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Wednesday, July 18, 2012

A Deadly Flood

The Great Flood of 1889 - Johnstown, Pennsylvania

On June 1,1889, Americans woke to the news that Johnstown, Pennsylvania had been devastated by the worst flood in the Nation's history. Over 2,200 were dead, with many more homeless. When the full story of the flood came to light, many believed that if this was a "natural" disaster, then surely man was an accomplice.
Johnstown in 1889 was a steel company town of Germans and Welsh. With a population of 30,000, it was a growing and industrious community known for the quality of its steel. Founded in 1794, Johnstown began to prosper with the building of the Pennsylvania Mainline Canal in 1834 and the arrival of the Pennsylvania Railroad and the Cambria Iron Company in the 1850’s.

There was one small drawback to living in the city. Johnstown had been built on a flood plain at the fork of the Little Conemaugh and Stony Creek rivers. Because the growing city had narrowed the river banks to gain building space, the heavy annual rains had caused increased flooding in recent years.

There was another thing. Fourteen miles up the Little Conemaugh, 3-mile long Lake Conemaugh was held on the side of a mountain - 450 feet higher than Johnstown - by the old South Fork Dam. The dam had been poorly maintained, and every spring there was talk that the dam might not hold. But it always had, and the supposed threat became something of a standing joke around town.

But at 4:07 p.m. on the chilly, wet afternoon of May 31, 1889 the inhabitants heard a low rumble that grew to a "roar like thunder." Some knew immediately what had happened: after a night of heavy rains, the South Fork Dam had finally broken, sending 20 million tons of water crashing down the narrow valley. Boiling with huge chunks of debris, the wall of flood water grew at times to 60 feet high, tearing downhill at 40 miles per hour, leveling everything in its path.

Thousands of people desperately tried to escape the wave. Those caught by the wave found themselves swept up in a torrent of oily, muddy water, surrounded by tons of grinding debris, which crushed some, provided rafts for others. Many became helplessly entangled in miles of barbed wire from the destroyed wire works.

It was over in 10 minutes, but for some the worst was still yet to come. Darkness fell, thousands were huddled in attics, others were floating on the debris, while many more had been swept downstream to the old Stone Bridge at the junction of the rivers. Piled up against the arches, much of the debris caught fire, entrapping forever 80 people who had survived the initial flood wave.

Credit for article to: http://www.johnstownpa.com/History/hist19.html

Floods and all natural disasters are scary. The filter of storytelling allows us to add them to our tales without the heart-wrenching sadness of the reality.

A flood is a major component in my novella, Divorce, Interrupted. Newly-divorced couple Todd and Lisa Miller are in danger from flooding, cold weather, frigid water, and the need to rely on another person they are not sure they can rely on.

Divorce, Interrupted is 99cents at all online eBook retailers and will be in paperback by the end of the summer in a complete trilogy with Dare To Trust and Defend My Love.



  1. Great post, Jill. It reminds of Hurricane Wilma in 2005, a nightmare I'm not about to forget. I enjoyed Divorce Interrupted. A lot of emotion.

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  3. Floods are scary. It was bad enough when our basement got flooded last year. I can't imagine dealing with something more horrendous as a huge flood covering an entire area, with many people being displaced.

    Morgan Mandel

  4. Jill, I was in the Rapid City flood back in the 70's. Though we didn't lose our house, I've never forgotten that terrifying night. Total darkness, the fury of the storm outside, the sound of gas mains exploding as the flood swept through town, destroying the area along the creek. Odd how my time in South Dakota was highlighted by two meteorological events -- a blizzard and the flood.

    Your book depicted a flood quite well -- plus, it was a good romance.

  5. Wow! Natural disasters hit all over the place. Glad you ladies were all okay.

  6. Your telling of the flood gave me chills. Such a scary place to be for those people. Thanks for the information and for the lines from your book. I think I'll like the fiction better.