On the afternoon of May 31, 1889, the valley town of Johnstown, Pennsylvania, was destroyed by a devastating flood. The disaster was caused by the collapse of the neglected South Fork Dam, fourteen miles upstream. The dam had held the waters of Lake Conemaugh and, with its collapse, twenty million tons of water were released. What followed was one of the worst disasters in the history of the United States. The Johnstown Flood severely damaged or destroyed four towns: South Fork, East Conemaugh, Woodvale, and Johnstown. The deluge left an estimated 2,200 people dead. In the aftermath of the disaster, newspapers and survivors told tales of survival and heroism. However, most were left questioning who was responsible for the catastrophe. For five years after the calamity, newspapers across the country and published survivor accounts attempted to explain who was to blame for the tragedy. The proposed research project will investigate these newspapers and published survivor accounts to indentify who they blame for the destruction.
The Johnstown Flood has been the subject of extensive studies by well-known authors in recent decades. These texts chronologically cover the disaster, from the flood to the recovery operations that followed. While discussing the aftermath of the Johnstown Flood, these narratives include reactions to the disaster. However, these narratives do not go into detail, usually devoting only a page or two to the accusations of guilt. Recent texts simply present the accusations through the writings of newspapers at the time; none use survivor accounts. These same texts use published newspaper accounts that, in a large part, place blame on a single party: the men of the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club, who were responsible for maintaining the dam. The texts fail to expand their research to explain if there were differences in opinion among the newspapers or survivors. Clearly this is an area of research that has been sorely understudied. The proposed project will correct that. This paper will delve into who and what the survivors and newspaper accounts (published between 1889 and 1894) blame for the cataclysm. In particular, this project will seek to ascertain if the blame falls on one source, or if the blame is spread among many. To what degree did newspapers cover victims or the wealthy men of the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club? To do this, this research project will look into the backgrounds of newspapers and survivor accounts to search for any underlying interests or motivation in making such accusations. Additionally, by looking at works published over a five- year period, this project aims to identify if the accusations evolved or changed in correlation to new evidence being released.
This project’s investigation will use a multitude of primary sources. Historians consider David Beale’s 1890 text Through the Johnstown Flood the definitive primary account of the disaster. Beale was a pastor in Johnstown at the time of the disaster, and this book includes his opinions on how the dam broke and his response to the investigation. A second primary source is a book written by another survivor of the flood, J.J. McLaurin’s 1890 publication TheStory of Johnstown. This narrative follows the history of Johnstown from its earliest beginnings to the flood and its reconstruction. McLaurin discusses his opinion of the condition of the South Fork Dam, and how it contributed to the disaster. Also, this project will use local newspapers which covered the disaster and aftermath. ThePittsburgh Commercial Gazette and Pittsburgh Dispatch both look into how the industrial city of Pittsburgh reacted to the Johnstown Flood. The Pittsburgh Commercial Gazette gives a perspective of the disaster through the rich industrial capitalists who lived in Pittsburgh at the time. For in depth detail of the disaster, TheJohnstown Weekly Democrat provides unparalleled coverage. That local newspaper reports on Johnstown and its citizens’ reactions to the disaster, its causes, and who they believed was at fault for the destruction.
In addition to primary sources, this project will utilize a number of secondary sources for both broader context and their reliance on survivor interviews. Richard O’Conner’s Johnstown: the day the dam broke was the first commercial narrative published on the disaster. O’Conner interviewed survivors to compile his text. David McCullough’s, The Johnstown Flood which is considered the definitive secondary source, also uses survivor interviews, and newly released transcripts from the Pennsylvania Railroad’s investigation into the disaster.
The Johnstown Flood remains one of the worst disasters in United States history. Afterwards, local newspapers and survivors began to search for who was to blame. By investigating period newspapers and published survivor accounts and examining the accusations presented in them, this project will add a new perspective to the history of the Johnstown Flood and the historiography of disasters in the United States.
Beale, David J. Through the Johnstown Flood. Philadelphia: Edgewood Publishing, 1890.
Charles River Editors. The Johnstown Flood of 1889: The Story of The Deadliest Flood In American History. San Bernadino, CA: Charles River Editors, 2016.
Degan, Paula, and Carl Degan. The Johnstown Flood of 1889: Tragedy of the Conemaugh. Falls Church, VA: Eastern Acorn Press, 1984.
Delatte, Norbert J. Beyond Failure. Reston,VA: American Society of Civil Engineers, 2014.
Johnson, Willis Fletcher. History of The Johnstown Flood. Philadelphia: J.W. Keeler, 1889.
Johnstown (PA) Weekly Democrat, June 1889- June 1894.
McCullough, David G. The Johnstown Flood. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1968.
McLaurin, J.J. The Story of Johnstown. Harrisburg, PA: James M. Place Publishers, 1890.
O’Conner, Richard. Johnstown: The Day the Dam Broke. New York: J.B. Lippincott, 1957.
The Pittsburgh Commercial Gazette, June 1889- June 1894.