Location: South Fork, Pennsylvania
Webpage: National Park
General Description: Lake Conemaugh was constructed by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania to supply water for the western division of the Main Line Canal System that terminated in Johnstown in 1835. As railroads superseded the canals the reservoir was abandoned, eventually sold to Pennsylvania Railroad, who had little interest in maintaining the dam. The railroad sold the reservoir to private individuals and was eventually purchased Henry Clay Frick who led a group of investors in 1879 to convert it into a private resort lake for their wealthy associates, forming the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club. The club had about 80 members including Andrew Carnegie and Andrew Mellon, many with business and social links to Carnegie Steel in Pittsburgh. Although the dam was repaired, these repairs were not up to the standards of the day. In addition, the dam was lowered several feet to widen the top for carriages, so was now only a few feet above the level of the lake. In addition, the discharge pipes used to drain the lake had been removed by a previous owner and the spillway was partially blocked by a screen intended to keep the black bass brought from Lake Erie to stock the lake, from escaping. Thus the ability to handle high water levels was severely reduced. May 30, 1989 the citizens of Johnstown, 450 feet below Lake Conemaugh, celebrated Memorial day with parades and dances. In late afternoon, it began to rain and the heavy rain continued throughout the night. It is estimated that between 6-10 inches fell over the 24 hour period and Elias Unger, President of the club, woke to a lake that was swollen to capacity. He quickly assembled a group of Italian workers that had been hired to install a sewer system for the club into attempting to save the dam. While one crew attempted to clear the spillway, another crew worked to shore up the dam and dig a new spillway on the other end of the dam. Warnings were sent twice to Johnstown that the dam was in danger, but everyone who could evacuate had already moved to higher ground since the heavy rains had already caused flooding in town. During the day the water in town rose 10 feet trapping those left in their homes. At around 3:00 pm the water began spilling over the dam, which quickly and totally collapsed sending 20 million tons of water roaring down the Little Conemaugh River, taking about 40 minutes to empty the lake. The first town to be hit was South Fork, but since it was located on a small hill all but 4 of the residents were able to escape by climbing the surrounding hills. On its way downstream the crest picked up debris until it hit the Conemaugh Viaduct. This is a 72 foot railroad bridge over the river where a cut was made to bypass the large oxbow in the river. The flood split at this point with much of the crest flowing through the cut to the Viaduct. The debris essentially blocked up the flow under the Viaduct and when the majority of the raging water made it around the oxbow, it was temporarily stopped. However, within 7 minutes the Viaduct collapsed and because of this the flood had gained additional force and debris. The small town of Mineral Point, one mile below the Viaduct, was hit by this renewed force and totally wiped out leaving only bare rock and killing 16 people, half of the population. The village of East Conemaugh was next. From his locomotive, John Hess, heard the roar of the flood. He threw his locomotive into reverse and raced ahead of the flood with whistle blaring. His actions saved many lives, however, when the flood hit town it added his locomotive to the debris. 50 more people were killed including 25 stranded due to the high waters on the train. Before hitting Johnstown the flood wiped out the Cambia Iron Works and the town of Woodvale where it added more railroad cars and miles of barbed wire to the mix. Of the 1100 residents of Woodvale, 314 died as the flood roared through town. Only 57 minutes after the collapse of the dam on Lake Conemaugh, the flood had traveled the 14 miles to Johnstown carrying an unbelievable amount of debris. The streets in town caused the flood to split into three separate channels, all converging on the Stone Bridge, a substantial railroad bridge on the south end of town. The debris dammed up the floodwaters with two consequences. First, flood waters surged up Stoney Creek River causing a secondary surge through town once gravity stopped the flow up the river. Second, the multiple channels created a whirlpool in the center of town. If this was not bad enough, a fire broke out in the debris at the Stone Bridge and likely more people were burned alive then drowned. The official tally was 2,209 deaths making this the largest disaster in American history at the time. The relief effort was also massive, with relief coming from all over the world. The Pennsylvania Railroad established service on June 2 and relief supplies began arriving along with crews to clear the debris and search for survivors. One of the first outsiders to arrive was Clara Barton, founder and president of the American Red Cross on June 5. Donations totaling more than $3.7 million was collected for the relief effort that at its peak numbered over 7,000 relief workers.
1) The National Memorial is not located in Johnstown, rather at the dam at Lake Conemaugh, 14 miles upstream from the disaster. Consequently, if you want to visit the complete story you need to include the Johnstown Flood Musuem in Johnstown. The Visitor Center is located at the house of Elias Unger, the second President of the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club. It is a very nice building with many pictures and description of the flood. Included is a map with lights that provides the timeline of the flood as it raced down the river. There is also a VERY good video about the flood that will bring you to tears or shaking with fear. It is very well done.
2) The is not much else to explore in the area except for the remains of the dam and spillway. You can visit the remains of the dam from both sides. Obviously the dam was never rebuilt, so the lake is completely gone today.
3) The Clubhouse of the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club is located a couple of miles from the dam and is also part of the Historical Memorial, although today it is surrounded by residential properties, some of which would have been underwater in 1989. There are also a couple of the cottages that members had built close to the clubhouse that are still privately owned. They have put some effort into restoring the clubhouse, but much of it is still in need of a paintjob and the interior is not open to the public. Except for walking on the porch in the front of the clubhouse, there is not much to see.