This vintage illustrated poster depicts the scene at Stone Bridge during the Great Flood of 1889 in Johnstown, Pennsylvania.
On May 28, 1889, a storm formed over Nebraska and Kansas, moving east. When the storm struck the Johnstown-South Fork area two days later it was the worst downpour that had ever been recorded in that part of the country. The U.S. Army Signal Corps estimated that 6 to 10 inches (150 to 250 mm) of rain fell in 24 hours over the entire region. During the night small creeks became roaring torrents, ripping out trees and debris. Telegraph lines were downed and rail lines were washed away. Before daybreak the Conemaugh River that ran through Johnstown was about to burst its banks.
On the morning of May 31, 1889, in a farmhouse on a hill just above the South Fork Dam located about 14 miles (23 km) upstream, Elias Unger, the president of the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club at the time, awoke to the sight of Lake Conemaugh swollen after a night-long heavy rainfall. Unger ran outside in the still-pouring rain to assess the situation and saw that the water was nearly cresting the dam. Unger quickly assembled a group of men to try to save the face of the dam by trying to unclog the spillway which was blocked by the broken fish trap and debris caused by the swollen waterline. Other men tried digging another spillway at the other end of the dam to relieve the pressure but without success. Most remained on top of the dam, some plowing earth to raise it, while others tried to pile mud and rock on the face to save the eroding wall.
John Parke, an engineer for the South Fork Club, briefly considered cutting through the dam's end, where the pressure would be less, but decided against it. Twice, under orders from Unger, Parke rode on horseback to the nearby town of South Fork to the telegraph office to send warnings to Johnstown explaining the critical nature of the eroding dam. But the warnings were not passed onto the authorities in town since there had been many false alarms in the past of the South Fork Dam not holding against flooding, but which it did. Unger, Parke, and the rest of the men continued working to save the face of the dam until they were exhausted in which they abandoned their efforts at around 1:30 PM when they felt that their work was futile and the dam would collapse at any minute. Unger ordered all of his men to fall back to high ground on both sides of the dam where they could do nothing but wait.
During the day in Johnstown, the situation worsened as water rose to as much as 10 feet (3.0 m) in the streets of Johnstown. Then at around 3:10 PM (15:10), the South Fork Dam burst, allowing the 20 million tons of Lake Conemaugh to cascade down the Little Conemaugh River. It took about 40 minutes for the entire lake to drain of the water. The first town to be hit by the flood was the small town of South Fork. Fortunately, the town was on high ground and most of the people ran further up the nearby hills when they saw the dam literally spill over. Despite 20 to 30 houses being destroyed or washed away, only four people were killed.
On its way downstream towards Johnstown, the crest picked up debris, such as trees, houses, and animals. At the Conemaugh Viaduct, a 78-foot (24 m) high railroad bridge, the flood temporarily was stopped when debris jammed against the stone bridge's arch. But after around seven minutes, the viaduct collapsed, allowing the flood to resume its course. Because of this, the force of the surge gained renewed impetus, resulting in a stronger force hitting Johnstown than otherwise would have been expected. The small town of Mineral Point, one mile (1.6 km) below the Conemaugh Viaduct, was hit with this renewed force. About 30 families lived on the village's single street. After the flood, only bare rock remained. About 16 people were killed.
The village of East Conemaugh was next to be hit by the flood. One witness on high ground near the town described the water as almost obscured by debris, resembling "a huge hill rolling over and over". Train engineer John Hess, sitting in his locomotive engine, heard the rumbling of the flood and, correctly assuming what it was, tried to warn people by tying down the train whistle and racing toward the town by riding backwards to warn the residents ahead of the wave. His warning saved many people who were able to get to high ground. But at least 50 people died, including about 25 passengers stranded on trains in the town. Hess himself miraculously survived despite the flood picking up his locomotive and tossing it aside.
Just before hitting the main part of the city, the flood surge hit the Cambria Iron Works at the town of Woodvale, taking with it railroad cars and barbed wire. Of Woodvale's 1,100 residents, 314 died in the flood. Boilers exploded when the flood hit the Gauliter Wire Works, causing black smoke seen by the Johnstown residents.
Some 57 minutes after the South Fork Dam collapsed, the flood hit Johnstown. The inhabitants of Johnstown were caught by surprise as the wall of water and debris bore down on the village, traveling at 40 miles per hour (64 km/h) and reaching a height of 60 feet (18 m) in places. Some, realizing the danger, tried to escape by running towards high ground. But most people were hit by the surging floodwater. Many people were crushed by pieces of debris, and others became caught in barbed wire from the wire factory upstream. Those who sought safety in attics, or managed to stay afloat on pieces of floating debris, waited hours for help to arrive.
At Johnstown, the Stone Bridge, which was a substantial arched structure, carried the Pennsylvania Railroad across the Conemaugh River. The debris that was carried by the flood formed a temporary dam, stopping further progress of the water. The flood surge rolled upstream along the Stoney Creek River. Eventually, gravity caused the surge to return to the dam, causing a second wave to hit the city, but from a different direction. Some people who had been washed downstream became trapped in an inferno as debris that had piled up against the Stone Bridge caught fire, killing at least 80 people. The fire at the Stone Bridge burned for three days. Afterwards, the pile of debris there covered 30 acres (12 ha), and reached 70 feet (21 m) in height. The mass of debris took three months to remove, because of the masses of steel wire from the ironworks binding it. Dynamite was eventually used to clear it. As of 2009, the Stone Bridge is still standing, and is often portrayed as one of the images of the flood.
Historical references courtesy of wikipedia.org.