Exploring the Johnstown Flood Museum in Cambria County

Path of the Flood 3D model at the Johnstown Flood Museum in Cambria County.

The Johnstown Flood Museum, located in downtown Johnstown, tells the story of the tragic May 31, 1889 flood that killed over 2,200 people and captured the attention of the entire world.

Valley of Death exhibit at the Johnstown Flood Museum.
Valley of Death exhibit at the Johnstown Flood Museum.

Through a mixture of interpretive exhibits, surviving artifacts, photographs, and an award-winning film, visitors to the Johnstown Flood Museum can get a sense not only of the causes of the flood and the devastation in wreaked, but of the recovery and rebuilding efforts as well.

Exhibit related to the relief effort following the Johnstown Flood of 1889.
Exhibit related to the relief effort following the Johnstown Flood of 1889.

What Caused the Johnstown Flood of 1889

Periodic flooding was a fact of life in Johnstown, as it was built on a flood plain at the confluence of the Little Conemaugh and the Stony Creek Rivers.

Johnstown as it appeared in 1881, an image on display at the Johnstown Flood Museum.
Johnstown as it appeared in 1881, an image on display at the Johnstown Flood Museum.

But in the spring of 1889, a wetter-than-normal-spring, a powerful rainstorm, and a neglected dam 14 miles upstream from Johnstown proved to be a recipe for disaster.


The South Fork Hunting and Fishing Club

The South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club, a private club made up of wealthy and powerful Pittsburgh businessmen such as Andrew Carnegie and Henry Clay Frick, had purchased the damaged Western Reservoir in 1879, and haphazardly repaired the dam to create their own private lake (which they renamed Lake Conemaugh) for fishing, boating, and swimming.

Prominent members of the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club, owners of the dam that caused the Johnstown Flood of 1889.
Prominent members of the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club, owners of the dam that caused the Johnstown Flood of 1889.

During the 10 years the club owned Lake Conemaugh, they made several dangerous modifications to the dam, including lowering and widening the breast of the dam several feet (to allow their carriages to pass on the road across the dam), and installing screens across the spillway (to keep prized game fish from escaping the lake).

History of the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club.
History of the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club.

When the heavy rains came on May 30th and 31st, 1889, the spillway simply couldn’t keep up, water crested the breast of the dam, and at 3:10 pm the dam gave way, unleashing 20 million tons of water on the unsuspecting communities downstream.

Image of the South Fork Dam, AKA Lake Conemaugh, which caused the Johnstown Flood of 1889 when the dam failed.
Image of the South Fork Dam, AKA Lake Conemaugh, which caused the Johnstown Flood of 1889 when the dam failed.

Destruction Caused by the Flood

The wall of water unleashed when the dam at Lake Conemaugh burst was estimated to be at least 40 feet tall, and it leveled not only large parts of Johnstown, but numerous small communities along the Little Conemaugh River as well.

Photos of the flood damage at the Johnstown Flood Museum.
Photos of the flood damage at the Johnstown Flood Museum.

In the end, over 2.200 people were killed or presumed killed (some bodies were never found).

List of victims of the 1889 flood at the Johnstown Flood Museum.
List of victims of the 1889 flood at the Johnstown Flood Museum.

Johnstown’s Grandview Cemetery on Yoder Hill became the final resting place for a large number of the flood victims, and includes 777 white stone markers in a plot for the unknown/unidentified.

Plot for the unknown victims of the Johnstown Flood of 1889, located at Grandview Cemetery just minutes from the Johnstown Flood Museum.
Plot for the unknown victims of the Johnstown Flood of 1889, located at Grandview Cemetery just minutes from the Johnstown Flood Museum.

The Recovery Effort

In the aftermath of the flood, funds, materials, and volunteers poured into the area to help with the clean-up and recovery effort.

History of Oklahoma Houses and how they were used following the Johnstown Flood.
History of Oklahoma Houses and how they were used following the Johnstown Flood.

More than 300 “Oklahoma Houses”, and early form of manufactured housing, were set up to house the homeless, a surviving example of which is on display at the Johnstown Flood Museum.

The Oklahoma House on display adjacent to the Johnstown Flood Museum.
The Oklahoma House on display adjacent to the Johnstown Flood Museum.

These no-frills homes were a godsend to those who were left with nothing but the clothes on their backs.

Interior of the Oklahoma House on display at the Johnstown Flood Museum.
Interior of the Oklahoma House on display at the Johnstown Flood Museum.

Nearly 100 newspaper reporters from across America descended on Johnstown to cover the flood story, and while some of their stories were sensationalised to sell more papers and increase profits, the coverage did help raise nearly four million dollars for the relief effort from within the U.S. and 12 foreign countries.

