On May 31, 1889, a dam on the Little Conemaugh River broke, unleashing 20 million tons of water in the city of Johnstown, Pennsylvania. The widely reported, man-made disaster cost 2,200 lives, caused $17 million in damage and sparked a change in the way lawsuits are prosecuted.The city of Johnstown developed on a flood plain at the meeting of the Stony Creek and Little Conemaugh rivers. As more people moved to the city, the banks of the rivers were paved and narrowed, causing yearly flooding. Residents were prepared for this. They watched the river and moved their belongings upstairs or onto rooftops as the city flooded.Residents were not prepared for the additional flood from an entire lake, however. Located in nearby mountains, Lake Conemaugh was a reservoir created by the South Fork Dam. Lake Conemaugh was an exclusive retreat for members of the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club, which owned the dam.Rain and poor construction caused the dam to break. Water rushed down the river at 64 kilometers per hour (40 miles per hour). Johnstown’s leading industry was steel production, and the flood waters quickly became choked with industrial debris—steel cables, chemical solvents, glass, entire rail cars. The flood destroyed a wire factory, filling the water with tons of barbed wire. About 80 people died when floating wreckage caught fire.Rebuilding Johnstown took years—the bodies of some victims were not found until 20 years later. Although the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club failed to maintain the dam, members of the club successfully argued that the disaster was an “act of God.” This perceived injustice helped inspire the acceptance of “strict, joint, and several liability,” which supports the idea that a “non-negligent defendant could be held liable for damage caused by the unnatural use of land.”
Term Part of Speech Definition Encyclopedic Entry act of God Noun
legal term for a catastrophic event that cannot be foreseen or controlled.
to support or disagree with a subject.
a slope of land adjoining a body of water, or a large elevated area of the sea floor.
barbed wire Noun
twisted metal with sharpened points, often used for fences.
strong set of cords or wire ropes.
to cut off the air supply of a living organism.
large settlement with a high population density.
arrangement of different parts.
structure built across a river or other waterway to control the flow of water.
remains of something broken or destroyed; waste, or garbage.
to ruin or make useless.
to expand or grow.
terrible and damaging event.
limited to a few characteristics.
one or more buildings used for the manufacture of a product.
overflow of a body of water onto land.
Encyclopedic Entry: flood flood plain Noun
flat area alongside a stream or river that is subject to flooding.
Encyclopedic Entry: flood plain industry Noun
activity that produces goods and services.
act or behavior that is unfair or discriminates against a group of people.
to influence to act.
body of water surrounded by land.
Encyclopedic Entry: lake lawsuit Noun
legal action brought by one person or organization against another.
to continue, keep up, or support.
produced by people.
careless or neglectful.
to understand, especially by viewing.
to accuse and carry out legal action against a person or organization.
natural or man-made lake.
Encyclopedic Entry: reservoir retreat Noun
place of safety, privacy, and seclusion.
substance that dissolves another substance.
metal made of the elements iron and carbon.
strict, joint, and several liability Noun
legal responsibility where all (joint and several) wrongdoers are held accountable whether or not they acted with intent or carelessness (strict).
remains of something that has been destroyed.