On this day May 31, 1889

The South Fork Dam near Johnstown, Pennsylvania, USA, failed, unleashing a torrent of 18.1 million cubic meters (4.8 billion gallons) of water that killed over 2,200 people.

Johnstown Main Street

Johnstown Main Street

It was the result of the failure of the South Fork Dam situated 14 miles (23 km) upstream of the town of Johnstown, Pennsylvania, USA, made worse by several days of extremely heavy rainfall.

The dam’s failure unleashed a torrent of 20 million tons of water (18.1 million cubic meters/ 4.8 billion U.S. gallons).

The flood killed over 2,200 people and caused US$17 million of damage. It was the first major disaster relief effort handled by the new American Red Cross, led by Clara Barton. Support for victims came from all over the United States and 18 foreign countries.

After the flood, victims suffered a series of legal defeats in their attempt to recover damages from the dam’s owners. Public indignation at that failure prompted a major development in American law–state courts’ move from a fault-based regime to strict liability.

In the years following the disaster, many people blamed the members of the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club for the tragedy. The club had bought and repaired the dam to turn the area into a vacation retreat in the mountains.

However, they were accused of failing to maintain the dam properly, so that it was unable to contain the additional water of the unusually heavy rainfall. Despite the accusations and evidence, they were successfully defended by the firm of Knox and Reed (now Reed Smith LLP), both partners of which (Philander Knox and James Hay Reed) were Club members.

The Club was never held legally responsible for the disaster. Though a suit was filed, the court held the dam break to have been an Act of God, and granted the survivors no legal compensation.

Individual members of the club did contribute substantially to the relief efforts. Along with about half of the club members, Henry Clay Frick donated thousands of dollars to the relief effort in Johnstown. After the flood, Andrew Carnegie, one of the club’s better known members, built the town a new library.

In modern times, this former library is owned by the Johnstown Area Heritage Association, and houses The Flood Museum. Remnants of the dam are preserved as part of Johnstown Flood National Memorial, established in 1964.

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