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Determining the Facts

Reading 2: Our Misery is the Work of Man

Why weren't the people of Johnstown warned? They were–three times in the hours before the flood–but they had heard those warnings for years. The South Fork Dam, one of the largest earthen dams in the world, had always held during high water before. And wasn't the dam being maintained by some of the richest and most powerful men in America?

The South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club, made up of Pittsburgh industrialists and businessmen like Andrew Carnegie and Andrew Mellon, had bought the lake and dam 10 years earlier as an exclusive and somewhat secret summer retreat. The reservoir was originally built to supply water for the Pennsylvania Mainline Canal. The dam had been built according to accepted engineering practices of the time, but the canal system was obsolete by the time the dam was completed in 1853. The Pennsylvania Railroad bought the dam four years later. In 1862 a break occurred near the discharge pipes, but little damage resulted because the water level was so low. The railroad abandoned the dam, and it deteriorated until 1879, when it was bought by the South Fork club, which repaired the dam carelessly and without the advice of engineers.

At first the 72-foot-high dam frightened some residents. Said one, "No one could see the immense height to which that artificial dam had been built without fearing the tremendous power of the water behind it.... People wondered and asked why the dam was not strengthened, as it certainly had become weak, but nothing was done, and by and by they talked less and less about it." Others, realizing their continuing vulnerability, called the dam "the sword of Damocles hanging over Johnstown." Daniel J. Morrell, president of Cambria Iron Company, was one of those worried about the dam. The first president of the South Fork club, Benjamin Ruff, refused Morrell's repeated requests that the dam be strengthened, saying, "You and your people are in no danger from our enterprise."

In fact, the club members had made some changes to the dam and failed to make others. They built a fish trap across the spillway that became clogged with debris in heavy rains. They failed to repair a two-to-four-foot sag in the middle of the dam. They did not replace the discharge pipes, and they poorly maintained the stone rip-rap covering the face of the dam.

The dam was put to the test on May 30, 1889, when unusually heavy rains hit the area. In Johnstown people made the usual preparations for flooding, but up at South Fork Dam, John Parke, the club engineer, knew things were more serious, as he watched the lake rising an inch every 10 minutes. He knew that once the water ran over the top of the earthen dam, it would cut through it like a knife and the whole thing would go. His workers desperately tried to dig another spillway and increase the height of the dam, but the water was rising too fast. Parke was caught in a painful dilemma. He could cut through the end of the dam, where the pressure was less, so it would give way more slowly and reduce the water's destructive force. But afterwards, how could he prove that the dam would have gone anyway? People would know only that he was the one who destroyed the dam and flooded the valley. He chose not to do it.

When the dam started to go at 3:10, Parke later wrote, "the fearful rushing waters opened the gap with such increasing rapidity that soon after the entire lake leaped out.... It took but forty minutes to drain that three miles of water." One observer said the break "roared like a mighty battle." Twenty million tons of water took its natural course, dropping 450 feet in 14 miles, at times 70 to 75 feet high and reaching speeds of 40 miles per hour. Now all the telegraph and telephone lines were down, and no more messages could be sent to Johnstown. In 57 minutes the wave would engulf the town. Over 2,200 people were tragically unaware that death was already moving down the valley.

Questions for Reading 2

1. Why did people ignore warnings that the South Fork Dam might break?

2. Who owned the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club? Why had they bought the dam and lake? What changes had they made to the dam?

3. Why did some townsfolk worry and complain about the dam? What response did they receive when they asked that the dam be strengthened?

4. What did John Parke, the company engineer, do to try to prevent flooding?

Reading 2 was compiled from the National Park Service visitor's guide for the Johnstown Flood National Memorial.

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