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ecuscino | Created: 18 Apr 2023 | Updated: 20 Apr 2023
Geotechnical History blog

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This installment includes content that sensitive readers may prefer to avoid.

The opinions and conclusions expressed in this article are those of the author only and do not necessarily represent the views of ASCE or the Geo-Institute.

After the Flood: Relief Efforts and Journalism

News of the destruction along the valley of the Little Conemaugh River had begun spreading even as the flood wreckage was burning late on May 31st. Late that afternoon, the train carrying Robert Pitcairn of the PRR, already delayed by awful weather, had stopped several miles downriver of Johnstown due to track damage. Pitcairn and his fellow passengers had been waiting out the storm when, to their horror, they saw survivors riding debris along the river. Almost immediately, Pitcairn had realized that Lake Conemaugh had breached the South Fork Dam and had drowned Johnstown. He and other passengers tried gallantly to rescue the riders, although they could pull only seven from the rampaging river (McCullough 1968).

Eventually, the train backed up to the nearest station. There, Pitcairn wired Pittsburgh about the devastation of the valley and requested immediate, substantial assistance. News of the disaster and the need for help had flashed across most of the US by midnight on June 1st, and aid soon began arriving in droves. The Pennsylvania National Guard, the fledgling American Red Cross, and countless other groups and volunteers flocked to Johnstown to help the town and valley rebuild. Many people across the country and around the world donated to relief funds which ultimately sent over $120M (2023 USD) to the beleaguered valley. Other donors sent food, clothes, and goods of all kinds. Wheeling, West Virginia shipped an entire freight carload of nails (McCullough 1968, Webster 2023).

The volunteers and donations pouring into the valley of the Little Conemaugh proved invaluable in the difficult work required to rebuild Johnstown and neighboring towns. Crews needed three days to extinguish the debris fire at the Stone Bridge and ultimately had to use dynamite to dislodge the wreckage. (The bridge remains in daily rail service.) Laborers from the PRR working day and night needed two full weeks to rebuild the main Pennsy tracks running east from Johnstown and relieve the overloaded tracks between the borough and Pittsburgh. Workers had to clear the streets of the valley towns. In an early geotechnical precaution, survivors and volunteers even had to dig the detritus and muck out of every existing cellar in Johnstown to ensure the integrity of the foundations of future structures. Property damage from the flood eventually totaled about $548M (2023 USD)(JAHA 2022 B, McCullough 1968, Webster 2023).

Among the most pressing challenge facing those in the valley after the disaster was gathering, identifying, and burying the dead. An 1890 tally placed the official toll from the disaster at 2,209 victims. However, the true number of deaths may be closer to 3,000 after counting the confirmed dead from May 31, the missing who were never identifiably recovered, and those who died of injury or disease caused by the flood and fire. Work crews searched for bodies for months, and human remains were found as far downriver as Cincinnati and as late as 1911. Many human remains were never identified. The survivors of the tragedy, working closely with the volunteers, ultimately further demonstrated their extraordinary resilience by interring all recovered bodies and remains in a dignified, safe, and sanitary manner (McCullough 1968, NPS 2022 B).

Black and white panorama photo of Johnstown after the flood
Figure 37: Panoramic view of Johnstown, Pennsylvania following months of clean-up after the 1889 flood.
Source: Hanna (2021).


The tens of thousands of survivors also had pressing needs. The physically injured needed time and medical attention to convalesce. The physically unharmed often bore deep psychological scars from the disaster. Many carried their traumatic burdens for life in an era where little was known about mental health. Even survivors with neither physical nor psychological wounds often had few possessions left apart from the clothes on their backs. Volunteers distributed supplies and erected thousands of temporary tents and homes to give survivors a decent standard of living as Johnstown and the valley were rebuilt. These accommodations were much appreciated yet still presented new challenges. The sanitation needs of the survivors, soldiers, and volunteers eventually caused a typhoid epidemic which the medical staff contained only through valiant efforts (McCullough 1968).

Throngs of journalists soon joined the survivors, medical personnel, and volunteers in the valley. Most correspondents initially focused on the devastation from the flood and human interest stories about survivors and volunteers. However, many reporters quickly turned their attention from the steadily progressing clean-up and the slowly abating suffering to Lake Conemaugh and the remnants of the South Fork Dam. The numerous correspondents who visited the old lakebed included many from engineering journals, such as Arthur Wellington and Frederic Burt of Engineering News and H. W. Brinckerhoff of Engineering and Building Record. The publications would eventually merge into Engineering News-Record, later rebranded as ENR (Coleman 2018, ENR 2022, McCullough 1968, Unrau 1979).

The articles on the South Fork Dam failure by the engineering reporters reflected where civil engineering stood in 1889. Some subjects currently integral to the profession, such as surveying and hydraulics, were fairly well understood then. Others, such as geotechnical engineering, had yet to be established beyond scattered principles. Still, Wellington, Burt, and Brinckerhoff could and did criticize plenty regarding the reconstruction of the dam. They noted the poor workmanship, the flimsy sheet piles used to clumsily barricade the old drainage outlet, and the sag in the dam, which the remnants still indicated. Wellington and Burt also noted in italics, and with clear indignation, that Benjamin Ruff and his crew “were aided by no engineering advice or supervision whatever”. Ruff’s long-forgotten careless handiwork now came to light again (JAHA 2013, Wellington and Burt 1889 B).

