The lake had several different names. On old state maps it was the Western Reservoir, the name it had been given more than forty years earlier when the dam was first built. It was also known as the Old Reservoir and Three Mile Dam, which was the most descriptive name of the lot, if somewhat misleading, since the lake was closer to two than three miles long. The Pittsburgh people who had owned it now for ten years, and who had made a number of changes, called it Lake Conemaugh. But in Johnstown, and in the little coal towns and railroad stops along the way to Johnstown, it was generally known as South Fork dam.
South Fork was the nearest place to it of any size. Something like 1,500 people lived there in gaunt little frame houses perched on a hill just back from the tracks and the place where South Fork Creek flows into the Little Conemaugh River. Green hills closed in on every side; the air smelled of coal dust and pine trees. It was a town like any one of a half dozen along the main line of the Pennsylvania between Altoona and Johnstown; except for July and August, when things picked up considerably in South Fork.
The Pittsburgh people were coming and going then, and they were something to see with their troops of beautiful children, their parasols, and servants. Two or three spring wagons and buggies were usually waiting at the depot to take them to the lake. On Saturdays and Sundays the drivers were going back and forth several times a day.
The ride to the lake was two miles along a dusty country road that ran through the woods beside South Fork Creek, past Lamb’s Bridge, then on up the valley almost to the base of the dam.
Seen from down below, the dam looked like a tremendous mound of overgrown rubble, the work of a glacier perhaps. It reared up 72 feet above the valley floor and was more than 900 feet long. Its face was very steep and covered with loose rocks. There were deep crevices between the rocks where, as late as May, you could still find winter ice hiding; but wild grass, bushes, and saplings had long since taken root across nearly all of the face and pushed up vigorously from between the rocks, adding to the over-all impression that the whole huge affair somehow actually belonged to the natural landscape. There was hardly any indication that the thing was the work of man and no suggestion at all of what lay on the other side, except over at the far left, at the eastern end of the dam, where a spillway had been cut through the solid rock of the hillside and a wide sheet of water came crashing down over dark boulders. It was a most picturesque spot, and a favorite for picnics. Long shafts of sunlight slanted through a leafy gloom where the mountain laurel grew higher than a man could reach. And at the base of the falls a wooden bridge crossed the loud water and sent the road climbing straight to a clump of trees at the top of the dam, just to the right of the spillway.
There the road divided, with the left-hand fork crossing another long wooden bridge which went directly over the spillway. But carriages heading for the club took the road to the right, which turned sharply out of the trees into the sunshine and ran straight across the breast of the dam where, about a hundred yards out, the drivers customarily stopped long enough for everyone to take in the view.
To the right the dam dropped off a great deal more abruptly even than it had looked from below, and South Fork Creek could be seen glittering through the trees as it wound toward Lamb’s Bridge.
On the other side of the road the bank sloped sharply to the water’s edge, which was usually no more than six or seven feet below the top of the dam. From there the broad surface of the lake, gleaming in the sunlight, swept off down the valley until it disappeared behind a wooded ridge in the distance.
Along the eastern shore, to the left, were the hayfields and orchards of the Unger farm, neatly framed with split-rail fences. Beyond that was what was known as Sheep’s Head Point, a grassy knoll that jutted out into the lake. Then there were one, two, three ridges, and the water turned in behind them, out of sight, running, so it seemed, clear to the hazy blue horizon off to the south.
At the western end of the dam the road swung on through the woods, never far from the water, for another mile or so, to the main grounds of the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club, which, seen from the dam, looked like a colorful string of doll houses against the distant shore line.
From the dam to the club, across the water, was about a mile. Except for a few small coves, the narrowest part of the lake was at the dam, but there was one spot, on down past the club, where an east-west line across the water was nearly a mile. A hike the whole way around the shore was five miles.
When the water was up in the spring, the lake covered about 450 acres and was close to seventy feet deep in places. The claim, in 1889, was that it was the largest man-made lake in the country, which it was not. But even so, as one man in Johnstown often told his children, it was “a mighty body of water to be up there on the mountain.”
The difference in elevation between the top of the dam and the city of Johnstown at the stone bridge was about 450 feet, and the distance from the dam to that point, by way of the river valley, was just under fifteen miles. Estimates are that the water of Lake Conemaugh weighed about 20 million tons.
