The Johnstown Flood of 1889: May 31, 1889

The Johnstown Flood of 1889: May 31, 1889

On the afternoon of May 31, 1889, heavy rains caused the dam on Lake Conemaugh to fail, sending the water from the lake rushing downstream to devastate the city of Johnstown, Pennsylvania. With a death toll upwards of two thousand, the Johnstown flood was the deadliest natural disaster in American history up to that point.

Johnstown Flood of 1889 headlinesLake Conemaugh was a manmade reservoir created in 1853. In 1879, the lake and the surrounding land were sold to the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club to create a getaway in the Pennsylvania mountains for Pittsburg’s elite, including Andrew Carnegie, Henry Clay Frick, and Andrew Mellon. Although warned in 1881 by an engineer that the lake’s dam desperately needed maintenance—improper repairs, among other problems, had weakened the dam—the club ignored the recommendations.

Fourteen miles downstream from Lake Conemaugh was Johnstown, a booming steel mill city. An unusually heavy rainstorm that began on May 30, 1889, caused nearby rivers to overflow their banks, and the streets of Johnstown filled with water; the storm also caused the waters of Lake Conemaugh to rise rapidly. Despite frantic last-ditch efforts to prevent the dam from failing, the dam collapsed around 3 p.m. on the 31st.

The water of Lake Conemaugh was sent hurtling into the valley below, wreaking havoc on the smaller towns in its path and wiping out houses, trees, railcars, animals, and people. By the time the water reached Johnstown about an hour later, it was still dozens of feet deep and moving at about 40 miles per hour.

As the water cut its destructive path through Johnstown, the massive amount of debris carried by the flood accumulated against a stone railroad bridge that stood on the edge of the city. Somehow, the mountain of debris caught fire that evening, and the resulting conflagration killed many people who had been trapped in the debris.

The water from the dam took only about 10 minutes to sweep through the city, but it left incredible damage in its wake. More than two thousand people were killed, including ninety-nine entire families, and 1,600 homes were destroyed.

When news of the disaster reached the outside world, money and supplies came pouring in to help the people of Johnstown and the surrounding communities rebuild their homes, businesses, and lives. Clara Barton and her newly created American Red Cross provided relief for five months. Although lawsuits were filed against the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club, none of them were successful, and the club was not held legally accountable for the disaster.

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63 thoughts on “The Johnstown Flood of 1889: May 31, 1889

  1. Thank you for highlighting this unfortunate natural disaster in our country’s history. Coincidentally, I just finished reading David McCullough’s book about the Johnstown flood, so I was familiar with the details. It is a little known event from our past.
    Keep sending these great blog entries!

    1. I have studied this travesty…. PBS had a Incredible documentary .The lake was built by the Main Line Canal Co.It went Broke and the State Took ownership. IT was then sold to a salvage Co that removed all the iron work that was the controls to drain the lake for repairs. The lake was then sold to the fishing &hunting club. The final statement; Responsible people in Responsible Positions did not act Responsible.

    2. If you still have interest, and can stomach a first-person account of that horiffic event, read “An American Doctor’s Odyssey, Adventures in Forty-Five Countries”, by Dr. Victor Heiser. You will be hard-pressed to find a more compelling first eight pages in literature – fiction or non.

  2. Thank you for making this article know. I am trying to find more evidence that Thomas Joseph Meenan was living in Millville at the time of the flood. He was living there in the 1800 census on 27th Iron Street.
    I did find two articles in the newspaper, where refugees was taken in, given food, shelter and clothing and Thomas and his family was mention. They had one daughter that was lost for three days after the flood. Their was also a mention of a James Carley, that went back to Johnstown because he was telegrapher. Carley is Thomas’s wife maiden name. And her father is named James Carley.

  3. Thank you for this interesting article detailing the Jonestown Flood. Up until now I had only heard about it but not the details leading up to it nor the devastation. How sad people didn’t heed the warnings of the experts. So many lost for nothing.

    1. JOHNSTOWN, not Jonestown. Jonestown was the cyanide poisoning massacre in Guyana, South America that was engineered by Jim Jones an American.

  4. How is it that the hunting & fishing camp was not held responsible for the bridge??

    1. I’d like to know that myself. Big money and things were different back then I guess was the reason but maybe the descendants of all those who were killed including their homes and livestock, pets, etc., should file a class action law suit to the source who ignored the warnings and make sure that it doesn’t happen again. Did they rebuild that dam? I hope not.

      1. Sue, They didn’t rebuild the dam. I live less than 100 miles from Johnstown and visited the area last year. Walking along the remains of where the lake was, I was able to see just how deep and wide it was and really grasp how so many people lost their lives. My g-g-grandmother, her brother and 2 maiden sisters survived the flood and she died in 1929 at almost 100 yrs. old.

