PITTSBURGH (AP) — A privately owned dam collapsed in western Pennsylvania 125 years ago on May 31, 1889, unleashing a flood that killed 2,209 people. The terrible stories from the Johnstown Flood of 1889 are still part of lore because of the gruesome nature of many of the deaths and the key role the disaster played in the rise of the American Red Cross. Here's some of what's known about the flood, one of the deadliest disasters in U.S. history.
Heavy rains and runoff from clear-cut hillsides raised the level of a man-made lake that was an exclusive retreat for industrial barons including Andrew Carnegie, Henry Clay Frick and Andrew Mellon. The dam that held back the lake, also the property of the retreat, gave way around 3 p.m., sending a surge of water over 30 feet high down the Little Conemaugh River Valley. It swept away entire communities, 1,600 homes, people and even locomotives.
Debris including floating houses and barns backed up at a stone bridge at Johnstown, 15 miles downstream from the dam. The 30-acre pile, which included barbed wire from a damaged factory, caught fire, trapping many of those who had survived the initial flood and burning them to death.
TALES OF SURVIVAL AND TRAGEDY
Some people survived by clinging to the tops of barns and homes. Gertrude Quinn Slattery, 6, floated through the wreckage on a roof, and when it came close to the shore a man tossed her through the air to others on land, who caught her.
Anna Fenn Maxwell's husband was washed away by the flood; she was trapped in the family home with seven children as the water rose. Maxwell survived, but all of her children drowned. "What I suffered, with the bodies of my seven children floating around me in the gloom, can never be told," she later recalled.