JOHNSTOWN, Pa. -- Floods -- even the most destructive and relentless ones -- come on slowly and recede slowly in the Red River Valley. The devastation that struck greater Grand Forks in 1997 happened over the course of many days, a few inches at a time, as the communities in its path were gradually engulfed by the cold and muddy waters.

Just before 3 p.m. on the last Friday of May 1889, a flood hit the Little Conemaugh River Valley in western Pennsylvania. It did not come on slowly.

Deadly debris wall

After several days of heavy rain, an earthen dam located 14 miles upriver from (and 400 feet above, elevation-wise) the city of Johnstown collapsed, suddenly spilling 20 million tons of water into the river valley.

Just under an hour later, a fast-moving three-story-high wall of mud, rock, trees, barbed wire, homes, rail cars, animals and other debris -- pushed by a torrent of water of equal volume to the Mississippi River flow -- arrived in Johnstown, an industrial town of around 30,000 residents about 75 miles east of Pittsburgh and nestled between the high bluffs carved by the river centuries earlier.

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Survivors later described hearing a low rumble off into the distance, which grew into “a roar like thunder” as the destructive mass got closer and closer. Much of the town was literally wiped away, with a miles-long mass of debris piling up against the town’s stone railroad bridge, then catching fire. Much like in Grand Forks a century later, hell followed high water.

There were 2,209 people who died that day or shortly thereafter as a result of the flood, which was the nation’s largest one-day loss of civilian life until the terrorist attacks of 9/11. In some places in the river valley where small towns had stood, the homes, streets and even the topsoil were ripped away by the raging waters, leaving only bare bedrock behind.

A depiction of the miles of fast-moving and deadly debris from May 31, 1889, greets visitors to the Johnstown Flood Museum. Visit Johnstown photo
A depiction of the miles of fast-moving and deadly debris from May 31, 1889, greets visitors to the Johnstown Flood Museum. Visit Johnstown photo

Precarious playground

You can stand on what remains of the dam even today. From the visitor center at the Johnstown Flood National Memorial, located near the tiny town of St. Michael, Pa., there is a paved walking trail to the abutments that are left over from that deadly afternoon, when desperate efforts by an engineer named John Parke failed to keep the dam intact. The structure had been constructed decades earlier and was owned by the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club, which was a well-heeled group of industrialists and businessmen from Pittsburgh, including legendary names like Andrew Carnegie and Andrew Mellon.

The dam created a sizable lake, surrounded by a clubhouse and cottages, where the well-to-do spent leisure time at their exclusive enclave hunting, fishing, boating and cruising on two excursion steamboats.

“When you’re standing out on the dam, or looking at it from the visitors center, you see how large it is,” said Elizabeth Shope, a park ranger at the national memorial. “Then we explain that from the windows, you’re only seeing a part of it. Some of the town of St. Michael grew up in the empty lake bed. If you hike down into the bottom, you feel really small when you’re all the way down in there.”

There were concerns about the integrity of the dam for more than a decade before the disaster, but the wealthy up on the hill assured the working class down below that it was all good, and even in the worst-case scenario of a breach, the water would disperse over the 14 miles of riverbed before it could do any damage in Johnstown.

“Disasters fade, but there are recurrent issues here. Probably the biggest is the heedlessness of people in the face of environmental threat,” said Richard Burkert, president of the Johnstown Area Heritage Association, which runs the Johnstown Flood Museum, located in the heart of town. “Not only did they have a dam that was an accident waiting to happen, but they denuded the hillsides and Johnstown was getting flooded every year it seemed.”

Memories and movies

In the post-Civil War era, the disaster in Johnstown was the biggest news story in decades, with updates from the region covering the front page of the New York Times for nine consecutive days. Under the courtroom practices of the era, the owners of the dam faced almost no legal liability or repercussions for the death and destruction, which was a notable scandal and led to massive reform in American law.

“It comes with all this baggage that we’ve come to think of as part of our shared heritage as Americans,” Burkert said.

Over time, Johnstown was rebuilt around the few buildings that survived, some of which still stand today, and the region became a leader in the emerging American steel industry. The disaster became a kind of legendary American story, with a 1926 Hollywood movie dramatizing the event, and a 1946 Mighty Mouse cartoon showing the children’s hero saving the mice of Johnstown from the deadly torrent. The Johnstown story was a part of American folklore for generations.

Visitors to the Johnstown Flood National Memorial can hike to the edge of what remains of the dam that gave way on May 31, 1889, sending a wall of water and debris into the valley below that took 2,200 lives. National Park Service photo
Visitors to the Johnstown Flood National Memorial can hike to the edge of what remains of the dam that gave way on May 31, 1889, sending a wall of water and debris into the valley below that took 2,200 lives. National Park Service photo

Renewed interest

But by the 1960s, the flood memories were fading, as was Johnstown itself. The steel industry was in decline, and the community’s population dropped by half as unemployment soared. Then, in 1968, popular historian David McCullough published his first book, “The Johnstown Flood,” and re-introduced this amazing tale to an entirely new generation.

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Perhaps as a result of that book, and a 1989 documentary on the flood which won an Academy Award, the museum in Johnstown and visitor center 14 miles upriver get 100,000 or more sets of feet in the door each year. At the dam site’s museum, you are greeted upon entering by a massive uprooted tree overhead, and a man clinging to what remains of a destroyed house, representative of some of the contents of that messy wall that hit Johnstown.

“It’s a very powerful visual when you walk in and see all the debris there,” Shope said. “That’s how victims described the flood. They didn’t necessarily see water, they saw everything being pushed in front of the water.”

The elegant and well-reserved clubhouse from the exclusive South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club is one of the primary attractions at the Johnstown Flood National Memorial in western Pennsylvania. National Park Service photo
The elegant and well-reserved clubhouse from the exclusive South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club is one of the primary attractions at the Johnstown Flood National Memorial in western Pennsylvania. National Park Service photo

Stunning visuals

You are struck not only by the size of the lakebed left behind but by the quiet of the memorial site. The river is way down below the dam remains, as are a set of railroad tracks that run through the breach. The club’s lodge and cottages are preserved up the hill, for a look at high-end living in 1889, and a lakebed restoration project is underway. Shope said it is a popular site for people to walk and for visitors from the area to see the place where the disaster began, which changed life for their ancestors more than a century ago.

Each May 31, Shope and the park staff work with local school children to set out 2,209 luminarias, each of them with the name of a flood victim, to remember those who were lost. Downriver in Johnstown, the many depictions of the flood through history, and countless photos of the community before and after, are what draw visitors from all across the world.

“What people are coming to see is the drama. There are still buildings that survived the flood in Johnstown, but the power of the story is the survivors and how they live on,” Burket said. “It’s one of those things that doesn’t go away, and it’s a story with compelling characters. And we tell the story pretty well here in Johnstown.”