Johnstown Flood National Memorial

Audio Available:

Quick Overview

This audio-only described brochure for Johnstown Flood National Memorial includes text, black and white photographs, and color illustrations and maps. Side one provides an account of events leading up to, during, and after the Johnstown Flood of May 31, 1889.  The text explores how this flood was not merely a natural disaster, but rather "the work of man."  Side two provides a map of the flood path from South Fork Dam to Johnstown.  A series of black and white photographs add to a better understanding of the devastation left by the flood.   All images are attributed to the National Park Service unless otherwise noted.  Visitor information is also provided on this side of the brochure.   

↑ back to top

Photos: Market Street Before and After the Flood

A pair of before and after photos highlight the devastating impact the flood had on Johnstown.  The first photo is captioned, "Market Street area of Johnstown before the flood. Iron mills and worker housing are in the background." At the center of the image is a bustling town with many buildings and what appears to be a large garden.  

In the second photo, the buildings in some sections of the town have been completely leveled.  The iron mills and worker row homes in the distance have been spared.  The caption reads, "The wave reduced the area to rubble in 10 minutes. Some buildings were spared where the waves split." 

↑ back to top

Text: “A Roar Like Thunder”

On June 1, 1889, Americans woke to the news that Johnstown, Pennsylvania, had been devastated by the worst inland flood in the nation’s history. More than 2,200 were dead, with thousands more injured. When the full story of the flood came to light, many realized that this was more than a natural disaster—that greed and self-interest were powerful accomplices.

 Johnstown in 1889 was a steel company town of German and Welsh families. It was a growing and industrious community of 30,000, known for the quality of its steel. Founded in 1794, Johnstown began to prosper with the building of the Pennsylvania Mainline Canal in 1834 and the arrival of the Cambria Iron Company and Pennsylvania Railroad in the 1850s. 

There was one drawback to living in the city. Johnstown had been built on a floodplain at the fork of the Little Conemaugh and Stonycreek rivers. Over the years the growing city had stripped forests from the surrounding hills and narrowed the riverbanks to gain building space. Without the trees to slow runoff, rainwater was forced into the constricted river channel; heavy annual rains had dramatically increased flooding. 

And there was something else. Fourteen miles up the Little Conemaugh, two-mile-long Lake Conemaugh was held on the side of a mountain—450 feet higher than Johnstown—by the old South Fork Dam. The dam was poorly maintained, and there was talk that the dam might not hold. But it always had, and the supposed threat became a standing joke around town. 

On the afternoon of May 31 town residents heard a low rumble that grew to a “roar like thunder.” After a night of heavy rain the South Fork Dam had finally broken, sending 20 million tons of water crashing down the narrow valley. Most people never saw anything until the 36-foot wall of water, boiling with huge chunks of debris, rolled over them at 40 miles per hour, consuming everything in its path. Those who saw the water said it “snapped off trees like pipestems,” “crushed houses like eggshells,” and “threw around locomotives like so much chaff.” A violent wind preceded it, blowing down small buildings. Making the wave even more terrifying was the black pall of smoke and steam from burst boilers that hung over it—the “death mist” remembered by survivors. 

Thousands of people desperately tried to escape the wave, but they were slowed as in a nightmare as deepening water covered the town. One observer on a hill said the streets “grew black with people running for their lives.” Some remembered reaching the hills and pulling themselves out of the flood path seconds before it overtook them. Those caught by the wave found themselves swept up in a torrent of oily, yellow-brown water, surrounded by tons of grinding debris that crushed some and provided rafts for others. Many became helplessly entangled in miles of barbed wire from the destroyed Gaultier Wire Works. People who were indoors raced up­stairs seconds ahead of the rising water, which reached the third story in many buildings. Some never had a chance, as homes were crushed or ripped from foundations, adding to the churning rubble. People clinging to debris struggled to keep their balance as their rafts pitched in the flood. 

It was over in 10 minutes—but for some the worst was to come. Thousands of people were stranded in attics or on roofs of buildings that withstood the initial wave but were now threatened by the 20-foot-deep current that tore at foundations. In the growing darkness they watched buildings topple, not knowing if theirs would last the night. 

