Initial Contributors: Beresford Pratt, George Finamore, Ryan Brown:

This site is rated as unfinished and available for revision and additional contributions. Failures Admin.


Deep in the heart of the Allegheny Mountains of Pennsylvania lays the industrial town of Johnstown; founded by Joseph Johns in 1791 on the convergence of the Conemaugh River and the Stone Creek River. Approximately 30,000 people lived there many of whom were immigrants seeking work in the iron mills of the thriving mountainous town. Fueled by Cambria Iron Works, the town flourished due to the constant need of iron for war. The town grew larger and larger as the years went on. By the end of the first world war Johnstown was the Great Industrial center of Pennsylvania.

Key Words

  • Culvert
  • May 31, 1889
  • Johnstown flood
  • South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club
  • South Fork Dam
  • Johnstown
  • Lake Conemaugh


With hundreds dead the Johnstown flood was a major catastrophic event. Being that is was so early in history technological advancements were still taking place in order to improve the quality and durability of the structure. The collapse of the Johnstown Dam single-handedly motivated designers to focus more on durability through unexpected catastrophic events, like the flood.

As we dive further into the negative implications of the flood and its affects on the dam, it is important to keep in mind the what will be investigated. Why did such a dam that was built to withstand more than the force of Lake Conemaugh collapse.

Through our research sources, diagrams, and photo images we were able to fully grasp the essence of the dam collapse. With the abundance of resources it was clear to see the main cause of the structures failure. While the dam could withstand thousands of tons of steel, its was no mach for the millions of tons of water pressure it was to endure.


Friday, May 31, 1889 a mountain of water (20 million tons of water) bombarded the town of Johnstown, Pennsylvania along with a half dozen towns along the way. This particular year there was heavily snow fall during the winter months, which left the grounds heavily saturated, along with that the months of April and May had heavier rain fall as well. There were several days of heavy rain, pouring at an overwhelming rate from May 28 through May 31. It wasn’t until May 31 that the town’s dam was seen as hazardous. The Owner of the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club had seen the water levels rise about 2 feet overnight and had crews out working to secure the dam. The crew had been commissioned to clear drainage areas of debris, while others had been put to work to make a runoff area. By then it had been too late and the management at the club realized there was little they could do. It started with a little overflow, and then the dam gave way. Over 2,200 people lost their lives and the town was left in ruins. Countries such as Russia and turkey sent aid, and this disaster was the first big test for the American Cross.
Johnstown had a prior history of dam failures and collapses which led to multiple ,both major and minor, floods over the years.
*denotes the major floods


There were several causes to the dam failure, some say negligence, some say bad luck, but when it comes down to it the earth and rock dam was just not enough to hold back a series of impressive rain falls in 1889.

In 1862 the dam suffered a break and part of it was washed away, this was minor but it left the dam untouched and dry for additional 13 years after this until a new owner would come in and pick it up. The new owner decided to repair the dam, and make it a classy resort and club with the 500 acres of surrounding property.

The plan was to fill in the dam’s washed out broken section, and have it returned to the original specifications. Upon completion of the reconstruction, the dam actually turned out to be smaller in width than the originally built dam, by 2ft. It is said that this was the cause of the major collapse in 1889.


While many engineers may have had their own style of reconstructing the dam, there was little to no conflicting accounts. It was clear to all that the dam needed to be stronger for the future, and the common response was that it was simply just to weak. In the end there was a lack of multiple reasons for the dam's failures. But with the dam's designer and contractors all deceased their was no one to confront.


People like to say it could have been prevented if the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club would have been more proactive about maintaining the full integrity of the dam. With all the money that the club had through the owners and members they should have more actively been trying to prevent something bad happening. More of their resources could have been invested in strengthening the weak sections and preventing the major catastrophes that followed. In the end though, it was proclaimed an “act of God” and no formal charges were placed on any party.

