The Johnstown Flood- May 31, 1889

The sequence of events that led to the flood began in 1879, when the South Fork Hunting and Fishing Club, which included such notables as Andrew Carnegie and Henry Frick, purchased a dam on South Fork Creek from the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania in order to create a recreation area for its wealthy members. In 1881 repair work on the dam was completed. The resulting Lake Conemaugh was five miles in circumference and seventy feet deep at its deepest.

On the afternoon of May 31, 1889, the dam collapsed after years of improper maintenance and a season of heavy rainfall. The Conemaugh Valley was flooded, and the city of Johnstown was leveled with the torrent sweeping away everyone and everything in its path including buildings and a train.


The disaster was a media sensation and gave rise to a number of legends, including one which depicted a Paul Revere-like rider named Daniel Peyton heroically riding down the mountain to warn the residents. In his book about the flood, The Johnstown Flood (1968), David McCullough discusses the legend, in which Peyton rode his horse down the length of the valley warning residents to “run for the hills,” with the massive wave following closely behind. McCullough points out that there was no road that ran the length of the valley, so such a ride would have been impossible. Furthermore, no one was ever found who knew of a Daniel Peyton from the region, and no records indicate that there ever was anyone with that name living in the Johnstown area.

The flood caused 2,209 fatalities initially, and many more in the following days from injuries, exposure and disease. Around 50 perished when wreckage from the flood that accumulated in front of a stone railroad bridge at the opposite end of town ignited after oil from train cars came into contact with hot coals from the houses. In addition to the human toll, the flood caused around $17 million in property damage. The South Fork Club was found not responsible for the disaster which was ruled an “Act of God.” The survivors received no compensation.



The Johnstown Flood – Joseph Flynn

On a balmy day in May,
When bright nature held full sway
And the birds sang sweetly in the sky above
A lovely city lay serene,
In a valley deep in green,
Where thousands dwelt in happiness and love
Ah, but soon the scene was changed,
For just like a thing deranged,
A storm came crashing through the quiet town
The wind, it raved and shrieked,
Thunder rolled and lightning streaked,
And the rain it poured in awful torrents down.

Like the Paul Revere of old,
Comes a rider brave and bold,
On a big bay horse he’s flying like a deer
And he is shouting warnings shrill,
“Quickly fly off to the hills,”
But the people smile and show no signs of fear
Ah, but e’re they turned away,
The brave rider and his bay,
And the many thousand souls he tried to save
For they had no time to spare,
Or to offer up a pray’r,
They were hurled at once into a wat’ry grave.

Then the cry of distress,
Rings from East to the West,
And our whole dear country now is plunged in woe
For the thousands burned and drowned
In the city of Johnstown,
All were lost in the great overflow.

T’was a scene no tongue can tell,
Homes strewn about pell-mell,
Infants torn away from loving mother’s arms
And strong men battling for their lives,
Husbands struggling for their wives,
And no one left protecting them from harm
Fathers, mothers, children, all,
Both the young, old, great and small,
Were thrown about like chaff before the wind
When that fearful raging flood,
Rushing where the city stood,
Leaving thousands dead and dying there behind.

Soon houses piled on high,
Reaching far up to the sky
And containing dead and living human freight
Loud shrieks and groans soon rent the air,
From the wounded laying there,
With no chance to help avert their dreadful fate
But a fearful cry arose,
Like the screams of battling foes
For that dreadful sick’ning pile was now on fire
While they poured out prayers to heav’n,
They were burned as in an oven,
And that burning heap had formed their funeral pyre.

Then the cry of distress,
Rings from East to the West,
And our whole dear country now is plunged in woe
For the thousands burned and drowned
In the city of Johnstown,
All were lost in the great overflow.

Recording personnel:
Jon Waterman- Lead and Harmony Vocals and Guitar
Dan Kupka- Accordion
Chris Paglia- Bass
Henry Churbuck- Drums


Night of the Johnstown Flood - Jon Waterman

I wish I could hold you, the way that I did
On the night of the Johnstown Flood;
As the rain drizzled down on the smoldering town
Awash with the wreckage and mud
Though we thought that it was the end of the world
We swore that we’d never part
And we’d be forever together in love
And you’d always be my sweetheart.

But now it’s so strange that the end of the world
Might not be so near as it seemed
For you’ve found another to hold you while I
Having nothing to hold but a dream
And if I could but trade all that I have to give
So that I may once more have your love
I swear I would go back and choose not to live
Through the night of the Johnstown Flood.

So let the dam burst open, and let the waters rise
And let us huddle like we did beneath those sullen skies
For there must have been a place for us in heaven up above
Where ever I’ll hold you the way that I did
On the night of the Johnstown Flood.
©2007 Jon Waterman

Recording Personnel:
Jon Waterman- Vocal, Guitar and Trombone
John DiTomaso- Flugel Horn
Chris Paglia- Bass
Jeff Pearlstein- Drums

A writing experiment that came of looking for- and being unable to find the "Night of the Johnstown Flood" mentioned by Bruce Springsteen in his song "Highway Patrolman." If there were such a song, what might it sound like...?

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