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Johnstown Flood


  • Originally published 05/16/2013

    Revisiting the Johnstown Flood

    When Elias Unger looked out from his front porch on May 31, 1889, he was astounded by what he saw. His house overlooked Pennsylvania’s Lake Conemaugh, a 2½ mile-long man-made body of water formed by one of the world’s largest earthen dams. On that morning, the rain-swollen lake was dangerously close to breaching the wall.Gathering a work crew, Unger labored frantically to shore up the dam, but it was too late. By afternoon, the 72-foot wall had given way, sending 20 million tons of water surging down the Little Conemaugh River Valley toward Johnstown, Pa., and claiming the lives of 2,209 people.On a recent visit, I stood near Unger’s porch, looking out over a pastoral valley dotted with trees and the Little Conemaugh gently meandering through it. A railroad track ran along the valley floor. I could see the remainder of the dam: two earthen abutments with a telltale 270-foot gap between them....