The most harrowing experience for hundreds came at the stone railroad bridge below the junction of the rivers (see diagram below “The Flood Paths”). Thousands of tons of debris scraped from the valley, along with a good part of Johnstown, piled up against the bridge’s arches. The 45-acre mass held homes, machinery, freight cars, railroad track, bridge sections, boilers, telegraph poles, trees, animals, and hundreds of people. The oil-soaked jam was immovable, held against the bridge by the current and bound tight by the barbed wire. 

Some people were able to scramble over the heap to shore. Many were trapped in the wreckage or snared in the wire, unable to move. Then the oil caught fire. As rescuers worked in the dark to free people, flames spread over the whole mass, burning with “all the fury of hell,” according to a Johnstown newspaper. More than 80 people died at the bridge, some still in their own homes. 

The next morning an eerie silence hung over Johnstown. The water receded during the night, leaving vast heaps of rubble in the streets (where there were streets). Entire blocks were destroyed. Hundreds of people, alive and dead, lay buried in debris and mud. 

Many bodies were never identified, and hundreds of the missing were never found. Disease followed in the wake of the flood, and typhoid added 40 more lives to the 2,209 lost in the flood. Emergency morgues and hospitals were set up, and commissaries distributed food and clothing. The nation responded to the disaster with an outpouring of time, money, food, and clothing. Contributions from the United States and other countries totaled more than $3,700,000. 

Property damage was $17 million. The cleanup operation took years, with bodies still being found months (and years) after the flood. The city regained its population and rebuilt its manufacturing centers, but it was years before Johnstown fully recovered.

↑ back to top

Photo and text: Retreat for the Rich

In the bottom right of this historical photo from the Johnstown Area Heritage Association Archives, steps lead down from a covered deck area to a path the leads to the lake on the left.  Also along the lakeshore, a small, low-roofed cottage sits in the middle of the picture, partially obscured by bushy vegetation, and a boathouse can be seen in the distance next to a stand of trees.  Connecting the buildings is a ground-level boardwalk on which two people can be seen standing in the distance.  The grounds appear manicured with plant beds along the deck, boardwalk, and even inside an old rowboat.

Accompanying text reads, "On Lake Conemaugh, the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club was an exclusive and somewhat secretive retreat for the Pittsburgh rich. They repaired the old dam, raised the lake level, and built a clubhouse and cottages. The members enjoyed hunting, sailing, and cruising on two excursion steamers. But the club did not maintain the dam well, and it weakened dangerously."

↑ back to top

Map: The Flood Paths

This simplified street map of historic Johnstown by the National Park Service shows the path of the flood down the Little Conemaugh River and through Johnstown.  Stonycreek River flows from the bottom to the top of the image's left side.  Little Conemaugh River flows from the middle of the right side of the map and joins the Stonycreek River, continuing to flow into Conemaugh River at the top of the image.   Johnstown is located at the confluence of the LIttle Conemaugh and Stonycreek Rivers.  The stone bridge sits at the juncture of the two rivers near Millville to the north.  The flood path is shown outlined using an arrow that starts from Woodvale on the right and splits into three as it hits the town towards the bottom left of the image.  The caption reads, "When the flood struck Johnstown, the wave divided: part followed the river channel and the rest headed downtown. Large buildings split the second wave again. Water roared down Clinton and Jackson streets; the rest plowed directly through town. The central wave crashed into the sheer hillside at Stonycreek River, causing a backwash up the river and a violent whirlpool above the stone bridge."

↑ back to top

Photo and text: A Wild Ride

Portrait of a young man with short wavy hair, longer on top than the sides.  He wears a dark suit jacket, white shirt with stand-up collar, and a patterned tie.  He looks directly at the camera with a neutral expression.  

