ST. MICHAEL – For 125 years, a millionaire club's modifications to the South Fork Dam have been targets of blame – but unproven culprits – for the 1889 Johnstown flood.
That uncertainty is partly due to a well-documented 1891 report by a group of prestigious engineers, who concluded that the two days of relentless rain the dam faced would have overwhelmed the dam regardless.
Now, a team of local geologists is challenging that report.
Relying on the original researchers' own data, modern mapping technology and new flow studies, they say their findings prove the once-mighty earthen dam would have have held up on May 31, 1889 if its wealthy owners would have restored it to 1853 specifications.
Their conclusion: South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club's changes to the dam cut its ability to discharge stormwater in half.
"You still hear all of the time that there was supposedly so much rain that their dam would've been over-topped no matter what. That's simply not the case – and now we have the scientific facts to prove it," said University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown emeritus Professor Uldis Kaktins, one of three local geologists who have spent years researching the dynamics of the onetime Lake Conemaugh dam's historic failure.
The new report also questions why the prestigious American Society of Civil Engineers committee that gathered much of the same post-1889 flood data didn't come to the same conclusion, alleging that they ignored key facts.
Kaktins, Pitt-Johnstown Professor Neil Coleman and fellow geologist Stephanie Wojno published their findings in the June edition of an online journal by Netherlands-based scientific research publisher Elsevier.
It was the result of five years of research and followed earlier reports on the subject.
This time, they utilized the original researchers' 125-year-old measurements and reports – comparing them with their own. They reviewed interviews with eyewitnesses and photos of the dam before and after its breach, Coleman said.
They also found clues at the dam site itself, he said. They studied lake bed soil and used technology such as an infrared laser-reliant geographic mapping system called LiDAR – Light Detection And Ranging – to digitally recreate the onetime dam and lake that once served as the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club's summer getaway, Wojno said.
"We had a GPS survey conducted that allowed us to estimate the lake levels at the time the dam failed," Coleman said, crediting Musser Engineering of Central City and Pitt-Johnstown Engineering Professor Brian Houston for partnering in that effort.
Measurements were taken from a foundation stone at the base of the old dam and up above, where large stones – or erosion-preventing "rip-rap" – still line part of one area where the top of the dam once stood.
What the group found is that the dam's original crest was higher than reported – and was lowered by nearly three feet, approximately a foot more than published reports, Coleman said.
They believe the dam was also lowered to the point that it was cut below a secondary spillway. By making that move and failing to replace five discharge pipes, the early club members "drastically effected that dam's ability to discharge storm water," he said.
"If they rebuilt that dam to its original 1853 design, it would have doubled the discharge capacity," Coleman said, describing the lowered dam height as the biggest issue.
'Doomed to fail'
According to historic accounts, the club lowered the top of the dam to create a more navigable carriage road to their clubhouse.
But the geologists contend the crest was cut down early in the club's repair process to use the materials salvaged from the crest to quickly and cheaply fill an 1862 breach.
As fate would have it, a spring storm washed away their progress as the work was still occurring. It swept durable dam materials with it that would have would have been valuable to the dam repair, he said.
Instead, the breach was filled with substandard clay and other fill – soft materials that "liquified" under the pressure of dam overflows the day of the storm, he and Kaktins wrote.
"The dam was doomed to fail," Coleman said. "They couldn't lower it ... because they removed the discharge pipes. And they eliminated a spillway that was critical for safety during floods."
Today, a Johnstown Flood National Memorial parking lot is built in the area where the Pitt-Johnstown geology team says the spillway once stood.
Kaktins points to their investigation into the western abutment as proof.
"Why would you want the surface of the abutment to be lower than the dam crest unless there was a spillway there," he said.
National Park Service Ranger Nathan Koozer questioned that finding. The reason engineers who toured the site in the months after the flood never mentioned a second spillway is because it never existed, Koozer said.
He provided an 1853 Pennsylvania Canal map – drawn up the year the South Fork Dam was complete – that shows the dam with only one spillway.
And he said several independent reviews were conducted on the failed dam over a several-year period following the flood. Not one of them mentioned an auxiliary spillway, Koozer said.
"We take issue with some of the findings ... in particular that the dam was built with a second spillway," Koozer said, adding that their recent findings, at times, "borders on analyzing a historical event from a modern day perspective."
At least 2,209 people were killed in the 1889 flood after a two story-wall of water ripped through the failed dam and rushed toward Johnstown.
The dam – and Lake Conemaugh – were both man-made property of the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club, a group whose more than 60 members included captains of industry such as Andrew Carnegie, Henry Clay Frick and Andrew Mellon as shareholders.
When word spread across the county that the flood had nearly wiped out the working-class city of Johnstown, many directed blame at the club – a move that prompted lawsuits later failed in court.
