The failure of the South Fork Dam on May 31, 1889 in Pennsylvania took the lives of 2,209 people, including 396 children, and left 322 people widowed. Several simple actions or policies could have been put into action to reduce the number of fatalities of this fateful day. Addressing ownership of the dam, policies of alarm sounding, greater public awareness, and flood hazard mitigation would have saved lives, and kept families together.The dam was owned by the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club, whose membership included many prominent names of the time. Because the dam was privately owned, and not overseen by any engineering professionals, the dam fell into disrepair. Poor maintenance procedures allowed for the exponential growth of flaws which could have been corrected in the early stages by simple means. Starting in 1934, the US Army Corps of Engineers was granted greater authority over flood control projects, including dams.
Concern for the level of water retained by the dam began around 10:00 AM on May 31 when W.Y. Boyer was instructed to begin digging another spillway. Futile and last minute attempts were also made to increase the height of the dam wall. About two hours later, the first warning about possible dam failure was dispatched, around the same time water began flowing over the top of the dam. Had policies been in place to sound “dam watches” or “dam warnings” at a preset level, say 80% of the dam’s height, persons living downstream would have been given more warning than just a few hours. Warnings given too late or not disseminated to the community in a timely and confident manner can only lead to confusion, panic, or even a total disregard for the impending threat.
When citizens were informed of water breaching the dam, the mentality was one of apathy towards the hazard present 14 miles away. Some were sure the dam would hold, while others felt that even if the dam did fail, only a couple of feet of water would be their share of the damage. A public education program of flood management, to include a component on dam awareness, would have given the citizens an informed state with which to make their decisions on how to respond to this event.
Finally, the town had experienced floods many times before. It was a common occurrence to relocate one’s valuables to the upper floor of the residence and wait out the flood. Despite regular floods and being located in a river valley, no mitigation plans or procedures were put in place. Even after the events of May 31, 1889, it took another 47 years with more property destruction and life loss for some efforts to be taken to control the waters around Johnstown. In 1890, the Inclined Plane Railway was constructed to carry people and property to a new hilltop community on Westmont. While this railway was built more out of convenience, it has since proved operationally valuable in evacuations during subsequent Johnstown floods of1936 and 1977.
The South Fork, Pennsylvania dam failure of 1889 took many lives; lives which did not have to be lost, if only for mitigation or preparation actions taken for granted in current times. Despite regularly occurring response and recovery operations, the leadership of the time did little to provide for anything but last-minute preparations, and no purposeful mitigation strategies. Planning for evacuations, educating the public, ensuring vital infrastructural integrity via the US Corps of Engineers, and having a healthy appreciation for the power of nature are all actions in place to ensure a disaster of this magnitude is much less likely to occur in modern America.