The Johnstown Floods

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May 31st, 1889 is a huge part of Central Pennsylvania history it is when the first flooding of Johnstown occurred. What happened was the South Fork Dam, eroded and all that water rushed into downtown Johnstown. 

Richard Burkert, President of Johnstown Area Heritage Association, states “Why it was so sensational was because the dam, which was an accident waiting to happen, was owned by some of the richest men in America.” 

It was a recipe for disaster. A man-made lake with poor maintenance combined with mother nature’s heavy rains. The residents of Johnstown didn’t stand a chance. 

“There are 650 square miles of mountainous terrain that drains through Johnstown and like many, many communities in Pennsylvania it is prone to flooding.” Mr. Burkert says. 

And that’s exactly what happened. Back before the turn of the century nearly 2,000 people died and still to this day that first flood is a fascination of many historians 

Mr. Burkert on the flood water, “Just the event itself is just amazing, as the flood wave went down the valley, the bottom of the flood wave, was hitting the river bottom and with friction, was traveling slower than the top, so the top was constantly cascading over the bottom, so what you had was almost like a ball of water and it pushed ahead of it everything; trees, houses boulders.” 

Many of the survivors preserved the feelings of that day in writings and books that can bring emotion and show what happened, many of those are on display at the flood museum in downtown Johnstown. 

“All those years ago this was basically about the 1889 Johnstown flood, which is a unique event in American history, but these others deserve their attention and presentation as well.” Says Mr. Burkert on the other floods Johnstown has seen.  

The next flood would come March 17th, 1936 when snow melt and rain flooded the region. The third and final flood was on July 20, 1977 after thunderstorms with downpours impacted the area. 

If you would like to help preserve history and help future generations understand the resilience of this community, you can donate to the museum upgrade by going to jaha.org

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