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Flood Sweeps Pennsylvania Towns, Thousands Die!

June 2, 2009 |  2:00 am

June 2, 1889, Wagon

The Times reports that 8,000 to 10,000 died in the Johnstown flood.
June 2, 1889, the Johnstown flood
AWFUL! A Disaster Without Parallel in America! View this page

June 2, 1889, Johnstown Flood
Anxious relatives seeking victims of the Johnstown horror. View this page

Recalling the Johnstown Flood after 100 Years

May 21, 1989

By PETER MATTIACE, Associated Press

JOHNSTOWN, Pa. -- A century later, Elsie Frum remembers vividly the steady, shrill whistle of warning and the horrifying wall of water that killed 2,209 people in the Johnstown Flood of 1889.

"My father ran into the house and said: 'Run! The dam has broken!' And we ran. We just got out in time," Mrs. Frum recalls.

"It was terrible. It sounded like thunder. It took everything, everything in front of it--railroad engines, the roundhouse. It took all the buildings. It looked like an ocean.

"Then there was nothing left. It was like a beach when it was over. We just stood there and watched it. Everyone was stunned. We didn't know what to do."

Mrs. Frum, 106 years old and a great-great-grandmother, is the last known survivor who remembers the flood of May 31, 1889, the first of three floods to devastate this western Pennsylvania mountain city and nearby villages.

One of the five worst natural disasters in U.S. history, the Johnstown Flood of 1889 was caused by the collapse of the South Fork Dam about 15 miles northeast and 450 feet above Johnstown.

The 72-foot-high earthen dam held a private lake for the exclusive summertime recreation of such 19th-Century industrial barons as Andrew Carnegie, Henry Clay Frick and Andrew Mellon. Experts said later it was weakened by poor maintenance and extraordinarily heavy rains of up to 10 inches in 24 hours.

The dam's collapse sent a 35- to 80-foot surge of water racing down the narrow Little Conemaugh River Valley, sweeping away houses, barns, railroad cars and locomotives, telegraph poles, livestock, people and nearly everything else before it hit Johnstown at 4:07 p.m., 57 minutes after the dam broke.

Then a budding industrial city of about 10,000 deep in a bowl-like valley, Johnstown was already under several feet of water from the rains.

Crashed Into City

The mid-afternoon flood water, pushing a roll of debris before it, crashed into the city's busy steel mills, fragile wood-frame homes and finally into its sturdy Pennsylvania Railroad bridge.

"Most of the people in Johnstown never saw the water coming; they only heard it," historian David G. McCullough wrote in his 1968 book, "The Johnstown Flood."

"Those who actually saw the wall of water would talk and write about how it 'snapped off trees like pipestems' or 'crushed houses like eggshells,' " McCullough wrote. "But what seemed to make the most lasting impression was the cloud of dark spray that hung over the front of the wave . . . it was talked of as 'the death mist' and would be remembered always."

Scores of stranded people floated on a huge jumble of wreckage covering about 30 acres that jammed up at the stone railroad bridge just below downtown. But the great pile caught fire and 80 helpless victims died in a second horror.

Clara Barton, then 67 and eager to promote her new American Red Cross, rushed in from Washington and set up headquarters inside a boxcar.

The new Red Cross helped organize field hospitals, kitchens and laundries. Five months later, Johnstown's citizens bid her farewell with a diamond locket and their grateful thanks.

Mrs. Frum, then a 6-year-old schoolgirl, lived with her parents and two younger sisters in East Conemaugh, just upriver from Johnstown. Her father, John Shaffer, owned a planing mill next door.

Mrs. Frum remembered her father as a nosy and nervous man, especially about increasing rumors that the South Fork Dam was in trouble.

Shaffer had stepped outside in the rain to see if nearby wooden bridges were still standing when, Mrs. Frum recalls, everyone heard engineer John Hess' heroic warning whistle from the cab of Pennsylvania Railroad Engine 1124.

Nearly Everyone Heard Alarm

McCullough wrote: "Hess in his engine blazed down the valley, the water practically on top of him, in an incredibly heroic dash to sound the alarm. . . . Nearly everyone in East Conemaugh heard it and understood almost instantly what it meant."

