The Floods of Johnstown, Pennsylvania


The 1889 Johnstown flood
was the greatest single-day civilian loss of life in this country before September 11, 2001.1)Johnstown Flood Museum


Johnstown, Pennsylvania, is a small town situated at the end of the Conemaugh River Valley in Northern Appalachia. The river flows downhill through the valley, and the northern end of Johnstown is marked by a sturdy, old, stone railway bridge called The Stone Bridge, of course. It dates back to the early 19th century and the booming railroad industry. Coal mines and steel mills once dotted throughout the region. Like all the old coal and steel towns, Johnstown has seen its share of boom and bust.

In the late 1870s, the remote beauty of the Conemaugh Valley came to the attention of the wealthy industrialists in Pittsburgh, including Andrew Carnegie, future Secretary of State Philander Knox, and Andrew Mellon. They were looking for a quiet place with clear air to retreat from their big-city home. Just fourteen miles upriver from Johnstown, they found a small, unused dam, originally built to support area mines. They expanded on the existing structure to create Lake Conemaugh and built the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club on its banks in 1879.

On the night of May 31, 1889, just ten years later, massive storms hit the area and caused the Lake Conemaugh Dam to fail. The entire dam gave way and sent a forty-foot wall of water and debris charging down the valley. The wreckage piled up at The Stone Bridge where the floodwaters slowly drained downriver. The pile of ruins covered thirty acres and combusted as soon as the storms abated. Over 2200 people were killed, including almost one hundred complete families, and their bodies floated hopelessly along the Conemaugh River. Some wandered as far away as Cincinnati, Ohio, and several bodies were recovered as late as 1911. If the reader is interested, the Johnstown Flood Museum has extensive details about the flood and the magnitude of the damage.**

After 1889, Johnstown was no stranger to flooding. By all accounts, the dam was poorly built and maintained, which is what led to its eventual failure. The Great Flood was officially called an “Act of God.” The victims’ families were unsuccessful in their attempts to hold the wealthy club members accountable, although many of the industrialists made “charitable” donations to support relief efforts. Nothing was done to address the continual flooding that became a part of daily life for the folks of Johnstown.

The second major flood hit on March 17, 1936, killing twenty-five people. The waters destroyed seventy-seven buildings and damaged over 3000 more. The weather in early March was unseasonably warm that year, resulting in an early snowmelt. Residents feared that the melt would add to threatening storm waters and that a repeat of 1889 was imminent. Many people scrambled to higher ground, which may partly explain the much lower death toll. The Johnstown flood was one of many across the Northeastern U.S. in 1936, and the totality of the deluge triggered two important actions:

  1. President Roosevelt assigned the Army Corps of Engineers to come up with a solution to the area flooding.
  2. Congress became more motivated to pass the Flood Control Act of 1936. In this act, “Congress stipulated that flood control was an appropriate federal activity. The act authorized hundreds of flood control projects and established policies that endure to this day.”2)Foreword of THE EVOLUTION OF THE 1936 FLOOD CONTROL ACT

My family moved to Johnstown in 1971, not long after I was born. My dad, Larry, was a minister and he and my mom, Margaret, moved from Oregon, by stages, across the country. Dad graduated from Christian Theological Seminary in Indianapolis in 1968 and subsequently became the Associate Pastor at First Christian Church-Disciples of Christ in Tipton, Indiana, where my sister Leslie and I were born. The church in Johnstown would be his first post as Senior Pastor. The church was a beautiful, old brick structure with a large, rose-shaped stained-glass window. We lived in Johnstown until 1979.

The third installment of the devastating Johnstown Floods happened on July 19th and 20th in 1977. We had a small house located uphill from downtown on Penrod Street, above the flood and out of the path of the rushing water. The flood occurred despite the region being declared “flood-free” after a canal system was built following the 1936 flood—a statement that proved to be more hope than reality. On the night of July 19th, nearly a foot of rain dropped in the area, inundating streams and rivers, and causing several dams to fail. Eighty-five people died, and it caused an estimated $300 million in property damage.

It’s odd how, when you reminisce with family about shared events from long ago, tragic or not, forgotten memories come to the surface. As I talked to my sister and mom to discover what they remembered about the flood, it became a warm and emotional trip into the past, full of do-you-remembers and I’d-forgotten-abouts. Below you will find a short memoir written by my mom, followed by the combined recollections between my sister and me. In it, I may say “my memories,” but, truthfully, it is my account of our collective memories. I only wish my dad was still alive to share his. What stories he could tell.