The water came from half a dozen streams and little creeks that rushed down from Blue Knob and Allegheny Mountain, draining some sixty square miles. There was Rorabaugh Creek, Toppers Run, Yellow Run, Bottle Run, Muddy Run, South Fork Creek, and one or two others which seem never to have been named officially. South Fork Creek and Muddy Run were the biggest of them, but South Fork Creek was at least twice the size of the others. Even in midsummer it was a good twenty feet across. Like the others it was shallow, ice-cold, very swift, and just about a perfect place for trout fishing.
In South Fork there were scores of people who had been out on the dam and had seen the view. There were others who knew even more about the club and the goings on there because they worked on the grounds, tending lawns or waiting on tables at the clubhouse. But for everyone else the place was largely a mystery. It was all private property, and as the club managers had made quite clear on more than one occasion, uninvited guests were definitely not welcome.
The club had been organized in Pittsburgh in 1879. It owned the dam, the lake, and about 160 acres besides. By 1889 sixteen cottages had been built along the lake, as well as boathouses and stables. The cottages were set out in an orderly line among the trees, not very far apart, and only a short way back from the water. They looked far too substantial really to be called “cottages.” Nearly every one of them was three stories tall, with high ceilings, long windows, a deep porch downstairs, and, often as not, another little porch or two upstairs tucked under sharp-peaked roofs. The Lippincott house with its two sweeping front porches, one set on top of the other, and its fancy jigsaw trim, looked like a Mississippi riverboat. The Moorhead house was Queen Anne style, which was “all the rage” then; it had seventeen rooms and a round tower at one end with tinted glass windows. And the Philander Knox house, next door, was not much smaller.
But even the largest of them was dwarfed by the clubhouse. It had enough windows and more than enough porch for ten houses. There were forty-seven rooms inside. During the season most of the club members and their guests stayed there, and the rule was that everyone had to take his meals there in the main dining room, where 150 could sit down at one time.
In the “front rooms” there were huge brick fireplaces for chilly summer nights, billiard tables, and heavy furniture against the walls. In summer, after the midday dinner, the long front porch was crowded with cigar-smoking industrialists taking the air off the water. String hammocks swung under the trees. Young women in long white dresses, their faces shaded under big summer hats, strolled the boardwalks in twos and threes, or on the arms of very proper-looking young men in dark suits and derbies. Cottages were noisy with big families, and on moonlight nights there were boating parties on the lake and the sound of singing and banjos across the black water.
In all the talk there would be about the lake in the years after it had vanished, the boats, perhaps more than anything else, would keep coming up over and over again. Boats of any kind were a rare sight in the mountains. There were rowboats on the old Suppes ice pond at the edge of Johnstown, and a few men had canoes along the river below the city. But that was about it. Not since the time when Johnstown had been the start of the canal route west had there been boats in any number, and then they had been only ungainly canal barges.
The club fleet included fifty rowboats and canoes, sailboats, and two little steam yachts that went puttering about flying bright pennants and trailing feathers of smoke from their tall funnels. There was even an electric catamaran, a weird-looking craft with a searchlight mounted up front, which had been built by a young member, Louis Clarke, who liked to put on a blue sailor’s outfit for his cruises around the lake.
But it was the sailboats that made the greatest impression. Sailboats on the mountain! It seemed almost impossible in a country where water was always a tree-crowded creek or stream, wild and dangerous in the spring, not much better than ankle-deep in the hottest months. Yet there they were: white sails moving against the dark forest across a great green mirror of a lake so big that you could see miles and miles of sky in it.
Some of the people in Johnstown who were, as they said, “privileged” to visit the club on August Sundays brought home vivid descriptions of young people gliding over the water under full sail. It was a picture of a life so removed from Johnstown that it seemed almost like a fantasy, ever so much farther away than fifteen miles, and wholly untouchable. It was a picture that would live on for a long time after.
That the Pittsburgh people also took enormous pleasure in the sight seems certain. There was no body of water such as this anywhere near Pittsburgh. There were, of course, the Monongahela and Allegheny rivers, but they were not exactly clean any longer, and with the mills going full blast, which they had been for some time now, the air around them was getting a little more unpleasant each year. It was a curious paradox; the more the city prospered, the more uncomfortable it became living there. Progress could be downright repressive. But fortunately for the Pittsburgh people, it was very much within their power to create and maintain a place so blessed with all of nature’s virtues.
This water was pure and teeming with fish, and the air tasted like wine after Pittsburgh. The woods were full of songbirds and deer that came down to drink from the mist-hung lake at dawn. There were wild strawberries everywhere, and even on the very hottest days it was comfortable under the big trees.
