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Details about the dam

These additional comments, questions, facts and photos are not part of my novel but I post them here in defense of some assumptions I made in the first edition of The Bosses Club, published in 2011.

“A conspiracy of silence”

The subtitle I used for the first edition of The Bosses Club, “The Conspiracy that caused The Johnstown Flood…”, has been cited as the reason some outlets refused to carry my book and I must agree there is no proof of a conspiracy that caused the flood. However I think most reasonable people will agree that someone or some group of people acted irresponsibly and negligently, even if they were not found legally culpable. Their actions ultimately created the conditions that caused the dam to fail, though the courts found nature guilty and declared the flood “an act of God”.

Sometimes a lack of evidence is evidence. Considering the dearth of information pertaining to the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club, I don't think its irrational to believe that after the flood, the members may have covered up or destroyed evidence and records, forming “a conspiracy of silence.”

My book, the Bosses Club, has been critically accused of doing a great disservice to those wanting to understand the full picture of the Great Johnstown Flood of 1889. One critic called my work "yellow journalism." While he admits his opinion does not represent the organization he works for, it does show a certain bias that some people have when new theories about the history are presented. Others, however, are still looking for answers to the mysteries surrounding this great tragedy - thank goodness some people are not as closed-minded about it.

While The National Park Service is certainly not involved in the history, their visitor’s parking lot was in fact built on the site of the secondary spillway (the emergency waste-water weir). In defense of their decision, the area had already been altered. After the road across the breast of the dam had been washed away, the road to the cottages was extended over this site. It provided a way for people to get to the existing cottages and access to new settlements that were being built in the dry lake bed.

The SFF&HC Registry

The remains of the actual club registry is housed at the Johnstown Flood Museum. It’s a bound book with 128 lined and numbered pages. The first page is artfully titled "The South Fork Fishing & Hunting Club." The first entry was dated July 28 1881 and was signed by John D. Hunt, Pittsburgh, PA.

Besides being a possible guest registry, it looks to me as though it might have also been used for accounting purposes. The letters D and S were sometimes added beside the name and some had a check mark or the designation “paid” on the same line. I think its possible the D stood for dinner and the S for stayed or slept. One page listed the names of ten men with $1.00 listed in a column. Perhaps this meant these men or workers ate there and were charged for their meal.

More importantly, pages 37 & 38, 41 & 42 are missing. Also, pages 55 through 124 have been torn out. Small slivers from the torn pages still remain showing there was information on these pages. Pages 126 & 127 lists 60 members in 1886. but Andrew Carnegie’s name does not appear. However, The Johnstown Tribune, on June 20, 1889, listed Andrew Carnegie as a member. Further, A club dues notice for the year 1883 was recently found. It was sent to Andrew Carnegie at his address in New York. The post card was post-marked on April 13, 1883.

Alterations to the dam

Another alteration to the dam happened when a train track was built right through the breast of the dam, right where the break existed. Some speculation still exists that the dam was breached in order to get vast amounts of coal from the Windber area to market. The coal was owned by the Berwind group. Together, the alterations to the breast and waste weir have made it impossible to determine the original topography, as it existed at the time of the dam’s failure.

There is also continuing debate to this day as to whether the breast of the dam had been lowered by the South Fork Fishing & Hunting Club. Some historians say it wasn’t altered. As far as I know, no one has thought to compare it to its sister dam, the "Eastern Reservoir", built near Hollidaysburg. Both dams were built for the same purpose, to provide water for the Pennsylvania Canal. Both were built by the state of Pennsylvania at the same time using the same design and construction methods. The following pictures speak for themselves:

Eastern reservoir near Hollidaysburg: This photo shows the top of the dam’s breast. The average width measures less than five feet across the top of the unaltered sister dam that was built at the same time as the South Fork Dam.

Top of South Fork Dam's breast.

The average width of the South Fork Dam measures fourteen feet across the top. The paved area in the background is where the secondary waste-weir was located, but it was altered by the NPS when they constructed a parking area on the site.

By visualizing the two recently taken photos above, one can imagine that if the South Fork Dam had not been lowered, waste water would have emptied over the secondary spillway at a rate that probably would have prevented the dam’s failure.

