The Biggest Natural Disaster in Pennsylvania You’ve Probably Never Heard Before


Pennsylvania has had several natural catastrophes. From floods to fires, blizzards to tornadoes, the state has experienced its fair share of disasters that have taken lives and property. However, one calamity stands out as the most catastrophic and terrible in the state’s history, while being mostly forgotten by many. It’s the Johnstown Flood of 1889.

What Caused the Johnstown Flood?

The Johnstown Flood was caused by the fall of the South Fork Dam, which was located approximately 14 miles upstream from Johnstown in Cambria County. The dam was erected in 1853 as part of a canal system, but it was abandoned and later sold to a private firm in 1879. The corporation transformed the reservoir behind the dam into a lake for a fishing and hunting club that comprised some of Pittsburgh’s wealthiest and most powerful individuals, including Andrew Carnegie and Henry Clay Frick.

The dam was poorly maintained and repaired, with various design problems, including a low spillway, no drainage system, and a fish screen that blocked the outlet pipes. The dam was also under increasing strain from the lake’s rising water level, which was fed by multiple streams and springs. The lake was roughly 450 feet deep, 2 miles long, and 1 mile broad, and it held around 20 million tons of water.

After many days of severe rain, the dam ultimately caved down on May 31, 1889, at about 3:10 p.m. A tremendous wall of water believed to be 40 feet high and moving at 40 mph, was released into the valley below. The deluge wiped out everything in its path, including homes, trees, bridges, trains, animals, and people. It also collected debris such as barbed wire, nails, and metal, which increased its devastating power.

How Did the Johnstown Flood Affect the City and Its Residents?

The Johnstown Flood was one of the most devastating disasters in American history, killing over 2,200 people, injuring thousands more, and leaving around 25,000 homeless. The flood damaged over 1,600 houses and businesses and cost an estimated $17 million in damage. The flood also destroyed other towns and villages along the road, including South Fork, Mineral Point, Woodvale, and East Conemaugh.

The flood reached Johnstown at about 4:07 p.m., where it collided with the stone bridge that bridged the Conemaugh River. The bridge served as a barrier, trapping floodwater and forming a massive vortex that swallowed the city. The water swept oil tanks, coal cars, and other combustible goods across the bridge, causing it to catch fire. The fire lasted for three days, burning many of the people and material heaped up on the bridge.

The flood survivors encountered a bleak spectacle of death and ruin. Many of them had lost their families, friends, and possessions. Some of them became stuck in the rubble, buried in the muck, or drowned in the sea. Some of them were injured or deformed by the rubble or flames. Some were never recognized or found. The flood also brought illnesses like typhoid and pneumonia, which caused more deaths in the aftermath.

How did the Johnstown Flood affect the nation and the world?

The Johnstown Flood was a national and worldwide disaster that stunned and grieved the globe. The flood became widely known because of the telegraph and newspapers, which presented detailed and spectacular tales of the calamity. The flood also drew the attention of photographers, painters, and authors, who observed and represented its aftermath. The flood inspired several well-known works, including paintings by George Hetzel and Julian Scott, photography by William Rau and Frank Leslie, and poetry by Walt Whitman and Emma Lazarus.

The Johnstown Flood also spurred a large relief and recovery effort, involving the government, military, Red Cross, churches, and the general population. Clara Barton’s newly created American Red Cross responded to the storm as its first big tragedy. The Red Cross established hospitals, shelters, kitchens, and morgues, and provided victims with food, clothes, medication, and money. The Red Cross also assisted in rebuilding the city and restoring its infrastructure, including as the water, sewage, and power systems.

The flood also called into question the dam owners’ duty and accountability, since they were widely blamed for the calamity. The survivors and their families filed a lawsuit against the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club, demanding recompense for their losses and damages. However, the club members maintained that the flood was an act of God and that they were not responsible for the dam’s breakdown. The courts agreed with them and rejected the claims, leaving the plaintiffs with no legal options.


The Johnstown Flood of 1889, triggered by the catastrophic fall of the South Fork Dam, is Pennsylvania’s most overlooked but terrible disaster. The flood had a devastating impact on Johnstown, killing almost 2,200 people and causing massive ruin. Its national and worldwide impact sparked broad relief efforts, raising questions about dam ownership responsibilities. The Johnstown Flood is remembered via art, literature, and the Red Cross’s first large-scale reaction, making it a painful episode in history.

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