In 1889, Johnstown, Pennsylvania, was a busy little city on the Conemaugh River, about 60 miles east of Pittsburgh. In the 1850s, the state had constructed an earthern dam north of the town, on a tributaryof the river. A body of water, Conemaugh Lake, had formed behind the dam. Because people wanted to enlarge the lake for fishing, the dam was made higher – but unfortunately not stronger.
Heavy rains fell throughout the spring of 1889, raising every river and stream about flood stage. Then, on the afternoon of May 31, disaster struck. The dam suddenly gave way, and the waters of Conemaugh Lake roared down the narrow river valley. A wall of water – traveling at 40 miles an hour and carrying with it huge boulders, whole trees, and other wreckage – smashed everything in its path. Farms, factories, and most of Johnstown itself were swept away. For most victims, the only warning was the thunder of the water advancing upon them. Sixty acres of wreckage piled up against a bridge below Johnstown. Broken oil-tank cars exploded, setting fire to the rest of the wreckage, which burned for days. The Johnstown Flood killed more than 2200 people. IT was was one of the worst Amerivan disasters in the nineteenth century.
Because the lake at Johnstown had been enlarged for fishing, one writer summed up the flood in these words: “All the horrors that Hell could wish, such was the price that was paid for fish.”