A flood that claimed the lives of more than 2,200 people continues to fascinate historians and true-crime buffs, about 130 years after it took place. The catastrophe effectively wiped out an entire town in Pennsylvania.
The tragedy occurred in the state’s Rust Belt in 1889 and is referred to as the “Johnstown Flood.”
What Was the Johnstown Flood?
The Johnstown Flood occurred after the long-neglected South Fork Dam broke in the Rust Belt town of Johnstown, Pennsylvania. The town is located 60 miles east of Pittsburgh.
The Johnstown Flood had a volumetric flow rate that temporarily equaled the average flow rate of the Mississippi River, according to Science News.
The flood claimed the lives of approximately 2,200 people. That amounted to about 10 percent of the population in the area.
It also caused about $17 million of damage, which amounts to about $534 million if it were to happen today.
The flood was one of the worst in U.S. history.
Why Did the Flood Happen?
Johnstown was susceptible to flooding because it was located on a plain between two rivers: the Little Conemaugh and Stony Creek.
The South Fork Dam was located 14 miles upstream and helped control the waters.
The dam was the biggest when it was built, according to History.com. It was 72 feet tall and 900 feet long. But after the transportation of goods shifted from rivers to railroads, the dam fell into disrepair.
The town was home to about 30,000 people, many of whom worked in the steel industry.
The Johnstown Flood started on May 31, 1889, after the dam collapsed. The incident occurred shortly before 3 p.m., and it took about an hour for the majority of the lake to empty after the dam broke, according to the National Library of Medicine.
Waters raged at up to 40 miles per hour.
The Flood’s Legacy
A New York Times report said the Johnstown Flood “practically wiped out of existence.”
It “swept onward… like a tidal wave… houses, factories and bridges were overwhelmed in the twinkling of an eye and with their human occupants were carried in a vast chaos down the raging torrent,” according to the report.
American Red Cross founder Clara Barton and 50 additional volunteers from the organization attended to the disaster area after the flood transpired, according to its website.
Failed lawsuits that the flood survivors filed in an effort to recover damages from the dam’s owners sparked a change in federal law. Whereas damages were previously awarded on a fault-based system, the dam shifted it to become one of strict liability.