“Memories of the Flood”
by Margaret Anderson

The flood waters took the easiest route down the hill . . . the main roads. It was the town that got the disastrous effects of the storm and the destruction was limited primarily to the structures along and beside the path of the water. I always said Johnstown was not built in a valley, it was built in a large hole in the ground. Here are my most “remembered” memories.

The storm was really loud and noisy. My mother loved a good rainstorm. I grew up in Illinois, and when we moved to Southern California, it was one thing my mom really missed. By chance, she called me that evening and the storm was so loud, she could hear it over the phone. We were listening to it when we were suddenly disconnected. No cell phones in those days. I don’t remember when I was able to check in with her, but it was not until the next day, at the earliest.

The day after the storm, I walked to the main road leading into the town. It was only a short distance. It was a nice day, sun shining, and not a sign of what had happened the night before. In fact, I was mostly unaware of the destruction just a few miles from my home. Standing on the edge of the road and looking up and down the hill, there really was no road. Just debris and rubble, with no viable means of transportation. Many of the buildings on either side of the road were damaged. No water in sight. To me, it looked like a war zone. The street had been bombed. It is one thing to read about or watch natural disasters on the news, but it is something else to actually experience one. I had both a physical and emotional reaction. I was in awe of the power of the water that had raced down that road and realized how powerless I would have been if . . .

Water was an issue. We did have to boil water and also received water from the city, not bottled. We took our containers to the truck that came to the neighborhood and they were filled on the street. But water was also needed if you wanted to flush a toilet! We had just put an inflatable swimming pool in our back yard for our kids and the neighborhood kids to enjoy. The water depth was about four feet. It had completely filled with water from the rain and was used a bucket at a time by us and the neighbors for this important purpose.

Our church was located downtown, next to the canal that was built by the Army Corps of Engineers so that Johnstown would “never flood again” after the terrible 1936 flood. The lower level filled up entirely, reaching the sanctuary above and leaving a small puddle at the lowest level.3)The church’s sanctuary was actually on the second floor, and one could enter from the street by wide stone steps. The fellowship hall and other common rooms were downstairs on the first floor. Since the basement held the kitchen and dining room, it was all under water. When the water went down and volunteers could enter the building, there was a stinking muck of gasoline, sewage, and decay that had to be shoveled out by hand. Masks were required and only a limited time could be spent in that environment. One of the lighter moments was detaching the [plastic] tubs that were used to pick up the dishes after a church meal. They had floated to the ceiling and formed an air pocket and then stuck tight when the water went down.

Many volunteers came from all over the United States. The first on the scene, prepared with buckets and shovels and proper gear, were members of the Salvation Army and the Mennonites. Also, many members of churches arrived. My husband was pastor of a church4)First Christian Church-Disciples of Christ and we were fortunate to have a youth group of high school students from out of state, who came and spent a day helping us rescue our garden at the lower-level of our backyard. [They stayed with local church members for a period of time to assist with clean-up and recovery. We had a few who stayed with us.] Everyone lived on a hill in Johnstown! Ours was quite steep. We had a small, level area next to the back of the house, then a steep incline and a flatter area at the bottom of the yard, where we had planted a large vegetable garden. Not all, but much of it was saved by the youth. They also worked with others in the community who needed help with all kinds of physical tasks. They returned several months later and performed a musical concert in the church.


My own memory of the 1977 Flood starts with our dog Toto on a rainy night. He was a Beagle-mix mutt who loved to run. He would sit behind a chair next to our front door waiting for it to open just a crack. If there was daylight, he was out and gone with no catching him. So, we always let him out to run the neighborhood each evening, and he’d come back worn out and satisfied after a few hours.

On this particular night, the first indication we were in for a bad storm was when we opened the door for Toto’s nightly run. He went out about ten feet, turned tail, and came straight back in the house. He wanted no part of it.

Given that I was six-and-a-half-years old at the time, my memory of the storm itself is more of a sensory memory than one of specific details. It was loud, and lightning flashes illuminated the house. My sister and I stood at our bedroom window and watched the water roll down until our parents called us. We all rode out the storm together in their room, Toto too. The next day, we woke to calm skies and sunny weather.

The days and weeks after the flood are pretty vague. I remember water trucks came to the neighborhood to distribute fresh water. Large tanker trucks rolled up and everyone rushed out with all kinds of containers to fill. For my sister and I, it was like a neighborhood party; all our friends were out and everyone was excited. A local news crew was there and I walked up to talk to them. I don’t recall the conversation, but I’m told I made the evening news. It was past my bedtime so I didn’t get to see my TV debut.

I remember mud and muck everywhere. Our church downtown had been underwater, but the structure was sound, and the beautiful stained-glass window survived intact. It was filled with mud and we had volunteers working to shovel the sludge and clear the debris.

