Destruction in Johnstown after the flood
On May 31, 1889, South Fork Dam near Johnstown, Pennsylvania, collapsed, releasing the entire volume of Lake Conemaugh into the valley below. The ensuing disaster, known as the Johnstown Flood, resulted in the deaths of over 2,200 people.
In 1889, around 30,000 people lived in the booming steel mill city of Johnstown, located in a valley so prone to flooding that in the mid-1800s South Fork Dam was built 14 miles upstream on Little Conemaugh River. It was the largest earth dam (made of dirt and rock) in the United States and created Lake Conemaugh, the largest man-made lake of the time. Once part of a canal system, the rise of railroads led to the canals falling into disuse, and maintenance of the dam was neglected.
Events of the Flood
Heavy rain on May 30, 1889, chipped away at the dam’s structural integrity while Lake Conemaugh’s levels steadily rose. When the danger became clear to dam engineers trying to clear the clogged spillways, a rider was sent to evacuate valley residents. Unfortunately, either the warning never reached Johnstown because of downed telegraph lines, or it went unheeded. Most in the valley were used to smaller incidents and took the usual precautions of moving to higher levels in their homes rather than evacuating.
The dam collapsed with a roar at 3:10 p.m. on May 31, sending a 30-foot-high wall of water rushing through the communities of South Fork, Mineral Point, Woodvale, and East Conemaugh. The deluge hit Johnstown at 4:07 p.m., carrying trees, railroad cars, houses, barns, animals, and people with it. Thousands were drowned or crushed, and around 80 survivors clustered on Johnstown Bridge burned to death when the debris that had saved them from the flood caught fire.
2,209 people died in the disaster, and 1,600 homes were destroyed. The recently established American Red Cross, led by Clara Barton, constructed shelters for survivors and organized relief supplies. It took five years for Johnstown to be rebuilt, though it would not be the last deadly flood the city would see.
Learn more about the Johnstown Flood through historical newspapers from our archives. Explore newspaper articles, headlines, images, and other primary sources below.
Articles and Clippings about the Johnstown Flood
History, description, and misgivings in relation to South Fork Dam, 8 yrs prior to Johnstown Flood Thu, Feb 17, 1881 – 1 · The Altoona Tribune (Altoona, Pennsylvania) · Newspapers.comPennsylvania editorial describes horrifying scene of Johnstown Flood, May 31, 1889 Fri, May 31, 1889 – 5 · Everett Press (Everett, Pennsylvania) · Newspapers.comEarly report of Johnstown Flood includes somber stories, names of identified dead, relief efforts Fri, May 31, 1889 – 2 · The Sun and the Erie County Independent (Hamburg, New York) · Newspapers.comDescription of Lake Conemaugh reservoir, South Fork Dam, swollen streams caused by heavy rain Sat, Jun 1, 1889 – 1 · () · Newspapers.comFlood courses through South Fork, Mineral Point, Conemaugh, Woodvale, Johnstown and sister towns Sat, Jun 1, 1889 – 1 · Meadville Saturday Night (Meadville, Pennsylvania) · Newspapers.comFront page feature details events of Johnstown Flood, known locally as "The Great Flood" Sat, Jun 1, 1889 – Page 1 · Harrisburg Telegraph (Harrisburg, Pennsylvania) · Newspapers.comDozens burned to death when fire breaks out on Johnstown bridge during flood of 1889 Sat, Jun 1, 1889 – Page 1 · Lancaster Daily Intelligencer (Lancaster, Pennsylvania) · Newspapers.comReport of destruction at Johnstown, "Seventy Persons" burned to death in fire at Johnstown Bridge Sat, Jun 1, 1889 – 1 · Buffalo Evening News (Buffalo, New York) · Newspapers.comEditorial tale of engineer who saw danger of flood at dam, attempted to fix it, rode to warn city Tue, Jun 4, 1889 – Page 1 · The Evening World (New York, New York) · Newspapers.comSensationalized contemporary account of "Unknown Paul Revere's Wild Ride" to warn of flood (excerpt) Tue, Jun 4, 1889 – Page 1 · The Evening World (New York, New York) · Newspapers.comIllustration of citizens driving away "human vultures" in aftermath of Johnstown Flood Tue, Jun 4, 1889 – Page 1 · The Evening World (New York, New York) · Newspapers.comMap of Lake Conemaugh prior to the Johnstown Flood of May 31, 1889 Wed, Jun 5, 1889 – Page 3 · St. Louis Post-Dispatch (St. Louis, Missouri) · Newspapers.comJune 1, 1889, editorial describes scene of flood, deaths, robberies at Johnstown (excerpt) Wed, Jun 5, 1889 – 2 · The Perry County Democrat (Bloomfield, Pennsylvania) · Newspapers.comIllustrative depiction of the South Fork Dam following failure in Johnstown Flood of 1889 Thu, Jun 6, 1889 – Page 2 · St. Louis Post-Dispatch (St. Louis, Missouri) · Newspapers.comArtist's depiction of damage to Johnstown's Main Street after deadly flood of 1889 Fri, Jun 7, 1889 – Page 2 · St. Louis Post-Dispatch (St. Louis, Missouri) · Newspapers.comRain obstructs cleanup efforts at Johnstown, flood deaths estimated at less than 2700 Sat, Jun 15, 1889 – 2 · The Rock Island Argus (Rock Island, Illinois) · Newspapers.comClara Barton and Red Cross thank citizens for contributions to relief following Johnstown Flood Wed, Jul 17, 1889 – Page 4 · The Weekly Democrat (Natchez, Mississippi) · Newspapers.comHeadline and excerpt from 1977 Johnstown Flood also caused by heavy rainfall Thu, Jul 21, 1977 – 1 · Wilkes-Barre Times Leader, the Evening News, Wilkes-Barre Record (Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania) · Newspapers.com
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