In fact, with its bracing air, its lovely lake, and the intense quiet of its cool nights, the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club must have seemed like paradise after Pittsburgh. Under such a spell even a Presbyterian steel master might wish to unbend a little.
The summer resort idea was something new for that part of the country. And only the favored few had the time or the money to experiment with it. But so far every indication was that the club was a great success. There had been problems from time to time. Poachers had been a continuing nuisance. The summer of 1888 had been cut short when a scarlet-fever scare sent everyone packing off home to Pittsburgh. Still, everything considered, in 1889 it looked as though the men who had bought the old dam ten years earlier knew what they were doing.
The first member of the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club to take an interest in the regenerative powers of the Alleghenies was Andrew Carnegie.
Carnegie had been going to what he called “The Glorious Mountain” long before the South Fork organization was put together. He had his own modest frame house at Cresson, which was one of the first summer resorts in Pennsylvania and the only one of any consequence in the western part of the state. It was owned by the Pennsylvania Railroad and was located fourteen miles up the line from South Fork at the crest of the Allegheny range.
Cresson, or Cresson Springs as it was also known, had been started before the Civil War by a doctor named Robert Montgomery Smith Jackson. The main attractions at Cresson, aside from the mountain air and scenery, were the “iron springs,” the best-known of which was the Ignatius Spring, named after “the venerable huntsman” Ignatius Adams, who first discovered its life-preserving powers and whose ghost was said still to haunt the place. According to Jackson, “by drinking this water, dwelling in the woods and eating venison,” Ignatius had “lived near the good old age of one hundred years.” Jackson was against whiskey, slavery, and what he called the “present tendency to agglomerate in swarms, or accumulate in masses and mobs.” Those “gregarious instincts [which] now impel this race to fix its hopes of earthly happiness on city life alone” would, he was convinced, be the undoing of the race. Life in the country was the answer to practically every one of man’s ills, and particularly life on the Allegheny Mountain.
Jackson’s ambition (“a mission, solemn as a command from Heaven,” he called it) was to make Cresson “the place of restoration for all forms of human suffering.” He got his friend J. Edgar Thomson, president of the Pennsylvania, interested, and the railroad built a hotel and developed the place, though, as things turned out, along rather different lines. Carnegie, B. F. Jones, and a few other Pittsburgh businessmen, none of whom seems to have been suffering very much, built cottages and the summer trade flourished. Every passenger train bound east or west stopped there. Well-to-do families from Pittsburgh and Philadelphia arrived for summer stays of several weeks.
Jackson meanwhile had set down the fundamentals of his philosophy along with a detailed natural history of the Allegheny highlands in a book called The Mountain. He borrowed heavily from Wordsworth and Thoreau, and, in his own way, did about as much as anyone to sum up the wild beauty of the area. Also, in his spare time, he tended bar at the hotel and would be remembered for years after for the two jars he kept prominently displayed on one shelf, flanked on either side by whiskey bottles. In each jar, preserved in alcohol, was a human stomach. One had belonged to a man who had died a natural death, and was, according to all who saw it, an exceedingly unappetizing sight. But it was, nonetheless, an improvement over its companion piece, which, according to its label, had belonged to a man who had died of delirium tremens. When setting out drinks, the doctor seldom failed to call attention to his display. The result was that his bar became the best patronized of any for miles about. Regular customers grew quite attached to the jars; word of them spread far, and along with the iron springs, they appear to have been a major attraction at Cresson for several years.
Jackson served in the war; then, in 1865, despite all his good life on the mountain, he died at the age of fifty.
By 1881, to accommodate the growing trade, the railroad cleared space in a maple grove and built another hotel, The Mountain House, which, with its endless thick-carpeted halls, its many towers and flowing stairways, was easily the grandest piece of architecture in Cambria County.
Carnegie’s house, only a short distance from the hotel, was his only real home in Pennsylvania by that time. Though no one held more sway in Pittsburgh, he had not lived there for nearly twenty years. He visited often, and was front-page news when he did, but the rest of the time he was either in New York, Scotland, or at Cresson. He loved Cresson and talked up its charms with great vigor, which is perhaps not surprising for a Scot who had been brought up on Burns and had learned to quote him before he had learned to read. (“My heart’s in the Highlands, my heart is not here;/ My heart’s in the Highlands a-chasing the deer.”) He courted his young wife there in the summer of 1886. (“A.C. walked home with me in the starlight…” she wrote in her diary at Cresson. “Such wonderful happiness…the happiest day of my life.”) He also very nearly died there of typhoid later that fall; and his mother, who took sick at the same time and lay in the next room down the hall, did die there on November 10. He entertained his distinguished friends at Cresson (Matthew Arnold had stopped over in 1883), and he managed, as was his pleasure, to keep his mind free and above the petty preoccupations of the steel business.