Black and white photograph of remnants of South Fork Dam
Figure 38: Remnants of the South Fork Dam, 1889, looking northeast. Reporters stand atop the abutment.
Source: Johnstown Flood NPS (2018).
Black and white photo of remnants of South Fork Dam looking west
Figure 39: Remnants of the South Fork Dam, 1889, looking west.
Source: Hanna (2021).

Soon, John Fulton publicized his 1880 report to Daniel Morrell on the lackadaisical reconstruction of the South Fork Dam, along with the correspondence between Morrell and Ruff. The reporters then broke the story of the sloppy rebuild wide open. Their anger, and that of the public, at the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club was widespread and palpable. “All of the horrors that hell could wish,” went one flood elegy; “such was the price that was paid for – fish!”

The Johnstown Daily Tribune noted, more plainly yet just as bitterly, “Our misery is the work of man.” The members of the now-ruined Club hardly helped their image. Andrew Carnegie financed a new library in Johnstown, and Andrew Mellon, Henry Clay Frick, and Robert Pitcairn also made substantial individual or corporate contributions to flood relief funds. However, about 30 Club members contributed nothing. The offer the Club extended to shelter flood orphans in the Clubhouse struck many as tasteless (McCullough 1968, Unrau 1979).

Calls for justice against the Club and its wealthy members rapidly echoed across the US as the press spent weeks reporting on Ruff’s lousy handiwork. Locals who had long resented the sumptuous resort and its rich members gladly spoke with reporters, but coroner’s juries in two counties also concluded that the Club was to blame for the flood deaths. Even Pennsylvanians more sympathetic to the ruling class voiced the same sentiment. For example, Daniel Hastings, Adjutant General of the Pennsylvania National Guard in 1889, was a lawyer by trade who had gotten his commission mainly through his connections as a staunch Republican. Later, he would serve a full term as Governor of the Commonwealth. Yet Hastings commented from his headquarters in Johnstown, where he spent months following the flood, that the negligent reconstruction of the dam had clearly caused the tragedy. In short, public sentiment after the disaster appeared to be united against the Club. Many citizens in the valley began planning lawsuits against Club members for damages related to the destruction of their livelihoods, property, and, often, relatives in the flood (McCullough 1968).

Black and white photo of former bed of Lake Conemaugh
Figure 40: Former bed of Lake Conemaugh and remnants of the South Fork Dam, 1889, looking south. Source:
Hanna (2021).

The Club and Its Allies Protect Their Interests

Members of the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club had, predictably, a different perspective on the flood from the intended plaintiffs. The members could and arguably should have taken more interest before the disaster in what their peers Daniel Morrell and Robert Pitcairn had known about Benjamin Ruff’s hasty, corner-cutting approach to rebuilding the South Fork Dam. In fairness, though, many Club members may have shared the misplaced faith of those in Johnstown in the handiwork of Ruff’s crew. The post-breach actions of the members appear, by contrast, to have been more deliberate. Ultimately, the public translated its colossal outrage over the dam failure into few tangible actions either to hold the Club members responsible for the catastrophe or to prevent future such disasters. Circumstantial evidence suggests that the Gilded Age aristocracy of the US protected its own, i.e., the Club members, after the calamity (Coleman 2018, McCullough 1968).

The political connections of the Club members certainly helped them after the flood. In Harrisburg, the Pennsylvania General Assembly was dominated by Club allies such as the PRR. Thus, the Assembly passed no dam safety laws following the disaster. In Washington, DC, US President Benjamin Harrison was so moved by the tragedy that he wrote a relief check and led a successful meeting to collect further donations. Yet the US Presidency during the Gilded Age was fairly weak relative to Congress. Thus, President Harrison was in reality, as one historian later commented, “a high-minded figurehead for an alliance of Republican bosses and big businessmen who actually ran the country” (McCullough 1968, Miller 1998, Rose 2013).

Among the GOP kingpins of 1889 was Pennsylvania Senator Matthew Quay. He had, in the 1888 election, maneuvered then-ex-Senator Harrison past a Democratic popular vote win and into the Executive Mansion, not yet known by its paint scheme. Quay, like Harrison, made a donation to the flood relief efforts; the Senator’s check was purportedly the first to reach the valley of the Little Conemaugh River. Yet US Senators were, as of 1889, still elected by their home state legislatures. Quay therefore answered to the Club members and their associated interests, not to voters, and thus had no incentive to take legislative action after the flood. Disgruntled political cartoonists in 1889 were already lampooning Senators as minions bowing down to their millionaire benefactors even before the flood, and spoke for many US voters in doing so. The cartoonists only redoubled their efforts following the disaster. Still, the US ruling class during the Gilded Age faced few consequences other than ridicule for its inaction after the flood (McCullough 1968, Miller 1998).

Political cartoon depicting caricatures of U.S. Senators
Figure 41: The US Senate as perceived by one political cartoonist, 1889.
Source: Senate (2022).

Flood victims who challenged Club members in court also emerged empty-handed. The laws and legal precedents which governed civil liability cases in 1889 centered on the doctrine of fault. Per this standard, plaintiffs had to clearly prove negligence by defendants in order to win and collect damages. The plaintiffs’ lawyers included some of the best-regarded attorneys in Johnstown. However, the Club’s membership included both partners in Knox and Reed, a prestigious law firm in Pittsburgh which is known today as Reed Smith. Moreover, many jurors in these cases surely worked in industries such as steel and coal in which Club members held tremendous power. Therefore, the jurors probably considered their livelihoods and families during their deliberations. “It is almost impossible,” Victor Heiser would recall decades after the flood, “to imagine how those [Club] people were feared” (Coleman 2018, McCullough 1968, Reed Smith 2022, Rose 2013).

