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The Day Lake Conemaugh Destroyed Johnstown

Salena Zito on

SOUTH FORK, Pennsylvania -- One hundred and thirty-two years later, the truth of what happened here in May 1889 is still difficult to put into words.

Standing on the very soil where Col. Elias Unger, the last president of the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club, had his home overlooking Lake Conemaugh, you can see from the distance where the Pittsburgh elite had their grand fishing club and elaborate cottages along the shoreline.

Look right and you can also see the remnants of the poorly maintained dam that once held back their pristine private lake. It gave way on May 31, 1889, after days of relentless rain, sending 20 million gallons of water raging down 14 miles toward the city of Johnstown.

With each inch and foot and mile, the force of the water gathered and carried with it trees, boulders, dirt, barns, animals, mud, people (dead and alive) and houses. It flung them all at the unsuspecting town, killing more than 2,000 and causing millions of dollars of damage.

The people of Johnstown had spent that day preparing not for a horrific catastrophe but for the typical post-storm flooding from the Little Conemaugh and Stonycreek rivers. They moved their perishables to the upper stories of their buildings, as they often did to wait out minor floods.

"They had little idea of the fate that awaited them," National Park ranger Doug Bosley, who manages the three sites that make up the Johnstown Flood National Park, said.

 

On that morning of May 31, club officials were frantic. They understood the 2-mile-long, 1-mile-deep lake was at its breaking point. "By 3 in the afternoon, those that had gathered to try to stop the inevitable watched in horror as the dam gave way," Bosley said.

It is said that it hit the town and its people with the force of Niagara Falls.

"Most people only heard it coming," Bosley said. "Those who saw it and lived described it as a rolling mountain of dirt and trees, building over 40 feet high."

A life-sized diorama of that wall of debris is the first thing that greets those entering the visitors center, which overlooks the completely intact Unger home. In addition to the wealth of artifacts and scale dioramas, visitors can feast their eyes on a gripping film called "Black Friday," which leaves the viewer feeling as if he or she were in Johnstown when the flood hit.

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