Eastern reservoir of the Pennsylvania Canal near Hollidaysburg; yellow line approximates the shape of the breast, the red oval where the motorcycle is parked is the surface of the secondary spillway

When I took the picture above, I was standing on what would have been the secondary waste weir (emergency spillway); the camera is pointed straight down the breast of the Hollidaysburg dam. The lake was on the left side of the breast from this perspective and the primary spillway is on the far side of the dam, but is not visible in this picture. The shape of the breast is indicated by the yellow line; the motorcycle is parked on the surface of the secondary waste wier. The trees in this view are actually growing from the sloping wet and dry faces of the dam breast.

Imagine the lake filled to the level of this emergency spillway. Water would begin to slowly run over this broad exit-way. It would be running all around where the motorcycle is parked and moving from left to right. The key to prevent water erosion is to keep it moving slowly which is why the emergency spillway is so wide and broad.

Now look at a picture taken at the South Fork Dam emergency spillway:

South Fork Dam – the Park road is where the secondary waste weir was located - notice that the level of this waste weir is practically the same height as the top of the breast, which is where the people in the background are walking.

South Fork Dam waste weir – this view is at a 90 degree angle to the previous picture.

For this picture, I stood where the South Fork Dam emergency spillway water would be exiting after it left the dam. The topography was altered so that today it serves as a parking lot for visitors who can walk to the left out onto the remains of the breast of the dam to see the rupture.

Just left of the motorcycle is a second bench, a wooden walkway and banister, and steps that take the visitor on a different path to the bottom of the breast on what would have been the dry side of the dam. Again, you can see that this emergency spillway would have been broad and gently sloped, allowing excess water to slowly escape the dam when it bacame overly full, at least, that is, if the breast had not been lowered to the same height. Instead of the overflow exiting safely through the waste weir around the dam, it flowed over the breast and quickly washed it away. It weakened the dam to the point that the pressure from twenty million tons of water just pushed it away.

Unanswered Questions

Accepted history says the South Fork dam broke in 1862. This “fact” is mentioned repeatedly in many books about the flood without anyone ever questioning it. The break was supposed to have happened when the lake level was already low and the failure caused little or no damage. Though photography was available during that time period, there are no photos of the damage to the breast of the dam. No news or personal accounts of the 1862 break exist, except for two small Johnstown Tribune newspaper articles which have provided the entire basis for the story that the dam was leaky and poorly built and kept breaking. It looks to me like what was reported is what the paper printed without doing any independent verification. This supposed break happened while the Civil War was raging, which historians point to as the reason the event didn’t get much coverage. I question whether there was really a break or whether that was an excuse given so that the valves could be opened to drain the lake.

We do know that after the dam was emptied in 1862, it sat that way for the next 17 years. During that period, the breast settled into a void, causing a depression where the “leak” had occurred (or where the drain pipes had been removed). This account is repeated in David McCullough’s book “The Johnstown Flood”. In fact, all accounts I know of repeat this history that the dam broke in 1862, yet no proof exists of that failure except for the newspaper articles. Did it leak so badly that it completely drained the lake? Or, did the P.R.R. report to the newspaper that it was leaking as an excuse to open the valves to drain the lake? I believe the latter - that the valves were opened until the lake was empty. Also, the wooden tower that housed the controls for the drain pipe valves was destroyed by fire during that period. Is it possible that the dam was drained so that the valuable drain pipes could be removed?[1]

* * *

Interestingly, most books about the 1889 Flood, The Pennsylvania Railroad, Carnegie, etc., don’t point out that Andrew Carnegie held the important position of Superintendent of the Western Division of the Pennsylvania Railroad when much of this was going on, nor that he was unable to produce any iron, the main ingredient required for his bridge business. Here is a timeline:

1857 - The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania sold the Mainline Canal property and assets to the P.R.R. Carnegie had an almost free reign from then-superintendent Thomas Scott and acted many times on his behalf.

1859 - Carnegie promoted to Superintendent, in charge of the Western Division of the Pennsylvania Railroad (the Pittsburgh Division) on December 1, 1859 when Scott was promoted to Vice President of the P.R.R.

1862 - Piper & Shiffler Bridge Company formed, founded by Andrew Carnegie though his name is not part of the company name.

1862 - Conemaugh Reservoir Dam breaks, see newspaper articles about the break below.

1865 - March 28, Carnegie resigned from the P.R.R.; a couple of days later on April 1, 1865, John Reilly was appointed Superintendent of Transportation for the P.R.R.

1871 - Lucy No. 1 blast furnace, Andrew Carnegie's first, was built; this was the earliest time in Andrew Carnegie's career that he was able to produce his own iron from raw materials.

