Frequently Asked Questions

What was the official death toll from the 1889 Johnstown Flood?
In a list printed about fourteen months after the Flood, the death toll was set at 2,209. While that number was carefully derived, for a variety of reasons, some of the victims of the flood were never included in that count, and so, the actual death toll was probably well over 3,000.

Were the members of the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club held responsible for what happened May 31, 1889?
The Club was never held legally responsible for the Johnstown Flood, although the Club was held responsible in public opinion. The only cases successful from the Johnstown Flood were against the Pennsylvania Railroad Company. The railroad lost two cases based on the loss of property.

What happened to the papers of the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club?
It's not clear, although there is a suspicion that much was lost when the law firm of Reed, Smith, Shaw and McClay (formerly Knox and Reed, which represented the Club in court, it seems) threw out a bunch of papers in 1917 when moving to a newer building.

What exactly happened at the dam that day?
When we tell the story of what happened at the dam May 31, 1889, we draw from first-person accounts from Colonel Elias Unger, the President of the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club in 1889, John Parke, a young engineer who had recently arrived to supervise the installation of a sewer system, William Y. Boyer, whose title was Superintendent of Lake and Grounds at the South Fork Club, and several others.

What time did the dam fail?
By most accounts, it failed after 3:00 PM, most say either 3:10 or 3:15. It's accepted that the flood struck Johnstown proper at 4:07 PM.

Were the people below the dam warned?
As the men were working on the dam that morning, John Parke, an engineer who worked for a Pittsburgh firm of Wilkins and Powell on a sewer system at the Club, went to South Fork about 11:00 AM to start spreading the word about the dam's condition. Parke talked to people in South Fork and sent somebody to the telegraph tower at South Fork so that messages could be sent down the valley. At least three warnings went out from South Fork that day, the last believed to have reached Johnstown at just about 3:00 PM. Once the dam failed at 3:10-3:15, however, such communications were impossible.

Weren't there other floods in Johnstown?
Floods have been a frequent occurrence in Johnstown as long as history has been recorded there, floods have been part of those records. The three remembered most happened on May 31, 1889, when at least 2,209 people died, the St. Patrick's Day flood of 1936, in which almost two dozen people died, and a third devastating flood on July 19-20, 1977, when at least 85 people died.

Wasn't Clara Barton involved somehow?
Clara Barton, after confirming the news, brought a team with her from near Washington D.C. and arrived on Wednesday, June 5, 1889. A branch of the American Red Cross from Philadelphia, not associated with Barton, arrived as well. Barton's branch of the American Red Cross is remembered for providing shelter to many survivors in large buildings simply known as "Red Cross Hotels," some of which stood into early 1890. The Red Cross also provided warm meals, provisions for daily needs, and medical care. The Johnstown Flood is considered the first major civilian disaster relief effort for the American Red Cross, which was less than ten years old in 1889.

Who built the dam?
Even in 1889, many called the old dam and water the "Old Reservoir," as is had been built many decades before. The dam was envisioned by the state of Pennsylvania, and Sylvester Welch (Welsh), the principal engineer of the old Allegheny Portage Railroad, as a canal reservoir. The reservoir would service the Western Division of the Pennsylvania Main Line Canal in times of low water. From design to finish, the dam took well over a decade to finish and was finished in 1852, at a time when canals were well on their way into the history books. After the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania sold the property, it was subsequently owned by the Pennsylvania Railroad, a local businessman and one-time Congressman named John Reilley (Reilly) and, finally, the South fork Fishing and Hunting Club.

Whose idea was the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club?
It appears that the club was the idea of Benjamin F. Ruff, a tunnel contractor and sometime-real estate salesman from the Pittsburgh area. Not much is known about Benjamin Ruff's life. The club was legally created as a nonprofit corporation in 1879. Ruff was a chief stockholder and served, we believe, as president of the club until his death from cancer in March of 1887. Over the club's ten years in existence, it grew from 16 members to, it is believed, 61 in 1889.

Wasn't there an old book on the Flood?
Books were for sale literally within days of the disaster. By the end of 1889 there were more than a dozen, mostly histories but a few novels as well. Few of them would be considered reliable histories, although all of them are fascinating, and copies of almost all of them survive to this day. New books come out almost yearly about the disaster.

I have an old stereoview of the it worth anything?
Values of Johnstown Flood related items have varied greatly in this age of internet auction sites. What might have been worth a fortune 20 years ago may be worth significantly less today. Although it's not the most valuable source, internet auction sites such as Ebay can give you an idea of what you have is worth.

Do you have information about my relative who survived/died in the Flood?
Sadly, the Flood has proved to be a stumbling block for many genealogists. In 1889, they were just a year away from a census, the last being done in 1880. In these pre-Social Security days, personnel records for firms like Cambria Iron or the Pennsylvania Railroad are not as sophisticated as they are today. We can use some tools like a city directory that was recompiled after the Flood and some other Flood related documents, but definite family histories, unless somehow preserved by the families themselves, are hard to determine. There was a census done in 1890, but little of it survives...not enough to help us at all.

At your site, do you show a film?
There are two Johnstown Flood-related sites in the area. Our park, Johnstown Flood National Memorial, preserves the ruins of the South Fork Dam, part of the old lakebed, and some of the buildings of the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club. In our visitor center, we show a National Park Service-produced film, nicknamed "Black Friday," that tries to recreate the Flood. For copyright reasons our film is not available for purchase.

In an old Carnegie Library in Johnstown is the Johnstown Flood Museum, owned by the Johnstown Area Heritage Association. It is a true museum, and features an Academy-Award-winning film by Charles Guggenheim called "the Johnstown Flood." The Flood Museum's film is available for purchase.

Last updated: March 12, 2022

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