Knox, Reed, and the other attorneys defending the Club in the flood damage cases argued that the storm, dam breach, and flood constituted an “act of God”. Ultimately, their line of reasoning swayed all the juries they encountered, and the plaintiffs lost every flood damage case. Many states responded to what were widely perceived as obviously unjust verdicts in the suits by adopting the legal principle of strict liability. This doctrine holds that a defendant is liable for committing an action, such as the failure of a dam they built or repaired, regardless of their intent or mental state. Strict liability remains a mainstay of 21st-century US law. Yet the change in liability standards came too late to bring courtroom justice to the flood victims Coleman 2018, McCullough 1968, Rose 2013).

The ASCE Report on the South Fork Dam

The Club members even influenced the investigation of the flood by the American Society of Civil Engineers. In June of 1889, ASCE formed a select committee to examine the causes of the disaster. The credentials of the four committee members were impressive. The de facto chairman, ASCE President Max Becker, was an accomplished railroad engineer. Alphonse Fteley, an ASCE Vice-President, had performed pioneering work on hydraulics. James Francis and William Worthen, both Past Presidents of ASCE, had been involved in the Society’s investigation of the fatal Mill River Dam breach of 1874. “A better committee could not be appointed,” crowed the Engineering News. Over the following months, the members visited the remnants of the South Fork Dam and took measurements. They then performed their analyses and wrote up their conclusions. The select committee members finished their report in January of 1890 (Coleman 2018, Sharpe 2004, Wellington and Burt 1889 A).

Select ASCE committees in the late 1800s usually submitted their completed reports to the Secretary of the Society. However, Becker exercised his Presidential prerogative and sealed the report on the South Fork Dam breach as he finished his term. By doing so, he indefinitely postponed its release. Reporters dutifully repeated Becker’s public statement that he did so due to “pending suits against the owners of the dam”. Some observers likely noted, though, that such litigation could only proceed most effectively once the report had been released. A more plausible and less noble reason for the delay is that Becker’s railroad was controlled by the PRR, which had substantial connections to the Club through Robert Pitcairn. Clearly, Becker had a conflict of interest when it came to uncovering the truth about the breach. The next ASCE President, William Shinn, took office in January of 1890 with his own conflict of interest related to the select committee. Shinn, an acclaimed railroad engineer, was also a former business partner of Club member Andrew Carnegie (Coleman 2018).

Photograph of ASCE President Max Becker
Figure 42A: 1889 ASCE President Max Becker
Source: Coleman (2018)


Photo of ASCE President William Shinn
Figure42B: 1890 ASCE Presidents William Shinn
Source: Coleman (2018)
Photo of ASCE President Octave Chanute


The 1890 ASCE Convention that June illuminated what the Society hierarchy, most notably William Shinn, thought of the report on the South Fork Dam breach. The convention was in Cresson, Pennsylvania, roughly 25 miles northeast of Johnstown. The PRR owned the Mountain House Hotel, which hosted the convention, and Pennsy executives were closely involved in planning the event. One was Robert Pitcairn, a member of the former Club but not of ASCE. The itinerary for the convention included both the presentation of papers and a series of local excursions. The final lists of papers and side trips both suggest that the Club, as represented through Pitcairn, strongly influenced both rosters (Coleman 2018).

The list of papers presented at the 1890 ASCE convention notably excluded the select committee report on the South Fork Dam breach. Instead, the line-up included papers on such seemingly less important topics as obtaining salt brine. Meanwhile, the selected excursions did not include a visit to the former site of Lake Conemaugh, which had just been the scene of an obvious and major catastrophe of civil engineering. The site lay an easy 15-mile journey by train and carriage from the Mountain House Hotel, and multiple attendees made the trip individually. Furthermore, a chartered PRR excursion train taking attendees to the rebuilt Cambria Iron Company plant in Johnstown passed through South Fork, only two miles from the remnants of the South Fork Dam. The train even stopped multiple times along its route to highlight damage from the 1889 flood. Yet the attendees never visited the old lakebed and dam remnants as an official group (Coleman 2018).

Black and white photo of the Mountain House Hotel, a large Victorian building with gingerbread trim
Figure 43: The Mountain House Hotel in Cresson, Pennsylvania, site of the 1890 ASCE Convention.
Source: Hanna (2021).

Journalists at the 1890 ASCE Convention again asked Max Becker about the delayed release of the report on the South Fork Dam breach. Becker dutifully repeated his line about keeping ASCE and its members out of flood lawsuits. This time, though, the press published Becker’s claim more skeptically. Select committee member James Francis told the Johnstown Daily Tribune that he wanted the report released immediately. The Tribune noted that Becker’s refusal to do so was likely “on account of his business associates” in Pittsburgh, such as Robert Pitcairn. The newspaper added that, during the convention, several attendees held a private meeting at the Mountain House Hotel where they “read and considered in secret” the select committee report. The attendees, whom Tribune never named, likely included Pitcairn, Becker, and Shinn. Clearly, the press saw that the report was being stonewalled, even as Becker downplayed what was happening (Coleman 2018).