Within months of the flood, a committee of engineers, including James B. Francis – then renowned in the profession for flood control expertise and turbine design – were appointed by the ASCE to investigate the cause of the South Fork Dam's failure.
In the end, the committee noted that the club "materially diminished" the dam by lowering it, obstructing the main spillway gratings to prevent lake fish from escaping and eliminating five drainage pipes.
"But in our opinion, they cannot be deemed to be the cause of the late disaster – as we find that the embankment would have ... overflowed and the breach formed if the changes had not been made," the committee concluded in its 1891 report.
Coleman said those engineers used state-of-the-art methods available to them at the time to meticulously gather measurements and other data for their report.
That's why he's bewildered why the 1889 group didn't come to the same conclusion his team did.
While the Pitt-Johnstown geologists' report is bolstered by technology-assisted measurements that alter a few key points – reducing the flow rate into the dam at the time of the breach and increasing the the amount of time it would taken the lake to drain – Coleman said the UPJ team's conclusions are supported most strongly by factors that would have been easily apparent to investigators 125 years earlier.
"They surveyed that dam. They knew that auxiliary spillway was there to protect the dam and yet they never mentioned it," he said. "To me, that's exhibit one on why this report was very suspicious.
"And by their own measurements, the amount that dam was lowered makes a huge difference in terms of discharge capacity," he added. "You can't minimize that."
The engineers also failed to mention areas where large rocks and other erosion-minimizing materials were moved from an area of the dam that would later fail, despite photographs included in their report that clearly show it, Kaktins said.
'Injustice was done'
The geologists also point at a prior dam review by two of the 1891 report's lead engineers as further proof of what Kaktins called "whitewashing."
After the Mill River Dam collapsed in 1874, Francis and fellow 1889 flood report engineer William Worthen criticized the materials and workmanship involved in the Massachusetts dam's development. The materials used weren't solid enough to make the dam water-tight, they wrote – much like South Fork's dam, which was later documented to have been patched with tree stumps and mud.
"And there was nothing like an inspection, although money and life depended on it," Worthen wrote at the time, criticizing the Mill River dam's owner's failure to have it's construction professionally reviewed.
The South Fork dam was also never officially inspected by a qualified engineer during its reconstruction.
"They lambasted the Mill River dam's owners and builders for the same reasons they dismissed (in the South Fork Dam review) 16 years later," Coleman said.
Given Francis' extensive flood-control knowledge, his only conclusion is that, for some reason, the engineers "shielded" the club from blame, and with it, perhaps, future liability claims.
"We believe an injustice was done to the more than 2,200 people who lost their lives," the UPJ researchers wrote.
Not a 'simple tragedy'
To Johnstown Area Heritage Association President Richard Burkert, the American Society of Civil Engineers team "doubled down" on the argument that a powerful storm swept away the dam at a time the site's owners were already having success fending off lawsuits.
But it made another impact, too – in the court of public opinion, Burkert said.
"That report really blunted any effort to assign responsibility. People started thinking, 'sure it was a bad dam' but now you've got these prominent engineers saying it was an act of God, too," Burkert said. "When it came to their report, I don't think there was anyone comparable to challenge them at that point."
That's what makes recent research – including Coleman, Kaktins and Wojno's latest findings – so compelling, the JAHA chief said.
The new hypothesis continues to strengthen the belief that the great 1889 disaster was for more "than some simple tragedy," Burkert said.
The cause of the calamity may have been arrogance, ignorance or an unwavering effort to save money on the project that led founding South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club members to take the steps they took to rebuild the dam. But the new research adds fuel to the argument that a tragedy that claimed 2,209 lives in 1889 could have been avoided, he said.
To Koozer, the blame falls on a series of South Fork Dam site owners over a 50-year period. Cash-strapped by America's first economic depression – The Panic of 1837 – the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, the dam's original architect, "cut corners" throughout the dam's off-and-on development, Koozer said.
Engineers reviewing the site in 1889 noted that the dam never had a solid masonry core - or "heart wall," he noted.
Despite Francis and Worthens' scathing report about issues leading to the Mill River's failure in the 1870s, historical accounts indicate none of the dam's corporate owners were ever found to be liable for the losses in Massachusetts.
And Burkert said it's likely that if the American Society of Civil Engineers faulted the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club for the Johnstown Flood in 1891, the result would have likely been the same.
Such a ruling might've added more motivation for an angry public to point fingers at South Fork club members who held status as some of the Gilded Age's richest men.
But even with corporate liability laws beginning to change in the wake of Johnstown's flood, the odds were heavily stacked against the likelihood that individual club members would have been found legally accountable for their dam's destruction, Burkert said.
"It would be a far different story today," he said. "But in those days ... the legal structure still wasn't there."