1875 - Reilly resigned from the railroad to run for congress; he served as a Pennsylvania Representative from March 4, 1875 through March 3, 1877, during which time he bought the dry lake property from the Pennsylvania Railroad for $2,500.

1877 - After Reilly’s defeat for a second Congressional term, he was rehired by the P.R.R. as Superintendant of Transportation.

1879 - John Reilly sold the property for $2,000 to Benjamin F. Ruff, representing the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club, but only after he is supposed to have removed the drain pipes and sold them for $500. There is no record of how he removed them or where they went.

1881 - First entry is made in the SFF&HC registry on July 28.

1885 - Reilly resigned from the railroad and moved to Philadelphia. He died on April 19, 1904, having never testified or even been questioned about any of the events that transpired at the dam prior to the flood.

I’ve seen some accounts that say Benjamin Ruff and Henry Clay Frick bought the lake property from Reilly together as partners to form the club; others say it was Ruff alone. You would think, with these transactions being so crucial to finding out who was responsible for refilling the dam that claimed over 2,200 lives, that all the facts would be known by now, but that’s not the case.

When were the five cast iron drain pipes removed? It’s been accepted by most and continues to be repeated that Reilly removed the pipes sometime between 1875 and 1879. This brings up several questions: Why would he remove them? How did he remove them? How did he get them out, then load and transport them and what was the cost of removing them? It’s estimated that each section was 7’ long by 2’ in diameter and weighed approximately 2500 pounds for a total combined weight of 75 tons. For comparison, as reported in an article titled "Relocation Underway for Historic Bridge" in the Johnstown Tribune Democrat on May 9, 2006, A Bollman iron railroad bridge, built in 1871 in Somerset County PA was relocated to the Great Allegheny Passage Bike Trail; that bridge spanned 81 feet and weighed 45 tons. This should leave no doubt about the amount of iron (and value!) contained in the pipes at the dam, which is why they were an attractive target. Where could the the pipes have been taken? Cambria Iron was the closest steel mill and would have therefore been the logical place to take them for recycling, but no documentation of their destination exists. It would have taken a team of experienced men and lots of equipment to do this, like those used by the railroad to clean up a wreck. If Reilly was the one that removed the pipes, you'd think some records of the project would have survived in the Reilly estate in Altoona or Philadelphia; or did these records disappear when the Pittsburgh law firm lost all the other records they had gathered for the defense of the South Fork Club?

* * *

David McCullough’s book, “The Johnstown Flood” has become the de-facto accepted and recommended book for the best account of what really happened. While I don’t have a problem with Mr. McCullough's writing - he is a wonderful and accomplished author and has been awarded a Pulitzer Prize (and I have read many of his wonderful books) - I do find this, his first book, lacking. The simple fact that he starts his account of the events of the flood just the day before the flood actually happened, is telling.

While McCullough wrote extensively about Robert Pitcairn’s responsibilities and knowledge of the Pennsylvania Railroad property, he made no mention of Andrew Carnegie having held the same position before Pitcairn. Carnegie held the position just after the dam and lake became railroad property and when the dam was supposed to have first failed in 1862. Pitcairn was a friend of Carnegie as well as his successor when he was appointed to the position vacated (Superintendent of the Pittsburgh Division) in 1865 when Carnegie retired from the railroad.

Another item in McCullough’s book that I feel is misleading is how he portrays the great Cambria Iron Works when he described it as “backwoods iron forges”. I don’t think this was a deliberate effort on his part to obscure history; perhaps it’s just a result of the popular lore that Pittsburgh is where the steel industry started and where the knowledge of how to make steel from iron originated. The fact that he is from Pittsburgh would make it easy for him to believe this fallacy without questioning it.

He did further disservice to the real story of the Johnstown Flood when he described the South Fork Dam as looking like it had been pushed there by a glacier. Here's the actual quote: “the dam looked like a tremendous mound of overgrown rubble, the work of a glacier perhaps”. His and other books usually describe Johnstown as a dirty, dismal place with ignorant citizens that didn’t know enough to move out from under a mammoth lake in the mountains. Another quote: “Johnstown’s leading citizens had taken little or no intelligent account of the threat the dam posed”.

