Nestled in a valley 60 miles east of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Johnstown, home to many steel workers, sat near the Allegheny, Little Conemaugh, and Stony Creek rivers. In 1840 a dam was built on the Little Conemaugh River about 14 miles upstream from Johnstown. The dam was the largest earth dam, 900 feet by 72 feet, in the United States, made with dirt and rock, instead of steel and concrete. The dam created, at the time, the largest manmade lake called Lake Conemaugh.
Lake Conemaugh was a private place were men like Andrew Carnegie, Henry Clay Frick, and Andrew Mellon could enjoy the benefits of the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club. A club founded in 1879 to give the powerful men of Pennsylvania a place to escape and relax.
On May 31st a spillway at the dam became clogged with debris that couldn’t be dislodged. A steady rain from the day before only added to the problem. An engineer at the dam knew what was about to happen and rode his horse to the nearest village of South Fork to warn the residents. They tried to send a telegram to Johnstown, but the telegraph lines were down. At 3:10 p.m. the dam broke sending 16 million tons of water rushing toward the unexpecting residents of Johnstown. A load roar could be heard from miles away.
People in the path were swept away. Businesses and homes were crushed from the water. Few made it to safety. Within a few days, Clara Barton and the American Red Cross arrived to help with the relief efforts. It took five years to rebuild Johnstown. Some say the disaster could have been prevented if modifications to the lake hadn’t been made by the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club. In the end, no one was held accountable for the accident.