News / USA

A Visit to Flood City, USA

Despite Hurricane Katrina, it isn't New Orleans

This Harper's Weekly illustration, published shortly after the flood, was no exaggeration of the churning, watery wall of death that befell Johnstown.
This Harper's Weekly illustration, published shortly after the flood, was no exaggeration of the churning, watery wall of death that befell Johnstown.

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Ted Landphair

One of the most famous small towns in America is Johnstown, Pennsylvania, population 24,000.

Unfortunately, it owes that fame to a tragedy.

In the late 19th Century, Johnstown was the nation's mightiest steel center - more prosperous than Pittsburgh - turning out steel rails and barbed wire. The air was yellow and black from the smoke, but the pay was good.

Johnstown, Pennsylvania after the Great Flood of 1889
Johnstown, Pennsylvania after the Great Flood of 1889

The town lay on a flat plain at the base of an Allegheny Mountain valley so steep that the hillsides rose straight upward along the Little Connemaugh River.

It was a natural funnel, pointed directly downhill at Johnstown.

High in those mountains, behind a crude earthen dam, wealthy Pittsburgh industrialists and their friends sailed yachts on a pretty private lake.

Naysayers warned of a catastrophic flood should the dam break, but amid the prosperity, the warnings were ignored. Town leaders said any floodwaters coursing down the mountain would flatten out once they reached the valley.

This monument to unknown victims - there were 777 unidentified - stands at a national park commemorating the Great Flood in Johnstown.
This monument to unknown victims - there were 777 unidentified - stands at a national park commemorating the Great Flood in Johnstown.

But one spring night in 1889 and on into the next day, drenching thunderstorms pounded the mountainsides.

The lake rose, intensifying pressure against the dam.

With the force of a giant waterfall, the dam burst, launching a wall of water 18 meters [60 feet] high down the funnel toward Johnstown faster than warnings could be sounded.

Grinding up trees, houses, boulders, locomotives, humans, and animals in its path, it slammed into Johnstown, pulverizing the center of town.

Afterward, most observers blamed the rich yachtsmen and their leaky earthen dam for the deaths of 2,200 men, women and children.

Johnstown is still flood-prone. This shot was taken in 1977, when 85 people died, hundreds were left homeless, and property damage topped $300 million in flooding that followed a summer deluge.
Johnstown is still flood-prone. This shot was taken in 1977, when 85 people died, hundreds were left homeless, and property damage topped $300 million in flooding that followed a summer deluge.

These days, tourists make a point of visiting a museum that tells the dramatic story. Ironically, it's located in a building donated by industrialist Andrew Carnegie.

He was one of the owners of the pleasure club whose members cavorted high above ill-fated Johnstown, Pennsylvania.

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