As one admiring writer of the period explained it: “All other iron and steel magnates, with the exception of Carnegie, lived in Pittsburgh and were swayed constantly by the local gossip, by the labour troubles, and by the rumours of competition and low prices that floated from office to office. To-day they were elated; tomorrow they were depressed. To-day they bought; to-morrow they sold. Carnegie, on the other hand, deliberately placed himself where these little ups and downs were unnoticed…. the news that Coleman had quarrelled with Shinn, or that coke-drawers wanted five cents a day more, was of small consequence. One thing he knew—that civilisation needed steel and was able to pay for it. All else was not worth troubling about.”
The place had its hold on him. He went on bird walks; he read; he talked and talked and talked. And if the views and good company were not enough, there were the “curative powers,” as the guidebook described them, of the iron springs. And who might more readily endorse such a tonic than the bouncy little ironmaster himself?
But Cresson had its drawbacks. It was a public place for one, sitting almost on top of the railroad. For another, there was no water. The story goes that there was (and still is) a house at Cresson where the rain water off of one roof eventually ends up in the Atlantic Ocean, while the rain water off the other finds its way to the Mississippi Valley and the Gulf of Mexico. The resort was at the very crest of the Allegheny divide, and though springs were plentiful, every bit of water there was drained off in both directions.
As a result, except for drives and walks, there was really not much to do at Cresson. Tennis had not yet caught on there. Golf, which was to one day be the great passion of Carnegie and his kind, would not even be attempted in the United States until 1888. But boating was already distinctly fashionable, and fishing had been coming more and more into its own as a gentleman’s sport.
Part of the increasing appeal of fishing seemed to be the multitude of trappings it called for. Where once the well-equipped angler needed only the simplest and most inexpensive sort of gear, now in the late 1880’s a whole line of elaborate and expensive paraphernalia was said to be necessary. Bait boxes, boots, collapsible nets, cookstoves, silk line, creels, reels and casting rods that cost as much as twenty dollars, even costly books on the subject, were the sign of the true sportsman. All of which seemed to make fishing, and particularly trout and bass fishing, which were generally referred to as a “science,” that much more attractive to the man of means. His interest in the sport not only showed his love of the great outdoors, but also that he had both the money and the brains to participate.
Of course, too, few pastimes there were which would take a man so far, in spirit at least, from the rude industrial grind. “God never did make a more calm, quiet, innocent recreation than angling,” were the words of Izaak Walton in the newly reissued, and quite costly, two-volume edition of his great work on the subject. One Walton disciple of the 1880’s, who as it happens was a Vermonter, wrote about this time, “I take my rod this fair June morning and go forth to be alone with nature. No business cares, no roar of the city, no recitals of others troubles…no doubts, no fears to disturb me as, drinking in the clear, sweet air with blissful anticipation I saunter through the wood path toward the mountain lake.” Had he been a Pittsburgh steel man he need only have added “no competitors, no labor agitators.”
So all that was needed to improve on Cresson was enough water for boating and fishing. A mountain lake, in short; plus some privacy. It would also be well to be back a way from the railroad, though not too far back, as the railroad was the one and only way to make the trip from Pittsburgh. As it was, the ride took about an hour and fifteen minutes to Johnstown, then another twenty minutes to come on up the mountain. That was about long enough. It would be best, therefore, to be somewhere in the same general area.
The old reservoir above South Fork certainly must have seemed a perfect solution. It answered every need: It was well back from the railroad; it was only a matter of miles from Cresson; and South Fork Creek was well known as one of the best trout streams in the state. True, the dam needed a great deal of repair work after so many years of neglect, but that could be handled all right, and especially since the property could be had for such a good price. Or so must have run the reasoning of the Pittsburgh men who bought it in 1879. Carnegie was not among them at this particular stage, but no doubt his presence so nearby on the mountain added still another enticing attraction to the scheme.
The prime promoter behind the move was a onetime railroad tunnel contractor and now-and-then coke salesman and real-estate broker by the name of Benjamin F. Ruff.
