This story follows several families during the development of Johnstown Pennsylvania and questions the history of the 1889 flood as simply a "natural disaster" caused by an act of God. Whether by omission or commission no one will ever know, but there can be no question that the acts of men played a significant role in the events that led to the failure of the South Fork Dam and the Great Johnstown Flood of 1889.
My book details why Johnstown was located in such a narrow valley with what was believed by many to be a "rickety" dam located upstream . It also includes factual information about modifications made to the dam that, combined with an especially heavy series of rains, led to the dam's utlimate failure and the flood that claimed over 2,200 lives.
This fresh perspective of Johnstown's history contradicts the notion that the dam was poorly constructed and that Johstowners were simply unaware, at best, or too stupid to understand, at worst, the danger posed by the dam. The quality of the dam in both design and execution was excellent. The dam had more than enough strength and discharge capacity to contain the water it was designed to hold. It also had two backup systems: an emergency spillway and 5 massive drain pipes that ran through a culvert at the bottom of the breast and could be opened if the main and emergency spillways were not able to discharge enough water during heavy rain. A series of modifications to the dam included lowering the top of the breast to the same height as the emergency spillway to widen it so that horse-drawn carriages could be driven across thus eliminating that emergency spillway's functionality, removal of all of the drain pipes after which the culvert was simply filled in and the installation of a heavy screen across the main spillway to retain fish which would also have likely caught debris during heavy rains further reducing the ability of the dam to drain excess water. With each of those changes reducing the discharge capacity of the dam, it became a simple matter of time until it failed entirely. It is my contention that it was those modifications that caused the dam's failure.
Though no individual was ever found personally liable for causing the flood, surely it can be argued that those who planned and implemented the changes to the dam were negligent at the very least. But who those individuals were has never been clear.
The story necessarily includes information about the history of transportation in the early 19th century, the everyday citizens of Johnstown and their activities, and industrialists like George King and Daniel Morrell as well as Morrell's nemesis in my tale, Andrew Carnegie.
The 19th century presented fantistic opportunities for those who were bold enough to take advantage. Like today, some people were givers while others were takers and some of the takers didn't concern themselves with who they hurt.