Revisiting the Johnstown Flood

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tags: WaPo, Johnstown Flood

When Elias Unger looked out from his front porch on May 31, 1889, he was astounded by what he saw. His house overlooked Pennsylvania’s Lake Conemaugh, a 2½ mile-long man-made body of water formed by one of the world’s largest earthen dams. On that morning, the rain-swollen lake was dangerously close to breaching the wall.

Gathering a work crew, Unger labored frantically to shore up the dam, but it was too late. By afternoon, the 72-foot wall had given way, sending 20 million tons of water surging down the Little Conemaugh River Valley toward Johnstown, Pa., and claiming the lives of 2,209 people.

On a recent visit, I stood near Unger’s porch, looking out over a pastoral valley dotted with trees and the Little Conemaugh gently meandering through it. A railroad track ran along the valley floor. I could see the remainder of the dam: two earthen abutments with a telltale 270-foot gap between them....

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