Ruff bought the dam and the lake from John Reilly, an Altoona Democratic politician and former Pennsylvania Railroad official who was then serving what would be his only term in Congress. Ruff paid $2,000 for the property, which was $500 less than Congressman Reilly had paid for it four years earlier when he had bought it from the Pennsylvania.
Ruff then rounded up fifteen other Pittsburgh gentlemen who each, with one exception, bought a single share in the operation for $200. The exception was one of the most interesting young men in Pittsburgh.
In the spring of 1879, when all this was going on, Henry Clay Frick was only twenty-nine years old, solemn, enigmatic, strikingly handsome, and already worth an even million. The grandson of wealthy, old Abraham Overholt, the Mennonite whiskey maker, Frick had made his own fortune in the coke business, and largely through his dealings with Pittsburgh’s number-one coke consumer, Andrew Carnegie.
Frick bought three shares. Ruff kept four for himself. A charter was drawn up stating that the name of the organization was to be the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club of Pittsburgh, that its “object” was to be “the protection and propagation of game and game fish, and the enforcement of all laws of this state against the unlawful killing or wounding of the same.” It was also stated that the club’s place of business was to be Pittsburgh, in Allegheny County, not in Cambria County where the property was located.
On November 15, 1879, the charter was approved and signed in the Court of Common Pleas in Allegheny County by Judge Edwin H. Stowe, who for some unknown reason ignored the provision in the law which called for the registration of a charter in the “office for recording in and for the county where the chief operations are to be carried on.” Nor did the sportsmen make any effort to conform to the law. Perhaps it seemed a minor point and was overlooked by mistake. In any case, the charter was secured without the knowledge of the authorities in Cambria County, and there would be speculation for years to come as to what might have happened right then and there had they and Judge Stowe gone about their business in strict accordance with the rules.
Ruff was to be the president of the new club. The capital stock was to be $10,000, but that was soon increased to $35,000 when it became known how much work was needed to get the dam in shape. For in 1879 the South Fork dam was getting on in years, and the years had been hard on it.
Forty-three years earlier, in 1836, the legislature of the state of Pennsylvania had approved funds for the building of a reservoir on the western slope of Allegheny Mountain to supply extra water during dry months for the new canal system from Johnstown to Pittsburgh. The first appropriation was for $30,000, but before the project was finished nearly $240,000 would be put into the dam; and two years after it was finished the whole thing would be obsolete and of no use whatsoever.
The canal from Johnstown to Pittsburgh was known as the Western Division of the state’s “Main Line” canal, which had been built to compete with New York’s thriving, new Erie Canal. The Western Division officially opened for business in May 1831, when a Johnstown barge pulled into Pittsburgh after traveling 104 miles in less than forty-eight hours.
The Eastern Division, running from Philadelphia to Hollidaysburg, at the foot of the eastern slope of Allegheny Mountain, was opened the next year. The only thing that then remained to be finished was an ingenious system of railroads and steam-powered hoists designed to get the boats up and over the mountain. But by spring of 1834 that too had been built and was open to traffic. For the first time the wharves of Philadelphia had a direct, nonstop link with the headwaters of the Ohio. It had cost a staggering sum; the state was nearly bankrupt; but that old, formidable barrier to the Pennsylvania route west, Allegheny Mountain, had been bested, and the general course of the country’s epic push to the Mississippi and beyond had been set for years to come.
The system devised for crossing the mountain was widely hailed as one of the engineering wonders of the age. Within a distance of thirty-six miles it overcame an increase in elevation of nearly 1,400 feet, or about twice the elevation the Erie Canal had to overcome along its entire length of 352 miles. Known as the Portage Railroad, it included a series of five inclined planes on each side of the mountain, ten in all, connected with a narrow-gauge railroad. Barges, passengers, freight, everything was hauled up one side and let down the other with hemp ropes thick as a man’s leg. It was a thrilling experience for travelers, a goodly number of whom chose to go by way of the Pennsylvania, rather than the Erie Canal, for that very reason.
Charles Dickens, one such traveler, described the ride in his American Notes:
It was very pretty travelling thus, at a rapid pace along the heights of the mountain in a keen wind, to look down into a valley full of light and softness: catching glimpses, through the treetops, of scattered cabins; children running to the doors; dogs bursting out to bark, whom we could see without hearing; terrified pigs scampering homewards; families sitting out in their rude gardens; cows gazing upward with a stupid indifference; men in their shirt-sleeves looking on at their unfinished houses, planning out tomorrow’s work; and we riding onward, high above them, like a whirlwind.
