Features appear in each issue of Pennsylvania Heritage showcasing a variety of subjects from various periods and geographic locations in Pennsylvania.

They don’t take rain for granted in Johnstown anymore. Walking down Market Street or cruising Route 56, pedestrians may pause and drivers may slow as the first drops land. Anxious glances skyward reveal the unspoken thought: will it happen again? They are re­calling the terrible night in July 1977 when the rain fell and fell and the dream of a flood-free Johnstown shattered for­ever.

That dream arose to counter the nightmare that plagued the city, the perennial menace of floods. At the bottom of a mountain valley in south central Pennsylvania, the Cam­bria County community is at the meeting place of rivers, the Conemaugh, the Little Conemaugh and the Stony Creek. The rivers were part of Johnstown’s fortune, pro­viding scenic beauty and a highway west for locally pro­duced iron ore.

But the rivers brought misfortune as well. Every spring, the heavy snow melt from the hills poured millions of gallons into the streams. Annual rainfall of forty-five inches swelled the watercourses further. An unusually fast melt or excessive rainfall could turn the mountain brooks above the city from trickles to torrents in minutes, adding yet more to the burden of the rivers. While Johnstown grew from a frontier outpost at the turn of the nineteenth century to a steelmaking center of 30 thousand inhabitants in the late 1880s, urban growth encroached on the waterways, creating valuable real estate though land fills but also narrowing the streams, diminishing their capacity to carry off high water. The result: eleven floods between 1808 and 1889, each leaving behind sodden basements, mud-encrusted streets, tangles of debris and the harsh, unrewarding job of putting things to rights.

One flood did more; on May 31, 1889, while Johnstown soaked under ten feet of water in its spring “bath,” a huge earthen dam at Lake Conemaugh collapsed. A wall of water forty feet high crashed fourteen miles down the valley, sweeping houses, trees, locomotives and people before it, virtually annihilating the town. More than 2,200 persons died. In an epic human endeavor the city rebuilt itself, but the phrase “Johnstown Flood” became synonymous around the world with horrific disaster.

In September 1889, a citizens’ meeting in Johnstown re­solved that “there now exists no reason why the proper depth and width of our rivers to prevent the periodical floods that have of late years visited us should not at once be taken up and settled.” The town elders commissioned an engineer to study the situation, and partially followed his recommendation to widen and deepen the channels and to set river widths by ordinance. As the years slipped past, some minor flooding occurred, but there was no repetition of the 1889 threat, and encroachments reappeared. Sand and earth accumulated in the stream beds.

The second great blow fell on Johnstown, now a city of 70 thousand, during the afternoon of St. Patrick’s Day, 1936. Intense rain quickly melted the snow cover of a bitter winter. The rivers rose unexpectedJy, submerging a third of the town in up to seventeen feet of cold, murky water by nightfall, battering homes and businesses and marooning thousands of persons on upper floors. Trapped in the First National Bank Building at the corner of Main and Franklin streets, Howard Custer noted a bizarre scene below him.

“Sometime before dark … five or six pianos floated across Main Street and Central Park from the Porch Brothers piano store. Six men … in a stranded streetcar in front of our building were shouting to be taken off …. An extension of fire hose from the building was thrown to them, and they came into the building hand over hand, will, one man nearly being swept away by the strong current.”

Some two dozen persons died in the Johnstown area, a toll mercifully smaller than that of 1889. But the estimated $41 million in property damage exceeded the losses of the earlier catastrophe four-fold.

The March 17 disaster galvanized the city to a renewed determination to settle the question of flood control once and for all. The community’s very existence seemed at stake. The local press demanded federal aid to dredge the rivers and to prevent future floods by whatever means necessary. Fifteen thousand Johnstowners swamped the White House with letters pleading with Pres. Franklin D. Roosevelt to help the stricken city.

Roosevelt heard and took action. In June the President signed legislation authorizing the government for the first time to construct darns and river walls throughout the nation’s worst flood zones. On August 13 he came to Johnstown, toured the largely reconstructed flood district and spoke to 50 thousand cheering residents in Roxbury Park. “We want to keep you … from facing these floods again,” he declared, while the multitude waved banners reading “You Heard Our Plea” and “Dam Our Floods.” “The federal government, if I have anything to do with it, will cooperate with your state and community to prevent further floods,” Roosevelt continued. It was a pledge that breathed new life into the dream of security.

