The deadliest flood in U.S. history was the Johnstown Flood of 1889. The flood killed more than 2,200 people in the steel-industry town of Johnstown, Pennsylvania. The Johnstown flood was a man-made disaster, created when a weak dam burst, sending water rushing toward the town at 64 kilometers per hour (40 miles per hour).

Photograph courtesy Langill & Darling, N.Y.C., Library of Congress
  • 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.

    argue Verb

    to support or disagree with a subject.

    bank Noun

    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.

    cable Noun

    strong set of cords or wire ropes.

    choke Verb

    to cut off the air supply of a living organism.

    city Noun

    large settlement with a high population density.

    construction Noun

    arrangement of different parts.

    dam Noun

    structure built across a river or other waterway to control the flow of water.

    debris Noun

    remains of something broken or destroyed; waste, or garbage.

    destroy Verb

    to ruin or make useless.

    develop Verb

    to expand or grow.

    disaster Noun

    terrible and damaging event.

    exclusive Adjective

    limited to a few characteristics.

    factory Noun

    one or more buildings used for the manufacture of a product.

    flood Noun

    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.

    injustice Noun

    act or behavior that is unfair or discriminates against a group of people.

    inspire Verb

    to influence to act.

    lake Noun

    body of water surrounded by land.

    Encyclopedic Entry: lake
    lawsuit Noun

    legal action brought by one person or organization against another.

    liable Adjective

    legally responsible.

    maintain Verb

    to continue, keep up, or support.

    man-made Noun

    produced by people.

    negligent Adjective

    careless or neglectful.

    perceive Verb

    to understand, especially by viewing.

    prosecute Verb

    to accuse and carry out legal action against a person or organization.

    reservoir Noun

    natural or man-made lake.

    Encyclopedic Entry: reservoir
    retreat Noun

    place of safety, privacy, and seclusion.

    solvent Noun

    substance that dissolves another substance.

    steel Noun

    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).

    wreckage Noun

    remains of something that has been destroyed.