• A view of the South and North abutments of the South Fork Dam.  The Visitor Center, Unger House, and Spring House are visible in the background.  As is visible, a spur railroad line connects coal trains with the main line of the railroad.

    Johnstown Flood

    National Memorial Pennsylvania

The Unger House

Unger House photo

Colonel Elias J. Unger, who served as manager of the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club, built this house in the mid-1880s. From here he had a commanding view of the club's lake and dam. "Colonel" Unger probably never had a military record. He was, however, the previous manager of hotels along the Pennsylvania Railroad and the Seventh Avenue Hotel in Pittsburgh.

In the early morning hours of May 31, 1889 Unger noticed that the level of Lake Conemaugh had risen considerably during the night. He made a quick calculation and estimated that the dam was rising 4-6 inches per hour. This scene alarmed Unger and around 10:00 a.m. he ordered 10-20 Italian laborers to start digging a spillway on the west end of the dam and to try to heighten the top of the breast. Colonel Unger supervised the group of laborers in a desperate attempt to save the dam. Defeated by the waters, Unger trudged back up the hill to his house and collapsed from exhaustion.

At 3:15 PM the South Fork dam finally gave way spilling the entire contents of Lake Conemaugh into the valley leading to Johnstown. The result of the 20 million-ton lake's release was over 2,000 dead in the valley.

The aging Unger House and property were added to Johnstown Flood National Memorial in 1981 to help preserve the historic scene. The house had been abandoned for more than a decade, but the National Park Service was able to save most of the house and return it to its 1889 appearance. Restoration work was completed in 1989, 100 years after the great flood. The house serves as administrative offices and is not open to the public. There is no information on how the interior should be restored so it is unlikely the house will be made into a museum for tours.

Did You Know?

after flood recovery

By July 1st, stores opened on Main Street for business. Five years later an observer would have been hard pressed to imagine the destruction in the valley on May 31, 1889.