Friday, February 01, 2019

The Johnstown Flood in the Potomac Watershed


The idea that the Pennsylvania Johnstown Flood of 1889 wiped out major bridges along the Monocacy River got me researching the extent of the damage.

For those looking for a little background via way of this blog circa 2005:

The United States is a very young nation, and much of the Western U.S. was nearly devoid of people only 150 years ago. That said, Americans are industrious and the construction of small ponds and large lakes for water storage and ice-making naturally led to increased still-water angling and duck hunting.

In short order, some people began construction of dams specifically to increase angling and hunting opportunities. One such dam was constructed on the South Fork River near Johnstown, Pennsylvania. The dam itself was a massive earthen affair constructed by the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club which counted among its 66 wealthy Pittsburgh residents Andrew Carnegie, Henry Clay Frick, Andrew W. Mellon, and Philander Knox.

At the time of its construction, the South Fork Dam was one of the largest in the world, but it was not well constructed. A flawed design was made worse when the Fishing and Hunting Club put screens across the safety spillway to prevent fish from washing over the dam during heavy rains. The spillway screens were constantly clogged with debris, but despite many warnings about the safety of the dam, the rich aristocrats who owned the hunting club continued on, business as usual.

On May 31, 1889, after a period of heavy rain, the dam finally gave way sending a 45-foot-tall wall of muddy water racing down the Conemaugh Valley. More than 2,209 lives were lost and 27,000 people were made homeless -- one of the greatest single losses of human life in the history of the United States.

Some quick Googling turned up this contemporaneous account from 1890 describing what the Johnstown Flood did to Washington, D.C:

Along the river front the usually calm Potomac was a wide, roaring, turbulent stream of dirty water, rushing madly onward, and bearing on its swift-moving surface logs, telegraph poles, portions of houses and all kinds of rubbish. The stream was nearly twice its normal width, and flowed six feet and more deep through the streets along the river front, submerging wharves, small manufacturing establishments, and lapping the second stories of mills, boat-houses and fertilizing works in Georgetown. It completely flooded the Potomac Flats, which the Government had raised at great expense to a height in most part of four and five feet, and inundated the abodes of poor negro squatters, who had built their frame shanties along the river's edge. The rising of the waters has eclipsed the high-water mark of 1877. The loss was enormous.

The river began rising early on Saturday morning, and from that time continued to rise steadily until five o'clock Sunday afternoon, when the flood began to abate, having reached a higher mark than ever before known. The flood grew worse and worse on Saturday, and before noon the river had become so high and strong that it overflowed the banks just above the Washington Monument, and backing the water into the sewer which empties itself at this point, began to flow along the streets on the lower levels.

By nightfall the water in the streets had increased to such an extent as to make them impassable by foot passengers, and boats were ferrying people from the business part of the town to the high grounds in South Washington. The street cars also continued running and did a thriving business conveying pleasure-seekers, who sat in the windows and bantered one another as the deepening waters hid the floor. On Louisiana avenue the produce and commission houses are located, and the proprietors bustled eagerly about securing their more perishable property, and wading knee-deep outside after floating chicken-coops. The grocery merchants, hotel men and others hastily clear$ out their cellars and worked until the water was waist-deep removing their effects to higher floors.... The water continued rising throughout the night, and about noon of Sunday reached its maximum, three feet six inches above high-water mark of 1877, which was the highest on record. At that time the city presented a strange spectacle. Pennsylvania avenue, from the Peace monument, at the foot of the Capitol, to Ninth street, was flooded with water, and in some places it was up to the thighs of horses. The cellars of stores along the avenue were flooded, and so were some of the main floors. In the side streets south of the avenue there was six to eight feet of water, and yawls, skiffs and canoes were everywhere to be seen. Communication except by boat was totally interrupted between North and South Washington. At the Pennsylvania Railroad station the water was up to the waitirg-room.

Through the Smithsonian and Agricultural Department grounds a deep stream was running, and the Washington Monument was surrounded on all sides by water.
Washington D.C. at 7th Street

But Washington, D.C. is 60 miles south. What was the effect closer to home at Point of Rocks and along the Monocacy River?

Meanwhile the Potomac, at the Point of Rocks, had overflowed into the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal, and the two became one. It broke open the canal in a great many places, and lifting the barges up, shot them down stream at a rapid rate. Trunks of trees and small houses were torn from their places and swept onward....

A dozen lives lost, a hundred poor families homeless, and over $2,000,000 worth of property destroyed, is the brief but terrible record of the havoc caused by the floods in Maryland. Every river and mountain stream in the western half of the State has overflowed its banks, inundating villages and manufactories and laying waste thousands of acres of farm lands.

The losses by wrecked bridges, washed-out roadbeds and landslides along the western division of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, from Baltimore to Johnstown, reach half a million dollars of more. The Chesapeake and Ohio Canal, that political bone of contention and burden to Maryland, which has cost the State many millions, is a total wreck.

