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The Scene of the Johnstown Disaster.

Through the courtesy of the Rev. W. S. Fraekeltou, of Randwick, who spent a long time in Pennsylvania, ami who visited the Conemaugh Valley, the Sydney ‘Telegraph has been enabled to acquire further information as to the scene of the terrible disaster and its probable causes, fa the year 18;4 the same district was the scene of u great flood by which 220 people lost their lives. Johnstown, where the principal loss of life has occurred, is situated on the Conemaugh River, which is formed by a number of small streams flowing down the numerous gorges and valleys descending from the Alleghany or Appalachian Mountains. These, commencing in the northern parts of Alabama and Georgia, traverse the Statesof North Carolina, Tennessee, Maryland, and Pennsylvania at a distance from tho Atlantic (to which they run nearly parallel) of from SO to 130 miles. The various ridges of which the system is composed are kno vu as the Blue Ridge, North Mountain, Jackson Mountain, Cumberland Mountain, Laurel Mountain, etc., and it is at tho foot of tho last-named spur that the town of Johnstown is situated. Between these ridges, which are for the most part wooded to the summit, are a number of fertile, well-populated valleys, though the country they enclose is generally rocky and barren. The range has a mean elevation of 2,500 ft, though in some points there are peaks which rise to the altitude of C,oooft, and are snow-crowned during the greater part of the year. The general oharacter of the scenery is picturesque, thickly wooded, abundantly watered, and endowed richly by Nature with mauy-hued flora.

The Conemaugh Valley ia one of many valleys which run in a zigzag fashion westward from the Alleghanies. It is situated at the conflux of a number of smaller valleys down which rapid mountain streams flow. In the spring time these are mere creeks, but in the rainy season and in the summer time, when they are fed by the melte 1 snow from the mountains, they are changed into roaring torrents. Along the sides of all these valleys settlement has taken place, the villages mostly being perched on the hillsides above the reach of the flood waters. Along the main Conemaugh Valley there are several towns, notably Altoona, Cresson, Harrisburg, and Johnstown, where are numerous iron furnaces and manufactories. The Pennsylvania Railway runs along the southern side of the valley and has a number of viaducts, some with stone superstructures and others merely iron suspension bridges : whilst others again are the seemingly frail wooden structures so common on the American railways. The town of Altoona is at the head of the main valley, situated where the Alleghany mountains descend towards the eastern slopes of the great undulating plains of Pennsylvania. Some miles further down is the town of treason, whore there is a lofty railway viaduct, earried over a rushing mountain stream, which in times of flood rises to a height which dwellers in the mountainous regions of Australia can well appreciate. Below Oresson the valley widens, and the main stream which flows at the base of the mountains ia fed by numerous tributaries, all flowing from the serried spurs of the Alleshaniea, until as it approaches Johnstown it becomes a considerable stream. This in ordinary weather is from lOt to 15ft deep, and in fiood time, when the snow water comes down, is transformed into a deep, dark, flowing river, carrying away ia its resistless course everything' that dares to impede its progress towards the Conemaugh River, which from Johnstown flows a grand stream into the Alleghany River, thonce to tho Ohio, and finally to tho mighty Mississippi. The Conemaugh Valley forms a broad watershed, the recipient of many a mountain stream, and at all t'mesis liable to inundation. Along the banks of tho rivulet from Oresson to Johnstown thero are erected a number of homesteads, the country residences of tho plutocrats of Pittsburg, besides farmhouses, with sloping fields of grain, and a number of iron furnaces anil manufactories, amongst them being several kerosene oil warehouses.