Only the following May did new ASCE President Octave Chanute finally release the report of the select committee at the Society’s 1891 Convention in Chattanooga, Tennessee. He, unlike his predecessors, had no clear ties to the Club and later mentored the Wright Brothers. Still, the distance between the 1891 convention and the remnants of the South Fork Dam meant that attendees could not conveniently visit the former site of Lake Conemaugh to evaluate the report independently. The document certainly might have benefited from such critical review. The committee began by discussing how quickly the PRR had reconstructed its tracks through the valley of the Little Conemaugh after the 1889 flood. The rapid rebuild was an impressive feat of civil engineering, but was also irrelevant to the breach of the South Fork Dam (Coleman 2018, Francis et al. 1891, NPS 2022 C).

The select committee continued its tangent by reviewing in detail the movements of PRR trains during the flood. Their descriptions matched statements which Robert Pitcairn made to the Pennsy’s in-house lawyers as the PRR prepared for flood damage lawsuits. These statements were confidential per the contemporary legal interpretation of attorney-client privilege, as they would be in the 21st century. Ordinarily, only a client can waive this privilege during their lifetime. (Pitcairn’s statement became public in the mid-20th century when the PRR discarded its transcripts of flood statements and an amateur historian acquired them.) Therefore, the inclusion of information from Pitcairn’s statement in the ASCE report provides clear evidence that he and the Pennsy, and by extension the Club, tampered with the document (Coleman 2018, Francis et al. 1891).

The committee members next discussed the building, reconstruction, and failure of the South Fork Dam. They noted that Ruff’s crew had filled the 1862 breach with material that had been neither puddled nor properly compacted. However, they excused this oversight by stating that “the hauling by teams over the freshly deposited material, which was kept wet by the rising water, made a fairly compact embankment”. The members’ dismissive statement ignored how such a lazy compaction technique would almost surely not have met the strict earthwork specifications written for the original construction of the dam for the Western Reservoir, let alone the standard of care for rebuilding dams in the late 1800s (Coleman 2018, Francis et al. 1891).

The committee then analyzed the actual breach of the South Fork Dam and assessed whether the storm of May 30-31 would also have caused the original dam to breach. The members began by performing calculations regarding the rate at which Lake Conemaugh increased in volume on May 31st. Their calculations did not account for John Parke’s recollection that the lake was at a near-constant level just before the breach. The oversight was inexplicable since Parke made his observation in a letter to the committee which the report included in full. The members also apparently overlooked high-water marks at the dam remnants which other civil engineers visiting the site noted. Moreover, the members omitted the original auxiliary spillway from their calculations and never even mentioned it in the report. They thus estimated unrealistically high values both of rates of volume increase in the lake and of peak discharge at the dam (Coleman 2018, Francis et al. 1891).

The committee members next assessed the structural integrity of the South Fork Dam. Publications such as Engineering News had reported within weeks of the breach that the Club had hardly engaged an engineer while Ruff had supervised the rebuild of the dam. Yet the report did not include this key detail. Instead, the committee members trumpeted the strength and sound construction of the dam remnants. Such an assessment reflected both survivor bias and poor engineering judgment, if not outright disingenuousness. They continued that the dam did not breach due to “any defect in its construction”. The observers who had noted seepage through the dam during the 1880s may have disagreed, but the report also omitted these leaks (Coleman 2018, Francis et al. 1891, Wellington and Burt 1889 B).

Finally, the committee members discussed why Lake Conemaugh had overtopped the South Fork Dam. They mentioned the insufficient capacity of the main (later sole) spillway – again without discussing the auxiliary spillway – and acknowledged that the Club had lowered the dam during the rebuild. Yet the members never connected the lowering to the dramatic reduction of the peak discharge at the spillway. They thus concluded that the storm would also have caused the lake to overtop the original dam. The members praised the Club on that basis for preventing a worse disaster by lowering the dam. “We feel satisfied that [our findings] are not far from the truth,” the committee members concluded with purported sincerity (Coleman 2018, Francis et al. 1891).

Other ASCE members were far less satisfied with the report, and they made their doubts known to the committee during the discussion of the report at the 1891 ASCE Convention. They brought up the old auxiliary spillway and how lowering the dam had led to a reduced peak discharge in the remaining spillway. The ASCE rank-and-file also noted how Ruff’s crew of laborers had not compacted the material they dumped into the 1862 breach and how this had led to the perceptible sag in the dam. The committee members hardly denied the shortcomings in their report. James Francis, in fact, readily acknowledged the existence of the auxiliary spillway. The delay of the report had obviously not dampened the widespread interest among ASCE members in the breach (Coleman 2018, Francis et al. 1891).

Errors in the ASCE Report

The holes in the report of the ASCE select committee on the breach of the South Fork Dam are particularly glaring compared to a similar report the Society had authored on an earlier nationally-known dam failure. The Mill River Dam breach in western Massachusetts in May of 1874 had killed 139 people, and ASCE had almost immediately sent a select committee to the site to examine the failure. The committee had included James Francis and William Worthen, who both later sat on the South Fork Dam committee. The investigators of the Mill River Dam breach had published their report in June of 1874. The searingly direct write-up had cited a lack of engineering input, seepage through poorly-placed materials, an absence of regular inspections, and “defects of workmanship of the grossest character” as factors which had contributed to the breach. Worthen had criticized the designers and builders of the Mill River Dam even more frankly in the discussion of the report by the ASCE rank and file. During its construction, he had stated, “Men were employed who were ignorant of the work to be done, and there was nothing like an inspection, although money and life depended upon it” (Coleman 2018, Sharpe 2004, Wooten et al. 2014).

