1889 Flood luminarias

Johnstown Flood National Memorial Park Ranger Doug Bosley walks the North Abutment of the remains of the South Fork Dam where luminarias were placed Friday, May 31, 2019, in honor of the 2,209 victims of the 1889 Johnstown Flood on the 130th anniversary of the tragedy.

On May 31, 1889, nearly 20 million tons of water dropped 450 feet over 14 miles in 57 minutes, forming a wall of water up to 75 feet high traveling 40 mph – the end result was catastrophic. 

The devastating 1889 Johnstown Flood took the lives of more than 2,200 people as flood waters forced its way from South Fork to the city of Johnstown.

On Friday night, 2,209 lit luminarias lined around the Johnstown Flood National Memorial Park Visitor Center and the remains of the South Fork Dam, in honor of the victims of the 1889 Flood. 

“When you look at this area’s history, there’s no way that you can overlook the floods, starting with the 1889 Flood,” Johnstown resident Sam Greg said.

Greg was one of the many people passing through the visitor center on Friday to pay his respects to those who lost their lives in the tragic 1889 Flood.

“I’m a numbers guy myself, and when you hear the insane number of deaths, how much water hit the city and how how fast – it’s really fascinating,” Greg said. “Surely sad, but interesting.”

The visitor center held several events throughout the day to commemorate the 1889 Flood, which included laying wreaths on both the North and South Abutments of the remnants of the South Fork Dam, and a reading of the flood victims names – culminating with the lighting of the luminarias.

Each luminaria had the name of a flood victim inscribed on it.

“These events are special here on May 31st because this is one of the most important things we do here at the memorial is to honor and remember the 2,209 people that lost their lives on that day,” said Park guide Elizabeth Shope.

Doug Bosley, chief of Interpretation and Visitor Services, said the clear skies and warm weather paved the way for a great day filled with special events.

“We’ve been doing these luminaria every year since the 100th anniversary,” Bosley said.

“We’ve had plenty of May 31sts where we were set to do this and then the rain came. So to have a night like this is great.”

Pittsburgh residents Jim Morgan and Mark Henderson stopped in to the visitors center for their first time on Friday evening.

The pair of friends had visited Johnstown before and knew a good bit about its history, but decided to take advantage of their time back in the area by taking part in some of the events scheduled to mark the 130th anniversary of the flood.

“It’s really moving,” Morgan said. “It really is.”

Ronald Fisher is a reporter for The Tribune-Democrat. Follow him on Twitter @FisherSince_82.