About fifteen years ago considerable damage was done to the railway lino through the breaking out of the waters and the rush occasioned through the melting of the snow en the higher peaks of the Alleghany Ranges. Chiefly to counteract this a huge reservoir was erected on the southern side of the Pennsylvania railway line between Crcsson and Johnstown, with the view of keeping the overflow from the line and damming up the water so as to prevent an ever flow in case of flood. This reservoir was strongly constructed, and, as the cable messages would betoken, was regarded by the inhabitants Sri the township below as Serfectly safe, no matter how great the oods might be. The reservoir, which has eansed such a terrible loss of human life and involved so great a loss of property, was not utilised for the purposes of water supply to Johnstown or the more distant city of Pittsburg, sixty miles farther down the Conemaugh Valley, but was merely constructed to preserve the railway line and the contiguous towns and villages from the sudden floods which periodically occur in these districts.

The town of Johnstown, which contained about 8,000 inhabitants, is situated at the base of these converging streams and valleys and at the junction of the Pennsylvania and Ohio lines of railway. It is, or was, of considerable importance, its chief trade being in iron. It was also a large depdt for the timber trade, which is extensively carried on on the western slope of the Alleghanies, There were in the vicinity of Johnstown a number of furnaces employing thousands of hands, tho largest being siknated at Humsbnry, some distance below where the catastrophe happened. The town was in a valley at the foot of the Laurel Ridge, and the country below is flat and undulating, so that the waters from the flood would spread themselves without doing any great amount of damage. Mr Frackelton’s theory as to the cause of the fearful catastrophe is a moat natural and feasible one. He says that the snow on the mountains above the Conemaugh and its numerous tributary valleys begins as a rule to melt during the months of April and May, when generally there are also heavy rains. The rains this season during the latter month have been exceptionally heavy, as floods have been reported in all the States on tho western slope of the Alleghanies. The rains have broken through the crusts of the snow, the surface of which has been honeycombed by tho sun’s rays beating upon it. They have also taken away large blocks of ice, generally found in a cone shape, and these, together with tho snow waters, have naturally found their way into the reservoir, causing a tremendous strain upon the lower portions of the dam. The water thus piled up, not being able to find an overflow, has found out the weak places in the dam wall, and the enfiltration of the water has caused it to make its way through, and thus by slow degrees the whole mass has given way, carrying devastation and death in its seething, headlong course. There were also large boulders in the reservoir which, carried away by the rush of waters, would take away with them in their furious whirl trees, houses, fences, or whatever came in their way. Once the dam having given way, the flood waters, multiplied a thousand-fold by tho dammed-up waters of the reservoir thus suddenly let loose would sweep down the valley, an irresistible cataract carrying death and devastation on its headlong course. The surprising thing about the whole is that, so far as we know, no warning was given to tho hapless residents in Johnstown and the other towns situated along the valley, as the railway lin4 which runs along the side of the range would be comparatively uninjured by the flood,'which at the' highest estimate could not have travelled at a greater rate than forty miles an hour. With regard to the flebris becoming ignited, Mr Fraokleton can

only account for it by the fact that along the route of the Hood there were several kerosene works.

To this we may add the following particulars of Johnstown extracted by a correspondent {“ W.H.W.”) from Lippincott’s ‘Gazetteer of the World Johnstown, a post borough of Cambria Co., Pa., on the Conemaugh River, and on the Pennsylvania railroad, thirty-nine miles W.S.W. of Altoona, and seventy-eight miles E. by S. of Pittsburg. It is the east terminus of the western division of the Pennsylvania Canal, and is the most populous town in Cambria Co. It is surrounded by picturesque mountain scenery. Here are the extensive works of the Cambria Iron Company, which employ about I,COO men in the manufacture of iron and steel rails for railroads. Johnstown has a national bank, a savings bank, other hanks, printing offices (which issue one or two daily and four weekly newspapers), sixteen churches, several tanneries, flourmills, planing mills, and woollen mills, also a convent and an academy. Population about 8,000.”

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https://paperspast.natlib.govt.nz/newspapers/ESD18890614.2.24

Bibliographic details

The Scene of the Johnstown Disaster., Issue 7933, 14 June 1889

Word Count
1,519

The Scene of the Johnstown Disaster. Issue 7933, 14 June 1889

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