“Night of Horrors” – Schuylkill County natives who survived the Johnstown Flood in May 1889

On the afternoon of May 31, 1889, the South Fork dam in Cambria County, Pennsylvania collapsed, unleashing a 40 to 70 foot wall of water down the valley of the Little Conemaugh River toward the industrial city of Johnstown. The wall of water and debris smashed everything in its path – rocks, trees, houses, railroad cars, locomotives, whole communities.

Harpers Weekly 1889 Flood Illustration
A Harper’s Weekly illustration of the Johnstown Flood

In Johnstown, numerous former residents of Schuylkill County had made new lives in the bustling city known for its railroads and its famous steel mills. James and John Larkin operated a jewelry store in Johnstown, J.A. Larkin and Co., in a three story brick building at 231 Main Street in downtown Johnstown. They were natives of Pottsville. On May 31, 1889, their grandmother, Eliza Gillman, was visiting for the Memorial Day holiday.

Downtown Johnstown Pre-Flood
Downtown Johnstown before the flood. (JAHA)

Nearby, another former Pottsville resident was spending time with friends. Elmer Sigfried worked at the Cambria Iron Works just below Johnstown, in the famous steelworks’ mechanical department. The 29-year-old rented a room at the Mansion House, a wooden hotel across the street from the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad depot at the intersection of Franklin and Broad streets. Sigfried was the son of Civil War veteran and Pottsville notable, Joshua Sigfried.

Johnstown Cambria Iron Works Flood
A Harper’s Weekly sketch showing the flood of May 1889. The Cambria Iron Works can be seen at left and Johnstown’s spires are in the background. (Harper’s Weekly)

On Friday, May 31, Johnstown was experiencing record flooding after a series of violent downpours struck the mountains of Cambria County. The rains had started in the evening of Memorial Day on May 30 and continued through the night and into the morning of the 31st. The city stood at the confluence of the Stoney Creek and the Little Conemaugh River. Both were overtopping their banks and flooding downtown Johnstown and surrounding areas. As the rain pounded down, a much larger catastrophe loomed about 14 miles upstream on the Little Conemaugh.

The South Fork dam was filled to overflowing and the rains continued to unleash torrents of water into the 2 mile long reservoir held behind the 72-foot earthen dam. The structure was long feared, as it had previously collapsed and upon being rebuilt, was known by some in the community to be structurally deficient. In fact, there was no controlled way to lower the water level in case of emergency.

In the afternoon of May 31, water pouring into the reservoir pushed the lake over the crest, rapidly scouring the dam and eroding its center. Around 3 PM, the dam collapsed entirely, unleashing an estimated 20,000,000 tons of water down the valley of the Little Conemaugh towards Johnstown. The massive reservoir drained entirely in about 45 minutes.

Site of the Broken Dam Johnstown
A photograph of the broken South Fork dam that gave way on May 31, 1889. (LOC)

As the dam collapsed, a catastrophic wave swept down the valley, destroying parts of the mining town of South Fork, wiping out the village of Mineral Point, before slamming into the towns of Woodvale, East Conemaugh, and Franklin. The wave crushed nearly everything in its path. What it didn’t crush, it moved along with it, carrying buildings and people in its plunge down the valley toward Johnstown. At 4 PM, the wave 30-40 foot tall mass of water and debris smashed into Johnstown and its 15,000 souls.

View up Conemaugh Valley Johnstown Flood
This view shows the damage down by the Johnstown Flood to the valley itself. The flood wave scoured the valley in many places down to bare rock. (LOC)

As the roiling, smoke-covered mass slammed into the city, it caught almost everyone by surprise. John Larkin and his grandmother were at the jewelry store on Main Street. James Larkin was already trapped by flooding downtown, near the confluence of the already raging Little Conemaugh and Stoney Creek. He had traveled there in the morning on business and high water from the morning’s rainfall had prevented him from returning to Larkin jewelry store.

