Book

The Johnstown Flood by David McCullough

They claim when doing your genealogy you should do your best to learn about the history of the area, and that was one of my primary reasons to read “The Johnstown Flood” by David McCullough, his very first book.

Mr. McCullough was able to provide a good amount of history of Cambria County as he began his book by giving background of the area, which fittingly for me was 1850. Andrew and Susanna Blair are living in Cambria County in the 1850 Census with their 2 oldest children (at least known anyhow) Sarah and William. Though they have moved to Bedford County and have most likely passed by the Johnstown Flood of 1889, I learned that the city where my Grandmother (Anna Maria Morgart) grew up, Saint Michael, is located where the South Fork Hunting and Fishing Club once stood.

What I Learned

Cambria County in Pennsylvania was created from “Mother Bedford” in 1804 that was a simple trading center until the 1830’s when the canal came to be. By 1835, Johnstown had a “drugstore, newspaper, Presbyterian church, and a distillery”. By 1840 the population was 3,000. By 1850 the Pennsylvania Railroad and the Cambria Iron Works had been established and “everything changed”.

According to the book –
“By the start of the 1880’s Johnstown and its neighboring boroughs had a total population of about 15,000. Within the next nine years the population doubled. On the afternoon of May 31, 1889, there were nearly 30,000 people living in the valley”.

The South Fork Hunting & Fishing Club

The South Fork Hunting & Fishing Club was a “resort” built near Lake Conemaugh (or the South Fork Dam) that had 50 extremely wealthy members (the likes of Andrew Carnegie, Henry Clay Frick, Philander C. Knox, and Andrew Mellon, to name a few). The Club was an escape for these men of industry, a place for them to get away and fish, hunt, sail (one of the chapters was called “Sailboats on the Mountain” because Lake Conemaugh, aka the South Fork Dam, was so big they could sail in it).

The Club was chartered on 15 November 1879 in the Court of Common Pleas in Allegheny County, with everyone ignoring the provision that the law stated that they needed to register in the county where business was to take place (which in this case is Cambria County).

The Flood

2,209 people lost their lives over something that could have been avoided. For years people wondered when South Fork Dam was going to break. It wasn’t an if, it was a when. And even just hours before the dam did overflow and “break” someone could have made it so that much less damage could have occurred.

But what if it didn’t overflow? Or break? That is why John Parke, Jr. did not cut a hole in another area of the spillway so the water could have flowed out more safely. It was too bold of a decision, because if the worst case scenario didn’t happen, it would have been the end of Lake Conemaugh, and it was just too risky to go ahead and do.

On 30 May 1889 unprecedented heavy rains began in the area around 11pm, coming from Kansas and Nebraska where they began two days before, washing out roads and flattening farms across the way as tornado-like winds killed several people. But it was an odd storm, where 5 inches rained down at the South Fork Hunting & Fishing Club, only 1.5 inches was recorded for the same period of time at Pittsburgh, just 65 miles away.

But the rain continued to come and despite warnings of what was happening, they were ignored or unable to go through and the worst case scenario happened: 20 million tons of water began hurling down upon the city of Johnstown when the dam failed.

Histed, E. W., photographer. (ca. 1889) View of the broken dam looking from bed of lake, Johnstown Flood, May 31st . Pennsylvania Johnstown, ca. 1889. [Photograph] Retrieved from the Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/item/2008675504/.
Histed, E. W., photographer. (ca. 1889) Bed of lake looking from top of broken dam, Johnstown flood, May 31st. Pennsylvania Johnstown, ca. 1889. [Photograph] Retrieved from the Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/item/92509962/.

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(ca. 1889) The Johnstown flood, looking west on Main Street. , ca. 1889. [Photograph] Retrieved from the Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/item/2002707062/.

The Johnstown Flood was the first disaster for Clara Barton and the very new American Red Cross.

(1889) Clara Barton’s headquarters, Johnstown, Pa. flood. , 1889. [Photograph] Retrieved from the Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/item/2002707084/.

The book went into great detail about what happened. Mr. McCullough did his due diligence and did an incredible amount of research on the topic, interviewing many who had witnessed the horror of that day.

In the back of the book all 2,209 names of the people who are known to have perished in the flood are listed and where they are buried. Such a sad event that could have been so much less had people listened.

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