Other omissions in McCullough’s book are the fact that Colonel Unger, the manager and president of the South Fork Fishing Club at the time of the flood, was not a Colonel at all and that there is in fact no evidence that Unger ever served in the military at all. The title "Colonel" was added, I believe, to provide Unger with an air of distinction, as he was simply a former hotel manager from Pittsburgh that ran a Pennsylvania Railroad-owned hotel. I wonder how "Colonel" Unger got the position of President and manager of the club. Did he buy ownership?

Also absent from McCulloughs book are answers to the following questions: Who was making these decisions? Who ordered a fish screen installed across the main spillway? Where did the screen come from? Why did Colonel Unger refuse to remove it when it was restricting the flow of water?

* * *

Unlike authors that have visited Johnstown for a couple of weeks to do their research in order to write a Johnstown flood book, I’ve lived in Johnstown all my life. My parents, grandparents, great-grandparents and great-great-grandparents spent their entire lives in Johnstown. We Johnstowners deserve better answers.

* * *

Historians say the dam broke in 1862!

The following two small newspaper articles are the only proof:

The Tribune, Johnstown, PA., July 18, 1862, Vol. V, No. XVI: "The canal Reservoir is represented by citizens who have visited it recently as in a dangerous condition. A portion of the arch[2] in the breast wall has fallen, leaving but a feeble support at that point for the immense body of water behind it. Should this dam give way suddenly, as it is likely to do in case of a heavy rain, unless the fallen wall is speedily repaired, the consequences would be serious. The matter was brought before the Borough Council on Tuesday evening when Mr. Pershing[3] promised to telegraph to the canal authorities apprising them of the impending danger."

The Tribune, Johnstown, PA., Friday, August 1, 1862, Vol. V, No. XVIII – LOCAL – Local Miscellany: "The Reservoir dam, the precarious condition of which we noticed two weeks ago, gave way on Saturday morning last, and emptied its waters into the Conemaugh. The announcement of the breaking of the dam caused considerable alarm in town, but owing to the low stage of water in the creek the flow from the Reservoir produced but an inconsiderable rise, and the excitement and the flood both soon subsided. No loss or damage was sustained by anybody so far as we can learn, except the carrying away of about two hundred dollars worth of bridge lumber belonging to Wood, Morrell & Co., which was being floated down the creek, and the overflowing and washing away of a few rods of the railroad track at South Fork, which detained the morning train from the East until late in the afternoon. Many people were badly scared about the breaking of the Reservoir, but nobody was hurt by it."

Louis Semple Clarke photographs

In 1980, an old metal canister (described as a “map can”) was found and finally opened after being forgotten for nearly a hundred years. In the following excerpt, Mrs. Soule who found the cannister, granddaughter of Louis Semple Clarke, gives a detailed description:

“In the 1980’s in a corner bookcase in the living room (built appropriately by my grandfather Louis Semple Clarke) I came across an old metal map can about 16” high with about a 3” diameter with my grandfather’s name on the bottom and on the side. It was barely discernible through the rust. The 2” deep lid was rusted shut. Frustrating—for when I shook the canister, something inside rattled! Determined to get it open, I carefully poured cooking oil around where the lid contacted the map can body, and, eureka, I was able to twist it open. Inside were the eighty carefully rolled prints of pictures taken at Lake Conemaugh.”

The canister had a ring and hasp so when a lock was snapped on, it would prevent the lid from being twisted opened. In 1889, Louis S. Clarke was a young man (22 years old) and an amateur photographer. Semple was his mother’s maiden name. His father, Charles J. Clarke, was a wealthy Pittsburgh businessman and had built a cottage on the lake.

Why were these innocent pictures locked up for almost a hundred years?[4] Was it because the club’s attorneys ordered the members to surrender every spec of evidence/information about their club to the law firm? Did Louis Clarke resist turning over his precious pictures, but feared they might be discovered so he hid them in a locked canister? Is this evidence of “a conspiracy of silence”?

[1] The pipes were cast in Johnstown by Samuel Kennedy, Aug 1841

[2] Just what is the arch in the breast wall? Could it be the arched stone culvert that ran through the breast? The five drain pipes on the water side of the dam emptied into this culvert when the drain valves were open. The pipes did not run all the way through the breast.

[3] Mr. Pershing, to the best of my knowledge, was an attorney representing the P.R.R. and was likely subordinate to Andrew Carnegie. Just who were the canal authorities? Perhaps it was the Pennsylvania Railroad as represented by Mr. Carnegie.

[4] The pictures were published and can be viewed in Dr. Michael R. McGough’s book titled “The Club and The 1889 Flood in Johnstown, Pennsylvania”:

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