"That was our Paul Revere," Mrs. Frum recalls. "A man had taken his train up and he was on the way down, and saw the dam had broken. And he tied his whistle down. He jumped. He was saved. He stayed on it till he got into Conemaugh.

"My father knew then that the dam had broken," she says.

From the safety of a nearby hill, Elsie and her family saw "everything just roll away."

"We could see things tumbling around in the water," she says.

Shaffer sent his family into the country for a week. When Elsie returned, her father was building coffins for the dead brought to the nearby United Methodist Church.

"I remember they brought the bodies there to wash, took them across to the church and laid them across the top of the seats," Mrs. Frum says. "They put a robe over them. He made the coffins to bury them in. That's what I remember. I saw all that.

"It was horrible. I was scared to death of dead people.

"I remember the cleanup. Every time they would dig a place for a home, they would find a body. And every time they would dig any place, they would find something, you know, a body or something."

Bodies Were Found for Weeks

Johnstown's dead were found miles past the stone bridge for weeks. Debris was recovered as far away as Pittsburgh, about 75 miles to the west. The last body was discovered 15 years later.

Many bodies could not be identified, and 663 of the unknown were buried in a common plot in nearby Grandview Cemetery three years later.

In terms of lives lost, the Johnstown Flood ranks as the second-worst natural disaster in U.S. history. A hurricane that hit Galveston, Tex., in 1890 left 6,000 dead. The San Francisco Earthquake of 1906 ranks fifth, with 500 killed.

The nation's press sensationalized the tragedy, sometimes filing false stories of heroism and looting. But the press also helped mobilize quick national and international help for the stricken area.

Within days, trainloads of food, tents, clothing, lumber, construction supplies, and even coffins, arrived. Cash contributions from around the world totaled $3.7 million, according to McCullough.

Mrs. Frum remembers the relief efforts, the immediate rescue and reconstruction activity.

"All kinds of food came in and all kinds of clothing," she says.

Lawsuits Filed

Later, fingers of blame were pointed at the millionaires' South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club, which had allowed the dam at the former reservoir to deteriorate. Several lawsuits were filed and, without a lake, the club soon closed.

But, McCullough reported, "not a nickel was ever collected through damage suits from the . . . club or from any of its members."

"Every person was warned, oh, long before it broke," Mrs. Frum said. "Oh yes, they were warned. Every time it rained, they said the dam was going to break and it didn't. And, of course, when it happened, why, nobody thought it was going to happen and nobody ran--but us."

The Shaffers were lucky. The high water flooded their house and they returned to live in it.

But Mrs. Frum lost everything, including the contents of her Johnstown home, on March 17, 1936, when a warm rain melted heavy winter snows too quickly and the city suffered its second major flood. The 1936 flood left 25 people dead and caused $41 million in damage.

Moving to a nearby suburb atop a mountain, Mrs. Frum missed Johnstown's third great flood on July 22, 1977, when 11 inches of rain fell in the area in nine hours. The 1977 flood left 80 people dead and caused $350 million in damage.

Mrs. Frum never left the Johnstown area, and she has survived two husbands. All of her 30 descendants are still alive.

Hard Times

"I have wondered, yes, a lot why I'm here," she says. "I guess it's just not time for me to go. I've gone through a lot. I don't want another flood, I know that."

There have been other hard times for Johnstown. Stung by rapid declines in the steel industry, Johnstown at one point in 1983 bore the nation's highest unemployment rate, 26.6%, but at the same time it maintained the nation's lowest crime rate.

The city, now about 35,000 people and slowly recovering economically, has planned more than 100 commemorative and special events this summer to mark the flood's 100th anniversary under the slogan, "A Triumph of the American Spirit."

"The reason for the celebration is to show how the city has been resilient, not only from the floods, but from the various economic adversities," says Mayor Herbert Pfuhl Jr.

Referring to survivors of the 1889 flood, Pfuhl says, "I think they'd be pleased with the changes and the progress that have happened."