Stereoscope photographs of remnants of Mill River Dam
Figure 44: Remnants of the Mill River Dam in western Massachusetts after its breach, 1874.
Source: Wooten et al. (2014).


The ASCE reports on the Mill River and South Fork dam breaches could hardly have differed more in their publication speed and their directness in assigning responsibility. The disparity seems especially stark given that Francis and Worthen sat on both committees. The striking difference between the reports may relate to who had owned and operated each dam. The Mill River Dam had been owned by manufacturers who, while wealthy, had largely local power. By contrast, the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club, which had owned the South Fork Dam, had counted among its members some of the richest and most powerful tycoons of the Gilded Age in the US (Coleman 2018, Sharpe 2004).

The Club members, unlike the owners of the Mill River Dam owners, appear to have influenced the ASCE investigation into the breach of their dam in at least two ways. First, they – most notably PRR executive Robert Pitcairn – apparently used their business ties to Max Becker, ASCE President and de factor chairman of the South Fork Dam committee, to pressure Becker to keep the panel in check. Becker appears to have complied by delaying the release of the report to lessen its impact and also possibly by softening its language. Next, William Shinn, Becker’s successor as ASCE President, seems to have further delayed the report. Shinn’s actions were likely related to the influence of his old friend, and Club member, Carnegie. Shinn may also have further amended the supposedly sealed document. In short, a whitewash of the ASCE report on the South Fork Dam breach cannot be confirmed but may readily be surmised (Coleman 2018, Sharpe 2004).

During the late 19th century, ASCE viewed professional ethics as a private concern for each of its members. Therefore, neither Becker nor Shinn violated their obligations as civil engineers through their involvement, and likely interference, with the Society’s report on the breach of the South Fork Dam. However, their actions surrounding the report, probably made in conjunction with former Club members, still seem irresponsible. The decisions Becker and Shinn likely made to obstruct and dilute the report exposed everyone worldwide living downstream of inadequate dams to the hazards which had killed thousands downstream of Lake Conemaugh. The delay may have contributed to at least one fatal dam failure. In February of 1890, the Walnut Grove Dam in western Arizona breached and caused nearly 100 deaths. Investigators found that the failure had involved both the absence of trained engineers and an inadequate spillway, just like the South Fork Dam breach. ASCE could, perhaps, have prevented or lessened the toll of the Walnut Grove Dam breach had it released its report on the South Fork Dam breach more swiftly. Becker and Shinn – and, most likely, their Club connections – clearly valued their reputations and livelihoods above public safety (Coleman 2018, Gee and Neff 2020, Vesilind 1995).

Technical Advances after the 1889 Flood

The field of civil engineering has grown and matured enormously since 1889. In the 1910s, Austrian professor Karl Terzaghi began performing detailed experimental studies of the engineering behavior of soils. He eventually compiled his findings in the book Erdbaumechanik, a title loosely translated as Earthwork Mechanics. The publication of this book in 1925 marked the arrival of the geotechnical discipline of civil engineering. The discipline has continued since then to advance and better explain the engineering properties of soil and rock. Dam engineering emerged in the mid-20th century as its own sub-discipline of civil engineering which combined concepts from the structural, geotechnical, and hydraulic disciplines. Dam engineers have constantly been improving the best practices for the design, construction, and operations and maintenance of dams ever since.

Black and white photograph of Karl Terzaghi
Figure 45: Karl Terzaghi, main founder of geotechnical engineering.
Credit: NGI (2023).


Engineers, government officials, and politicians have also advanced standards for US dams considerably since the late 19th century. In 1911, the Bayless (Austin) Dam breach in northern Pennsylvania killed 80 people. The Progressive Era was in full swing at the time and was, unlike the Gilded Age, a period of widespread, bipartisan support for government-enforced safety regulation. Therefore, the General Assembly of the Commonwealth passed in 1913 the first state laws on dam safety laws in the US. Still, similar efforts by other states over ensuing decades were, while valuable, also largely separate. Numerous lethal dam breaches around the world in the 1970s underscored the need for a more unified strategy. The deadliest of these failures occurred in south-central China during Typhoon Nina in 1975. This storm overtopped the Banqiao and Shimantan Dams and caused both to breach. The ensuing flood, epidemics, and famine killed 230,000 victims, making the disaster the deadliest dam failure ever (Coleman 2018, Gardiner 1987, Rose 2013).

Black and white photograph of site of Banquio Dam failure
Figure 46: Remnants of the Banqiao Dam in China after its breach, 1975.
Source: Nspirement (2019).


The tragic breaches of the 1970s convinced dam engineering professionals everywhere to take a more coordinated approach to dam safety. They soon formed technical and policy organizations which remain active to prevent further such disasters. Some of these groups are domestic, such as the Association of State Dam Safety Officials, or ASDSO, and the United States Society on Dams. Others are global, such as the International Commission on Large Dams. Collectively, the groups have helped the world make tremendous strides in the realm of dam safety. For instance, since the 1980s, ASDSO and ASCE have collaborated extensively to improve the standard of care for state-level monitoring and inspection of dams, and 49 states currently have such programs. ASDSO has also worked to raise US recognition of dam safety issues through efforts such as Dam Safety Awareness Day. ASDSO hosts this event annually on May 31st, a date which commemorates the Johnstown Flood of 1889 (ASDSO 2022 B, Gardiner 1987, Rose 2013).

