The Johnstown Flood

The Johnstown Flood disaster (or Great Flood of 1889 as it became known locally) occurred on May 31, 1889.

It was the result of the failure of the South Fork Dam situated 14 miles (23 km) upstream of the town of Johnstown, Pennsylvania, USA, made worse by several days of extremely heavy rainfall. The dam's failure unleashed a torrent of 20 million tons of water (4.8 billion U.S. gallons; 18.2 million cubic meters; 18.2 billion litres). The flood killed over 2,200 people and caused US$17 million of damage. It was the first major disaster relief effort handled by the new American Red Cross, led by Clara Barton. Support for victims came from all over the United States and 18 foreign countries. After the flood, victims suffered a series of legal defeats in their attempt to recover damages from the dam's owners. Public indignation at that failure prompted a major development in American law—state courts' move from a fault-based regime to strict liability.

On May 28, 1889, a storm formed over Nebraska and Kansas, moving east. When the storm struck the Johnstown-South Fork area two days later it was the worst downpour that had ever been recorded in that part of the country. The U.S. Army Signal Corps estimated that 6 to 10 inches (150 to 250 mm) of rain fell in 24 hours over the entire region. During the night small creeks became roaring torrents, ripping out trees and debris. Telegraph lines were downed and rail lines were washed away. Before daybreak the Conemaugh River that ran through Johnstown was about to burst its banks.

The total death toll was 2,209, making the disaster the largest loss of civilian life in the United States until the 1900 Galveston hurricane, and September 11, 2001. (Some historians believe the 1928 Okeechobee hurricane also killed more people in the U.S. than did the Johnstown Flood, but the official death toll was lower.)

Ninety-nine entire families died in the Johnstown deluge, including 396 children. 124 women and 198 men were left without their spouses, 98 children lost both parents. 777 victims (1 of every 3 bodies found) were never identified and rest in the Plot of the Unknown in Grandview Cemetery in Southmont. An "eternal flame" burns at Point Park in Johnstown, at the confluence of the Stonycreek and Little Conemaugh Rivers, in memory of the flood victims.