Text next to the photo reads, "Victor Heiser recalled: 'The townspeople, like those who live in the shadow of Vesuvius, grew calloused to the possibility of danger.'  Heiser was in the family barn when the flood struck. He saw his home, with his parents in it, crushed and swept away. Clinging to the barn roof, he had a wild ride down the Conemaugh River and then up Stonycreek River on the backwash, ending up in Kernville."

↑ back to top

Photo and text: Aid from the Red Cross

In this photo portrait of Clara Barton, attributed to the Library of Congress and Mathew Brady, Barton is wearing a dark dress, buttoned to the neck, with a lace collar. Her dark hair appears to be pulled up in the back and is parted down the middle above her forehead. She is smiling. 

Accompanying text reads, "Clara Barton, known as the “Angel of the Battlefield” during the Civil War, arrived five days after the flood. It was the first test of her newly formed American Red Cross. With a staff of 50 doctors and nurses, she surveyed the injured, set up hospital tents, built six “Red Cross hotels” for the homeless, and distributed food, clothing, and medicine."

↑ back to top

Collage of photos of the flood devastation

Image description: Enter your audio-description of

- the black and white photograph of the (Caption: Shattered buildings were thrown into jumbled piles three stories high, completely filling some blocks.)
NPS

- the black and white photograph of the house pierced by a tree (Caption: The flood snapped large trees like sticks and turned them into battering rams that pierced walls.)
NPS

- the black adn white photo of Cambria Iron Company (Caption: Cambria Iron Company’s prompt reassurance that mills would be rebuilt heartened the Johnstown citizens who depended on them.)
LIBRARY OF CONGRESS

- the black and white photo of the jammed stone bridge (Caption: A jam at the stone bridge caused a 10- to 30-foot lake over Johnstown. The fire caused by oil and hot coals burned for two days. More than 80 people died here.)
NPS

- the black and white photo of the garbage and rubbish (Caption: As soon as the water receded, rescue workers began searching for survivors and bodies. Some waited days to be rescued.)
NPS

- the black and white photo of the locomotive (Caption: Locomotives at East Conemaugh trainyard were tossed like toys, some ending up a mile away.)
NPS
↑ back to top

Photo and text: Unknown Flood Victims

A cemetery is shown in this historic photo from the Johnstown Area Heritage Association Archives.  In the foreground stands a large stone monument to the unidentified flood victims.  The monument has a wide, rectangular base and gradually narrows, with a smaller statue affixed at the top.  Behind the monument is a plot with sixteen rows of identical, evenly spaced tombstones.  More conventional, non-uniform plots lie adjacent to and behind these rows.  Neatly trimmed grass covers the cemetery lawn with a few trees scattered throughout and filling in the background.

The caption reads, "Grandview Cemetery contains graves of the unknown flood victims. In the disaster 99 families were wiped out, and 98 children were orphaned.  After the flood, Major John Wesley Powell wrote:  'Modern Industries are handling the forces of nature on a stupendous scale....Woe to the people who trust those powers to the hands of fools'."

↑ back to top

Text: “Our Misery Is the Work of Man”

