An American Tragedy

2,209 Are Killed

The famous “Johnstown Flood” of May 31, 1889 was likely the single most newsworthy item in American history between the assassination of Lincoln and World War I. It certainly received the heaviest news coverage.

At 3:10 p.m. on May 31, 1889, following a full-day of unprecedented heavy rains, a 450-acre man-made lake, detained by a fifty-year-old earthen dam and owned by the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club (the exclusive reserve of a select group of Pittsburgh’s crustiest upper-crust), ruptured its barrier and its liberated waters raced down the South Fork Creek, into the Little Conemaugh River, on its way to Johnstown, Pennsylvania, some 15 miles downstream. It took about 40 minutes for the lake to empty completely, but it did so with the force of the Niagara River at its famous falls. The estimated 20 million tons of water roared through the narrow confines of the mountain valleys at speeds sometimes in excess of 40 miles an hour and with a roiling wall of water and debris at times more than 70 feet high. The water scoured the valleys and hillsides to the bare bedrock, uprooting massive trees, shattering and pushing along all man-made structures: houses, stores, railroad beds and equipment, telegraph and telephone poles, stone and wooden bridges, plus uncountable tons of soil, loose rocks and huge boulders, and livestock and people and whatever else was in the path of its irresistible plunge downward as it descended some 500 feet in the 15-mile race to Johnstown.

Before the flood, Johnstown was scarcely known outside of Western Pennsylvania. Some 50 miles east of Pittsburgh at the junction of the Stony Creek and Little Conemaugh rivers in a wide mountain valley, it had grown in its century of existence to about 10,000 souls (the nearby valley communities pushed the area’s population to about 23,000 or perhaps a bit more). The biggest employer, and indeed the town’s economic anchor, was a large steel mill which had been the largest in the entire country in terms of production in the 1870s and early 1880s. The lower parts of town had been subject to flooding by the converging rivers with some frequency in the past, but the water at its deepest rarely rose to more than six feet. The houses in the “better” and higher parts of town never had flooded, beyond having occasional standing water in the streets.

At 4:07 p.m., the juggernaut of water and wreckage crashed into Johnstown (already experiencing serious flooding in the lower parts of town due the heavy rains), and swept unstoppably over the whole town and over its several sister towns. Whole houses and businesses, and whole blocks of houses and businesses were torn loose and shattered by the impact. The wave collided with the hillside at the far side of town and returned as a massive wave of backwash surging through the ruins in the opposite direction, leveling most of what little had survived the first impact. From start to finish, the devastation took a mere ten minutes.

After dumping some of its load of mud and rock and wreckage on Johnstown and collecting a new load from the town itself, the water resumed its downhill course, slamming with incredible impact into a stone railroad bridge close to the ironworks. Huge quantities of debris were jammed next to and into the bridge, mounding as much as 80 feet high and all but entirely blocking the escape path of the flood waters (and incidentally trapping in the tangled mess some 80 living human beings). This left the town underwater until the flood eroded a new path around one end of the bridge, and began once again sweeping onward, this time with the floating ruins of Johnstown, including people clinging to rooftops and planks and whatever else they could hold on to, who were hoping against hope to find rescue somehow further downstream. In the rushing waters were the corpses of hundreds of Johnstown’s citizens. Towns and villages all the way to Pittsburgh recovered bodies, and in many fewer cases, rescued victims.

The immediate outpouring of aid was heartening. At a public meeting in Pittsburgh the day after the flood, $48,000 in relief funds were collected in 50 minutes. Ultimately, over $3,000,000 were collected across the country and even in foreign countries. Material aid in the form of food, clothes, medicine, tents, tools, building materials came in by the hundreds of train carloads. Thousands of workers came to help clean up the disaster. Clara Baron and her Red Cross organization stayed for five months.

The official death toll ultimately was fixed at 2,209. One third of the corpses were never identified and hundreds of missing were never recovered. Human remains from the flood were found as late as 1906. Ninety-nine whole families perished; 396 children age 10 or less died; 98 children lost both parents; 124 women were left widows; 198 men were made widowers. It took five years to rebuild the town.

In the three hours before the dam gave way, three urgent warnings were telegraphed from the town near the lake down river to Johnstown and points in between, and indeed all the way to Pittsburgh. And all three warnings were callously disregarded by those who were responsible to inform others. Had the warnings been taken seriously and the word spread abroad--and had the hearers heeded the warning--, the loss of life would have been a mere fraction of its actual toll, though the material loss would have been virtually the same.

This calamity drew vast armies of news reporters and photographers. Newspapers across the nation issued special edition after special edition as the news came in in bits and pieces. Magazine articles by the score were written and sermons by the thousands were preached. There’s nothing like a good disaster to spark human interest. As Gibbon remarked, “History is indeed little more than a record of the crimes, follies and misfortunes of mankind.” At least those are the things that get the most attention. And this was a combination of crime, folly and misfortune in vast dimensions.

Besides the mere historic interest of the Johnstown flood, there are dozens of suitable illustrations of spiritual truth in this account. Let me illustrate--

First--the utter devastation caused by so relatively small a body of water exposes the utter folly of the “tranquil flood” theory by which some try to explain away the Flood of Genesis 6-8. The notion that the earth could be covered with water without doing much damage to whatever is on the surface is discredited as preposterous. The Johnstown flood illustrates in microcosm what must have taken place on an immensely larger scale when God sent the great flood.