Once it was deemed safe enough, my sister and I could go to the church for a workday. An exciting adventure for us! Women of the church put food together for the workers as we watched the endless field of mud moved one shovel at a time. To my young eyes, it didn’t look that deep, and I said so. One of the workers tried to tell me it was deeper than I thought, but I stepped in anyway, and promptly lost my shoe, which Leslie thought served me right. I honestly don’t remember if I ever got it back.

The statistics of the death and devastation caused by these floods are stark and startling, but fall far short of the full history. They cannot convey how all-encompassing and life-changing they were, even for someone who viewed it up-close, but in blessed safety. The Johnstown Flood Museum has pages where you can read or listen to survivors’ stories (1889, 1936, and 1977) and all are heart-rending. My sister and I recall our young schoolmates who lost everything. My mother saved a few local newspapers for weeks and months after. They are filled with stories of tragedy and survivors, rebuilding and support, and even some humor.

Anytime I’m in a heavy storm, I think of that initial night in 1977. It comes unbidden, more a feeling than a waking thought. I count my blessings that my family and I came through it intact. Intact but not unscathed. We are all connected, especially in the tragedy of such a disaster. The young mother who lost her husband and both children when their house collapsed around them, one son torn from her arms by the water. The acts of heroism, people entering raging waters to save strangers. A young child in 1936 rescued after clinging to floating debris. My mother standing, looking over the remains of a town just a short walk from our house, devastated in less than twenty-four hours.

The three floods occurred nearly fifty years apart: May 1889, March 1936, July 1977. We are now at the tail end of May, 2024, and we are nearing the fifty-year anniversary of that last Johnstown Flood. I hope and pray it really is the last Johnstown flood.



**Additional Information

Here is a list taken directly from Johnstown Area Historical Society website of some of the most descriptive facts about the 1889 Johnstown flood:

  • 2,209 people died. (Click here for a PDF list of flood victims, including their addresses, ages and burial places.)
  • 99 entire families died, including 396 children
  • 124 women and 198 men were left widowed.
  • More than 750 victims were never identified and rest in the Plot of the Unknown in Grandview Cemetery.
  • 1,600 homes were destroyed
  • $17 million in property damage was done
  • Four square miles of downtown Johnstown were completely destroyed
  • The pile of debris at the stone bridge covered 30 acres
  • The distance between the dam that failed and Johnstown was 14 miles.
  • The dam contained 20 million tons of water before it gave way, about the same amount of water as goes over Niagara Falls in 36 minutes.
  • Flood lines were found as high as 89 feet above river level
  • The great wave measured 35-40 feet high and hit Johnstown at 40 miles per hour.
  • The force of the flood swept several locomotives weighing 170,000 pounds as far as 4,800 feet
  • $3,742,818.78 was collected for the Johnstown relief effort from within the U.S. and 18 foreign countries
  • The American Red Cross, led by Clara Barton and organized in 1881, arrived in Johnstown on June 5, 1889 – it was the first major peacetime disaster relief effort for the Red Cross.


***Featured image of debris at The Stone Bridge after 1889 Johnstown Flood [LCCN2002707085 – LOC]  Photograph and copyright by Histed, Pittsburgh, Pa., Public Domain


1 Johnstown Flood Museum
3 The church’s sanctuary was actually on the second floor, and one could enter from the street by wide stone steps. The fellowship hall and other common rooms were downstairs on the first floor.
4 First Christian Church-Disciples of Christ


  1. This is a fascinating account. I had read about it, but not nearly this much detail. Thanks for your hard work and your memories.

    1. Thank you Susan! I felt it was important to attempt to link all three in a single article, and there has been a lot of work on each flood to pull from. The full tale is both heart-wrenching and inspiring, a testament to the strength and perseverance of our Appalachian folk in the face of adversity (both human-made and natural).

  2. Nice job, Tom! I did not remember Toto’s reaction that night. I am sure Leslie was quite satisfied if you never got your shoe back! Oh, my, I did not realize the floods were 50 years apart! With all the climate disasters, it is a scary thought. Like you, I hope and pray the last Johnstown Flood is the last one. Thank you for the memories. And, thank you for reminding us that we are all connected to the suffering of others, especially when faced with the power of physical events over which we have no control. “Do not ask for whom the bell tolls. It tolls for thee.” John Donne’s “poem” is worth reading again and again.

    1. Thank you! Especially for sharing your personal memories and perspective. And thank you for being a big part of the reason neither Leslie nor I have a memory of fear from the flood. Something we’re both fairly amazed about. Your the best!

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