Text: Warnings about a possible flood reached the people of Johnstown three times in the hours before the dam broke—but they had heard those kinds of warnings before. The South Fork Dam, one of the largest earthen dams in the world, had always held during high water. Besides, wasn’t the dam maintained by some of the richest men in America? The South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club, made up of Pittsburgh industrialists and businessmen such as Andrew Carnegie and Andrew Mellon, had bought the lake and dam nine years earlier to use as a summer retreat. The reservoir was originally built to supply water for the Pennsylvania Mainline Canal, and the dam met accepted engineering practices of the time. But the canal system was obsolete by the time the dam was completed in 1853, and the Pennsylvania Railroad bought it four years later. In 1862 a break occurred near the discharge pipes (see diagram at right), draining the lake, but little damage resulted because the lake level was low at the time. The railroad abandoned the dam and it deteriorated until 1879, when it was bought by the South Fork Club. At first the 72-foot-high dam frightened some residents of Johnstown. Said one: “No one could see the immense height to which that artificial dam had been built without fearing the tremendous power of the water behind it. . . . 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.” Others, realizing their continuing vulnerability, called the dam “the sword of Damocles hanging over Johns­town.” Daniel Morrell, president of Cambria Iron, asked the South Fork Club to strengthen the dam. The club’s president refused, saying: “You and your people are in no danger from our enterprise.” On the morning of May 31, 1889, in a farmhouse above the dam, Elias Unger (current president of the South Fork Club) awoke to the sight of a lake swollen after a night of torrential rain. Unger rushed to the dam to assess the situation. Horrified, he saw water nearly cresting the dam. Unger acted quickly to try to save it. Soon a group of men were atop the South Fork Dam—some plowing the earth to raise it, some digging another spillway at the other end, and some trying to plug leaks with whatever materials they could find. John Parke, an engineer for the South Fork Club, briefly considered cutting through the dam’s end, where the pressure would be less. Feeling that he would be held responsible for flooding the valley, Parke decided against it. Unger, Parke, and the others worked until they were exhausted. When the dam started to break at 3:10 pm, Parke wrote later, “the fearful rushing waters opened the gap with such increasing rapidity that soon after the entire lake leaped out. . . . It took but forty minutes to drain that three miles of water.” One observer said the water “roared like a mighty battle.” Twenty million tons of water took its natural course, dropping 450 feet in 14 miles, at times in a wall 70 to 75 feet high traveling 40 miles per hour. Telegraph lines were down, and Johnstown received no more warnings. In 57 minutes the wave engulfed the town. Over 2,200 people were unaware that death was moving down the valley.
↑ back to top

Illustration: South Fork Club's Maintenance of Dam

This digital color illustration shows a simplified version of the lake, dam, and spillway.  At the top of the image is the lake, shown surrounded by greenery.  At the middle of the image, a spillway lies to the left, moderating the flow of water leaving the lake.  To the right of the spillway is the dam, drawn to show a noticeable sag from the dotted line representing the height of the top of the spillway.  The illustration of the dam shows some large stones were used in its construction.  Different parts of the image are numerically labeled with accompanying text that reads:

"South Fork Club’s maintenance of dam: 

1 Fish trap built across the spillway. In heavy rains, debris clogged trap and spillway.  2 Two- to four-foot sag developed along dam wall; club did not repair it.  3 Dam height reduced by one- to three-feet. This and the sag meant that the center of dam—the part bearing the greatest pressure and should have been its highest point—was only four feet above the bottom of the spillway.  4 Stone riprap covering the face of dam poorly maintained.  5 Original discharge pipes not replaced. Culvert holding pipes carelessly filled in." 



↑ back to top

Photo: John Parke

This black and white portrait photo from the University of Pennsylvania shows a young man with short straight hair, parted off center.  He carries a straight face with closed lips as he gazes to the left.  He wears a white collared shirt and colored jacket.  The caption states, " John Parke, the club engineer who tried in vain to save the dam, rode his horse at breakneck speed to South Fork to warn Johnstown."

↑ back to top

Photo: South Fork Dam Today

This modern-day color photograph shows the site of the former dam on a bright, partly cloudy day.  In this image taken from one side of the river, a large earthen mound, long since covered by lush green grass, is visible along the opposite riverbank.  Atop the grassy mound is a line of dense forest running perpendicular to the slow-moving river.  The caption reads, "Two worn abutments are all that remain of what was one of the largest earthen dams in the world in 1889. The old lakebed and the quiet Little Conemaugh River give little indication of the awesome power released on the day the dam broke, causing the deadliest inland flood in the nation’s history."

↑ back to top

Understanding the Johnstown Flood

↑ back to top

Text: In the Flood's Wake

Lake Conemaugh broke through the South Fork Dam at the velocity and depth of the Niagara River as it goes over the falls. Farmers below the dam described the wave as “a turbulent wall of water, filling the entire valley.” At times the tons of debris gathered by the wave caused it to choke up in the narrow valley, stop momentarily, then explode forward again with greater power. The debris actually spared Johnstown even worse destruction, as it slowed the wave to a maximum speed of about 40 miles per hour. The water would have reached 60 to 90 miles per hour if it had rushed unimpeded down the valley. You can follow the flood’s path on the map below (read the numbers from right to left).

