The Johnstown Flood: the Worst Dam Failure in U.S. History

The collapse of the Kaloko Dam was a tragedy, but by no means an isolated one. There have been a number of fatal dam breaks in the United Statest.

1977: The Kelly Barnes Dam, an old earthen dam in Georgia, gave way in the middle of the night. Internal erosion probably caused the failure. Thirty-nine people were killed at a small bible college below the dam.

1976: The Teton Dam, a massive $100 million dollar earthen dam that had just been built by the U.S. government in southeast Idaho, collapsed as it was being filled for the first time. Poor construction had caused the dam face to erode. Water swept into several small towns, destroying thousands of homes and killing eleven people.

1972: In West Virginia, a coal slurry dam, weakly constructed and with an inadequate spillway, collapsed during a period of moderately heavy rain. 125 people in Buffalo Creek Hollow below were killed.

1963: In the most unlikely of places -- Los Angeles -- the Baldwin Hills reservoir gave way, probably due to subsidence caused by a nearby oil field. The resulting flood destroyed 277 homes and killed five.

The Johnstown Flood

But by far the most famous dam failure, and indeed one of the worst disasters in U.S. history, was the Johnstown flood of 1889. It is also a story with striking similarities to that of the Kaloko Dam collapse.

In the late 1800s, Johnstown was a thriving -- if somewhat modest -- community in western Pennsylvania. Just 14 miles away, however, was the South Fork Hunting & Fishing Club, an exclusive enclave whose members included Andrew Carnegie, Henry Frick and Andrew Mellon. In 1879 the club had restored an abandoned earthen dam and created Lake Conemaugh, a pleasure lake used for sailing and ice boating, which they stocked with expensive game fish.

Some people in Johnstown feared the dam wasn't safe. Daniel Morrell, one of Johnstown's most prominent civic leaders even had the dam inspected, and wrote to the club pointing out major flaws -- including the lack of an adequate water outlet -- but his concerns were summarily dismissed.

In May 1889 there were several days of extraordinarily heavy rains. By May 31, management at the club realized the dam was in danger of giving way, but there was little they could do. As Morrell had pointed out, the water outlet at the base of the dam had been filled in years before, and the emergency spillway, which had been reduced in size and covered with screens to prevent expensive fish from escaping, was now clogged with debris.

Messages were sent to Johnstown warning that the dam might give, but after years of false alarms, the messages were ignored. The water began to top the dam, and eventually it gave way.

The water crashed down the valley, sweeping trees, rail cars and entire houses in its path. By the time the 20 million tons of water reached Johnstown, it was carrying even more debris. The mass hit the city, flattening everything in its path, until it was stopped by an immense stone bridge at the far end of town. The stone bridge held, but created a disaster of its own. It acted like another dam, causing the water to back up over the city. Then the entire mass of wires, wood, rail cars and bodies caught fire.

In the end, more than 2,200 people died in the Johnstown flood. It became one of the largest media events of its time, with armies of reporters and aid groups descending on the town. Charitable donations came in from all over the country, and from 18 foreign countries.

Although lawsuits were filed against the South Fork Hunting & Fishing Club, it was never held to account. Most of the cases were heard in Pittsburgh, where the wealthy club members held great influence. Moreover, it appears the club members successfully argued that the collapse was an act of God: that even if they had maintained the dam properly, it would still have failed under the unprecedented rain. But critics argue that the blocked spillway was a major cause of the disaster, just as people say the lack of a functioning spillway caused the 2006 Kaloko Dam failure.

For more information on the Johnstown flood, see the Johnstown Area Heritage Association Web site. The Association also maintains a Flood Museum in Johnstown. The National Parks Service maintains the Johnstown Flood National Memorial at the dam site.

Present Day Dams

There are about 79,000 dams in the United States, 85 percent of them earthen, and 56 percent of them privately owned. There is worry that some owners, especially private ones, may not have the desire or financial ability to maintain their dams properly. Adding to the concern is the fact that states regulate about 95 percent of the country's dams, and many states, like Hawaii, have underfunded dam safety programs. Each state dam inspector oversees, on average, 216 dams.