The Great Conemaugh Valley Disaster—Flood and Fire at Johnstown, Pa.


The Great Conemaugh Valley Disaster—Flood and Fire at Johnstown, Pa.


Unknown artist
American, nineteenth century?
Published by Kurz & Allison, Chicago.




On May 31, 1889, the South Fork Dam on the Little Conemaugh River in southwest Pennsylvania, which held back the Lake Conemaugh reservoir, about fourteen miles upstream from Johnstown, failed after an unusually torrential rainfall. A little after 4:00 p.m. that afternoon, about 20 million tons of debris-filled water smashed into Johnstown, thoroughly inundating the city. The death toll was enormous. While most people drowned, many who were washed away were crushed by rubble when it piled up against one of the city's bridges, and still others perished when the debris caught fire. One survivor, the Rev. David J. Beale, later wrote about the disaster:

"The scene of destruction presented was unparalleled in the annals of American history. . . . Within a few minutes nearly four thousand human beings had been launched into eternity, twenty-five hundred houses had been utterly demolished, and property destroyed, the worth of which has been estimated at millions."

In actuality, the flood took the lives of 2,209 people, far less than Reverend Beale's estimate but nonetheless a catastrophic number that immediately caught the attention, and the imagination, of the nation. Though perhaps a bit overly dramatic, Kurz and Allison's lithograph, published less than a year after the event, vividly depicts the moment when the flood's debris was trapped by the Stone Bridge in Johnstown and caught fire, killing—if not the hundreds claimed in the inscription—at least eighty individuals.


Palmer Museum of Art, The Pennsylvania State University, Partial gift and purchase from John C. O’Connor and Ralph M. Yeager




John C. O'Connor and Ralph M. Yeager Collection, Palmer Museum of Art, The Pennsylvania State University


This image is posted publicly for non-profit educational uses, excluding printed publication. Other uses are not permitted.


Lithograph with hand coloring; 26-5/16 x 38-7/8 in. (66.9 x 98.8 cm)


United States, Pennsylvania, Cambria (county), Johnstown