The adventurous journey also included, just to the east of Johnstown, a ride through the first railroad tunnel in the country and, in Pittsburgh, a ride across the first suspension bridge, an aqueduct over the Allegheny River designed by German-born John Augustus Roebling, who would later conjure up that wonder of wonders of the 1880’s, the Brooklyn Bridge.
But from Johnstown west the canal was troubled by water shortages nearly every summer. Operations were interrupted. Business suffered at a time when business had to be especially good to make up for winter, when virtually every moving thing stopped in the mountains for weeks on end, and spring, when the floods came. Particularly troublesome was the canal basin in Johnstown. Despite all the water that rushed into the valley in springtime, along toward mid-July the basin came close to running dry.
The solution seemed obvious enough. Put a dam in the mountains where it could hold a sufficient supply of water to keep the basin working and the canals open, even during those summers when creeks vanished and only weeds grew.
Work began on the Western Reservoir above South Fork in 1838, after some 400 acres had been cleared of timber. The site had been selected and surveyed by Sylvester Welsh, head engineer for the canal. He proposed an earth dam of 850 feet in length, with a spillway at one or both ends “of sufficient size to discharge the waste water during freshets, and sluices to regulate the supply for the canal.” It was also important, he said, that the bed of the spillway be solid rock and that no water be permitted to pass over the top of the dam. The design of the dam was worked out by a young state engineer named William E. Morris, who approved the location because, as he stated in a report made in 1839, it was in an area where there was enough drainage to provide a “certain” supply of water. He too proposed an earth dam 850 feet across the top and 62 feet high. He estimated that it would take a year to do the job.
The contractors chosen were James N. Moorhead of Pittsburgh and Hezekiah Packer of Williamsport. According to lengthy studies made by civil engineering experts years later, they did a competent job. Certainly they went about it with considerable care and patience and despite continuing delays. For, as it turned out, fifteen years passed before the dam was finished.
In 1842 work was halted because the state’s finances were in such bad shape that there was simply no more money to continue the job. For the next four years nothing was done. Then when the work did start again, it was only for another two years. A local cholera epidemic caused “a general derangement in the business,” until 1850, when the project again resumed, and for the final time.
The construction technique was the accepted one for earth dams, and, it should be said, earth dams have been accepted for thousands of years as a perfectly fine way to hold back water. They were in fact the most common kind of dam at the time the South Fork work began and they were the most economical. The basic construction material was readily available at almost any site, it was cheap, and it required a minimum of skilled labor. Virtually any gang of day laborers, and particularly any who had had some experience working on railroad embankments, was suitable. But since the basic raw material, earth, is also highly subject to erosion and scour, it is absolutely essential that a dam built of earth, no matter how thick, be engineered so that the water never goes over the top and so that no internal seepage develops. Otherwise, if properly built and maintained, an earth dam can safely contain tremendous bodies of water.
The South Fork embankment was built of successive horizontal layers of clay. They were laid up one on top of the other after each layer had been packed down, or “puddled,” by allowing it to sit under a skim of water for a period of time, so as to be watertight. It was a slow process. And as the earth wall grew increasingly higher, it was coated, or riprapped, on its outer face with loose rocks, some so huge that it took three teams of horses to move them in place. On the inner face, which had a gentler slope, the same thing was done, only with smaller stones.
The spillway, as Welsh had stipulated, was not cut through the dam itself, but through the rock of the hillside to which the eastern end of the dam was “anchored.” The spillway was about 72 feet wide. The over-all length of the breast was just over 930 feet. The width on top was about 20 feet. The thickness at the base was some 270 feet.
At about the exact center of the base, there were five cast-iron pipes, each two feet in diameter, set in a stone culvert. They were to release the water down to South Fork, where it would flow on to the Johnstown basin by way of the Little Conemaugh. The pipes were controlled from a wooden tower nearby. On June 10, 1852, the work on the dam was at last completed; the sluice pipes were closed and the lake began to fill in. By the end of August the water was 40 feet deep.
But about the time the dam was being finished, J. Edgar Thomson, who was then chief engineer for the up-and-coming Pennsylvania Railroad, was making rapid progress with his daring rail route over the mountains, which included what was to become famous as the Horseshoe Curve. The canal was about to be put out of business.
