History of the Johnstown Flood

Author: Willis F. Johnson  | Date: 1889

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Willis F. Johnson Edgewood Publishing Company 1889

Avalanche of Death: The Johnstown Flood


Friday, May 31st, 1889: Record that awful date in characters of funereal hue. It was a dark and stormy day, and amid the darkness and the storm the angel of death spread his wings over the fated valley, unseen, unknown. Midday comes. Disquieting rumors rush down the valley. There is a roar of an approaching storm—approaching doom! The water swiftly rises. A horseman1 thunders down the valley:

"To the hills, for God’s sake! To the hills, for your lives!"

They stare at him as at a madman, and their hesitating feet linger in the valley of the shadow of death, and the shadow swiftly darkens.

This is what happened:

The heavy rainfall raised the lake until its water began to pour over the top of the dam. The dam itself—wretchedly built of mud and boulders — saturated through and through, began to leak copiously here and there. Each watery sapper and miner burrowed on, followers swiftly enlarging the murderous tunnels. The whole mass became honeycombed. And still the rain poured down, and still the South Fork and a hundred minor streams sent in their swelling floods, until, with a roar like that of the opening gates of the Inferno belching forth the legions of the damned, the wall gave way, and with a rush of a famished tiger in a sheepfold, the whirlwind of water swept down the valley on its errand of destruction.

How sudden was the calamity is illustrated by an incident which Mr. Bender, the night chief operator of the Western Union in Pittsburgh, relates:

"At 3 o’clock that Friday afternoon," said he, "the girl operator at Johnstown was cheerfully ticking away that she had to abandon the office on the first floor, because the water was three feet deep there. She said she was telegraphing from the second story and the water was gaining steadily. She was frightened, and said many houses were flooded. This was evidently before the dam broke, for our man here said something encouraging to her, and she was talking back as only a cheerful girl operator can, when the receiver’s skilled ear caught a sound on the wire made by no human hand, which told him that the wires had grounded, or that the house had been swept away in the flood from the lake—no one knows which now. At 3 o’clock the girl was there, and at 3:07 we might as well have asked the grave to answer us."

When the final break came at 3 o’clock, there was a sound like tremendous and continued peals of thunder. Trees, rocks, and earth shot up into mid-air in great columns and then started down the ravine. A farmer who escaped saw that the water did not come down like a wave, but jumped on his house and beat it to fragments in an instant. He was safe on the hillside, but his wife and two children were killed.

Mr. Crouse, proprietor of the South Fork Fishing Club Hotel, says:

"When the dam of Conemaugh Lake broke, the water seemed to leap, scarcely touching the ground. It bounded down the valley, crashing and roaring, carrying everything before it. For a mile its front seemed like a solid wall twenty feet high."

Richard Davis ran to Prospect Hill when the water [rose].

"I cannot describe the mad rush," he said. "At first it looked like dust. That must have been the spray. I could see the houses going down before it like a child’s play blocks set on edge in a row. As it came nearer I could see houses totter for a moment, then rise, and the next moment be crushed like egg shells against each other."

The stream of human beings that was swept before the angry floods was something most pitiful to behold. Men, women, and children were carried along frantically shrieking for help, but their cries availed them nothing. Rescue was impossible. Husbands were swept past their wives, and children were borne along at a terrific speed, to certain death, before the eyes of their terrorized and frantic parents. Houses, outbuildings, trees. and barns were carried on the angry flood of waters as so much chaff. Cattle standing in the fields were overwhelmed, and their carcasses strewed the tide. The railroad tracks that converged on the town were washed out, and wires in all directions were prostrated.

[Jacob Reese, a Pittsburgh inventor, declared]:

"This avalanche was composed of more than 100,000 tons of rocks, locomotives, freight cars, car trucks, iron, logs, trees and other material pushed forward by 16,000,000 tons of water failing five hundred feet, and it was this that, sliding over the ground, mowed down the houses, mills, and factories as a mowing machine does a field of grain. It swept down with a roaring, crushing sound, at the rate of a mile a minute, and hurled ten thousand people into the jaws of death in less than half an hour. And so the people called it the avalanche of death." . . .

"It was a quarter of four o’clock. At half past three there had been a Johnstown. Now there was none."



1 John G. Parke, a young civil engineer from philadelphia first shouted the news. Daniel peyton then took up the warning, but he himself was carried away when the railroad bridge he was trying to cross on horseback was hit by the wall of water.

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Chicago: Willis F. Johnson, History of the Johnstown Flood, ed. Willis F. Johnson in History in the First Person: Eyewitnesses of Great Events: They Saw It Happen, ed. Louis Leo Snyder and Richard B. Morris (Harrisburg, Pa.: Stackpole Co., 1951), Original Sources, accessed April 14, 2024, http://originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=SHFSKYJ6R5CRYXX.

MLA: Johnson, Willis F. History of the Johnstown Flood, edited by Willis F. Johnson, in History in the First Person: Eyewitnesses of Great Events: They Saw It Happen, edited by Louis Leo Snyder and Richard B. Morris, Harrisburg, Pa., Stackpole Co., 1951, Original Sources. 14 Apr. 2024. http://originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=SHFSKYJ6R5CRYXX.

Harvard: Johnson, WF, History of the Johnstown Flood, ed. . cited in 1951, History in the First Person: Eyewitnesses of Great Events: They Saw It Happen, ed. , Stackpole Co., Harrisburg, Pa.. Original Sources, retrieved 14 April 2024, from http://originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=SHFSKYJ6R5CRYXX.