        1. Thank you so much for this first-hand update on the dam. Amazing about your family and how nice to make it to 100 in reasonably good health. Appreciate all of these follow up comments to my question!

        2. My grandfather, a boy of ten, was an eye witness to the devastation of the Johnstown flood. His family lived about 21 miles north of Johnstown. When news of the disaster reached them, he and his father walked the distance to Johnstown to check on relatives who lived there. Twenty years later, in 1909, as a newly wed, he built a home for his bride in Grafton, a small village northwest of Johnstown about 23 miles. Black Lick Creek ran right behind their house. They lived in the home until 1950 when the State bought out all the inhabitants of Grafton and destroyed the village to create a flood control area to help prevent a recurrence of the Johnstown disaster.

      2. 2,209 dead from 1889, The dam flooded twice more. In 1936 killing 2 dozen and then again in 1977 killing 85 more. Businesses left Johnstown, hundreds of people were homeless. The Grandview Cemetery has the largest unknown plot of 777 stones (unknown) in the country, besides Wash Dc soldiers.

        1. Judi, the dam was not rebuilt after the disastrous flood. There were subsequent floods, but not due to a fault dam at this site. If you ever have the opportunity to visit the dam site, walk out onto the parapet and look up the valley — just standing there and realizing the extent of the size of that lake made shivers run up my back. It is very much an almost overwhelming sight to see. (My family lived in Johnstown, but not until about 10 years after the flood)

          1. There were 2 more floods, in 1936 and 1977, however they had nothing to do with the dam that caused the 1889 flood. It was gone and not rebuilt.

    2. The primary reason is that some of the most powerful lawyers from Pittsburgh belonged to the club, while most of those who lost out in the flood were lower-class folk. The club was scared … they quickly disbanded and hoped no one would notice.

    3. Because it was owned by the elite of the day, and like the elite of today they are never held responsible for their actions.

      1. I agree wholeheartedly to this statement. Just as it was then it is now. Such a sad story@

  5. Most of those who died were Irish. Floods bring disease and the Irish had no knowledge of aspirin, one of the few life saving drugs of the time. In German Cincinnati, the 1918 Swine pandemic flu only killed 3. In Philadelphia, another heavily Irish populated town, had over 10,000 dead who were buried in mass graves with steam shovels. It seems for the iIrish that if it wasn’t for bad luck they would have had no luck at all. Yet they helped and cared about one another in a very altruistic way giving the best to the young families even at the expense of their own lives. The Johnston flood was not different.

    1. thank you Vera. I didn’t know this either. I was originally from MD and we didn’t learn this in school, only that there was the flood. Did they rebuild the dam?

  6. Anyone being held responsible takes money and like my grandfather born in 1874 said at age 90, it is not what you know but who you know. What you know helps. He said if people listened to what Jesus advised and worked together standing strong together for what is right, he had no doubt we would make it to the moon. We did 5 years later. Grandpa, like Jesus, was a jew who knew what division and chaos can do control by harm. The Lake of Galilee was polluted by Roman indoor toilets draining into the Jorden River. It costs to care about others but hurts all of humanity when we don’t.

    1. There is a wonderful National Memorial at the site of the dam. It features an Academy Award winning documentary depicting the flood. Also a museum in Johnstown. We live an hour away and often take visitors there. Well worth a visit!

      1. Saw that film years ago fantastic, stunning and presented to make you feel that you are there during the deluge.

  7. Thanks for this great article. I had only heard about the flood, but had no idea the devastation it brought. How sad that the warnings were ignored and the ones responsible were not held accountable.

  8. Thank you for this article. I had no idea the flood brought such great devastation! How sad the warnings were ignored and those responsible were not held accountable.

  9. My family was in this flood…I have seen the pictures and been told the stories passed down . Unfortunately it was not the last flood.

  10. This is a fictional account of the flood that depicts both a member of the clubs view, and the towns peoples view leading up to the flood and the aftermath.
    “The Woman in the Photo”
    by Mary Hogan

    1. The book Julie by Catherine Marshall was based on the events of the Johnstown flood, though it takes place in the 30s.

  11. Thank you for this article. A part of our family was lost with this flood, 3 generations, 1 child survived, remains of 2 of the other children were never found. I have seen PBS specials on this flood and researched it in my ancestry work. I was not aware of the addition of fire as well. It is too bad the elite gun club was not charged with any responsibility.

  12. My great grandmother lost her parents and a sister in the Johnstown flood. They were the Potter family and my great grandmother almost lost her life trying to escape the flood.