The Pennsylvania was racing to complete a route west to compete with the New York Central, the Erie, and the B & O, which were each pushing in the same direction. The last part of the run, from Johnstown to Pittsburgh, was ready in late 1852. On December 10, six months after the South Fork dam had been finished, a steam engine made an all-rail run from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh. J. Edgar Thomson became president of the road about the same time, and the company was on its way to becoming within a very few years the biggest and far and above the most powerful single force in the state (and in the Statehouse); the biggest customer for nearly everything, but especially coal, iron, and steel; the biggest employer; and the biggest influence on the way people lived from one end of Pennsylvania to the other. By the end of the ’80’s it would be the mightiest of the nation’s many mighty railroads.
The effect of the new railroad on the state’s troublesome, costly, and beloved canal system was disastrous—almost immediately. Within two years after the railroad opened, the legislature voted to put the “Main Line” up for sale for not less than $10 million. Understandably there were no takers. The one likely prospect was the Pennsylvania itself, which could readily use the right of ways. Three years later the sale was made, with the Pennsylvania paying $7.5 million for the system, which included the Main Line, the Portage Railroad, and, as it happened, the South Fork dam.
Having no use for the dam, the railroad simply let it sit. Nothing whatsoever was done to maintain it. In fact, from 1857, the year the railroad took possession, until 1879, twenty-two years later when the Pittsburgh men took over, the dam remained more or less quietly unattended, moldering away in the woods, visited only once in a while by fishermen or an occasional deer hunter.
And it was only five years after the state sold it to the Pennsylvania that the dam broke for the first time.
In the late spring of 1862, about the time the Union Army under McClellan was sweating its way up the blazing Virginia peninsula, for a first big and unsuccessful drive on Richmond, the mountains of Pennsylvania were hit by heavy thunderstorms. Hundreds of tiny creeks and runs and small rivers went roaring over their banks, and in Johnstown the Tribune ran the first of its musings on what might be the consequences should, by chance, the dam at South Fork happen to let go. Eight days later, on June 10, the dam broke.
The break was caused by a defect in the foundation near the stone culvert. The accepted theory locally was that various residents had been stealing lead from the pipe joints during the years the dam had been abandoned, that serious leaks had been the result, and that the break had come not long after. Exactly how big the break was is not known, as no records were made and no photographs were taken. The important fact was that though there was much alarm in the valley below the dam, the break caused little damage since the lake was less than half full, the creeks were low, and a watchman at the dam, just before the break, had released much of the pressure by opening the valves. (It was also somewhere along about this time that the wooden tower for controlling the discharge pipes caught fire and burned to the ground.)
From then on until the Pittsburgh sportsmen appeared on the scene seventeen years later the lake was no lake at all, but little more than an outsize pond, ten feet deep at its deepest point. At the southern end, grass quickly sprouted across acres and acres of dried-up lake bed and neighboring farmers began grazing their sheep and cattle there.
In 1875 Congressman Reilly, who had spent most of his working life with the Pennsylvania in nearby Altoona, and who must have thereby known about the dam for some time, bought the property and, like the Pennsylvania, did nothing with it. He just held on to it, apparently on the look for another buyer, which he found four years later in Benjamin Ruff. But before selling at a slight loss to Ruff, he removed the old cast-iron discharge pipes and sold them for scrap.
Ruff’s idea of what to do about the dam was relatively simple and seemed realistic enough at first. He would rebuild it to a height of only forty feet or so and cut the spillway down some twenty feet deeper to handle the overflow. But when he found that this would cost considerably more than repairing the old break and restoring the dam to somewhere near its original height, he chose the latter course.
The first indication in Johnstown and thereabouts that a change was in the offing above South Fork was an item in the Tribune on October 14, 1879. “Rumors” were reported that a summer resort was to be built by a Western Game and Fish Association. The next day there was a notice calling for fifty men to work, but no name of the organization was given.
For some reason or other, intentionally or otherwise, the Pittsburgh men kept the correct name of their organization from receiving any kind of public notice. It was a course of action which would later be interpreted as evidence that they had had no desire for anyone to come looking into their business in general, or their charter in particular.
Ruff set about repairing the dam by boarding up the stone culvert and dumping in every manner of local rock, mud, brush, hemlock boughs, hay, just about everything at hand. Even horse manure was used in some quantity. The discharge pipes were not replaced, and the “engineering” techniques employed made a profound impression on the local bystanders.
The man immediately in charge of this mammoth face-lifting was one Edward Pearson, about whom little is known except that he seems to have been an employee of a Pittsburgh freight-hauling company that did business with the railroad and that he had no engineering credentials at all.