↑ back to top

Map of the greater Johnstown Area

A map of the greater Johnstown area highlights the path of the Johnstown Flood from the South Fork Dam area to the city of Johnstown.  The map is oriented to the North and spans the width of the brochure.  On a beige landscape, connecting waterways are shown in blue, major roadways in red, and light blue arrows trace the path of the flood.  Generally, the flood path is shaped like an inverted V, starting from the bottom right at South Fork Dam, heading northeast then changing course and heading southwest towards the city of Johnstown.  Two major roadways, colored red, cross this area. Highway 56 runs in a southeasterly direction through Johnstown, and US 219  which runs in a northeasterly direction adjacent to the Johnstown Flood National Memorial.  

Starting in the east, The Johnstown Flood National Memorial is shown in green at the end of a narrow body of water.  Different shades of blue show the varying size of the water, from a deeper blue reservoir about 2 miles long and half mile wide in 1853 to a slightly wider and longer lake in 1889.  A brighter sky blue shows the present river level as a mere sliver.  The National Memorial has a picnic area and visitor center sitting on opposite sides of the river near US 219.   The following numbered texts chronicle the sequence and location of major events of Johnstown Flood.  

 "1 At the South Fork Dam site are the two abutments and dry lake bed left after the 1889 break. The South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club Historic District preserves eight of the original cottages and the clubhouse in the town of Saint Michael. 

2 South Fork, two miles downstream, was the first town struck by the flood. The water destroyed 20–30 homes. Four people died. 

3 The valley of the Little Conemaugh River below South Fork narrows abruptly. Here the mass of water pushed up 70 to 75 feet. It ripped up rail­road track and ties, which joined the flood. 

4 The railroad crossed the river on the 78-foot-high Conemaugh Viaduct at the end of a two-mile-long ox­bow. Part of the wave left the river channel, crossed the oxbow, and hit the viaduct. Wreckage at the viaduct dammed the water briefly. The rest of the flood followed the river channel, crashing into the viaduct seven minutes later. When the viaduct collapsed, the flood and debris gushed forth with greater violence than at the South Fork Dam. 

5 Mineral Point, one mile below the viaduct, was struck with renewed force. Thirty families lived on the village’s single street. After the flood only bare rock remained; 16 people died. 

6 Mineral Point, one mile below the viaduct, was struck with renewed force. Thirty families lived on the village’s single street. After the flood only bare rock remained; 16 people died. 

7 The flood gathered speed and power as the river straightened between East Conemaugh and Woodvale, hitting these towns hardest of all. Woodvale, like Johns-town, had no warning. Cambria Iron Company’s model town was leveled; only part of a mill still stood in a sea of mud. Of the 1,100 residents, 314 died. Boilers exploded when the flood hit Gaultier Wire Works, creating a black “death mist” seen by Johns­­town residents. 

8 Today you can see the stone bridge where debris, animals, and humans piled up and caught fire. The stone church that helped split the wave is at the corner of Locust and Franklin streets. The Johnstown Flood Museum (fee), 304 Washington Street, has information and exhibits. You can ride the Johns­town Inclined Plane (fee) for views of the city. Visit Grandview Ceme­tery to see the graves of un­known flood victims."

↑ back to top

Photo: South Fork Dam

A couple of two-story buildings and a small shed are situated near the riverbank in the middle of the photo.  Fencing runs the length of the image from left to right in front of the buildings.  The image appears to be taken from a higher vantage point with low-lying brush filling in the foreground.  Starting from the top left, the river snakes its way behind the buildings and through to the right side of the image.  Accompanying text reads, "The South Fork Dam did not instantly burst (left). Observers remember the water gouging out a “big notch,” then cutting down rapidly through the earth. “The whole dam seemed to push out all at once. Not a break, just one big push.”


