’TWAS in the year of 1889, and in the month of June,
Ten thousand people met with a fearful doom,
By the bursting of a dam in Pennsylvania State,
And were burned, and drowned by the flood– oh! pity their fate!
The embankment of the dam was considered rather weak,
And by the swelled body of water the embankment did break,
And burst o’er the valley like a leaping river,
Which caused the spectators with fear to shiver.
And on rushed the mighty flood, like a roaring big wave,
Whilst the drowning people tried hard their lives to save;
But eight thousand were drowned, and their houses swept away,
While the spectators looked on, stricken with dismay.
And when the torrent dashed against the houses they instantly toppled o’er,
Then many of the houses caught fire, which made a terrific roar;
And two thousand people, by the fire, lost their lives,
Consisting of darling girls and boys, also men and their wives.
And when the merciless flood reached Johnstown it was fifty feet high,
While, in pitiful accents, the drowning people for help did cry;
But hundreds of corpses, by the flood, were swept away,
And Johnstown was blotted out like a child’s toy house of clay.
Alas! there were many pitiful scenes enacted,
And many parents, for the loss of their children, have gone distracted,
Especially those that were burned in the merciless flame,
Their dear little ones they will never see again.
And among the sad scenes to be witnessed there,
Was a man and his wife in great despair,
Who had drawn from the burning mass a cradle of their child,
But, oh, heaven! their little one was gone, which almost drove them wild.
Oh, heaven! it was a pitiful and a most agonising sight,
To see parents struggling hard with all their might,
To save their little ones from being drowned,
But ’twas vain, the mighty flood engulfed them, with a roaring sound.
There was also a beautiful girl, the belle of Johnstown,
Standing in bare feet, on the river bank, sad and forlorn,
And clad in a loose petticoat, with a shawl over her head,
Which was all that was left her, because her parents were dead.
Her parents were drowned, and their property swept away with the flood,
And she was watching for them on the bank where she stood,
To see if they would rise to the surface of the water again,
But the dear girl’s watching was all in vain.
And as for Conemaugh river, there’s nothing could it surpass;
It was dammed up by a wall of corpses in a confused mass;
And the charred bodies could be seen dotting the burning debris,
While the flames and sparks ascended with a terrific hiss.
The pillaging of the houses in Johnstown is fearful to describe,
By the Hungarians and ghouls, and woe betide
Any person or party that interfered with them,
Because they were mad with drink, and yelling like tigers in a den.
And many were to be seen engaged in a hand-to-hand fight,
And drinking whisky, and singing wild songs, oh! what a shameful sight!
But a number of the thieves were lynched and shot
For robbing the dead of their valuables, which will not be forgot.
Mrs Ogle, like a heroine, in the telegraph office stood at her post,
And wired words of warning, else more lives would have been lost;
Besides she was warned to flee, but from her work she wouldn’t stir,
Until at last the merciless flood engulfed her.
And as for the robbery and outrage at the hands of the ghouls,
I must mention Clara Barton and her band of merciful souls,
Who made their way fearlessly to the wounded in every street,
And the wounded and half-crazed survivors they kindly did treat.
Oh, heaven! it was a horrible sight, which will not be forgot,
So many people drowned and burned–oh! hard has been their lot!
But heaven’s will must be done, I’ll venture to say,
And accidents will happen until doomsday!
The Desolated Valley
Victims to be Counted by Thousands
The Survivors Homeless and Starving
Terrible Scenes Among the Ruins of Johnstown
Robbers of the Dead Lynched and Shot to Death
Magnitude of the Disaster Not Overstated
Telegraphic communication with Johnstown has been re-established, and the work of succor to the living and of burial of the dead is going forward under direction of organized volunteer corps of physicians and ministers from Pittsburg and every other city in the reach of the stricken and desolate valley.
