Photographs & History

Photographs and History

Johnstown: Remembering the Great Flood of 1889

On May 30th, 1889 storms struck the Conemaugh Valley in Cambria County, dumping an estimated 6-10 inches of rain on the region. Tributaries and creeks flooded their banks, swelling the Conemaugh River with raging currents and miscellaneous debris. Fourteen miles east of the bustling city of Johnstown concerns were escalating at the elite South Fork Fishing & Hunting Club where a former reservoir for the Mainline of Public Works turned recreational lake, began to rise to dangerous levels. Lake Conemaugh had been stripped of its fail-safes after the Pubic Works system was abandoned and had no way of relieving the rising floodwaters. Various efforts to mitigate the high water were considered but were too little, too late, in a last ditch effort messengers were dispatched to South Fork to report the dangerous situation to neighboring towns via telegraph.

"The Johnstown Calamity" by George Baker depicts the devastation of the great flood, note homes tossed on their side as the waters recede leaving nothing but mud in an area that was once a residential neighborhood. Image collection of the New York Public Library.

"The Johnstown Calamity" by George Baker depicts the devastation of the great flood, note homes tossed on their side as the waters recede leaving nothing but mud in an area that was once a residential neighborhood. Image collection of the New York Public Library.

By the afternoon of May 31st, Johnstown was already experiencing flooding in various areas but at approximately 3:10PM the situation grew far beyond what anyone could have ever imagined. The dam holding back Lake Conemaugh collapsed, releasing some 20 million tons of water into the Conemaugh River valley. Taking approximately 40 minutes to drain the lake, flood waters raged through the valley taking less than an hour to reach the city of Johnstown, picking up houses, trees and even a railroad viaduct in its course. By the time it hit Johnstown the wall of floodwater was estimated to be 60’ high in places and traveling at 40 miles per hour.  The flood entered town in the areas of East Conemaugh and Woodvale leveling rail yards, tossing passenger trains and causing major damage to the Gautier Iron Works, picking up even more debris including barbed wire manufactured at the mills. Flood waters tore through the center of Johnstown which is hemmed in by the Stoney Creek and Conemaugh Rivers on the the valley floor becoming the epicenter of disaster. Spreading across the city the floodwaters washed back and forth forcing debris against the PRR stone viaduct near the Cambria Iron Works creating further peril during the situation. The unintended dam became engulfed in flames creating a 70’ high wall that had to eventually be blasted away after waters receded.

The great stone bridge on the Pennsylvania Railroad's main line played a large role in the devastation during the flood when debris washed across the valley piling up against the bridge creating an unintended dam, trapping flood victims in a 70' high debris pile that burned for three days. After the fire and flood water subsided clearing of the bridge required the expertise of "Dynamite Bill" Flynn and a 900 man crewtaking 3 months to complete the task. Photograph by Ernest Walter Histed, collection of the Library of Congress.

The great stone bridge on the Pennsylvania Railroad's main line played a large role in the devastation during the flood when debris washed across the valley piling up against the bridge creating an unintended dam, trapping flood victims in a 70' high debris pile that burned for three days. After the fire and flood water subsided clearing of the bridge required the expertise of "Dynamite Bill" Flynn and a 900 man crewtaking 3 months to complete the task. Photograph by Ernest Walter Histed, collection of the Library of Congress.

Efforts were mobilized immediately to provide disaster relief and recovery. The Pennsylvania Railroad restored the railroad west to Pittsburgh and was running trains by June 2nd bringing in manpower and supplies. Clara Barton, a nurse and founder of the Red Cross arrived on June 5th, staying for more than five months to lead the group’s first major disaster relief effort. The flood, the result of the of the South Fork Hunting Club’s negligence to properly maintain the earthen dam ultimately took 2,209 lives, 16,000 homes and cost $17 million in property damage, making the Great Flood of 1889 one of the worst floods to hit the US in the 19th Century.

Merry Christmas from the Main Line !

Coatesville_1

The railroad never stops, nor does the industry it serves. In the shadow of the Coatesville bridge spanning the west branch of the Brandywine River the former Lukens steel mill hums with activity around the clock providing jobs for people in the surrounding communities. As we enjoy the company of family during the holidays, men and women leave home to work in the plant day and night, producing specialized steel to build America's bridges, buildings and infrastructure. For some, working through the holidays seems unthinkable, to the folks in the steel or transportation industry its business as usual. Whether you are home with loved ones or on the job, I would like to wish you all a Merry Christmas !

