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This Day in Labor History: May 31, 1889

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On May 31, 1889, the South Fork dam, on the land of the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club above the city of Johnstown, Pennsylvania, collapsed during a heavy rainstorm. Over 2200 people died in the one of the worst disaster in American history. The Johnstown Flood is not only a horrible disaster but deeply reflective of class divisions during the Gilded Age and the complete lack of legal or moral responsibility the wealthy had toward the working class.

In 1840, the South Fork Dam was built on the Little Conemaugh River, 14 miles upstream from the town of Johnstown, in order to stop the floods that frequently hit the mountainous area. Over time, the canal system that had spurred the original construction fell into disuse. The land where the dam was located was purchased by the steel capitalist Henry Clay Frick and a group of speculators, many of whom were connected to Carnegie Steel, for the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club. For convenience sake, Frick had the dam lowered in order to build a road across it and built a screen that built up debris behind it. The club opened in 1881. The dam frequently sprung leaks and was only patched with mud. People in Johnstown were concerned about the long-term stability of the dam but Frick and his friends did nothing. By 1889, the club had 61 members. They included Frick, Andrew Carnegie, and Andrew Mellon. This was the peak of the Gilded Age elite. Mellon of course would have a very long career, serving as the staunchly conservative Secretary of the Treasury under Warren Harding, Calvin Coolidge, and Herbert Hoover. His policies contributed significantly to the development of the Great Depression.

By 1889, Johnstown was a big steel town of about 30,000 people. Like many Pennsylvania cities, it’s existence was largely based around the industry. The Cambria Iron Company began in Johnstown in 1852. The company was one of the nation’s most important early blast furnace steel works. By 1858, the company was the nation’s largest producer of rails for railroads and Johnstown grew rapidly. Like the rest of the region’s steel mill towns, after 1880, immigrants from southern and eastern Europe poured into Johnstown to take these incredibly difficult, hot, and deadly jobs in an industry with terrible working conditions. By 1889, the national importance of Johnstown was diminishing, as bigger cities such as Pittsburgh, Chicago, and Cleveland established much larger steel works and had access to significantly larger labor forces, but Cambria Iron Works was still a major industry player. The company controlled nearly everything in the town, from churches to libraries. It also did not allow for labor unions. Like other steel towns, the labor force frequently organized over these terrible conditions. After the Panic of 1873 began, the company began laying off workers, lowering wages, and paying workers in company store credit rather than cash. Workers responded by organizing a union called the Miners National Association. 400 workers joined. The company refused to recognize it. The company then simply shut down operations rather than deal with organized workers. The union quickly collapsed and the company hired everyone back on the condition that they sign a contract pledging never to join a union. The company received glorious praise from The New York Times, among other national publications, for taking such a strong stance against unions. By 1889, the Cambria Iron Works remained union free.

In late May 1889, a powerful storm began to develop over Nebraska and Kansas. It moved east and dumped rain on the mountains of Pennsylvania on the evening of May 30. The next morning, the lake behind the dam had risen precipitously. Johnstown began to flood. In some parts of town, the water rose to as high as 10 feet, trapping some people in their houses. But things got tremendously worse in the fourteen miles the water rushed downstream. Towns on the way were blown away, with 314 dead in the iron town of Woodvale.

When the dam collapsed, there was no way to let the people of Johnstown know in time to escape. The water behind the dam rushed forward at 40 miles an hour, wiping away everything in its path. It just completely wiped out the city. A total of 2209 died, one of the two largest single losses of life in American disasters to that date. 99 entire families were wiped out. The event received immediate national media coverage and relief poured into the city, starting with Clara Barton and quickly becoming a national effort. The Cambria Iron Works was relatively untouched by the flood and its steel production continued almost unabated.

Newspapers attacked Frick and the club members after the flood. The Chicago Herald ran an editorial titled, “Manslaughter or Murder.” It soon became obvious that the dam collapse was the direct responsibility of the club members, both for not maintaining it and for modifying it for their own pleasure, indifferent to the thousands of people below the dam. The club members offered a bit of relief to put themselves in a positive light. Andrew Carnegie donated $10,000. Henry Clay Frick had the club give some blankets.

After the flood, the survivors wanted compensation. But the laws of the Gilded Age allowed the rich to essentially do whatever they want. They could kill their own workers through terrible workplace safety conditions and the courts would find in favor of the companies. They could destroy farmland through the erosion or flooding they caused and the farmers would lose their suits in the name of progress. Given that Frick and the club leaders had adjusted the dam for their own convenience and didn’t maintain the dam effectively. The hunting club hired the preeminent law firm of Knox and Reed to defend them. Both men were club members and Pennsylvania elites; Philander Knox would go on to be Secretary of State in the administration of William Howard Taft. The lawsuits from the survivors were easily fended off by Knox and Reed. The survivors received nothing; Frick and his friends continued as if nothing happened. For them, nothing really had happened. The people of Johnstown didn’t matter.

Henry Clay Frick went on a few years later to manage the busting of the union at Homestead in 1892, becoming the most hated man in America.

This is the 178th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

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