Pennsylvania National Guard Soldiers stand vigil over Kernville Hill, a borough adjacent to Johnstown after the flood of May 31, 1889. Guard members provided security to prevent looting, administered quarters for displaced residents, and distributed food for the stricken population. The Johnstown disaster was up to that point the most devastating single-day disaster in United States history, unsurpassed in that tragic distinction until the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2011. Original image photographed by Histed Studio, Pittsburgh; image courtesy of Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, Washington, D.C.
1889The Johnstown, Pennsylvania, flood of 1889 took place on this day. Johnstown grew as a steel-producing town in the western part of the commonwealth, fueled through the rising Industrial Revolution that started in the 1870s.
This event became the greatest mass casualty event in United States history. The flood and its aftermath caused 2,209 deaths. The scope of the tragedy exceeded any prior natural disaster due to its proximity to the densely populated industrial heart of the country. Not until Sept. 11, 2011, did a single-day disaster claim so many American lives. Only the Galveston hurricane of September 1900, which took an estimated 8,000 lives at minimum over several days, registered a greater natural disaster death toll.
Coupled with torrential late May rains, the failure of the poorly maintained South Fork Dam on the Little Conemaugh River caused a massive wall of water to descend upon Johnstown and its adjacent boroughs on the afternoon of May 31.
The region stood on a footprint with the confluence of the Little Conemaugh and Stony Creek Rivers that provided a power source for the mills as the waterway merged into the Conemaugh River. The topography around Johnstown consisted of perilous narrow ravines and high hills. This rugged terrain and the millions of gallons of water in the dam loomed as a danger to the people south of the dam in Johnstown.
Massive flows of wood and masonry combined to clog waterways that collapsed the Conemaugh viaduct. It caused fires among the buildings in the business district. Residents scrambled to find high ground or some hiding spot from the rampaging waters. Debris piled three stories high in downtown Johnstown.
In response to the catastrophe, the Pennsylvania National Guard's Third Brigade, Fourteenth Infantry (later the 107th Field Artillery) served alongside Johnstown's Company H of the Fifth Regiment. Batteries B, E, and F, as well as Headquarters Company and Supply Company of the 14th Infantry also assisted in recovery and relief efforts. In support, the Commissary, Quartermaster, and Sanitary Departments also provided relief to Johnstown. In all, the 14th Infantry encamped for a month in response to the deluge. Many of these units still function today as part of the 28th Infantry Division of the Pennsylvania National Guard, the country's oldest recognized infantry division in the Army.
The Johnstown event served as a prime example of how the National Guard worked well supporting local civil authorities, particularly those administering medical aid and relief from the trauma. This cooperation and coordination among several disparate groups, even on an ad hoc basis, provided badly needed mental and physical relief for the victims. Another milestone achieved saw the American Red Cross providing medical care in a mass response setting for the first time on a national scale.
The National Guard's presence at Johnstown is still repeated in a passage from the poem “I Am the Guard,” which recalls several milestones in the organization's 377-year history. It states,
“I was at Johnstown, where the raging waters boomed down the valley. I cradled the crying child in my arms and saw the terror leave her eyes.”
That simple statement still carries the weight of the National Guard's presence in times of large-scale natural disasters. The Guard provides rescue and recovery capacity, conveys comfort and hope in relief efforts, and also works with other neighbors in the rebuilding process.