Exploring the Johnstown Flood National Memorial in Cambria County

Illustration of the South Fork Dam failing on May 31, 1889, causing the Johnstown Flood.

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.

List of flood victims in side the Johnstown Flood National Memorial.
List of flood victims at the Johnstown Flood National Memorial.

The Johnstown Flood occured after the South Fork Dam failed, causing 20 million tons of water from Lake Conemaugh to be suddenly released.

Graphic showing how large Lake Conemaugh was in 1889, on display at the Johnstown Flood National Memorial.
Graphic showing how large Lake Conemaugh was in 1889, on display at the Johnstown Flood National Memorial.

The flood waters raced 14 miles down the Conemaugh Valley, crashing into Johnstown approximately an hour after the dam was breached, bring death and destruction with it.

Infographic about the amount of water unleashed from Lake Conemaugh when the South Fork Dam failed, causing the Johnstown Flood of 1889.
Infographic about the amount of water unleashed from Lake Conemaugh when the South Fork Dam failed, causing the Johnstown Flood of 1889.

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.

Johnstown Flood National Memorial sign near the visitor center.
Johnstown Flood National Memorial sign near the Visitor Center.

The Visitor Center at the Johnstown Flood National Memorial

The Visitor Center at the Johnstown Flood National Memorial is housed in a barn-shaped structure, located on the former farm of South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club President Elias Unger.

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

There are two floors to the Visitor Center, which features artifacts, interpretive exhibits, and a theatre that plays the short film “Black Friday”, which tells the story of the Johnstown Flood.

Movie about the Johnstown Flood playing in the theatre at the Johnstown Flood National Memorial.
Black Friday playing in the theatre at the Johnstown Flood National Memorial.

A massive diorama representing flood debris and a person clinging to a roof dominates the ceiling of the Visitor Center.

Diorama of flood destruction inside the Johnstown Flood National Memorial visitor center.
Diorama of flood destruction inside the Johnstown Flood National Memorial Visitor Center.

History of the South Fork Dam

Since the Visitor Center is located adjacent to the remains of the South Fork Dam, it’s not surprising that it contains numerous interpretive exhibits that cover the history of the dam in extensive detail.

View of the spillway at the South Fork Dam, with the Unger House and Johnstown Flood National Memorial visitor center in the background.
View of the spillway at the South Fork Dam, with the Unger House and Johnstown Flood National Memorial Visitor Center in the background.

The South Fork Dam was originally built to provide supplemental water for the Pennsylvania Mainline Canal, a cross-state canal system used for transporting products and passengers before the railroads had conquered the Allegheny Mountains.

Details about the original South Fork Dam constructed for the Pennsylvania Main Line Canal.
Details about the original South Fork Dam constructed for the Pennsylvania Main Line Canal.

The South Fork Dam was completed in 1853, but became obsolete the following year, with the opening of the Horseshoe Curve and the cross-state Pennsylvania Railroad route.

One of the many exhibits inside the Horseshoe Curve Museum and Visitor Center.
One of the many exhibits inside the Horseshoe Curve Museum and Visitor Center.

In 1857, the Pennsylvania Railroad bought the entire route of the now-obsolete Pennsylvania Mainline Canal, including the South Fork Dam.

Details about the first time the South Fork Dam burst in 1862.
Details about the first time the South Fork Dam burst in 1862.

In 1879, the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club purchased the damaged and neglected dam, to build a private lake and summer vacation retreat for its members.

Photos of the everyday activities at the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club.
Photos of the everyday activities at the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club.

The South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club was made up of wealthy Pittsburgh businessmen, including Andrew Carnegie, Henry Clay Frick, and Richard Mellon.

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.

Despite the enormous wealth of the club members, they did a shoddy job of repairing the neglected dam when creating their private lake, which ultimately had deadly consequences.

Structural reasons why the South Fork Dam failed in 1889, leading to the Johnstown Flood.
Structural reasons why the South Fork Dam failed in 1889, leading to the Johnstown Flood.

The Unger House

Elias Unger was the manager of the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club, and his house overlooking the former dam and lake is located next to the Visitor Center.

Elias Unger House at the Johnstown Flood National Memorial.
Elias Unger House at the Johnstown Flood National Memorial.

