The Johnstown Pennsylvania Flood

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I remember growing up and occasionally hearing mention of the Johnstown, Pennsylvania flood. Pennsylvania is known for its floods and other relatives would survive the Austin, Pennsylvania flood 30 years later. The residents of Johnstown were use to water filling the streets, the town being built in the river valley. It was common a couple of times a year to move belongings to a safer place in your home to avoid their soaking when snow would melt rapidly in the spring.


The flood had devastated Johnstown and all of the residential areas between it and the dam. It would take almost an hour from the break of the dam on May 31, 1889 until it would hit the town around 4 p.m. that day. Heavy rains at 11 a.m. would threaten the dam and by 11:30 a.m. engineers were predicting that the dam may fail.


At 3:10 p.m. the bridge failed. South Fork would loose 20 to 30 homes and the first 4 victims would die. Thirty people lived on the main street at Mineral Springs, a mile below the viaduct. Bare rock would be the only thing left after the water passed and sixteen people would die at 3:30.


John Hess would race his train and lock the whistle down to blow warning to residents from Buttermilk Falls to East Conemaugh. His act would save many lives but still 50 would die, including 25 from the train. At 4:05 the flood water would divide into 3 waves hitting Westmont Hill and flooding Kernville.


The water would gain speed and claim 314 of the 1,000 residents of Woodvale. Twelve miles from its start, carrying the remains of buildings and bodies the waters with its disaster would hit Johnstown at 4:07 p.m. The wave would split again for the last time. The debris would pile up at the stone bridge causing water to back up 30 feet in Johnstown until breaking through and flooding Cambria. The debris piled against the stone bridge would catch fire at 6 p.m., claiming 80 more lives and burning for 2 days.


When the waters finally stopped and the count of the dead totaled 2,209, bodies would be found as far away as Cincinnati, Ohio. Included in the count was my 3rd cousin 4 times removed, William Alexander Kilgore and his entire family, wife Annie “Lizzie” Cope, daughter Jessie, 15 years old, sons Fred and Alex, ages 12 and 9 respectively. They lived at 327 Washington Street in Johnstown. Washington Street ran along the edge of the river that would flood with water and debris. Mr. William F Lewis would give eye witness account of the destruction of the Kilgore’s house.

“In about twenty-five minutes after, he (Mr. Lewis) was down at the Pennsylvania Railroad depot and saw the avalanche of water coming on the town. He saw the steeple of the German Lutheran church fall, then Mr. Kilgore’s residence, and after that the Assistance engine-house. He noticed that the houses on Iron Street rose bodily and began to twist and grind one another to pieces; and after that everything changed as in a kaleidoscope…”

According to morgue records Alexander’s body was found before the 10th of June and held in morgue C, the Pennsylvania Railroad Depot, as number 168. On the 10th of June the morgue was moved to Millville in the First Ward School House. The remaining bodies were never found.


William Alexander was a clerk in the Cambria county office. He had grown up in the Westmoreland county area the oldest of four children of David and Emily Kincaid Kilgore. His youngest brother John Presley Kilgore was killed in a train accident on the Pennsylvania railroad in 1868 at the age of 17. His middle brother, David Hunter, passed in 1884 leaving only his younger sister Anna Burrel Kilgore Jack.


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