The requirements for credentials which US civil engineers must hold to complete designs, including those for dams, have also grown significantly more rigorous since 1889. Per the US Constitution, states hold the power of professional regulation. Accordingly, in 1907, Wyoming passed the first law requiring the licensure of civil engineers, and other states, such as Pennsylvania in 1921, soon followed suit. Additional states passed licensure laws following the 1928 St. Francis Dam failure near Los Angeles, the second-deadliest US dam disaster. By 1950, all 48 states had such laws on their books. No longer could someone like Benjamin Ruff cavalierly supervise the rebuilding of a dam free from engineering oversight. Today, engineers practicing in many fields can earn licensure, although it remains most common in civil engineering (Hundley and Jackson 2015, NCEES 2020).

Photograph of first U.S. Engineering License
Figure 47: First engineering license in the US issued in Wyoming in 1907.
Credit: McGuirt (2007).


Further reforms followed the passage of licensure laws for civil engineering. Today, one wishing to practice as designers in the discipline begins the rigorous, uniformly defined process of getting a license by earning a bachelor’s degree through a civil engineering program approved by the non-profit Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology. They must also pass the Fundamentals of Engineering exam. One who both passes the exam and completes the degree can apply for (and will almost always be granted) certification as an Engineer in Training, or EIT. The new EIT must perform technically intensive engineering work for four years under the supervision of a licensed Professional Engineer, or PE. The EIT may only substitute graduate engineering degrees for some of this work experience. Finally, having attained sufficient work and/or academic experience, the EIT must pass a second exam, the Principles and Practice of Engineering exam, to earn licensure as a PE in civil engineering. Both exams are administered in all 50 states by the non-profit National Council of Examiners for Engineering and Surveying. Civil engineers licensed in one state can gain licensure in many others, though not all, using a reciprocity-based application.

Color photograph of former U.S. Vice-President Spiro Agnew
Figure 48: Former US Vice-President Spiro Agnew.
Credit: Podair et al. (2018).


The ethics governing US civil engineers have also become stricter since 1889. ASCE adopted its first formal Code of Ethics in 1914, and it remained in effect, with periodic edits, for over 60 years. However, a scandal eventually forced ASCE to make larger-scale changes. In the mid-1970s, US Vice-President Spiro Agnew resigned as part of a plea deal after prosecutors revealed him to be at the center of a highway kickback scheme which also involved several ASCE members. The Society therefore adopted a completely revised Code of Ethics in 1976 which explicitly stated that civil engineers had to “hold paramount the safety, health and welfare of the public in the performance of their professional duties”. The 1976 Code faithfully served ASCE, with some revisions, for over 40 years. Most recently, in 2020, ASCE again adopted the current, entirely rewritten Code of Ethics. The current Code rephrases the obligations of ASCE members in clearer, more inclusive, and more forward-thinking language. Like the 1976 Code, the 2020 Code emphasizes that the main responsibility of a civil engineer is, “first and foremost, [to] protect the health, safety, and welfare of the public”. The 2020 code also states plainly that civil engineers must practice only within their area of expertise (ASCE 2020, Vesilind 1995).

The 1889 Flood in Regional History

Public outrage over the breach of the South Fork Dam had largely subsided by 1891 when the ASCE committee finally released its report on the failure. The committee members, their acquaintances formerly belonging to the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club, and the residents of the valley of the Little Conemaugh River all sought to leave the disaster behind them. Johnstown, now reincorporated as a city, finished rebuilding in the mid-1890s, kept growing, and seldom looked back. In the early 1900s, trustees for the now-defunct Club sold the old resort site to the Maryland Coal Company. Maryland Coal promptly dug mine shafts, built the town of St. Michael on the former bed of Lake Conemaugh, and even laid a rail spur through the dam breach to its mines. The Company also demolished some of the tycoons’ cottages while repurposing others as homes for its executives. Other owners acquired the clubhouse and converted it into a hotel and restaurant. In 1922, Bethlehem Steel acquired the Cambria Iron Company and continued making steel in Johnstown for decades (Coal Camp USA 2023, Coleman 2018, Farabaugh 2019, Hanna 2021, McCullough 1968).

Postcard illustration of Maryland Coal Company mine in St Michael, PA
Figure 49: Postcard of Maryland Coal Company mine in St. Michael, PA.
Credit: Coal Camp USA (2023).


Johnstown suffered another major flood on St. Patrick’s Day in 1936. This event caused far fewer deaths (24) but far more property damage ($875M in 2023 USD) than the 1889 disaster had. Many flood-weary citizens of Johnstown wrote to US President Franklin Roosevelt to demand a solution, and FDR and Congress authorized the US Army Corps of Engineers to counteract flooding in certain US areas at high risk of inundation, including Johnstown. From 1938 to 1943, the Army Corps constructed concrete channels to contain the Little Conemaugh, Stony Creek, and Conemaugh Rivers in and around the city. Regional Army Corps officials boldly declared upon completion of the project that Johnstown was finally “flood-free” and that the regular inundations which had long plagued the city would be relegated to memory (Farabaugh 2019, Kozlovac 1995, Webster 2023).

Staffers at the Library of Congress early in 1961 had little expectation when they quietly set out a temporary display of photos of Johnstown after the 1889 flood that the exhibit might spark a transformation in how the story of the disaster was told. That spring, however, 27-year old magazine editor David McCullough was visiting the Library for work when he saw the photos. Upon seeing the captivating display, McCullough set out to learn more about the tragedy. Yet he quickly found that nobody had ever written a completely reliable, widely available history of the disaster, and McCullough finally decided to try writing such a narrative himself. He spent his spare time for the next several years doing historical research for the piece, which he quickly realized would be book-length (McCullough 1968, Sutor 2022).

