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May 31, 1889: Johnstown, Pennsylvania, lies hard against the Conemaugh River in its deep valley in the western part of the state. Founded in 1770, it grew quickly as the Civil War approached, fortunes were made in iron, coal and steel. By 1860, the Cambria Iron Company of Johnstown was the leading steel producer in the United States, outproducing steel giants in Pittsburgh and Cleveland. After the war it became the center of America’s growing industrial might and the site of many struggles by workers for recognition. High above the city, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania built a dam between 1838 and 1853, as part of a cross-state canal system, creating Lake Conemaugh the reservoir behind the dam. As railroads superseded canal barge transport, the Commonwealth abandoned the canal and sold it to the Pennsylvania Railroad. The dam and lake were part of the purchase, and the railroad sold them to private interests. A group of speculators, from Pittsburgh purchased the abandoned reservoir, modified it, and converted it into a private resort club for some of those that had made their fortunes in local industry. Development included lowering the dam to make its top wide enough to hold a road, and putting a fish screen in the spillway that also trapped debris. These alterations are thought to have increased the vulnerability of the dam. Moreover, a system of relief pipes and valves, a feature of the original dam, previously sold off for scrap, was not replaced, so the club had no way of lowering the water level in the lake in case of an emergency. Floods were almost a yearly event in the Conemaugh valley during the 1880s. On the afternoon of May 30, 1889, following a quiet Memorial Day, it began raining in the valley. The next day May 31, 1889 water filled the streets, and rumors began that a dam holding an artificial lake in the mountains to the northeast might give way. It did, and an estimated 20 million tons of water began spilling into the Conemaugh River valley that led to Johnstown 14 miles 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, was buried under mud and debris. Out of a population of approximately 30,000 at the time, at least 2,209 people are known to have perished in the disaster. Compounding the disaster and contributing to the death toll was a major fire that burned much of what was left of the city. The flood established the American Red Cross as the pre-eminent emergency relief organization in the United States. Founder Clara Barton, 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 people of Johnston were resilient and the town came back from the brink. The people never forgot the aid the nation gave to them and when the great Galveston Hurricane hit Texas and killed more than 6,000 people in 1900 the people of the city of Johnston contributed more money than any other city in the United States despite not even ranking in the top 100 cities in population.
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