Industry Changes

As far as the industry's concerns, the Johnstown flood dam failure was something that the industry did not want to occur again. However, Pennsylvania had no dam inspection laws prior to 1913 after a terrible dam collapse in Austin PA prompted them to finally think about implementing something. Even still, this was very little in comparison to what was needed. It wasn't until 1936 that the Flood Control Act was initiated to really start putting an end to the dam problems.

Lessons Not Learned

In the end the dam contractors and designers, had not actually learned their lesson. The South Fork Dam was rebuilt and collapsed two more times before the hopes for a dam were eliminated from their minds. Having a large scale man-made dam requires continuous maintenance and care, which at the time of the 1889 flood and those two major floods that followed was not at the forefront of their everyday life. Though many believed the dam would collapse at any time. Few did anything to help prevent it, which led to the near total demise of the great industrial town of Johnstown.



Bussler, Mark: Written and Directed by "Johnstown Flood", Narrated by Richard Dreyfuss, Pittsburgh, PA, 2002
This film depicts the events of May 31, 1889, briefly outlines the months leading up to the flood, and outlines all the events of the day and the days to come. All resources were pulled from the Johnstown History Museum, as well as survivors of the flood.

Clarke, Connie (March 2, 2007). “The Johnstown Flood: the Worst Dam Failure in U.S. History.” ABC News. <>
This article gives a summary of the incident prior, during, and after the incident of the bridge collapse in May of 1889. While the summary contains statistics it more of a quick overview of how the situation occurred.

The Committee on Energy and Natural Resources (May 20, 2004). “Johnstown Flood National Memorial Boundary Adjustment Act of 2003.”
This document is an official report of the Flood and the bridge failure. The document contains a bill to be passed for the reconstruction/aid of both the bridge and the town of Johnstown.

Fleury, Maureen K. Mar 31, 2008 “Deadliest Flood in US History”
This article provides some history to check up with the other sources, and a few numbers on its own. Also has a brief list of the causes of the dam failure

Forensic Engineering: Proceedings of the Third Forensic Engineering Congress, edited by Paul A. Bosela, Norbert J. Delatte and Kevin L. Rens, ASCE, Reston, VA, 2003. This publication contains many interesting papers, including a number of failure case studies. It also reviews a number of ongoing activities by the various subcommittees of the Technical Council on Forensic Engineering. The Third Forensic Engineering Congress was held in San Diego, California, October 2003.

Frank, Walter Smoter (May 1988) “The Cause of the Johnstown Flood” Civil Engineering
A phenomenal summary of a Civil Engineering article written regarding what happened with the dam. Lots of nice numbers in this article to go off of.

Ivory, Karen "Pennsylvania Disasters: True Stories of Tragedy and Survival""
This is a excerpt from the above book specifically the chapters on the Johnstown Flood, it provides dates and time relative to the flood, and a brief history of the town.

"Johnstown Flood National Memorial Boundary Adjustment Act of 2003 : report" (to accompany H.R. 1521)
This act provides square footage's of the land where the flood occurred, as well as dates, time and cost estimates of damages caused by the flood.

Johnstown Museum (No date Specified) “History of the
Johnstown Flood“ Johnstown Museum <>
This article goes though in detail what transpired to make the dam fail, and over all what happened when it did. It’s a brief summary of the history of the events that took place when the dam failed and the flood that occurred thereafter.

Kutler, Ed. Stanley I. (2003) “Dictionary of American History”. New
York: Charles Scribner's Sons, Vol. 4 3rd ed, p483-484.
This is rather short article, but a good way to check some facts on what happened and the history behind the dam.

Dr. McGough, Micheal Gettysburg, PA, 2002 "The 1889 Flood in Johnstown, Pennsylvania"
The book provides the history of Johnstown, Pa along with specific facts and figures on the Flood of 1889.

Sandler, Martin W. New York, NY, 2003 "America's great disasters"
This online article provides us with the specific chapters of Sandler's book pertaining to th Johnstown Flood. It provides a brief synopsis of Johnstown's history, American history, and outlines the events of May 31, 1889.