A scene on Main Street in Johnstown before the flood (JAHA)

Elmer Sigfried found himself near the Larkin jewelry store on the afternoon of Friday the 31st. Because of the high water in the Conemaugh Valley that morning, the Cambria Works closed and sent workers who had already arrived home. He chose a visit friends near Main Street instead of returning home to his rented room at the Mansion House.

A little after 4 PM, the torrent from the South Fork dam reached the city and unleashed unparalleled destruction. Large swaths of the city were swept away and crushed against nearby hillsides, the mass of debris, tangled with human wreckage, got caught in the stone bridge of the Pennsylvania Railroad just below town. Acres of debris gathered and then caught fire, spreading to parts of the city and burning dozens of people alive who found themselves trapped in the tangled rubble. Thousands of survivors were stranded on rooftops or in their homes amid the floodwaters and debris into Saturday morning.

The Debris Field Below Johnstown
The debris field left behind at the Stone Bridge below Johnstown. The Cambria Iron Works are in the distance. (LOC)

Somehow, all four of these Schuylkill County expats survived the Johnstown Flood. More than 2,200 people were not so lucky.

John Larkin, Eliza Gillman, and Elmer Sigfried all returned to Schuylkill County in the immediate wake of the disaster. James Larkin stayed in Johnstown and helped oversee the efforts to identify those killed in the Johnstown Flood.  Everything they owned had been destroyed or taken in the flood and its aftermath. Upon their return to the Coal Region, reporters from the Pottsville Republican documented their harrowing stories of survival, which you can find below.

From the June 8, 1889 edition of the Pottsville Republican: 

Home from Johnstown

John Larkin… and Mrs. Gillman, his grandmother, arrived from Johnstown this morning, leaving there yesterday morning.

When the flood came about 3.20 o’clock, John was in the jewelry store room. The river had been as high as the curbstones, but not any higher than a year before. Mr. Larkin happened to look out the window and saw a freight car turn the next corner with the advance portion of the flood.

BO Freight Car Johnstown Flood
A photograph taken after the flood near Main Street – a B&O Railroad freight car can be seen at left. (NYPL)

He made for the second floor, where Mrs. Gillman was and just reached it in time. They were hoisted from the balcony by means of ropes to the third floor of the adjoining building where they remained.

The Larkin building is a three-story brick with brick buildings on each side of it. The flood accommodatingly deposited two frame houses in their back-yard and these broke the force of the current, no doubt saving the brick structures. Besides the first shock of the deluge was broken by some frame houses above.

Main Street damage Johnstown Flood
Severe damage along Main Street in Johnstown (NYPL)

The water remained at a height of 24 feet until 3 o’clock Saturday morning, when it began to subside. It had been dammed up by the debris accumulated against the Penna. R.R. bridge below the tow. It was a night of horrors and the newspapers have made no exaggeration of the awful scenes. Across the street tow men clung to the windows of the M.E. church, the water at times reaching their waists.

Just across the way Elmer Sigfried sought refuge on a roof, and they hallooed to each other at times.

The front and back of the Larkin store was gutted as if cut out with a knife and the torrent of water destroyed and carried off the stock of jewelry. A few watches and a napkin ring were picked up of all that fine stock. The safe was found all right in the cellar.

Johnstown Flood Damage
The Larkin jewelry store received damage similar to this during the flood (NYPL)

James Larkin went down to the “Point” in the morning on business and was unable to get back owing to the freshet. The flood washed the house he was in away and with seven others he clung to the roof. The building was unable to pass the dam, and floated about all night in the eddy. It turned over three times, but each time he got on top and, with the others, was rescued next morning.

There was no notice that the dam was about to burst…

Damaged Frame Homes Johnstown Flood
Homes like these were smashed to bits, leaving survivors to ride floating rooftops amid the surge of water (NYPL)

From the June 10, 1889 edition of the Pottsville Republican

Elmer Sigfried Home From Johnstown

Elmer Sigfried, who was residing in Johnstown at the time of the flood, reached home Saturday evening, coming in by way of the B&O Railroad to Philadelphia, and thence via the Reading to Pottsville.