  13. I read David McCullough’s book and was glad to read more about this tragedy as the anniversary of the Johnstown Flood approaches. In reading the blog posts I am saddened anew by the personal remembrances of victim’s desendants or family. Our experiences and memories of loved ones are so important in how they shape us into who we are. That said, I find it offensive that someone’s heartfelt comments of how humanity suffers when we cease to care about our fellow human beings, and stated with an explanation that gives added context, was cruelly rejected by a reader who had no constructive comment to offer. I hope that the editors will delete that post response as it adds nothing to the conversation and is offensive and bullying in its entirety.

    1. Agree. At least two cultural religious groups w/ the same ancestral father are completely intolerant including negative actions as well as verbal, of other’s views & have been for centuries Both are disruptive w/i Western Civilization. I am genetically from one of those groups. My ancestors since 1811 & I currently reconfirm our renouncement of their biblical superiority, smartest people on Earth smugness, holier than thou arrogance & racist / ethnic intolerance. We learn from wise people who went before us & are right to cite them.

    2. Agree. I wrote a similar response w/ nothing profane but the PC police rejected it. The 1st Amendment only belongs to liberals & democratds It’s OK to denounce the use of the name Jesus which is not a religious title, but not the views of those who denigrate this wise man’s name.

  14. My grandfather survived it at 6 months old but his entire family did not. He was one of 6 total orphans taken to Altoona for adoption. Would love a list of names of those children to find out my original family surname. Tried the courthouses back in the 1980s but they wouldn’t release them. Anyone have any helpful hints?

    1. Donna,
      I recently took DNA test from I was contacted a short time later by a sister who shared my DNA from my Fathers side. I knew about a brother who was born when I was in my 20’s. The unknown sister and brother knew about me from They were eager to contact me, learn about our shared lives. I am nearing 80 years and thought my life didn’t hold many more surprises. Talk about a small world! I wish you Good Fortune with your search.

  15. THANK YOU for removing the hurtful and offensive reply left by someone who has no clue what Jesus is about or His influence on the lives of Christians. These replies otherwise are so great to read and learn from and so many left hurt by the lack of being able to trace their ancestors who were involved. So sad. Donna Luther, have you had your DNA done through or one of the other family tree sites? That should help you some if you have started a family tree. If you have using your adopted family you can usually start a 2nd tree free on the same home page and just put you and your birthdate or any info factual you have, not the adopted family and see what you get. Just an idea. Also, there is a site on facebook that is for those adopted OR those who are searching for the child they had to give up for whatever reason. I have seen success on that site if you aren’t aware of it search on facebook for it. Good luck. It is my belief that every person should by law be allowed to know their birth family name when they reach adulthood. They are entitled to know their ancestral roots especially if and when they have their own children who are entitled to know.

  16. I was born in Johnstown, and of course, heard the stories of the 1889 flood. However there have been two other floods in the city, 1936 and 1977. The City Hall in downtown has the water marks noted on the outside of the building, of all 3 floods.

    1. I lived in Manassas, VA during a flood that came down the river there and closed the entire town including I95 and the bridge. It was in the 1970s and I think it was this one in 1977. Might have been earlier though but I worked in MD. and had to turn around, no gas in the car to make it back up there and spent the night in a gas station. Fortunately, we pooled our heat to keep warm through the night and a good Samaritan lent me $10 for gas so I could drive back up to MD. I mailed him a check as soon as I could get back home. My hubby was stranded inside the town of Manassas but the flood waters stopped below the hill where we lived there so we didn’t get flooded but it as very scarey.

  17. It wasn’t actually a “natural” disaster. Had there been no “man-made” dam for the rain water to accumulate behind there would have been no flood. Is unfortunate there was no accountability.

  18. The Pennsylvania Railroad’s stone arch bridge, built two years before the flood, is still there today, in use by Norfolk Southern freights and Amtrak.
    Since the weather that day was chilly and wet, most houses had fires burning in stoves to cook lunch. When the wooden wreckage piled up against the stout, four-track bridge, the fires ignited the debris, killing hundreds trapped within.

  19. I grew up in Somerset County, Pennsylvania, approximately 35 miles from Johnstown. The Johnstown Flood was a conglomerate of many different circumstances and events; an old man made Lake, a dam not constructed to withstand a hundred year weather event and poor ill conceived industrialization and population development. The hunting and gun club owners inherited an ill conceived and constructed lake hovering over a booming industrial town that had no municipal controll over the region. There was no such thing as Regional Development Planning Boards, no government agencies in charge of Environmental concerns and poor meteorological predictors. In today’s world, Regional Planning, Government oversight and regulations as well as higher Engineering standards and controls help to mitigate flood risks but do not prevent flood devastating events, death and destruction: i.e. Hurricane Katrina, Super Storm Sandy, etc. Floods are still the number 1 type of natural disaster regardless of better urban planning, code enforcement and excellent engineering standards. The Great Johnstown Flood was a human tragedy of enormous destruction and loss of life not unlike the sinking of the Titanic and the Great Chicago fire. Conflagrations in the world are expected yet often blind side us because we don’t think we will ever be affected by them personally.