Interpretive panels outside his house tell of his too little, too late attempts to save the dam before it failed.

Brief biography of Elias Unger on display at the Johnstown Flood National Memorial.
Brief biography of Elias Unger on display at the Johnstown Flood National Memorial.

The Spillway at the South Fork Dam

Just down the hill from the Visitor Center, you can follow a bridge across the spillway, to the very edge of where the South Fork Dam failed in 1889.

The spillway at the South Fork Dam, with images of how it looked prior to the dam failing in 1889.
The spillway at the South Fork Dam, with images of how it looked prior to the dam failing in 1889.

Standing on the overlook near the spillway, you have a great view of the lakebed, where Lake Conemaugh once stretched back two miles into the distance.

Railroad tracks running through what was once the bottom of Lake Conemaugh.
Railroad tracks running through what was once the bottom of Lake Conemaugh.

The South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club

On the south side of the former Lake Conemaugh, you can drive past the Club House and nine cottages that were once owned by the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club, in present-day Saint Michael.

The club house of the former South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club, now part of the Johnstown Flood National Memorial.
The Club House of the former South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club, now part of the Johnstown Flood National Memorial.

There is a parking lot at the Club House for visitors who wish to walk around on the porch, but the interior of the building is closed.

 

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

Many of the former cottages are now private homes, and the few that are owned by the National Park Service are in various states of restoration.

One of the cottages at the former South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club in Cambria County, Pennsylvania.
One of the cottages at the former South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club in Cambria County, Pennsylvania.

The Walk Through the Ruins Trail

The Walk Through the Ruins Trail on the south side of the former Lake Conemaugh takes hikers to the bottom of the dam, through the breach, and back up the other side of the dam.

Trail leading to the bottom of what was once Lake Conemaugh.
The Walk Through the Ruins Trail leading to the bottom of what was once Lake Conemaugh.

 Interpretive panels provide information about the dam, the former lake, and the flood.

Infographic along the lakebed trail at the Johnstown Flood National Memorial.
Interpretive panel along the Walk Through the Ruins Trail at the Johnstown Flood National Memorial.

Standing next to the South Fork of the Little Conemaugh River on the former lakebed now, you would have been 60-70 feet underwater in 1889, before the dam failed.

The South Fork of the Little Conemaugh River flowing through what was once the bottom of Lake Conemaugh in Cambria County.
The South Fork of the Little Conemaugh River flowing through what was once the bottom of Lake Conemaugh in Cambria County.

If you’d like to visit this impressive National Memorial, and stand right where the historic flood started, you can find the Johnstown Flood National Memorial Visitor Center at 733 Lake Road South Fork , PA 15956.

Graphic illustration showing the moment the South Fork Dam burst on May 31, 1889, causing the Johnstown Flood.
Graphic illustration showing the moment the South Fork Dam burst on May 31, 1889, causing the Johnstown Flood.

In the age of COVID, I’d encourage you to check out the Johnstown Flood National Memorial OFFICIAL WEBSITE before you visit, for the latest hours and restrictions.

View from the northern overlook on the South Fork Dam at the Johnstown Flood National Memorial.
View from the northern overlook on the South Fork Dam at the Johnstown Flood National Memorial.

The Johnstown Flood Museum in downtown Johnstown also tells the story of the 1889 flood, but from a slightly different perspective and with different artifacts, exhibits, and an award-winning film of its own.

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.

Multimedia map tracing the path of the 1889 flood at the Johnstown Flood Museum.
Path of the Flood interactive relief map at the Johnstown Flood Museum.

The Austin Dam Ruins in Potter County are the site of the second-deadliest single dam disaster in Pennsylvania history (the Johnstown Flood of 1889 being THE deadliest).

the weathered ruins of Austin Dam in Potter County Pennsylvania.
The ruins of Austin Dam in Potter 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.

Prince Gallitzin’s crypt in Cambria County contains the remains of a former Russian prince turned trailblazing Catholic priest, Demetrius Augustine Gallitzin.

Prince Gallitzin's crypt in Cambria County, PA.
Prince Gallitzin’s crypt in Cambria County, PA.

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.

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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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