Poster promoting a Johnstown Flood exhibit in Atlantic City.
Promotional poster for an Atlantic City, NJ “electric scenic production” about the Johnstown Flood of 1889.

Visiting the Johnstown Flood Museum

The Johnstown Flood Museum is located at 304 Washington Street, Johnstown PA 15901, on the corner of Washington and Walnut Streets.

Front entrance of the Johnstown Flood Museum, in the former Johnstown Public Library.
Front entrance of the Johnstown Flood Museum, in the former Johnstown Public Library.

Ironically (or perhaps fittingly), the Johnstown Flood Museum is housed in the former Johnstown Public Library, built with funds provided by Andrew Carnegie (prominent member of the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club) AFTER the 1889 flood destroyed a previous library at the same spot.

The Johnstown Public Library was destroyed y the 1889 flood, then rebuilt with funds provided by Andrew Carnegie.
The Johnstown Public Library was destroyed y the 1889 flood, then rebuilt with funds provided by Andrew Carnegie.

You enter and exit through the gift shop, which is stocked with a variety of flood-related books, prints, posters, and knick-knacks.

Gift shop at the Johnstown Flood Museum.
Gift shop at the Johnstown Flood Museum.

In addition to informational displays and artifacts, a large 3D interactive relief map takes up a big chunk of the first floor of the museum, giving you a great visual overview of the 14 mile-long path of the flood.

A multimedia relief map showing the path of the Johnstown Flood, on display at the Johnstown Flood Museum.
A multimedia relief map showing the path of the Johnstown Flood, on display at the Johnstown Flood Museum.

The second floor of the museum features a movie theatre which shows “The Johnstown Flood” (a 26-minute film that won the Academy Award for Best Documentary, Short Subject) every hour.

Movie theatre on the second floor of the Johnstown Flood Museum.
Movie theatre on the second floor of the Johnstown Flood Museum.

For the up-to-date hours, admission prices, and any special COVID restrictions, please visit the Johnstown Flood Museum’s OFFICIAL WEBSITE.

The lobby and gift shop at the Johnstown Flood Museum.
The lobby and gift shop at the Johnstown Flood Museum.

Morley’s Dog

An interesting footnote to the 1889 flood story can be found just a few blocks from the Johnstown Flood Museum, at a small park in front of City Hall.

Morley's Dog in downtown Johnstown.
Morley’s Dog in downtown Johnstown.

Morley’s Dog is a cast iron lawn ornament that survived the Johnstown Flood of 1889, and became a symbol of the strength and resiliency of the citizens of Johnstown.

HIstory of Morley's Dog statue in downtown Johnstown, Pennsylvania.
History of Morley’s Dog statue in downtown Johnstown, Pennsylvania.

Nearby Attractions

The Johnstown Flood National Memorial honors the more than 2,200 lives lost and the thousands more injured in the Johnstown Flood of May 31, 1889.

Johnstown Flood National Memorial sign near the visitor center.
Johnstown Flood National Memorial near South Fork Dam in Cambria County.

The Johnstown Flood National Memorial was authorized by the U.S. Congress in 1964, and encompasses and preserves the remains of the South Fork Dam, the former Lake Conemaugh lakebed, the farm of Elias Unger, and the clubhouse and cottages of the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club, owners of the lake and dam in 1889.

Inside the barn-shaped visitor center at the Johnstown Flood National Memorial.
Inside the Visitor Center at the Johnstown Flood National Memorial in Cambria County.

Hinckston Run Falls is a man-made waterfall formed by the outflow of the Hinckston Run Reservoir near Johnstown.

Hinckston Run Falls in Cambria County Pennsylvania
Hinckston Run Falls in Cambria County, Pennsylvania.

Fans of all things old, abandoned, and slightly creepy will find the abandoned Cresson State Prison in Cambria County a joy to explore!

Razorwire and Tudor-style architecture at the former Cresson STate Prison in Cambria County.
Razorwire and Tudor-style architecture at the former Cresson STate Prison in Cambria County.

George’s Song Shop in downtown Johnstown is America’s oldest record store!

George's Song Shop in Johnstown Pennsylvania is America's oldest record store.
George’s Song Shop in downtown Johnstown.

Yoder Falls in neighboring Somerset County requires a short-but-steep hike on property owned by the City of Johnstown (but open to public hiking).

The author at Yoder Falls in the Laurel Highlands of Pennsylvania.
The author at Yoder Falls near Johnstown.

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Rusty Glessner is a professional photographer, lifelong Pennsylvanian, and creator of the PA Bucket List travel blog.

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