The Potomac river, by the side of which the canal runs, from Williamsport, Md., to Georgetown, D. C., has swept away the locks, towpaths, bridges, and, in fact, everything connected with the canal. The probability is that the canal will not be restored, but that the canal bed will be sold to one of the railroads that have been trying to secure it for several years. The concern has never paid, and annually has increased its enormous debt to the State.

The Western Maryland Railroad Company and the connecting lines, the Baltimore and Harrisburg, and the Cumberland Valley roads, lose heavily. On the mountain grades of the Blue Ridge there are tremendous washouts, and in some sections the tracks are torn up and the road-bed destroyed. Several bridges were washed away. Dispatches from Shippensburg, Hagerstown and points in the Cumberland Valley state that the damage to that fertile farming region is incalculable. Miles of farm lands were submerged by the torrents that rushed down from the mountains. Several lives were lost and many head of cattle drowned.

At the mountain town of Frederick, Md., the Monocacy river, Carroll creek and other streams combined in the work of destruction.

Friday night was one of terror to the people of that section. The Monocacy river rose rapidly from the time the rain ceased until last night, when the waters began to fall. The back-water of the river extended to the eastern limit of the city, flooding everything in its path and riding over the fields with a fierce current that meant destruction to crops, fences and everything in its path. At the Pennsylvania Railroad bridge the river rose thirty feet above low-water mark. It submerged the floor of the bridge and at one time threatened it with destruction, but the breaking away of 300 feet of embankment on the north side of the bridge saved the structure. With the 300 feet of embankment went 300 feet of track. The heavy steel rails were twisted by the waters as if they had been wrenched in the jaws of a mammoth vise. The river at this point and for many miles along its course overflowed its banks to the width of a thousand feet, submerging the corn and wheat fields on either side and carrying everything before it. Just below the railroad bridge a large wooden turnpike bridge was snapped in two and carried down the tide. In this way a half-dozen turnpike bridges at various points along the river were carried away. The loss to the counties through the destruction of these bridges will foot up many thousand dollars.

Mrs. Charles McFadden and Miss Maggie Moore, of Taneytown, were drowned in their carriage while attempting to cross a swollen stream. The horse and vehicle were swept down the stream, and when found were lodged against a tree. Miss Moore was lying half-way out of the carriage, as though she had died in trying to extricate herself. Mrs. McFadden's body was found near the carriage. At Knoxville considerable damage was done, and at Point of Rocks people were compelled to seek the roofs of their houses and other places of safety. A family living on an island in the middle of the river, opposite the Point, fired off a gun as a signal of distress. They were with difficulty rescued. In Frederick county, Md., the losses aggregate $300,000.

The heaviest damage in Maryland was in the vicinity of Williamsport, Washington county. The railroads at Hagerstown and Williamsport were washed out. The greatest loser is the Cumberland Valley Railroad. Its new iron bridge across the Potomac river went down, nothing being left of the structure except the span across the canal. The original cost of the bridge was $70,000. All along the Potomac the destruction was great. At and near Williamsport, where the Conococheague empties into the Potomac, the loss was very heavy.

At Falling Waters, where only a few days before a cyclone caused death and destruction, two houses went down in the angry water, and the little town was almost entirely submerged. In Carroll County, Md., the losses reached several hundred thousand dollars. George Derrick was drowned at Trevanion Mills, on Pipe creek. Along the Patapsco river in Howard county great damage was done to mills and private property. Near Sykesville the water undermined the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad track and a freight train was turned over an embankment. William Hudson was standing on the Suspension Bridge, at Orange Grove, when the structure was swept away, and he was never seen again.

Port Deposit, near the mouth of the Susquehanna river, went under water. Residents along the river front left their homes and took refuge on the hills back of the town. The river was filled with thousands of logs from the broken booms up in the timber regions. From the eastern and southern sections of the State came reports of entire fruit farms swept away. Two men were drowned in the storm by the capsizing of a sloop near Salisbury.

A number of houses on the Shenandoah and Potomac rivers near Harper's Ferry were destroyed by the raging waters which came thundering down from the mountains, thirty to forty feet higher than low-water mark. John Brown's fort was nearly swept away. The old building has withstood a number of floods. There is only a rickety portion of it standing, anyhow, and that is now covered with mud and rubbish. While the crowds on the heights near Harper's Ferry were watching the terrible work of destruction, a house was seen coming down the Potomac. Upon its roof were three men wildly shouting to the people on the hills to save them. Just as the structure struck the railroad bridge, the men tried to catch hold of the flooring and iron work, but the swift torrent swept them all under, and they were seen no more. What appeared to be a babe in a cradle came floating down behind them, and a few moments later the body of a woman, supposed to be the mother of the child, swept by. Robert Connell, a farmer living upon a large island in the Potomac, known as Herter Island, lost all his wheat crop and his cattle. His family was rescued by Clarence Stedman and E. A. Keyser, an artist from Washington, at the risk of their lives. The fine railroad bridge across the Shenandoah, near Harper's Ferry, was destroyed. The Ferry Mill Company sustained heavy losses.