↑ back to top

Photo: Conemaugh Viaduct

In this photograph taken near the riverbank before the flood, a stone bridge-like structure with archway spans the width of the slow-moving Conemaugh River.  Visible through the archway and along the riverbank is dense, leafy vegetation.  Text reads, "The 78-foot Conemaugh Viaduct (left) stopped the flood temporarily when debris jammed against its arch. A lake deeper than the original formed, then the viaduct collapsed." 



↑ back to top

Photo: Woodvale

In a sodden, barren landscape, a man in dark pants and light-colored jacket surveys the destruction with his back turned to the camera.  Several makeshift tents are visible on the left and right sides of the photo.  The caption reads, "In Woodvale (right) only the mills in the background withstood the wave. Miles of barbed wire floated free when the wire works was destroyed, adding to the terror of those caught in the flood."

↑ back to top

Photos: Destruction left by Johnstown Flood

At the bottom of side two, six photographs display the damage caused by the Johnstown Flood.  Each image is described separately.

In the first photo, about a dozen men stand atop various rooftops of intact and destroyed multi-story buildings.  In the foreground, the buildings lay at angles heaped in ruin, though some rooftops remain sturdy enough for about a dozen men to stand upon.  Towards the back, more men stand atop buildings that remain upright, intact, and undamaged.  The caption reads, "Shattered buildings were thrown into jumbled piles three stories high, completely filling some blocks."  

In the second photo, two large two-story buildings have been upturned.  Though no longer level to the ground, the building on the right remains mostly upright with broken and missing window panes.  The building on the left lays nearly completely on its side.  Sticking out perpendicular to the building from what would normally be considered the second floor, is a massive tree trunk extending approximately twenty feet from the building.  The tree's roots have been completely shorn away and a man with a suit jacket and hat sits on the smooth trunk elevated about 2 to 3 times his height off the ground.  Below him, at the bottom right of the image, a boy in dark clothes sits on a box and a woman in a patterned dress and white bonnet stands, holding a dark umbrella, with her other hand resting on wreckage.   The text reads, "The flood snapped large trees like sticks and turned them into battering rams that pierced walls."

The third photo shows the destruction at the Cambria Iron Company's mills.  In the middle of the image, one end of a large building is destroyed with its structural supports and roof collapsed.  Several men stand in front of the collapsed building and debris litters the foreground.  Behind the building, smokestacks and some other structures appear intact.  The photo is captioned, "Cambria Iron Company's prompt reassurance that mills would be rebuilt heartened the Johnstown citizens who depended on them."

This fourth photo shows the bridge with stone archways that withstood the flood.  People can be seen on top of the bridge and amidst the rubble and debris below.  Though a section of the river underneath the archways flows freely, the rest is ensnared in wreckage piled nearly to the top of the archways.  The caption reads, "A jam at the stone bridge caused a 10- to 30-foot lake over Johnstown.  The fire caused by oil and hot coals burned for two days.  More than 80 people died here."

The fifth photo also shows the enormity of the situation as men sift through the seemingly endless piles of wreckage, some of them digging through the debris using long poles.  The caption reads, "As soon as the water receded, rescue workers began searching for survivors and bodies.  Some waited days to be rescued."

In the last photo, a derailed train rests atop a massive pile of debris several times taller than the three men standing in the wreckage.  The caption states, "Locomotives at East Conemaugh trainyard were tossed like toys, some ending up a mile away."   

↑ back to top

OVERVIEW: More Information

Visitor Center 

Information, exhibits, and a film about the flood. Call the park or check the website for hours, programs, and activities. 

 Accessibility 

We strive to make our facilities, services, and programs accessible to all. For information go to the visitor center, call, or check the park website. 

Getting Here 

Take US 219 to Saint Michael/Sidman exit. Go east on PA 869. Turn left onto Lake Road to the park. 

Safety and Regulations 

For More Information
Johnstown Flood National Memorial 

733 Lake Road South Fork, PA 15956 

814-495-4643 

www.nps.gov/jofl

Johnstown Flood National Memorial is one of over 400 parks in the National Park System. Learn about national parks at www.nps.gov. 

↑ back to top