McCullough’s book, The Johnstown Flood, was published in 1968 and represented the first authoritative historical account of the disaster. The volume became a surprise success and remains in print, and has introduced new generations of readers to the flood. The book’s strong critical and commercial reception allowed McCullough to become a full-time popular historian. He was, for the next half-century, among the best-respected historians in the US. His volume on the 1889 flood and his subsequent books on the building of the Brooklyn Bridge and Panama Canal led ASCE to name him an Honorary Member, its top membership honor (once since renamed Distinguished Member), in 1981. McCullough’s death in 2022 represented an immense loss for the field of history, especially that of civil engineering, in the US (ASCE 2021 A, Hanna 2021, Marston 2022, McCullough 1968).

Black and white photograph of David McCullough holding a copy of American Heritage open to his article "Run For Your Life"
Figure 50: David McCullough in Johnstown doing historical research on the 1889 flood, 1966.
Source: Sutor (2022).


Local interest in the 1889 flood also reemerged during the 1960s. Johnstown broke its near-total silence on the tragedy in 1964 by marking its 75th anniversary with public ceremonies. One was a commemorative banquet at which over 250 flood survivors in attendance were feted as guests of honor. In 1969, the US National Park Service opened the Johnstown Flood National Memorial at the site of the South Fork Dam remnants and the former Lake Conemaugh. As the 1970s began, it became clear that the renewed historical interest in the tragedy would last. Volunteers opened the Johnstown Flood Museum in downtown Johnstown in 1973. Regional and national interest in the 1889 flood has stayed strong ever since (Hanna 2021, JAHA 2022 A, Strayer and London 1964).

Many reliable works on the disaster now stand alongside The Johnstown Flood, which remains an excellent reference. However, the first reliable book on the technical history of the South Fork Dam breach only appeared in 2019 when now-retired UPJ geology instructor Neil Coleman, P.G., published Johnstown’s Flood of 1889. Coleman’s book has truly changed how the flood story may be told. The absence of a licensed dam or geotechnical engineer among the volume’s contributors may be its lone drawback. Separately, civil engineers have compiled numerous brief technical references on the civil and geotechnical engineering aspects of the dam breach (ASDSO 2022 A, Coleman 2018, VandenBerge et al. 2011).

Neil Coleman addresses an audience on the Johnstown Flood.
Figure 51: Neil Coleman, P.G., presenting on the research he and his team at UPJ conducted on the 1889 flood, 2018.
Source: Fisher (2018).

The Johnstown Flood National Memorial now includes the remnants of the South Fork Dam along with the Clubhouse, the Unger farmhouse, and three of the nine surviving cottages (the others are private homes), as well as a Visitors Center. The Memorial also encompasses much of the former bed of Lake Conemaugh, which the National Park Service has cleared to better show visitors the extent of the lake. The Johnstown Flood Museum is located in the same building which for nearly 80 years housed the library Andrew Carnegie donated to Johnstown after the 1889 flood. The Museum contains an extensive archive of flood-related documents. Both sites feature short films on the disaster and displays of artifacts. One noteworthy relic of the tragedy is a railroad car axle at the Museum. The axle and its car were buried by the 1889 flood. In the early 2010s, the axle was excavated during the construction of a bridge over the Little Conemaugh River in the borough of East Conemaugh.

Color photograph of former bed of Lake Conemaugh
Figure 52: Former bed of Lake Conemaugh at the Johnstown Flood National Memorial.
Source: M. Bennett.
Photo of rust-covered railroad car axle.
Figure 53: Railroad car wheels and axle buried by the 1889 flood on display at the Johnstown Flood Museum.



Challenges in 21st-Century Johnstown

Johnstown has, sadly, endured great hardship over the past 50 years. In July of 1977, a 0.2 percent annual probability storm dumped 8 to 10 inches of rain onto the city within 12 hours. North of the city, the Laurel Run Dam – which had not been upgraded in decades, despite repeated warnings from government engineers – overtopped and breached during the storm, further inundating Johnstown. (The breach was among the dam failures of the 1970s which led to the founding of ASDSO.) Ultimately, the flood killed over 80 people, caused over $1.65B (2023 USD) in property damage, and accelerated the industrial decline of Johnstown. Bethlehem Steel sold or closed all its operations near the city by 1992, and many residents moved away in search of steady employment. Johnstown had just 18,500 residents in 2020, which reflected a decline in population of over 70% since just before World War II (Farabaugh 2019, Havener 2022, Kozlovac 1995, Population.US 2016, US Census 2022, Webster 2023).

Johnstown has struggled to find its post-industrial footing. As of 2019, the city had a median income in 2019 of about $24,600, over 60% below the Pennsylvania median, and a poverty rate of about 38%, over three times more than the statewide rate. Yet current residents of Johnstown have the same grit that their forebearers showed in rebuilding after the 1889 flood. The municipal government of Johnstown is thus undertaking several initiatives to help revitalize the city, such as remediating brownfield sites and improving the infrastructure of its primary downtown corridor (Dubnansky 2022).

Panorama photo of modern Johnstown
Figure 54: Panoramic view of present-day Johnstown, looking east.
Source: Dubnansky (2022).