Then there are the unforeseen future consequences of actions, or as some call it, “the law of unintended consequences.” When the dam had fallen into disrepair more than a decade before the flood, repairs were made by an unqualified body of laborers who knew nothing of civil engineering and dam building. They removed five drain pipes with valves that had originally been installed at the lowest point of the dam to facilitate controlled drainage of the water if necessary. There was no means to lower the waters in May of 1889 because of what had been done to save costs a decade before. Further, the repairmen, instead of using proper materials--clay and rock--to fix the dam, used whatever materials came to hand, including straw, manure, dirt, wood. And there was no proper packing of the materials layer by layer. The disaster, though it slumbered ten long years, was virtually guaranteed by the unforeseen consequences of ill-considered human actions.

And there is that great fact that all our actions affect others, not just ourselves. No one sins in a vacuum. There are no “victimless” crimes. Those who negligently repaired the dam in the 1870s so as to “save a buck or two,” may or may not have been directly affected by their actions (did some of them die in the flood?); their actions certainly affected others.

“He who, being often reproved, hardens his neck, will be suddenly cut off, and that without remedy.” For years, there had been repeated warnings that the dam at the South Fork Club was in danger of failure, and every time it didn’t happen, the indifference of the masses had grown. “They’re just crying wolf!”

Courage and heroism. A young engineer, responsible for maintenance of the dam, when he first recognized the portends of looming disaster, rode on horseback not once or twice but three times through the rain and mud down the mountain road to the nearest telegraph office and urged, almost compelled them to wire a warning downstream to Johnstown. Before the dam failed, others courageously tried to strengthen the dam, or ease the pressure on it, at great risk to themselves. In Johnstown, and elsewhere along the route of the flood waters, individuals imperiled their own lives and safety to rescue others in grave and mortal danger.

“I have appointed you as a watchman.” Those at the telegraph office who received fully three times the advance warnings of the threatened collapse of the dam failed in their responsibility to pass the dire news on to others and spread the alarm throughout the town. The blood of the 2,000-plus victims will be required at those watchmen’s hands. May we be faithful watchmen, warning men and women of the great danger there is in rejecting God’s only Remedy for our lost condition, the Lord Jesus Christ.


Why do people suffer? The Johnstown Flood answers in part one question of great moment which is asked every time there is substantial human suffering: at Johnstown, and at the World Trade Center, and in countless other instances, human suffering was caused by man, not God. Why is there suffering in this world? The answer for much of it is that man directly inflicts it on himself and on his fellows.

 “When they say peace and safety, sudden destruction comes upon them.” Though there was some small concern that day about flooding in the lower parts of town due to the heavy rains, yet nearly the whole of Johnstown was content to watch the rains, go about their business, do their shopping, converse with their neighbors as on any other ordinary day. “Until the flood came and took them all away,” to cite another text from Scripture. Being unaware of imminent danger does not negate the reality of that danger, nor slow its approach.

“One shall be taken, another left.” Neighbors conversing through upstairs windows when the Flood hit often suffered vastly different fates: one was spared by a chance floating log or door or roof, while the other was swept to sudden death. Death seems so capricious. Who can therefore foreknow the day of his death?


“Almost but lost.” As the muddy torrent swept through Johnstown, people raced toward distant hillsides and high ground, hoping against hope to escape the hot breath of impeding death. More than one was within a few feet or at most yards from safety when run down from behind by the merciless waters, and literally swept into eternity.

“Remember Lot’s wife.” McCullough recounts one particular woman who, though out of her house and running with her family to safety, stopped and returned to the house to retrieve some unidentified item. She turned back when she only had time enough to flee. She fell victim to her own folly.

“He lingered.” More than one Johnstownian, knowing--seeing--the waters of certain death sweeping in irresistible and unstoppable rage toward them, nevertheless hesitated to leave their doomed houses and seek refuge elsewhere. Some few of these managed to survive. Most hesitated to their own destruction.

The certainty of death/ the uncertainty of the circumstances of death. Surely nearly every Johnstown resident had at some time considered the fact of his own mortality--at funerals, during Sunday sermons, from accounts of deaths in the newspapers--yet how few, perhaps none at all, thought that May 31, 1889 would be their final day among the living! Their appointment with death, though unexpected, was kept that day.


Transitory nature of this life’s “things.” Modern man is obsessed with “the abundance of things which he possesses.” Even two- and three-car garages are not enough to hold all the stuff we own. We have abundance and too much, and yet want more. We cling to it as though it is ours forever. But how fleeting are this world’s treasures! Like Babylon the Great (Revelation 18) in one hour all the wealth and labor of generations of Johnstown residences came to nothing.

Luke 13:1-5. Did this disaster befall the people of Johnstown because they were especially and uncommonly wicked? Hardly. Being no worse nor any better than the run-of-the-mill, they nevertheless like all others, faced certain death someday, and their only hope of preparation was repentance from sin. How many had prepared for death through “repentance toward God and faith in our Lord Jesus Christ” we could only speculate. But all, whether “respectable” or disreputable, had need of repentance while there was opportunity for such.

Human kindness and compassion. In spite of his fallen nature, man, who yet bears the image of the God who created him (though marred by sin inside and out), can nevertheless at times display the noblest of qualities--mercy, compassion, selflessness, self-sacrifice. The outpouring of generosity and direct, hands-on personal assistance given to the victims of Johnstown exemplifies what man might be and can be. “What a piece of work is man.” Evil people can do good things (see Matthew 7:11).

These and a dozen more illustrations of Biblical truths came to mind as I read McCullough’s account. As a source of apt illustrations, nothing surpasses the treasures of human history. “Take up and read.”


                                                                              ---Doug Kutilek


The Middletown Bible Church
349 East Street
Middletown, CT 06457
(860) 346-0907

More articles under Help for the Seeking Heart