raised. As to Mr. Dechert's message, he says just such have been sent down at each flood since the lake was made. The warning so often proved useless that little attention was paid to it this time. "I cannot describe the mad rush," he said. "At first it looked like dust. That must have been the spray. I could see houses going down before it like a child's play blocks set on edge in a row. As it came nearer I could see houses totter for a moment, then rise and the next moment be crushed like egg shells, against each other.

    Mr. John G. Parke, of Philadelphia, a civil engineer, was at the dam superintending some improvements in the drainage system at the lake. He did all he could with the help of a gang of laborers to avert the catastrophe and to warn those in danger. his story of the calamity is this:--

    "For several days prior to the breaking of the dam, storm after storm swept over the mountains and flooded every creek and rivulet. The waters from these varied sources flowed into the lake, which finally was not able to stand the pressure forced upon it. Friday morning I realized the danger that was threatened, and although from that time until three o'clock every human effort was made to prevent a flood, they were of no avail. When I at last found that the dam was bound to go, I started out to tell the people, and by twelve o'clock everybody in the Conemaugh region did or should have known of their danger. Three hours later my gravest fears were more than realized. it is an erroneous idea, however, that the dam burst. It simply moved away. The water gradually ate into the embankment until there was nothing left but a frail bulwark of wood. This finally split asunder and sent the waters howling down the mountains." 


Go on to chapter 4!


Go back to the PRR index!
This page has been accessed 1035 times since
Last modified on:
©1998-2010 Robert Schoenberg - robs@railfan.net