Challenges in 21st-Century US Civil and Dam Infrastructure

The poor condition of the infrastructure in downtown Johnstown reflects an unfortunate trend across the US. Civil engineers throughout across the country have often lacked the funding to turn dramatic advances in the standard of care for design into state-of-the-art infrastructure. The passage and signing into law of the bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act in November of 2021, and its ongoing implementation, will almost certainly have a positive impact on US infrastructure, and the additional federal funding from the Act arrived just in time. In March of 2021, ASCE released its most recent Infrastructure Report Card and revealed that US infrastructure had earned a mediocre overall grade of C-. ASCE gave US dams just a D on the Report Card, indicating that they are generally in even worse shape than US infrastructure overall. ASCE noted that the average US dam in 2021 was 57 years old, which means that many existing dams do not meet current design standards. ASCE estimated that nearly $66B would be needed to bring all non-federal US dams up to these standards. The cost will most likely rise over time as dam engineering continues to advance and as climate change makes storms increasingly frequent and intense (ASCE 2021 B, ASCE 2021 C).

Aerial photograph of Oroville Dam after its spillway failure
Figure 55: Oroville Dam near Oroville, California after its dual spillway failure in February of 2017.
Source: Sierra CAMP (2017).

Recent dam breaches and near-misses have reminded civil engineers and the public that better design, construction, and operations and maintenance practices in civil engineering cannot fully eliminate the potential for failures of existing infrastructure. In February of 2017, the main and emergency spillways of the mammoth Oroville Dam in northern California failed and nearly caused the dam to breach. In May of 2020, the Edenville Dam in northern Michigan breached due to static liquefaction, causing the Sanford Dam downstream to fail as well. The incidents reiterated that infrastructural integrity cannot be taken for granted, and only luck prevented both from proving fatal. Meanwhile, the absence in Alabama of a state-level program for dam safety presents a significant danger for Alabamians living just downstream of non-federal dams. In the fall of 2022, Alabama state officials accepted proposals for a pilot study for such a program (AP 2021, ASCE 2022, Atkins 2022, Sierra CAMP 2017).

Aerial photograph of Edenville Dam after its failure
Figure 56: Remnants of the Edenville Dam in Michigan after its failure due to static liquefaction in May of 2020.
Source: AP (2021).


Conclusions: Lessons from the Disaster

Civil engineers, especially licensed PE’s, can learn critical lessons from the South Fork Dam failure and Johnstown Flood of 1889. The entirely preventable tragedy underscores that those in the profession must navigate project challenges primarily using technical expertise, not business or managerial acumen. This principle holds true throughout the whole lifecycle of a project, from design to construction to operations and maintenance to even, if need be, failure analyses. The lesson is especially applicable for geotechnical engineers, who deal with highly variable subsurface materials. The disaster also highlights how essential it is for civil engineers to meet the contemporary standard of care in their work. The flood reminds those in the profession that the current standard memorializes victims of either unforeseen circumstances or violations of previous standards. The catastrophe also reflects how the impact of the technical work civil engineers perform is, ultimately, human, and how the consequences of successes in the field might only be exceeded by those of failures.

The lessons of the flood also extend beyond civil engineering to all lines of work. The story of the disaster reemphasizes the nature of history. Past events, like their present counterparts, were never predestined and never happened in the abstract. Instead, historical events happened first because of people and then to other people (and, sometimes, the same people). The catastrophe also illuminates how the truth must always be the paramount consideration when dealing with matters of health and safety. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the tragedy provides a harsh admonition that the demands of conscience must, ideally, supplement the dictates of law.

The South Fork Dam remnants at the Johnstown Flood National Memorial convey the lessons of the 1889 disaster in a powerful way. Arriving tourists can see the hulking remnants and the yawning breach between them almost immediately. The sight hits home like a gut punch akin to the memorials at Pearl Harbor and the World Trade Center. Visitors standing atop the remnants can readily imagine John Parke desperately riding to South Fork to warn of the pending breach, and flood-swollen Lake Conemaugh pouring through the poorly rebuilt dam, and the terrified citizens of Johnstown and the valley frantically trying to flee the flood wave, many screaming just before they drowned. Seeing these profoundly moving images in the mind’s eye solemnly reminds all in the working world, especially civil engineers, of their professional duties and responsibilities. Indeed, visitors visualizing these events may well be stunned into silence – one which seems fitting given the gravity of the disaster of May 31st, 1889.

Photograph of the remnants of the South Fork Dam at the Johnstown Flood National Memorial.
Figure 57: Remnants of the South Fork Dam at the Johnstown Flood National Memorial.
Source: M. Bennett.


This work is dedicated to the memory of the victims of the South Fork Dam breach and Johnstown Flood of 1889.


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Main Editor: Thomas Kennedy – Geopier

Contributing Editors: Author’s supervisors and colleagues at A.G.E.S., Inc., including: Katherine Brust; Sebastian Lobo-Guerrero, Ph.D., P.E., D.GE.; Neil Styler, Ph.D., P.E.; Brian Tittmann, P.E., P.G.

Dam Engineering Contributors: Gregory Richards, P.E. – Gannett Fleming, Inc.; Travis Shoemaker, P.E. – University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign/Schnabel Engineering, Inc. Fluid Mechanics Contributor: David Brandes, Ph.D. – Lafayette College

Legal Matters Contributors: Frank Baer, Esq. – Perez Morris; James Bennett, Esq. – Ellucian Disclosure: James Bennett, Esq. is the father of the author.