- Johnstown's Flood of 1889: Power Over Truth and the Science Behind the Disaster by Neil Coleman
The year 2018 marked the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of David McCullough's page-turning The Johnstown Flood, still the most authoritative account of Johnstown's disaster. It is fitting that Neil Coleman would publish a new book in 2018 that uses quantitative science to allow readers to better assess who was responsible for the May 31, 1889, disaster and to clear up some critical ambiguities. It is a major update to the story.
The flood was caused by the breaking of a dam owned by the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club, a group of Pittsburgh industrialists, financiers, and business men. In a horrifying display of the power of nature, some 2,200 residents perished. The flood resulted in the biggest news story of the period and a national scandal. While the press was quick to harshly criticize the club members and the shoddy South Fork Dam, the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) launched an investigation by three of the most qualified hydraulic engineers in the county on the cause of the dam failure. The report was highly anticipated but was suppressed and not released until two years after the disaster. It largely exonerated the club, presenting calculations that showed that the dam would have been overtopped and destroyed even if it had been repaired to its original condition when it was built by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania for the Main Line of Public Works. The disaster, it seemed, was inevitable and the club members were not liable despite the faulty repairs done to their dam.
In his new book Neil Coleman uses scientific evidence to fill gaps and correct misinformation in the historical literature. The author and his team, all associated with the University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown, spent five years critically examining the South Fork Dam and the ASCE report, finding discrepancies, lapses in key observations, and excessive reservoir input estimates. The author finds that report's conclusions were wrong and, very likely, altered by agents of the Pennsylvania Railroad and associates of members of the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club. In this new book and previous published articles (see "Revisiting the Timing and Events Leading to and Causing the Johnstown Flood of 1889," Pennsylvania History: A Journal of Mid-Atlantic Studies 80, no. 3 ) the author finds that the South Fork Dam would have survived if it had not been lowered by three feet and its discharge pipes removed. The author also confirms the existence of a second, [End Page 307] emergency spillway on the southwest abutment of the South Fork Dam, a theory first advanced by Walter Frank in "Civil Engineering" (1988). The presence of that spillway would have saved the dam in 1889 had the top of the dam not been lowered.
Coleman also solves the mystery about who removed the discharge pipes at the base of the dam and when that happened. The fifty club workers who had begun work at the South Fork Dam removed them, not former congressman John Reilly, who was technically still owner of the property. The pipes needed to be removed to drain the lake and begin repairs to the embankment. As readers of David McCullough's book will remember, without the discharge pipes the lake level could not be controlled.
Coleman's historical evidence includes new biographic information on the ASCE committee and the presidents of the organization during the years following the Johnstown Flood. James Francis, considered to be the father of hydraulic engineering in the United States, worked with two other highly qualified engineers on the report. Coleman reports that two subsequent ASCE presidents, Max Becker and William Shinn, had ties with Robert Pitcairn and Andrew Carnegie (both club members). Stating their intention to avoid having the ASCE be involved in lawsuits resulting from the flood, Becker and Shinn suppressed the release of the report. The life history of John Parke, the young engineer who...