Friday Photos: Johnstown Flood

Somehow, it seems appropriate to publish these old photos today.

“Over one-hundred and twenty years ago the Johnstown Flood killed 2209 people.  The bodies of 900 victims were never recovered.

“The Pennsylvania flood had both natural and human origins.  A powerful storm delivered six to ten inches of rain in twenty-four hours.  Then the natural deluge overwhelmed a neglected dam 14 miles upstream from Johnstown.

“At 3:10 in the afternoon the dam failed  releasing twenty million tons of water. The wall of water was traveling  roughly 40 miles per hour as it inundated the city under 60 feet of water.”

Of course, in 1889, no one blamed the calamity on so-called global warming, or climate change. People understood that merciless mother nature, coupled with human error, inevitably leads to tragedy.

Johnstown, before the flood.

“Johnstown was built at the floor of a valley. In 1889 it was a thriving little town with a population of about 10,000. Another 20,000 people lived in several surrounding towns and villages. Many Johnstown residents were immigrant workers in local steel mills. The workers were mostly Irish, Cornish, Welsh, and German. Johnstown is situated at the junction of two rivers, the Little Conemaugh and the Stony Creek. At the western end of the city they join to form the Conemaugh River.”

Main Street right after the flood.

“Men at the South Fork Dam watched in horror as the water in the lake rose as quickly as six inches per hour. Water began to pour over the top of the dam’s earthen wall, eroding the wall’s outside. As the wall appeared to be doomed, men at the dam tried to warn the town by telegraph. Some residents of Johnstown, afraid of a dam break, climbed into their attics, where they would be trapped. At 3:10 p.m. the dam broke. A monstrous wall of water, at times as deep as 89 feet, rushed down the valley toward Johnstown. The water tore large trees out by their roots and essentially destroyed everything in its path.”

A wide view of Johnstown after the flood.

“As the wall of water rushed down the valley, a railroad engineer named John Hess blew his locomotive’s whistle to alert the townspeople. People who heard the train whistle realized what was happening and raced for a nearby hill. The onrushing water formed waves like surf, and moved at about 20 to 40 miles per hour. Massive tree trunks in the moving water acted like battering rams. Train cars and even locomotives were pushed along by the water. At 4:07 p.m. the wall of water hit Johnstown. Buildings, whether made of timber or brick, disintegrated. Many people were literally torn to pieces when their houses were destroyed.”

Thomas Parfitt and his family didn’t waste time getting back into business after the Flood! They sold sandwiches and coffee to relief workers from this Army tent.

“With telegraph lines down, it took days for the full impact of the flood to be known to the outside world. The Johnstown Flood was the biggest news story since the Civil War. The founder of the American Red Cross, Clara Barton, personally oversaw relief efforts. In 1989, on the 100th anniversary of the flood, 106-year-old survivor Elsie Frum was interviewed by news organizations. Her father had heard John Hess’s train whistle and had gotten his family to safety, thus saving young Elsie’s life.”

Even though their hometown was nearly wiped off the map, the survivors of the Great Johnstown Flood of 1889 almost immediately began rebuilding their homes and businesses. It took several years for the ravaged community to recover fully.

At Coney Island in New York people paid to see a scale model of the Johnstown Flood.

Karen and I wish all our friends and relatives a peaceful Shabbat. To our friends and family back east who are enduring the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, we invite you to come visit us in sunny California where you can count on mild weather and, um, earthquakes.

Source for quotes.

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  1. Larry
    Posted November 5, 2012 at 5:21 pm | Permalink

    Remember that the people of Johnstown rebuilt themselves without government handouts or agencies like FEMA to devastate them further. Local efforts, private charities, possibly even insurance companies helped. I saw one reference written by Albert Jay Nock that there was so much assistance without government that by the time it was all done “something like a million dollars remained.” But believe it that even to this day the government uses it as an excuse for land grabbing: See Public Law 108-313, originally HR 1521 sponsored by Rep John Murtha.

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  2. Miranda Rose Smith
    Posted November 4, 2012 at 4:40 am | Permalink

    No one blamed global warming for the Buffalo Creek Flood, February 26, 1972, possibly because the scare de jour then was global cooling, possibly because it was a combination of mother nature’s child abuse and totally egregious human “error,” but it destroyed the lives and homes of West Virginia coal miners. The kind of people who care about and worry about global warming don’t care WHAT happens to rednecks.

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  3. kishke
    Posted November 3, 2012 at 6:03 pm | Permalink

    Imagine if they had had cell phones in those days. So many lives could have been saved. Our modern conveniences are often much more than mere convenience.

