Home / General / This Day in Labor History: May 31, 1889

This Day in Labor History: May 31, 1889



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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  • Gwen

    One could, and probably should, write a short play entitled “Henry Clay Frick in Hell.” Sort of like a modern riff on Dante’s Inferno.

    That way you could do biographical story-telling without having to stick to the dry language of scholarship.

  • N__B

    Frick et al were scum. That said, it was an earth dam, so “patched with mud” isn’t as bad as it sounds.

    The ultimate cause of the collapse was indifference on the part of the South Fork Club; the immediate cause was that the emergency outlet pipes were inoperative and the screens partially blocked the spillway. In other words, a relatively small amount of maintenance would have prevented the disaster even with the several-feet lowering to make the road. The club had a resident engineer who tried, in vain, to get the resources to fix the dam.

    IOW, the events that led up to the failure were more damning than simple neglect. The industrialists ignored technical warnings of the type that they supposedly respected, not just warnings about their abuse of the town and the area.

  • Matt

    Did Johnstown itself ever make much of a comeback? I was there two weeks ago (for kayaking on the Stony Creek river) and was amazed what a run down dump it was – a very depressing place. Obviously, it had been re-built, but I wasn’t sure if this was the sign of a new and much more recent decline, or if it had just limped on since that time. (Apparently, “flood town” is a common nick-name, used on car dealerships and the like.)

    • West

      As Erik’s post notes, it was losing out to Pittsburgh and other larger steel centers long before what we think of as the Rust Belt decline years. So I think it was pretty down on its luck when the broader Rust Belt swoon of the 70s – 80s took it even farther into a hole. It’s been flooded other times, 1936 and 1977, that didn’t help.

      I grew up in York, PA in the 60s and 70s and Johnstown was perceived as being seriously in the economic dumps then (these are the memories from my childhood and teen years, so … grain of salt). I had a number of schoolmates whose family had come to York from the Johnstown area, due to a lack of jobs there. My youthful concept of Johnstown was “big flood then, basket case now.” (however right or wrong that was, that was my image).

      • Right. The problems with Johnstown today are the problems with Allentown, Scranton, Erie, Youngstown, Detroit, etc. Nothing to do with the flood.

      • jroth95

        Twenty years ago you could still go into worker bars and talk to older middle aged men sitting around and waiting for big steel to come back. They had to have known that it never would, but what else was there?

        I only recently got around to watching Slapshot, and at first I had trouble getting into it because the premise—that the closing of the mill was going to hurt the town and make the team untenable—was too painful.

  • West

    Although it is off of most peoples’ beaten track, I can strongly recommend a visit to the NPS museum, the remnants of the damn, and the “unknown plot” in the local cemetery where unidentified victims were interred. The NPS memorial museum is very well done, and not far from the damn remnant itself. Standing on what’s left of the damn and looking up stream is truly chilling; doesn’t take much imagination to grasp what an immensity of water that was.

    The unknown plot at the cemetery is really powerful. Something like 750 victims were never identified, all eventually re-interred in one plot. A few were unidentifiable due to disfigurement. But the more common cause was that many victims’ entire family and friendship cohort was also wiped out: no one was left to do the identifying. Another cause: many survivors were so traumatized as to be incapable of going through with the task. Lastly, with the weather being warm and the risk of disease obviously high, the survivors couldn’t be given much time, the burials had to proceed quickly. That cemetery was one of the more heartbreaking places I’ve ever visited.

    If any of youse LGM-ers ever find yourselves driving through that part of Pennsylvania, you’re already on some sort of journey that’s going to eat way more time in the middle of nowhere than you probably thought possible east of the Mississippi. Go ahead and make time to stop in Johnstown.

  • In 1983 the Glen Canyon Dam was within a foot or two of failing. I don’t know if anyone ever wrote a book about that near disaster, but the consequences would have been horrific.

  • Mudge

    In 1889, very soon after the event, Willis Fletcher Johnson published “History of the Johnstown Flood”. The photograph here is in the book, captioned “Ruins cor. Main and Clinton Sts.” Surprisingly, Johnson was far less critical of Frick, et al. than Erik, but he has 495 pages of details.

  • Funkhauser

    My grandparents are buried in Johnstown. My grandfather was a steel mill electrician, and with his (non-work-related) death in 1957, my grandmother got the heck out of there lest my uncles be persuaded to go to work in the mills. They moved to California in 1961, partially in response to Pat Brown’s proposed Master Plan for higher education.

    See also the Tom Cruise film All the Right Moves.

  • jroth95

    I thought of Erik on Saturday, when I discovered that the Heinz (ha!) History Center in Pittsburgh has on display the dagger that was used in the unsuccessful attempt on Frick’s life.

    “Night of the Johnstown Flood” is probably the greatest unwritten song ever.

    • cpinva

      wait, there was only one attempt on Frick’s life? what the hell was the matter with those people, there should have been an entire social club devoted to killing him.

      • koolhand21

        His name was Alexander Berkman and he has his own day July 23 here in Pittsburgh although, sadly, it is not yet a holiday.
        Berkman was involved with Emma Goldman and the anarchist movement but was neither a good shot nor an anatomist as he shot Frick twice and stabbed him 3 times.
        Only the good die young obviously but Berkman managed to be deported back to Russia, left for France where he died.

  • Bruce Vail

    David McCulloch’s first book was on the Johnstown Flood, marking the rise of his stunningly successful career as a biographer of inanimate objects (see also Brooklyn Bridge, Panama Canal, etc.).

    I still remember reading his book as a kid. It was exciting.

    • N__B

      Reading The Great Bridge when I was 16 is why I’m a structural engineer. Hell, it’s why I went to Rensselaer.

      • Bruce Vail

        The Great Bridge was a good one. I read it for the 100th anniversary of the bridge way back in 1983 or 84.

        Was surprised to learn a few years back that McCulloch got his start as sportswriter for Sports Illustrated.

    • Lurker

      I learned about the Johnstown Flood from Kipling’s Captains Courageous, which is a very good novel on New England fishing trade and big capitalism in the Gilded Age. Kipling casts a good light on at least one, fictiomal robber baron, while still problematizing the American capitalism, if only slightly.

      The Johnstown flood features in the personal history of an ancillary character, a preacher who had lost his family and mind in the flood. Until now, though, I had thought it had been a natural, not a manmade disaster. It seems I am not curious enough. (And frankly, I read the book when there was no Wikipedia, so I probably could not have found out anyhow.)

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