Revisiting the Timing and Events Leading to and Causing the Johnstown Flood of 1889

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Uldis Kaktins
Carrie Davis Todd
Stephanie Wojno
Neil Coleman


The Johnstown Flood of May 31, 1889, was responsible for more recorded deaths than any other disaster in the United States until the Galveston hurricane of 1900.1 An important difference between the two is that the Johnstown flood was not a natural disaster. Although the Johnstown region was in the midst of a particularly wet spring and the former boroughs that now form the city of Johnstown were already experiencing low-level flood-ing on May 31, the ultimate reason for the high death toll was the catastrophic failure of the South Fork Dam, located fourteen miles upstream from the outskirts of Johnstown on the South Fork of the Little Conemaugh River (see fig. 1). The millions of tons of water released by the failure of the dam caused devastation along the Little Conemaugh River drainage. As the water moved downstream it was temporarily impounded by debris dams behind two Pennsylvania Railroad bridges (Viaduct and Bridge no. 6), which caused "reformation of the lake" at these points. When Bridge no. 6 failed, the rejuvenated flood wave sped toward Johnstown. Most structures

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