A Nineteenth Century Disaster in Pennsylvania
Western Pennsylvania experienced the heaviest rainfall ever recorded there in late May, 1889, when up to 10 inches fell in a 24-hour period. As Lake Conemaugh’s water levels rose ominously on May 31st, the South Fork Hunting and Fishing Club’s manager led laborers in frantic efforts to unclog the dam’s spillway. They were unsuccessful, and attempts to dig a new spillway also failed. Around 2:50 PM, the dam, which contained nearly four billion gallons of water, began to collapse. A wall of water thirty to forty feet high and as wide as the Mississippi River rushed downstream at speeds of up to forty miles per hour, and destroyed all in its path. The torrent sucked people from their homes, swept trains, and slammed massive piles of debris into bridges and buildings.
2209 people were killed in the disaster, including 400 children. Bodies were found as far away as Cincinnati, 400 miles away. More than 1600 homes were demolished, and the damage was around $5 billion in current dollars. It was America’s deadliest non-hurricane flood. As the shock wore off, it was replaced by anger as people’s gazes turned towards those responsible. However, the private resort’s rich owners were never held accountable. They claimed that their modifications of the dam made no difference because they had only lowered it by one foot, and their lawyers argued that the flood was “an act of God”. Evidence emerged in 2013 that they had actually lowered the dam by three feet, which drastically increased the risk of a breach. That came too late for the victims: they lost every case brought against the resort’s owners, who walked off scot-free.