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    • Bill Brandt
      Posted November 3, 2012 at 9:00 pm | Permalink

      Kishke – with cell phones dependent on multiple towers and (I “assume”) no independent power, how reliable would they be in this situation? Just wondering. 
      I think in truth oour whole infrastructure – which we have gotten used to over the last 100 years – could be rendered useless by an EMP attack Or a flood with 60′ waters.
      Then I think the only useful things would be whatever you have stockpiled – and your guns.

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      • kishke
        Posted November 4, 2012 at 8:41 am | Permalink

        From what I gather, until the dam failed, there was no danger in Johnstown, and time to evacuate. When they saw the water pouring over the dam and eroding it from the front, presaging a break, a phone call would have saved a thousand lives.

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  4. OBloodyHell
    Posted November 2, 2012 at 8:52 pm | Permalink

    1) Nice piece. It’s a good thing to use when people comment about 30-100 dead in the aftermath of Sandy. We know so little of that kind of hardship in America, we forget what it is like without a modern socio-technical structure to prevent such things from being far worse than they are.

    2) OT: I came by here TODAY specifically because of an old piece of yours I wanted to point some people to — “How to get so dead in this town”. Might I suggest revisiting it, and its comments…? It seems like a very appropriate time to do so.

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  5. DrCarol
    Posted November 2, 2012 at 10:03 am | Permalink

    Take a look at what Gov. Cuomo had to say to the utilities:

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    • OBloodyHell
      Posted November 2, 2012 at 8:59 pm | Permalink

      Dr. C:
      WOW, that is freaking INSANE. 


      Mr. Cuomo, judging from the flooding, your state and local Wastewater and Sewer organizations didn’t “adequately prepare” for a serious storm, despite having “several days” of notice.   Clearly, they have failed in doing their taxpayer-justified civic responsibilities. They should have been amply prepared to deal with a storm of this magnitude, just on general principles.

      Please set up a committee, and let us know which HIGH LEVEL state and local officials will be SACKED without pension for these inexplicable failures and obvious dereliction of duty…

       Pretty much guarantees *I* will never vote for the POS SOB if someone is stupid enough to put him forth as a candidate for PotUS.

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      • DrCarol
        Posted November 3, 2012 at 8:40 am | Permalink

        Believe me, the NY media is so completely in the tank for King Andrew that it’s nauseating.  PBS runs a weekly “news” show about issues in New York State and what they say is commentary is really just fawning all over everything Cuomo does.  Embarrassing.

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  6. Bill Brandt
    Posted November 2, 2012 at 8:30 am | Permalink

    Even these days the Global Warming crowd seems to have quieted down. Can’t think of anything worse than being situated where Johnstown was, a ‘Sword of Damocles” essentially hanging over you each day. 
    And still today there are some people who just “get on with it” and rebuild – I’m thinking of the big floods in the Midwest just a few years ago.
    That America still exists.
    In my town flooding was so regular that if you go downtown the old Victorian houses all have a first story about 8’ off the ground. It was almost an annual event in the spring until the levees were built.

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    • Posted November 2, 2012 at 8:46 am | Permalink

      Well said. Bill. My parents grew up near Burlington, IA and the Mississippi River. Flooding routinely wiped out crops and farms on the Illinois side of the river. Burlington is built on a limestone cliff (or bluff), but the railroads were situation along the river banks. One former railroad warehouse — now a popular restaurant — bears several water lines showing the various floods over the years. Each time it floods, they rebuild. It’s what we do.

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    • Johnny
      Posted November 2, 2012 at 5:43 pm | Permalink

      Even these days the Global Warming crowd seems to have quieted down.

      Dream on Bill. I tuned into NPR’s Science Friday because I knew they would talk about Sandy. It was 2 hours of wall to wall AGW. They announced with great fanfare that Bloomberg had endorsed Obama because of AGW and wondered if this was the turning point to inject AGW into the presidential race. A writer for the New Yorker thought it was late but it could work. These people live in their own little bubble. I expected them to light some votive candles and start chanting parts of Al Gore’s book. I remembered why I can only listen to them every two years or so.  According to them we are doomed, doomed, doomed!

      I am from St. Louis so we are well aware of what floods look like. My mom’s house got water in her basement back in the flood of ’92. But the thing is the water drained from the street the next day when a levee down from St. Louis broke and flooded some farmland. Why do we build levees to protect the natural floodplains? I’m sure I want my farm to be protected but floods are how these lands get refreshed. 

      When there’s a blizzard Al Gore acolytes say weather is not climate. But let the temperature get above 90 degrees or a cat 1 hurricane hit NYC and AGW is all but proven. I mean there were never droughts or hurricanes before Ford kicked off the SUV explosion with the Explorer. 

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    • Robert J. Avrech
      Posted November 4, 2012 at 7:49 am | Permalink


      The NY Times explicitly blamed Sandy on so-called global warming this weekend. The insanity based on alchemy only increase.

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