Young men climb about wreckage after the Great Flood of 1889. Heavy rainfall caused a massive failure of the South Fork Dam, releasing a torrent of water upon the small city of Johnstown, Pennsylvania, killing over 2,200 residents and causing $500 million in damages
Iron, coal, and steel were central to the town of Johnstown. By 1860, the Cambria Iron Company of Johnstown was the leading steel producer in the United States, outproducing steel giants Pittsburgh and Cleveland. Through the second half of the 19th century, Johnstown made much of the nation's barbed wire. Johnstown prospered from skyrocketing demand in the western United States for barbed wire. Twenty years after its founding, the Cambria Works was a huge enterprise sprawling over 60 acres (240,000 m2) in Johnstown and employing 7,000. It owned 40,000 acres (160 km2) of valuable mineral lands in a region with a ready supply of iron, coal and limestone.
Floods were almost a yearly event in the valley during the 1880s. On the afternoon of May 30, 1889, following a quiet Memorial Day ceremony and a parade, it began raining in the valley. The next day water filled the streets and rumors began stating that a dam holding an artificial lake in the mountains to the northeast might give way. The dam gave way and an estimated 20 million tons of water began spilling into the winding gorge that led to Johnstown some 14 miles (23 km) away. The destruction in Johnstown occurred in only about 10 minutes. What had been a thriving steel town with homes, churches, saloons, a library, a railroad station, electric street lights, a roller-skating rink, and two opera houses was buried under mud and debris. At least 2,209 people are known to have perished in the disaster. An infamous site of a major fire during the flood was the old stone Pennsylvania Railroad bridge located where the Stonycreek and Little Conemaugh Rivers form the Conemaugh River. The bridge still stands today.
The Johnstown Flood established the American Red Cross as the pre-eminent emergency relief organization in the United States. Founder Clara Barton, then 67, came to Johnstown with 50 doctors and nurses and set up tent hospitals as well as temporary “hotels” for the homeless, and stayed on for five months to coordinate relief efforts.
The mills were back in operation within a month. The Cambria Works grew, and Johnstown became more prosperous than ever. The disaster had not destroyed the community but strengthened it.