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The Johnstown calamity. A slightly damaged house. Photo by George Barker, 1889.

Johnstown Flood: Documenting a Disaster

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One hundred and thirty-five years ago today, a devastating flood swept through Johnstown, Pennsylvania and neighboring communities. On May 31, 1889, the South Fork Dam failed following torrential rain, releasing a massive volume of fast-moving water from Lake Conemaugh. The resulting flood led to the loss of more than 2,200 lives.

Photographers and artists did the important work of documenting the aftermath of the disaster, often in formats that were meant to be widely distributed.

Some photographs, like those below, offer a visible sense of the scale of damage in Johnstown. The estimates of lives lost included in the caption are higher here than in the final official counts:

View of extensive damage to Johnstown, PA due to flooding. Apparatus with wheels is visible in foreground and damaged houses and smoke are visible in background.
Johnstown Flood, May 31st, 1889. No. 15, General view of Johnstown looking towards Kernville. Photo by Ernest Walter Histed, 1889.
View of debris from Johnstown Flood with pieces of wood prominenet in foreground and a bridge, smokestacks, and hills in background.
Johnstown Flood, 1889: Gen. view of debris #15. Photo copyrighted by Langill & Darling, 1889.

These stereograph cards by George Barker from his “Barker’s Stereoscopic Gems of American Scenery” series make clear the level of damage done to the built environment. The ironic historical caption for the first image, describing a “slightly damaged house,” provides evidence that publishers in this format not only documented historic events, but were intent on grabbing the attention of potential customers.

The Johnstown calamity. A slightly damaged house.  Photo by George Barker, 1889.
The Johnstown calamity. A scene in the heart of the city. Photo by George Barker, 1889.

Artist William Allen Rogers drew this “News sketch of Johnstown Flood,” featuring a locomotive surrounded by logs and other debris.

Sketch of damage from Johnstown Flood, featuring a train car prominently in background and debris around it.
News sketch of Johnstown flood. Drawing by William Allen Rogers, 1889.

Extensive relief efforts were necessary following the disaster. A tent camp can be seen at right in this photograph:

Camp of relief corps, Johnstown Flood, May 31st, 1889. Photo by Ernest Walter Histed, 1889.

Displaced people in need of sustenance gather at a relief station in this image:

The Johnstown calamity. Relief station–Sufferers drawing rations. Photo by George Barker, 1889.

Additional photos from the collection show that collective memory of the calamity remained strong years and decades after the disaster occurred.

Four boys posed with souvenirs from the “See the Johnstown Flood” exhibit at the Pan American Exposition, Buffalo, N.Y. Photo by Frances Benjamin Johnston, 1901.
President Roosevelt to get unique invitation for 50th Anniversary Johnstown Flood. Washington, D.C., June 30. Senator Joseph Guffey, (D. Pa.) today received from the Johnstown, Pa. “quintuplets” a unique invitation which he was asked to present to President Roosevelt requesting his attendance at the 50th anniversary of the Johnstown Flood of 1889… Photo by Harris & Ewing, 1938.

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