The Edgar Thomson Works

On a damp morning smoke and steam rise from the Edgar Thompson Works in this view from Woodlawn Street in Braddock, Pennsylvania. Much of the commercial and residential  infrastructure of this section is in disrepair leaving the remaining residents among relics of a once thriving community that looked to mill for life. 

On a damp morning smoke and steam rise from the Edgar Thompson Works in this view from Woodlawn Street in Braddock, Pennsylvania. Much of the commercial and residential  infrastructure of this section is in disrepair leaving the remaining residents among relics of a once thriving community that looked to mill for life. 

Since the first heat of molten steel was tapped in 1875 The Edgar Thomson Works has produced steel continuously along the banks of the Monongahela River in North Braddock, Pennsylvania. Constructed by Andrew Carnegie the plant was named in honor of his friend and president of the Pennsylvania Railroad, J. Edgar Thomson. Carnegie’s mill would be the prototype for many modern facilities to come, making use of the Bessemer process, an innovative way to economically mass produce steel by forcing air through molten iron to remove impurities by oxidation. The mill occupies the site of the historic battle where French and Indian Troops defeated the expedition of General Edward Braddock on July 9, 1755. Flanked by Turtle Creek and the Monongahela River the locale offers waterfront access to receive raw materials and ship finished product on the Ohio and Mississippi River networks.

In 1892 the Edgar Thomson Works would be part of one most violent labor strikes in American history, the Homestead strike.  In an attempt to disband the Amalgamated Association of Iron and Steel Workers in Carnegie’s Homestead Works, Henry Clay Frick and Carnegie locked out workers when negotiations for the union organization went sour. Employees at the Homestead works picketed for roughly five days, with plant workers at both the Thomson and Duquesne Works joining in sympathy. Picketing turned violent when plant owners brought in the Pinkerton Guards instigating a full-scale riot that resulted in ten deaths and thousands of injuries. State Governor Robert Pattison sent two brigades of the State Militia to disperse the chaos and resume operations with temporary strike breakers. Mill owners continued fighting the efforts to unionize steel labor for years, causing other violent outbreaks until 1942 when the AA finally merged with others to create the United Steel Workers Union, gaining momentum to unionize major steel mills all together.

East end view of the Edgar Thompson Works reveals one of the remaining blast furnaces which produce the raw steel to feed the Mon Valley Works which includes finish mills in Irvin and Fairless Hills, Pennsylvania. The complex rail infrastucture required to feed the mils is illustrated here: In the foreground there are staging yards for gondolas of scrap steel, the ram bridge that connects the ET Works to the Union Railroad main line, the Union RR right of way left center (note signal gantry) all of which are on the bank of the Turtle Creek. 

East end view of the Edgar Thompson Works reveals one of the remaining blast furnaces which produce the raw steel to feed the Mon Valley Works which includes finish mills in Irvin and Fairless Hills, Pennsylvania. The complex rail infrastucture required to feed the mils is illustrated here: In the foreground there are staging yards for gondolas of scrap steel, the ram bridge that connects the ET Works to the Union Railroad main line, the Union RR right of way left center (note signal gantry) all of which are on the bank of the Turtle Creek. 

In 1901 Carnegie Steel was merged with the Federal and National Steel Companies under the direction of J.P. Morgan among other partners creating US Steel. Once the largest steel producer in the world, US Steel still produces roughly 25 percent of America’s domestic steel at several major facilities in the United States. Operations at the Edgar Thomson Plant continue and now employ a basic oxygen furnace and continuous caster in addition to the remaining blast furnaces. Operated under the auspices of the Mon Valley Works  this operation is the last integrated steel mill in the Pittsburgh area with coke produced at the Clairton Works to the south, raw steel produced at the ET plant and finishing into coil and galvanized products takes place at the Irvin Works.

Though the Edgar Thompson plant was served by numerous railroads most of it was done through interchange with the Union Railroad a wholly owned subsidiary of US Steel that was established in 1894 prior to Carnegie’s sale of the ET works. The Union Railroad grew into an expansive system connecting Carnegie’s Bessemer & Lake Erie with the industrial Mon Valley moving raw materials from Lake Erie and finished product to market. The Pennsylvania’s primary source of interchange was at Kenny Yard on the Monongahela Branch across from the works in Kennywood, Pennsylvania. Other companies interchanged with the Union Railroad including the Pittsburgh & Lake Erie, Baltimore and Ohio and the Western Maryland most via the P&LE gateway at Connellsville.