September 7, 2021

3rd Pod Summer: The Johnstown Flood

Posted by Shane Hanlon

View of the South Fork dam after repairs by the South Fork Fishing & Hunting Club, prior to 1889 dam breach.

The Johnstown Flood occurred on May 31, 1889, after the failure of the South Fork Dam, which is located on the south fork of the Little Conemaugh River, 14 miles upstream of the town of Johnstown, Pennsylvania. The dam, constructed to provide a recreational resource in part to support The South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club, broke after several days of extremely heavy rainfall that liquified the dam and blew out the earthen structure, resulting in a torrent of water that killed some 2,200 people.

This summer, 3rd Pod from the Sun is taking a vacation. In the meantime, we’re revisiting some of our favorite episodes. In this episode of Third Pod from the Sun, Neil Coleman, a professional geologist who resides just outside of Johnstown and teaches geophysics part time at the University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown, describes how a confluence of greed, poor engineering decisions, and hydrology led to one of the most catastrophic disasters in American history.

Coleman also delves into the formal investigation of the event by American Society of Civil Engineers that was subsequently buried, the cast of characters – including the leading steel and rail industrialists of the era – who were involved, the lack of accountability for the victims – save for a re-coop on the loss of a few barrels of whiskey, and the impact on the region that echoes to this day. He also provides insight into how the flood serves as a case study for current day hydrologists and engineers hoping to prevent, respond to, and investigate current and future flooding events.

This episode was produced and mixed by Shane M Hanlon. The original episode was produced by Josh Speiser and mixed by Collin Warren.