But Johnstown was to face two agonizing years of delay, punctuated in April 1937 by an overflow from the still debris-chocked channels that spilled five feet of water into the streets of the lower town. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the nation’s overseer of flood control projects, became ensnarled in legal and bureaucratic holdups. In August 1938 a huge steam shovel midstream in the Cone­maugh finally gouged the first ceremonial bite of muck to commence the most extensive channel improvement in American history.

During the next five years the Corps widened, deepened and realigned 9.2 miles of channel through the city. Giant dredges scooped out enough dirt to form a pile the height of the Empire State Building, and workers sheathed the river banks in 156 thousand cubic yards of concrete and thousands of tons of reinforced steel. Railroad track, high­ways, bridges and sewer lines were relocated to clear obstructions for a smooth flow of water.

The engineers designed the project to contain the great­est flood of record, that of March 1936, to a negligible overflow. Not even World War II interrupted the work, since Washington considered Johnstown steel production Loo vital to be endangered by threat of flood. On November 27, 1943, Col. Gilbert Van B. Wilkes, Chief of the Pitts­burgh Corps of Engineers District, conducted an approving final inspection of the work and told a buoyant audience of town leaders: “We believe that the flood troubles of Johns­town are at an end …. We salute the flood-free city of Johnstown.” Expressing the sentiments of the community, a local newspaper ran a headline reading, “Johnstown Realizes Its Dream.”

Johnstown was now determined that the nation would share in the realization of the dream, for the project meant more to the city than a permanent reprieve from death and devastation, critical though that was. To the people and their leaders, the river walls were the key to the revival of an area already beginning to decline economically, despite a feverish blush of wartime prosperity. Potential employers seemed reluctant to move to the ill-starred valley. But if the country could be told – and made to believe – that Johns­town was now “Flood Free,” the economic future might be assured.

The business community united to launch a six-month propaganda drive in 1943-44. Thousands of local residents wrote out-of-town relatives and friends to convey the cheery message that flooding was at an end. A deluge of flyers from Johnstown descended on mayors and industrialists across the land. The Flood City chapter of the Daughters of Pythias changed its name to “Flood Free” in conformity to the new vision. The campaign reached its zenith with a proposal to remove the prominent markers on many build­ings that measured the height of the 1889 and 1936 floods. More traditionally minded citizens demurred and the memorials remained. Meanwhile, magazines and newspapers with a combined circulation of 50 million were printing laudatory stories about the channel improvement. The flood-free campaign appeared to be an enormous success.

That success was illusory. The river walls could not alter the city’s geographical isolation, which made it an unattrac­tive site for plant location. What little industry entered the area after the war provided mainly unskilled, low-wage jobs. Johnstown remained wedded to steel, a commodity whose fortunes advanced and retreated with national economic cycles. From the 1950s through the 1970s Johnstown-area unemployment generally stood at double the national average. Young people left, the population grew older and poorer, and the neighborhoods deteriorated. As its numbers dwindled, the city of friendly, hardworking folk drew in upon itself, content to dwell within the corner of the dream that lingered – the belief that the channel project could keep the city perpetually free from floods.

And so it seemed. Year after year, with hardly a discern­ible gurgle and splash, the submarine expressway faithfully carried off the spring snow melts and the rain-fed high waters. The project’s finest hour came in June 1972 as Tropical Storm Agnes pounded Pennsylvania from east to west, engulfing Wilkes-Barre, Harrisburg and other cities in flood waters, killing scores and wreaking a multi-billion­-dollar damage toll. Severe flooding occurred even in rural Cambria County, but Johnstown’s streets and homes re­mained safe. The fear of the flood menace receded and so, for many Johnstowners, did the city’s tragic history, the knowledge vanishing like an evaporating pool of water. “I am post-1936 flood,” mused Matt Oreskovich, Deputy Director of the city’s Department of Community Develop­ment. “It had been down-played so much that people who are not native Johnstowners were more aware of Johns­town’s history than I was. I didn’t know the Johnstown flood.”

Of course, the Army Corps of Engineers knew that Johnstown was not truly flood free, regardless of what Colonel Wilkes had said in 1943. Each project the Corps builds is designed to carry off the greatest flood of record, but records in America rarely go back more than three centuries. Nature always has another trick up its sleeve, even though it may be slow to deal out the cards.