    1. Thank you for your comments. As I was reading this, I kept thinking how this club inherited a problem waiting to happen. Back then, no one was as sue happy as in today’s times. The tragedy is the loss of so many lives. A not one law suit would bring any person back from the dead.
      I had never heard of this flood, but hopefully, this tragic loss has made all safety regulations much more strict to protect everyone.

      1. Well, we now have a government that wants to remove many of the regulations that were passed after this and other disasters in the name of job creation. Building codes, permit applications processes, financial oversight of banks, all came about because of disasters that cost thousands of ordinary people their lives and property. We need to think carefully about this.

    2. Nicely put. No one person or people were solely to blame. We like to point a finger and blame others for painful experiences. It doesn’t really help much.

  20. There was a saying that my grandparents and parents would say to admonish us kids
    “Don’t spit on the floor, remember the Johnastown Flood!”

  21. Interesting reading and comments. I was born and raised on the hill outside of town. This was two years after the 2936 flood. My parents talked about that one. It was a “normal” flood caused by heavy rains and rising rivers. After that, the Army Corps of Engineers did a major rework of the rivers, with sloping concrete-lined walls, and Johnstown was dubbed the “Flood-Free City.” This lasted until the third flood, I think it was in the 1970’s. Caused by a severe thunderstorm cell that just sat over the town for many hours.
    Jack McIlnay

    1. I was a nurse and 4-H leader in Brookville, PA when the storm hit. The Jefferson County Fair was in full swing. The horse show ring was flooded within a few hours. I took most of my 4-H members home to their parents that night. About July 15th 1976. I volunteered for the Red Cross as a back up for the relief effort.

  22. As an amateur genealogist for the past thirty years, I have found it extremely helpful when researching a specific historical event to read books pertaining to the event written right after it happened. When I discovered I had ancestors living in Johnstown at the time of the flood I purchased ” Through the Johnstown Flood” by Rev.D.J. Beales, 1890. He was a survivor of the flood and worked in the morgue. There is an incredible amount of information about the flood, very specific details of the dead and many statements of the survivors who are listed by name. It is a emotionally difficult book to read as you feel like you are there when the waters hit. I highly recommend this book to anyone who wants to expand their knowledge of the flood.

  23. My ancestors owned the butcher shop in Johnstown. They lost it due to the flood. They were the Jacob Trefts family. The men went to California after the flood and opened a butcher shop in Chico.

  24. My grandmother witnessed the Johnstown Flood. Th difference between life and death for her that fateful day was that she and her family lived on a hill overlooking the town
    Her memories of the flood were vivid even when she was in her nineties. She shared them with me from the time I was a little girl in Alabama. She remembered her father putting her on his shoulders so she could see the utter destruction of Johnstown. She recalled the fires burning for days. Her most vivid memory was that her home filled with friends, family and neighbors whose homes had been destroyed.

  25. From the heart of the Flood of 1993, and currently devastated by this week’s historic flooding on Gasconade and Missouri Rivers… thank you for a new perspective.

  26. My husband researched this terrible diaster for a film script. It was an emotional project for him. The devestation was terrible. If I remember correctly their was a barbed wire fence factory that was sweepted into the carnage as well as a train. As you state in the article the debris, animals carcuses and people caught on fire. It was horrendous. Although people were generous to the surviors, the owners of the camp that was responsible for the dam did little or nothing to help.

  27. There is a website called “Find Your My husband and I were BOTH told we should live in Johnstown. Have been interested in it ever since. I am from Butte, MT.. very Irish. It may be part of it. 🙂

  28. I moved to California in October 1989 when I left there was a tax in PA to help the victims of the Johnstown Flood which one we often wondered if there were any survivors left what happened to all that tax money collected to help them?

  29. I’m not sure that was a very natural disaster really. More like a greed and negligence disaster.

  30. I had a performance to do in a nearby town, a few years ago; I knew the flood story, so I decided to visit Johnstown. What a tragedy! There was little to no escape from the waters. It is by Grace, there were any survivors. The dam was deliberately neglected, to what end, I can’t/don’t want to imagine. If you need another historical lesson on inhumane actions, as if our country needs more lessons, ie buying,selling and mutlilation and destruction of humans, ravaging of buffalo and other “wildlife”; destruction of Redwood Forests. . .take some time, stop by the battlefields at Gettysburg, then visit the cememtary overlooking Johnstown, PA, and weep.

  31. there’s a newspaper story about a reporter who had been sent to cover the flood, and began his story with something like “God sat on the hillside overlooking Johnstown today and…”

    his editor wired back: “Forget flood. Interview God.”

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