History Bits – Funny how things come together

The Johnstown flood is something many of us learned about in school, there have been many stories told about it and even a few films (one of which has Mighty Mouse stopping the flood!).

Image: Library of Congess

Soldiers look over Johnstown from Kernville Hill.

On May 31 of 1889 the South Fork Dam holding back Lake Conemaugh failed during a torrential rainstorm. The resulting flood destroyed sixteen hundred homes, caused about $500 million in damage (2015 dollars) and killed 2209 men, women and children along with destroying 4 square miles of downtown Johnstown.1 In terms of life lost it’s a disaster right up there with the San Francisco earthquake, the Galveston hurricane of 1900 and the September 11 terrorist attacks.

Those are the bare facts of the story but as the title says it’s funny how things come together. The South Fork Dam was owned and maintained by the South Fork Hunting and Fishing club, which was made up of a group of rich industrialists who had cottages along the shores of Lake Conemaugh. However the story of the dam began many years before.

In the late 18th century canals were starting to be built through the state of Pennsylvania as it was much easier and cheaper to haul freight by canal boat than by road. One of those canals ran from Philadelphia to Pittsburg. Canals need water to operate and that could be a problem during dry weather, so the state built a series of artificial lakes to ensure that water would be available for the canals.

Lake Conemaugh was one of those lakes.

Courtesy National Park Service

Incline Plane No. 8 by George Storm, date unknown

There was another problem with those canals, Pennsylvania is a mountainous state and canals don’t work very well on hills,

Photo from National Park Service

West Portal, Staple Bend Tunnel

never mind mountains. Often that can be dealt with by building locks but on a steep grade locks can get very complex and expensive. So to deal with that the state built the Allegheny portage railroad, which hauled canal boats over the mountains (including through the Staple Bend Tunnel, America’s first railway tunnel).2

In 1854 the Pennsylvania Railroad opened a stretch of track near Altoona known as the “horseshoe curve”,4 which allowed locomotives to haul freight over the Allegheny Mountains, bypassing the much slower portage railroad and canals. As a result canal traffic declined and the state abandoned the Western Division canal that ran from Johnstown to Pittsburgh and sold Lake Conemaugh and the dam to the Pennsylvania Railroad, which then resold it, the property eventually being purchased in 1879 by the South Fork Hunting and Fishing Club.

Sometime during those years after the dam was abandoned someone removed the iron discharge pipes so there was no way to release water from the dam, and subsequent repairs were poorly done.3

One of the fun things that comes from learning about history is when you learn bits and pieces and suddenly things “snap” together. I’ve known about the Johnstown Flood for as long as I can remember, and have been to the Johnstown Flood museum in Johnstown. The Horseshoe Curve is almost as famous, it’s an engineering marvel, declared as┬áNational Historic Civil Engineering Landmark, and was a target of the Nazi’s during World War II.

Photo courtesy United States Geological Survey

Horseshoe Curve, Altoona, PA

I’ve made a lot of trips to Pennsylvania and always try to see something new on each trip. One year it was Johnstown, another year the Horseshoe Curve, and then another time the Portage Railroad. There was no plan in seeing any of these, they just seemed like interesting places to visit, but on my visit to the Portage Railroad it all just “clicked” and it dawned on me how all this fit together.

The Johnstown flood was a real horror and a tragedy, but like most such events some good came out of it. We take dam safety much more seriously now, and the Johnstown disaster was the first time an organization known for disaster relief was able to help, the Red Cross.




  1. https://www.nps.gov/jofl/index.htm
  2. http://explorepahistory.com/hmarker.php?markerId=1-A-1D5
  3. https://www.american-rails.com/horseshoe.html
  4. https://www.nps.gov/jofl/learn/historyculture/south-fork-dam.htm
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