He was employed in the mechanical department of the Cambria Iron Works, and roomed at the Mansion House, opposite the post office, and owing to the works being idle in consequence of high water he was spending the afternoon at a friend’s house when the great flood came down the Conemaugh.

His party were saved by crawling out on the roof and crossing over tops of surrounding buildings next morning when the flood had subsided some. There were 150 persons on the roof of the house adjoining.

He says he heard no warning of the dam bursting and first he heard of the great flood was when it came. He thinks that most of the deaths were of those who ran into the streets and were caught trying to get to higher ground or in saving their goods. He witnessed many of the sad scenes with which the newspapers have been filled, and emphasizes the charges of wholesale thieving.

Johnstown Main Street Looters
A scene on smashed Main Street as Pennsylvania National Guard troops and local citizens attempt to stop the rampant looting in the wake of the flood. (Harper’s Weekly)

Saturday afternoon he found part of the Mansion House floating around and a number of rooms, including his own, free from flood damage, but from which everything of value had been stolen, wardrobe and trunk broken open, money, valuables, clothing, special choice machine tools, all stolen. He says he wouldn’t mind too much if his things had perished in the flood, but to have them stolen was what grieved him most.

He speaks in glowing terms of the heroism of friends, strangers and citizens in rescuing persons from the flood, and says hundreds were taken off the debris within his sight. He intends remaining here for a fortnight and then will return to the flooded city and resume his position with the irons works.

17549u_Johnstown_Flood,_May_31st,_1889._No._15,_General_view_of_Johnstown.tif (1)
A view of the smoking remains of Johnstown in June 1889. (LOC)

John Larkin and Elmer Sigfried returned to the destroyed city of Johnstown in the weeks after the flood to start over.

A view of Johnstown in 1889 with recovery efforts fully underway. (Wikimedia Commons)

J.A. Larkin and Co. reopened in a temporary facility on Franklin Street in July 1889, about a month after the original business was wiped out. The Larkins were assisted in reopening by friends and fellow graduates of Notre Dame University, who donated money to restart the business in the wake of the flood. John Larkin lived until January 1919. He died and was buried in his adopted hometown of Johnstown. He was 57. His brother James died a few months later in April 1919 in San Diego, California. He was 55. Their grandmother, Eliza Gillman, returned to Johnstown to live briefly with her grandsons in 1890. She passed away in Pottsville in 1901 at the age of 90 and is buried at St. Patrick’s Catholic Cemetery #2 in Pottsville. 

Larkin Ad (1)
An advertisement for the reopened J.A. Larkin jewelry store in July 1889

Sigfried returned to his work at the Cambria Iron Works, assisting in rebuilding the severely damaged steelworks that was located just below the infamous stone railroad bridge at Johnstown.

Cambria Iron Works destroyed
A photograph of the destroyed Cambria Iron Works in June 1889, just days after the Johnstown Flood. (LOC)

He lived out his days in Johnstown working in the steel business. He died on November 1, 1934 at the age of 74. His remains were brought home to Pottsville and interred with his family at Charles Baber Cemetery.

Featured Image: A view of the shattered remains of Johnstown in June 1889 (Library of Congress)

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One thought on ““Night of Horrors” – Schuylkill County natives who survived the Johnstown Flood in May 1889

  1. I remember my Great Aunt Louise from Pottsville speaking of her Uncle Jim Larkin, who was a jeweler. Her Uncle Jim sent both she and her brother Indian dolls which he purchased while visiting an Indian reservation. I assume he traveled to purchase stones for his jewelry store…..I also have a Waterford vase which my mother stated had survived the Johnstown flood. I never realized that the Larkins were originally from Pottsville. Thank you for sharing this story. You have brought the connection full circle. I think “Uncle Jim wasn’t a relative but my great great grandfather’s best friend..or my great great grandmother was his wife’s best friend. I remember hearing that on my Great Aunt’s 16th birthday they sent her an ostrich plume which was quite fashionable for the time.

    Liked by 1 person

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