The latest information confirms the last appalling estimates of the numbers of the dead, but even this is unreliable, for nothing had yet been heard of the four towns up the valley from Johnstown, that were first involved in the disdaster, Mute testimony as to their probable fate has been found in the identification of the bodies of several of their former citizens that have been taken from the ruins of their cities down the river.
A temporary martial government has been established over the ruined city of Johnstown, under the Adjutant General of Pennsylvania, assisted by military companies from Pittsburg and by volunteer officers. Attempts at disorder and violence by small gangs of tramps have been vigorously suppressed, and several marauders have been lynched and shot to death, for the people in the solemn earnestness of their work of succor and rescue have not the patience to wait the tedious process of law.
The area of disaster from the floods is extended considerably over what was originally reported, and a sense of apprehension will prevail until the cities in the valley of the Cumberland, the Shenandoah, the Juniata, and the upper Potomac, that have been cut off from communication with the outside world since last Thursday shall be heard from again.
Organized and systematic efforts to provide food and shelter for the homeless thousands that are now exposed to the elements in the desolated region are earnestly called for. Meetings for the purpose of responding to the call have been ordered in several of the larger cities. That in this city will be held at the Mayor’s office this afternoon.
With the partial restoration of telegraphic communication fuller particulars of the great disaster have come to hand and are given below.
The cause of the calamity, it is admitted by the President of the South Fork Fishing Club, the proprietor of the artificial Conemaugh Lake, was the weakness of the dam alone. No cloudburst or waterspout occurred to compel it – the frailty of the dam and the tremendous pressure of water behind it was the only cause of the catastrophe.
New York Times, 3rd June 1889
The flood that engulfed the Pennsylvania steel town of Johnstown remains the worst flood disaster in US history. The death toll was set officially at 2,209, with bodies being discovered for years afterwards whilst others were never found.
McGonagall’s account of the event is basically correct, except in the first stanza where he uncharacteristicly gets a date wrong. The disaster occurred not “in the month of June” but on the 31st May – he was presumably confused by the date the story reached the papers.
Originally built to serve a canal system rendered obsolete by the coming of the railroad, the South Fork dam was bought and refurbished in 1879 by Benjamin Ruff to create Lake Conemaugh, centrepiece of the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club. This exclusive body enabled some of Pittsburgh’s wealthiest citizens, among them Andrew Mellon and scots emigré Andrew Carnegie, to relax away from the city.
The work carried out on the dam was far from rigourous, reconstruction being carried out with earth, boulders, tree stumps and whatever else came to hand. Critically there were no discharge pipes with which to lower the level of the lake in the case of heavy rains or necessary repairs. Many times over the years it was feared that the dam might break and warnings were sent downstream. After so many false alarms the expression “when the dam breaks” became a local joke in Jonestown and used to apply to any promised event that never happens. They were to pay dearly for their complacency.
A night of heavy rain in May 1889 swelled the waters of Lake Conemaugh to record levels, threatening once more to burst the dam. Workers laboured tirelessly to strengthen the dam and to draw off some of the flood waters, but all in vain. A little after 3pm the dam began to give way, sending a huge wave of water and debris hurtling down the valley.
It took nearly an hour for the worst of the flood to reach Johnstown, yet even those citizens forewarned by rider or telegraph paid the news little heed. At 4:07pm, accompanied by “a roar like thunder”, 20 million tons of water and debris struck Johnstown sweeping all before it. The only structure to withstand the onsalught was a stone railway viaduct, against which a 40 foot high pile of wreckage formed from which crawled some 3,000 survivors of the flood.
However, this was not the end of the incident as petroleum leaked from some freight wagons onto this debris pile setting it alight. At least 300 people survived the flood only to perish in the flames.
None of the worthies of the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club were successfully brought to account for the disaster, though many did make large donations to the relief fund. Indeed the relief efforts grew to become the biggest private charitable act in American history. $3.7 million dollars was raised in the US and abroad for the flood victims – the equivalent of $15 billion dollars in today’s money.