Year
1889
Month Day
May 31

Over 2,000 die in the Johnstown Flood

The South Fork Dam in Pennsylvania collapses on May 31, 1889, causing the Johnstown Flood, killing more than 2,200 people.

Johnstown is 60 miles east of Pittsburgh in a valley near the Allegheny, Little Conemaugh and Stony Creek Rivers. It is located on a floodplain that has been subject to frequent disasters. A dam was built in 1840 on the Little Conemaugh River, 14 miles upstream from Johnstown. Nine hundred feet by 72 feet, it was the largest earth dam (made of dirt and rock, rather than steel and concrete) in the United States and it created the largest man-made lake of the time, Lake Conemaugh. The dam was part of an extensive canal system that became obsolete as the railroads replaced the canal as a means of transporting goods. As the canal system fell into disuse, maintenance on the dam was neglected.

LISTEN ON APPLE PODCASTS: The Gilded Age Apocalypse  

In 1889, Johnstown was home to 30,000 people, many of whom worked in the steel industry. On May 31, the residents were unaware of the danger that steady rain over the course of the previous day had caused. A spillway at the dam became clogged with debris that could not be dislodged. An engineer at the dam saw warning signs of an impending disaster and rode a horse to the village of South Fork to warn the residents. However, the telegraph lines were down and the warning did not reach Johnstown. At 3:10 p.m., the dam collapsed, causing a roar that could be heard for miles. All of the water from Lake Conemaugh rushed forward at 40 miles per hour, sweeping away everything in its path.

READ MORE: How America’s Most Powerful Men Caused America’s Deadliest Flood

People in the path of the rushing flood waters were often crushed as their homes and other structures were swept away. Thirty-three train engines were pulled into the raging waters, creating more hazards. Some people in Johnstown were able to make it to the top floors of the few tall buildings in town. However, whirlpools brought down many of these taller buildings. A bridge downstream from the town caught much of the debris and then proceeded to catch fire. Some people who had survived by floating on top of debris were burned to death in the fire. Reportedly, one baby survived on the floor of a house as it floated 75 miles from Johnstown.

One of the American Red Cross’s first major relief efforts took place in the aftermath of the Johnstown flood. Clara Barton arrived five days later to lead the relief. It took five years to rebuild Johnstown, which again endured deadly floods in 1936 and 1977.

READ MORE: The Deadliest Natural Disasters in US History

FACT CHECK: We strive for accuracy and fairness. But if you see something that doesn't look right, click here to contact us! HISTORY reviews and updates its content regularly to ensure it is complete and accurate.

ALSO ON THIS DAY

Tulsa Race Riot

Tulsa Race Massacre begins

Beginning on the night of May 31, 1921, thousands of white citizens in Tulsa, Oklahoma descended on the city’s predominantly black Greenwood District, burning homes and businesses to the ground and killing hundreds of people. Long mischaracterized as a race riot, rather than mass ...read more

The Boer War ends in South Africa

In Pretoria, representatives of Great Britain and the Boer states sign the Treaty of Vereeniging, officially ending the three-and-a-half-year South African Boer War. The Boers, also known as Afrikaners, were the descendants of the original Dutch settlers of southern Africa. ...read more

Netanyahu elected prime minister of Israel

Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres is narrowly defeated in national elections by Likud Party leader Benjamin Netanyahu. Peres, leader of the Labor Party, became prime minister in 1995 after Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated by a right-wing Jewish extremist. Netanyahu, who promised ...read more

Architect of the Holocaust hanged in Israel

Near Tel Aviv, Israel, Adolf Eichmann, the Nazi SS officer who organized Adolf Hitler’s “final solution of the Jewish question,” was executed for his crimes against humanity. Eichmann was born in Solingen, Germany, in 1906. In November 1932, he joined the Nazi’s elite SS ...read more

Germans conquer Crete

On May 31, 1941, the last of the Allies evacuate after 11 days of battling a successful German parachute invasion of the island of Crete. Crete is now Axis-occupied territory. On the morning of May 20, some 3,000 members of Germany’s Division landed on Crete, which was patrolled ...read more