The catastrophic Johnstown Flood of 1889 was 125 years ago last weekend and the anniversary should cause us to take pause. For the greatest disaster to hit Pennsylvania in recorded history was not a natural disaster at all but an avoidable accident caused by greed and carelessness. While the storm that led to the disaster was a notable one, it by itself, would have never caused even a tiny fraction of the damage and carnage that the flood ultimately caused.
The true culprit in the nightmare was the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club and their well-to-do members. The club was an exclusive and somewhat secretive organization made up of about fifty affluent Western Pennsylvania business men. The group included corporate executives whose names are still well known: Henry Clay Frick, Andrew Mellon, Henry Phipps, Andrew Carnegie and Sammuel Rea among them.
The dam was originally built by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and was used as a reservoir for the canals at the end of the Allegheny Portage Railroad. It was abandoned by the state and the club eventually purchased the lake and surrounding property in 1879. The discharge pipes were removed just before the club bought the property and sold for their scrap value. With the pipes removed, there was no way to practically drain the lake and do repairs when the need arose. It would seem that repairs were desperately needed, as historic accounts note that the dam leaked frequently. It was patched as leaks developed, usually with straw and mud.
To make matters worse, the dam was lowered to allow the construction of a road across the breast. Fish nets that were stretched across the spillway ended up being traps for debris that would contribute to the dam’s failure. It may be impossible to estimate the collective worth of the exclusive group of businessmen that had ownership interest in the lake, but it clearly was many, many of millions of dollars. Yet the millionaire members were unable to muster the funds to maintain or repair the dam, despite warnings that it might fail.
The lessons from the flood may be clichés but they are important lessons just the same. An ounce of prevention clearly is worth a pound of cure. Even if the dam repair or replacement approached or exceeded six figures, this would have been a paltry amount compared to the $17 million (in 1889 dollars) in damage. If you're not part of the solution, you're part of the problem. Each of the members of the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club committed a horrible sin of omission that resulted in not only incomprehensible damage, but 2,200 deaths.
A crisis or disaster will force action. The dam that collapsed on that dreadful night would not be permitted to exist in Pennsylvania (or most other states) today. There are now regulations, not for just the dams themselves but also for dumping things into or altering the paths of waterways. The simplistic often criticize such regulations. Not surprisingly, you'll never hear complaints from those flooded by an altered waterway or live downstream from a dam.
For more history on the flood, visit the National Park Service or the Johnstown Area Heritage Association.