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September 25 , 2009

The Johnstown Flood

The Disaster which Eclipsed History


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Hundreds upon Hundreds of People Swept Away by the Flood. 

There is not one chance in a million that the Conemaugh river would ever have been heard of in history had it not been for its action on Friday evening, May 31. 
The Conemaugh river is, or rather was, a simple little stream that meandered through Northwestern Pennsylvania and made glad by its peaceful murmurings those who dwelt by its bankside, or bore tokens of affection in the way of pleasure-seeking picnickers, moonlight parties or across-stream excursionists upon its placid bosom. It was one of those inoffensive creeks, termed by courtesy a river, that the Hudson river of the East, the Mississippi of the Middle or the Red river of the West might call a stripling. 
There are times when even the still, small voice arises in its might and asserts its supremacy, and the wee small river of Conemaugh did that self-same thing on Friday evening, May 31. All along the banks of the listless, yet ever flowing, little alleged river the farmers were preparing for their anticipated harvests; the fishermen of the section—amateur fishermen indeed, for they were only equal to the fish—small and incomplete as was the Conemaugh, such as you and I, reader, who took pleasure in flinging their worm-crowded2 hooks into the stomach of a log and then going home for more bait; bonny fairies, brisk young tillers of the soil, toilers, and seeming-tired miners, these and all other human concomitants that go to make up such a quiet, thriving bailiwick dwelt in the locality. 
And so went on the listless life of the denizens of the Conemaugh Valley, nestling at the foot of the Allegheny range. 
Snuggling in the cosiest nook, right where no prying reporter or trout-fishing President ever bent his way was Johnstown. The word “was” is used advisedly, Johnstown is no more. At four o’clock on the fateful day all was serene. At six o’clock all was desolation and destruction. 
The “big dam” had broken and the little brooklet had burst its sides for very glee at being dubbed a creek, and was making itself known in history. The Brooklyn Theatre holocaust, with its dead three hundred, paled into insignificance. The Mud Run and Reading disasters had to take a back seat. 
“Let me alone for horror,” murmured the Conemaugh, “and I’ll get there!” 
It did get there. 
Right above Johnstown on the self-same Conemaugh, or rather where the North Fork glides into that erstwhile inoffensive stream, was a reservoir. 
The reservoir is on the site of the old lake, which was one of the feeders of the Pennsylvania Canal. It is the property of a number of wealthy gentlemen in Pittsburgh, who formed themselves into the corporation, the title of which is the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club. This sheet of water was formerly known as Conemaugh Lake. It is from two hundred to three hundred feet above the level of Johnstown, being in the mountains. It is about three and one-half miles long and from a mile to one and one-fourth miles in width, and in some places it is 100 feet in depth. It holds more water than any other reservoir, natural or artificial, in the United States. The lake has been quadrupled in size by artificial means, and was held in check by a dam from 700 to 1,000 feet wide. It was 90 feet in thickness at the base, and the height was 110 feet. The top has a breadth of over twenty feet. 

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