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.

PRR and the Greater Johnstown Area

Part 6: Cambria City and the Western Suburbs: Leaving Johnstown proper, the Mainline of the PRR crosses another site associated with the history of the Great Flood of 1889. A seven span stone arch bridge over the Conemaugh River, officially know as Bridge 222 built under the guidance of Chief Engineer William Brown in 1888, was the sight of tragedy as flood waters washed across the valley, trapping over 500 people and debris, eventually catching fire and killing all but 80 in the blaze. While the structure survived the damage, over 2200 lives collectively were lost in what is still considered America’s worst natural disaster.

Later, in the history of this structure the PRR modernized the bridge reinforcing it in concrete on the South Side and expanding the bridge to accommodate the four track system the PRR was know for. Today, there is more plans for the bridge with the City planning its South Side re-facing to incorporate decorative lighting for night time illumination, tying in the Point Stadium, Inclined Plane, and Festival Park, adding another visual landmark to the Johnstown Discovery Network.

Eastward View of Bridge 222 from Brownstone Hill, note the reinforced concrete facade from the later expansion to a four track mainline system. This bridge continues to serve Norfolk Southern today and is planned to be restored/ refinished as an anchor for the Johnstown Discovery Network system.

Eastward View of Bridge 222 from Brownstone Hill, note the reinforced concrete facade from the later expansion to a four track mainline system. This bridge continues to serve Norfolk Southern today and is planned to be restored/ refinished as an anchor for the Johnstown Discovery Network system.

View of Brownstone Hill from the former Conemaugh and Black Lick rail yard on the North Side of the Conemaugh River. The mainline threads along the base of the mountain in the back lots of commercial and industrial buildings along Route 56 from left to right in the photo.

View of Brownstone Hill from the former Conemaugh and Black Lick rail yard on the North Side of the Conemaugh River. The mainline threads along the base of the mountain in the back lots of commercial and industrial buildings along Route 56 from left to right in the photo.

As the Mainline again follows the Conemaugh River westward, it hugs the base of Brownstone Hill in the back lots of Cambria City. Opposite, on the North Side of the river, the C&BL takes a wondering path, servicing the area know as the Lower Works, the original Cambria Iron Works that established Steel Making in area circa 1852. While the mainline is pretty straight forward, the C&BL runs through ruins of its former self. In the neighborhood of Minersville, vacant yard trackage and a quiet engine facility, far to large to be justified for the sometimes monthly operations of today stands testament to a company railroad that once thrived on terminal switching, moving in raw materials to the mill and finished product to the PRR and B&O.

L  ooking South East from 4th Street in Cambria City's neighborhood on the North side of the Conemaugh River, we see the Conemaugh and Black Lick Main running along the concrete flood walls that now keep the flood prone river in check. The siding diverting to the left appears to be a leg of a Wye that led to a branch extending into the hillside for slag dumping and steel waste, most likely coming from the nearby Cambria Works just out of view in the top right of this image.

Looking South East from 4th Street in Cambria City's neighborhood on the North side of the Conemaugh River, we see the Conemaugh and Black Lick Main running along the concrete flood walls that now keep the flood prone river in check. The siding diverting to the left appears to be a leg of a Wye that led to a branch extending into the hillside for slag dumping and steel waste, most likely coming from the nearby Cambria Works just out of view in the top right of this image.

Further West, past the engine house the C&BL once again crosses the Conemaugh one last time on the Ten Acre Bridge to access the Wire and Rod Works in the Morrelleville Section one of the last facilities still doing what it was intended to do by Bethlehem Steel. From the North Side, a spur continues on from the locomotive shops only to be lost in the weeds along Cramer Pike.

On the South Side of the River we make one more significant observation on the PRR main. At MP 277.3 stood SG tower in the Western Suburbs of town. Here interchange was conducted with the C&BL. More significantly on the mainline, tracks 1, 2, and 3 (4 split off remotely 3 miles West) divided along the South Bank, while track 5 and 6 ran along the North to Conpitt Junction some 13 miles further West. Track 5 and 6 known as the Sang Hollow Extension, was built between 1881-83 to handle heavier freight traffic through the area, eventually connecting back with the Mainline and elusive Conemaugh Line, a low grade back road into Pittsburgh, at JD Interlocking just west of New Florence PA.

Excerpt from a 1951 PRR Pittsburgh Division, Central Region track chart, showing the Mainline from SG located in the Western Suburbs of Johnstown to Conpitt Junction, 14 miles to the West, which was the end of the Low Grade Sang Hollow Branch and beginning of the Conemaugh Main, a slower route which provided an easier profile for heavy drags and mineral trains into Pittsburgh. The chart was provided from the  PRR Multmodalways Online Archive  

Excerpt from a 1951 PRR Pittsburgh Division, Central Region track chart, showing the Mainline from SG located in the Western Suburbs of Johnstown to Conpitt Junction, 14 miles to the West, which was the end of the Low Grade Sang Hollow Branch and beginning of the Conemaugh Main, a slower route which provided an easier profile for heavy drags and mineral trains into Pittsburgh. The chart was provided from the PRR Multmodalways Online Archive  

Just west of SG tower near milepost 278 the Sang Hollow Extension crosses the Conemaugh on a ballasted deck bridge at the area know as Dornock Point. Along the ridge in the rear of this image, the mainline continues westward along the southern bank of the Conemaugh River. 

Just west of SG tower near milepost 278 the Sang Hollow Extension crosses the Conemaugh on a ballasted deck bridge at the area know as Dornock Point. Along the ridge in the rear of this image, the mainline continues westward along the southern bank of the Conemaugh River. 

This concludes our tour of the Greater Johnstown Area, check back soon for more in depth posts on other towns related to the Pennsylvania Railroad. For more imagery from my Mainline Project please visit my website.

For more information on the PRR and the neighboring landscape check out some of the links below. As a side note, I would like to thank the many deicated people that spend so much time and energy preserving, interpreting, and sharing the past, present, and future of our Railroad, Social and Industrial Heritage in this Country! Please feel free to send me more links and I will be sure to add them!

Altoona Memorial Railroaders Museum

American Memory Project: Library of Congress

Center for Railroad Photography and Art

The Hagley Library

Johnstown Discovery Network

National Railway Historical Society

Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission

Pennsylvania Railroad Technical and Historical Society

Pennsylvania State Railroad Museum