The Corps recognizes Nature’s caprice in what it calls the “standard project flood,” the worst flood imaginable in any area under the worst combination of prevailing topography and variable weather. In 1974 the Pittsburgh District published a booklet on the potential for future flooding in the Johnstown area. A standard project flood on the Conemaugh River, the engineers estimated, would produce a stage of 35.5 feet at the Bethlehem Steel plant gauging location, a level several feet above the 1936 record. The booklet included photographs of familiar Johnstown buildings, each picture crossed by dotted lines representing the height a standard flood might attain. About a foot of water would rush into Bethlehem’s Franklin Division foundry. Things would be worse at City Hall, where a height of twelve feet was expected. Around the corner eleven feet lapped at police headquarters, but conditions were slightly better at the First Methodist Church at the corner of Vine and Franklin: there, the projected overflow would reach only seven feet. It is Corps policy to inform localities of what a control project can and cannot do. Its 1974 report was not secret. But the Corps itself could not predict when or if a standard flood might occur and recog­nized that even the more predictable “hundred-year” flood could happen any time, even two years in succession. The people of Johnstown stuck by gospel as handed down in 1943: “Flood troubles are at an end.”

On the sultry evening of July 19, 1977, Nature dealt its cards for the third time in a century within the valley of the Conemaugh. A line of severe thunder showers advanced across the crest of the Alleghenies and took up position over Johnstown. Instead of moving on, the freakish storm stalled above the city, loosing blinding displays of lightning and incredible torrents of water. Rain began to fall at about 10 P.M. and continued unceasingly until 4 A.M. the next morning. The quaintly named creeks – Solomon Run, Sam’s Run, Peggy’s Run and the rest – carved new, deeper and wider beds, smashing through expressways, apartment houses. factories and homes.

At the Laurel Run reservoir a twelve-inch downpour col­lapsed the earth-fill dam overlooking Tanneryville, a sub­urban village just north of Johnstown. Water and debris pulverized trailers and houses, killing forty-one persons.

From the sky and off tJ1e mountainsides water poured into the length of the channel project. At “The Point,” where the rivers meet in downtown Johnstown, water depth rose from one foot to thirty-five feet in ten hours. Levels surpassed the Agnes heights, approached, then sur­passed the 1936 record. The flood control project over­topped, sending water cascading in to the heart of the city. The flood stood at nine feet at City Hall and six at police headquarters. At Bethlehem’s Franklin Division, four feet played about the machinery, and five feet covered the pews of the First Methodist Church. The stage at the Conemaugh River gauging station reached 95 percent of the Corps’ esti­mated standard project flood.

That night, most of Johnstown had sat before its tele­vision sets watching the AU-Star baseball game. People who stayed up until after midnight to catch the late news heard of no untoward weather developments. The local National Weather Service office had closed at 11 :30 PM. Neither city nor county had devised a workable plan to warn of flash floods or to evacuate threatened areas. Vital com­munication equipment was either lacking or deficient. At 2:30 A.M. the main city police radio network cut out. Ten minutes later the Pittsburgh office of the National Weather Service issued its first flash-flood alert, by that time, cars were washing down Franklin Street.

Somehow, someone made it through the flood that night to scrawl an ironic message to his dazed fellow residents on the weathered side of City Hall: “Johnstown Is Not Flood­-Free!” The ultimate death toll would be seventy-seven, with eight more persons reported as missing. Damage esti­mates reached the $300 million mark. The receding waters left behind a sticky, foul-smelling mass of muck and slime, which rapidly changed to choking dust as it dried in the broiling summer sun. The cleanup took months. The Red Cross, Salvation Army, other private agencies, the state, the federal government, and ordinary people who wanted to help rushed supplies and money to Johnstown. Over the next year Washington spent nearly $200 million in the area, paying to rebuild damaged facilities and lending funds or giving grants to property owners for repairs or new con­struction.

A sense of shock, even of betrayal, pervaded Johnstown. What was the good of the flood control project, many asked, if it could not control floods? The Corps was quick to point out that much of the damage and death had been caused by the rampage of the mountain streams, not by the overtopping of the project. It had not been designed to prevent all conceivable floods, and the Corps had said so. The July storm had created a flood of such magnitude that its like would be seen only once in five hundred years. Without the project, the water level in Johnstown would have risen another eleven feet, possibly resulting in hun­dreds of millions of dollars in additional damage and a death toll rivaling that of 1889.