Along the South Mountains, in Washington and Alleghany counties, Md., the destruction was terrible. Whole farms, including the houses and barns, were swept away and hundreds of live stock killed. Between Williamsport, Md., and Dam No. 6 on the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal twenty-six houses were destroyed, and it is reported that several persons were drowned. The homeless families are camping out on the hills, being supplied with food and clothing by the citizens of Williamsport.

Joseph Shifter and family made a narrow escape. They were driven to the roof of their house by the rising waters, and just a minute before the structure collapsed the father caught a rowboat passing by, and saved his wife and little ones.

The town of Point of Rocks, on the Potomac river, twelve miles eastward of Harper's Ferry, was half-submerged. Nearly $100,000 worth of property in the town and vicinity was swept away. The Catholic Church there is 500 feet from the river. The extent of the flood here may be imagined when it is stated that the water was up to the eaves of the church.

The Chesapeake and Ohio Canal has been utterly lost, and what formerly was the bed of the canal is now part of the Potomac river. There were but few houses in Point of Rocks that were not under water. The Methodist Church had water in its second story. The two hotels of which the place boasts, the American and the St. Charles, were full of water, and any stranger in town had to hunt for something to eat.

Every bridge in Frederick county, Md., was washed away. Some of these bridges were built as long ago as 1834, and were burned by the Confederate and Union forces at various times in 1864, afterward being rebuilt. At Martinsburg, W. Va., a number of houses were destroyed. Little Georgetown, a village on the Upper Potomac, near Williamsport, Md., was entirely swept away.

Navigation on Chesapeake Bay was seriously interrupted by the masses of logs, sections of buildings and other ruins afloat. Several side-wheel steamers were damaged by the logs striking the wheels. Looking southward for miles from Havre de Grace, the mouth of the Susquehanna, and far out into the bay the water was thickly covered with the floating wood. Crowds of men and boys were out on the river securing the choicest logs of hard wood and bringing them to a safe anchorage. By careful count it was estimated that 200 logs, large and small, were swept past Havre de Grace every minute. At that rate there would be 12,000 logs an hour. It is estimated that over 70,000,000 feet of cut and uncut timber passed Havre de Grace within two days. Large rafts of dressed white pine boards floated past the city. The men who saved the logs got from 25 cents to $1 for each log for salvage from the owners, who sent men down the river to look after the timber. Enough logs have been saved to give three years' employment to men, and mills will be erected to saw up the stuff.

Not within the memory of the oldest inhabitants had Petersburg, Virginia, been visited by a flood as fierce and destructive as that which surprised it on Saturday and Sunday. The whole population turned out to see the sight.

The storm that did such havoc in Virginia and West Virginia on Thursday reached Gettysburg on Saturday morning. The rain began at 7 o'clock Friday morning and continued until 3 o'clock Saturday. It was one continuous down-pour during all that time. As a result, the streams were higher than they had been for twenty-five years. By actual measurement the rain-fall was 4.15 inches between the above hours. Nearly every bridge in the county was either badly damaged or swept away, and farmers who lived near the larger streams mourn for their fences carried away and grain fields ruined. Both the railroads leading to the town had large portions of their embankments washed out and many of their bridges disturbed. On the Baltimore and Harrisburg division of the Western Maryland Railroad the damage was great. At Valley Junction 1000 feet of the embankment disappeared, and at Marsh creek, on the new branch of the road to Hagerstown, four divisions of the bridge were swept away.

The good news is that America learned a lot from the Johnstown Flood, not the least of which is that zoning laws, engineering, and construction inspections are not mere technical inconveniences, nor are the admonitions of the rich that they have everything under control to be counted for much.

The C&O Canal survived, against all odds. It is no longer a working canal for much of its length, but the tow path connects a vast wildlife corridor along the river, and flooded sections of the canal provide excellent habitat for barred owls, bald eagles, deer, woodpeckers, beaver, coyote, fox, raccoon, hawks, herons and turtles. The canal, as recreational spot, is probably as big a business concern now as it ever was in the era of coal.

Frederick, Maryland has plumbed Carroll Creek into a beautiful and long stone-scaped urban water park with curves and pools that absorb the power of flood waters while providing duck habitat and water lilly splendor during the summer months.

Bridges over the creek are major architectural features, and the river walk is flanked by restaurants, bars and shops that give this portion of the city a clean European feeling.

1 comment:

Gina said...

Fabulous book. But then I think I've read most of his, all good.