Stunning economic news quickly followed in the wake of the flood. Eleven days after the disaster, while volunteers still searched for the dead, Bethlehem Steel, the city’s largest employer, announced a cut of 4,000 employees from its 11,500-person labor force. Another 3,500 jobs stood in peril unless the Environmental Protection Agency granted a two-year moratorium on pollution standards. The federal government retreated under such pressure and made the concession, but Bethlehem stood by plans for large­-scale layoffs and partial curtailment of work. Meanwhile, several major downtown firms, including the city’s largest department store, closed or relocated in the suburbs. Under the stimulus of post-flood out-migration, the population decline accelerated. Over the decade 1970-1980, prelimin­ary census figures disclosed a 19.4 percent drop from 42,221 inhabitants to 34,221 persons.

The flood’s psychological reverberations also were dis­turbing. Children who never before had feared thunder now cowered when the slightest rain began to fall. People seemed to study the sky more carefully. When the Three Mile Island nuclear accident took place in the spring of 1979, the editor of the Johnstown Tribune-Democrat com­mented on the universality of risk, adding that in Johns­town, “We live with the risk of another flood, another dam burst.” Before July 1977, such thoughts would have been the last on the minds of Johnstown residents. But their dream of security, seemingly realized in 1943, had dis­solved in muck and slime.

For the third time in eighty-eight years, the people re­built and carried on. A kind of “Battle of Britain” men­tality settled in among the survivors, a sense that they had withstood the worst Nature could hurl at them and had prevailed. And they made a local best-seller of an ironic memento of the lost dream; a plaque prominently featuring the hindquarters of a horse pictorially symbolizing the three-letter word completing the phrase that was em­blazoned thereon: “Flood Free Johnstown? My —.”

No longer in thrall to the flood-free dream, the people of Johnstown have moved to lessen the danger from the next flood. The Tri-County Flood Recovery Coordinating Com­mittee, spearhead of post-1977 reconstruction, has author­ized a variety of studies to pinpoint weak spots in the area’s protective system and to manage the flood plain more rigorously. The NWS has enlarged its corps of volunteer floodwatchers around the city and keeps them involved through regular meetings. A new transmitter atop Blue Knob broadcasts the latest weather information directly into the valley of the Conemaugh. Johnstown now has a plan of action in event of disaster, a plan that places the emphasis on floods.

The Corps of Engineers at first believed major repair work to be necessary in order to rehabilitate the channel project. Closer examination revealed that underpinning and repaving along the Little Conemaugh portion, and similar work in shorter reaches of the other channels, would return them to pre-July 1977 condition. The Corps discovered, however, that its public relations image did require rehabili­tation. While the Engineers never had absolutely assured Johnstown – or any community for which it builds – of a guarantee against floods, neither had the Army’s construc­tion branch gone out of its way to stress the limits of river walls. In a follow-up report on the Pittsburgh District’s Johnstown activities, the writer urgently recommended that “any claims by local governments or agencies that grossly inflate the protection afforded by Corps projects should be clearly rebutted.”

At painful cost, Johnstown has realized that there is no such thing as flood control, only flood mitigation. Control projects can lessen the impact of many floods and lengthen the duration between major disasters, but Nature is always waiting with a fresh hand to deal. The human players in the game of flood mitigation can fortify their hands with en­actment of flood-plain management ordinances or the strengthening of such laws where they now exist. More communities must participate in the federal flood insurance program, available since 1968, which provides considerable coverage at small expense. Taken together, these measures have a cost, but it may be less than that for a flood control project and certainly less than those terrible costs of a killer flood. If flood-endangered communities across Pennsyl­vania and America will adopt such a program, Johnstown’s travail over the past century may not have been in vain.


Alan Clive, who has taught at Northeastern University and the University of Massachusetts/Amherst, received a Ph.D. in American history from the University of Michigan. He has completed one book, State of War: Michigan in World War II (1979). for which he received a Certificate of Merit from the AASLH, and is currently researching another on the great Johnstown floods. The author wishes to acknowl­edge assistance in his research from the American Philo­sophical Society and the National Endowment for the Humanities.