The entire rebuilding of the dam ended up costing the club about $17,000, and there was trouble from the start. On Christmas Day, 1879, only a month or so after work had begun, a downpour carried away most of the repairs. Work was discontinued until the following summer. Then, less than a year later, in February of 1881, once again heavy rains caused serious damages.
No one seems to have been particularly discouraged by all this, however. Along toward the end of March the lake was deep enough for the clubmen to go ahead with their plan to stock it. The first of the small steamboats was being assembled and the clubhouse was close to being readied for the grand opening. In early June the fish arrived by special tank car from Lake Erie, 1,000 black bass, which ended up costing the club about a dollar apiece by the time the last expenses were paid. According to the Tribune,which noted these and all other bits of news it could uncover concerning the club, only three of the fish died, “one of which was a huge old chap, weighing over three pounds.”
The Tribune had also reported earlier that the Pennsylvania was planning to build a narrow-gauge spur from South Fork to the lake and that the clubmen were shopping about for land downriver from Johnstown where they intended to establish a private deer park of 1,500 acres. Neither claim was true, but both seemed perfectly reasonable and fitted in with the picture most Johnstown people had of the club and its members. Would not even the high and mighty Pennsylvania Railroad gladly provide any number of special conveniences for the likes of such men? Was not a deer park a fitting aristocratic touch for their new mountain domain? Certainly money was no problem. Were not the members of the club millionaires to the man?
The plain truth was that a goodly number of them were; quite a few of them, however, were not, and two or three of them were a great deal better than millionaires. But by the standards of most men, they were, every last one of them, extraordinarily rich and influential. Yet, one of the curious things about the club is that the make-up of its membership, exactly who was who at the lake, was not generally known around Johnstown. If the club appears to have been rather cozy about its name, it was even more so about publicizing who belonged to it. Not until well after the events of May 31, 1889, was a full list of the membership published publicly. And quite a list it was.
The membership of the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club, according to its initial plans, was never to exceed one hundred sportsmen and their families. The membership fee was $800. There was to be no shooting on Sundays; and those members who did not have cottages of their own were limited to a two-week stay at the clubhouse. As the summer season of 1889 was approaching, there was a total of sixty-one names on the membership roster.
The South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club, it should be kept in mind, was a most unostentatious affair by contrast to such watering spots of the time as Newport, Cape May, or the lavish new lakeside resort in New York, Tuxedo Park. There was no opulence. There were no liveried footmen, no Tirolean-hatted gamekeepers such as at Tuxedo, no “cottage” architecture to approach the likes of Newport. There was not even a comparison to be made, unless the South Fork group was to be measured by the per capita worth of its members—or the industrial and financial power they wielded—which, everything considered, was often the way such things were measured. On that basis the little resort on Lake Conemaugh was right in the same league.
One Pittsburgh newspaper called it the “Bosses Club,” and aptly so. Carnegie’s name by itself on the membership list would have been reason enough. And the same holds for Henry Clay Frick, for much had happened to the young “Coke King” since he had first joined with Benjamin Ruff to launch the club.
In 1881, while in New York, Frick had stopped by the Windsor Hotel on Fifth Avenue to pay a call on Carnegie and his mother and to talk a little business. (Frick happened to be on his honeymoon at the time, but he was not the man to let that, or anything else, stand in the way of progress.) When the meeting was over, he and Carnegie were partners in the coke trade, and from then on it did even better than before. By 1889 the H. C. Frick Coke Company was capitalized at $5 million; it owned or controlled 35,000 acres of coal land and employed some 11,000 men. Moreover, in January of that year, Frick had been made Chairman of Carnegie, Phipps & Company, which meant that he was commander in chief of the whole of the Carnegie iron and steel enterprises, which were by then the biggest in the world.
Carnegie by this time had said something to the effect that he was not much interested in making more money and was spending no more than six months a year at his business. He wanted someone who could manage things. In Frick, whom he did not especially like and whom no one seemed quite able to fathom, he found exactly the right man. By 1889 this humorless, solitary, complex son of a German farmer, who was then still six months from turning forty, was the most important man in Pittsburgh.
Along with Frick, the club roster included Henry Phipps, Jr., Carnegie’s partner since the earliest days of the business, before the Civil War. A pale, painstaking man who stood no more than an inch taller than the five-foot-two Carnegie, Phipps was the financial wizard of Carnegie, Phipps & Company. In the early days he had won certain acclaim for his ability to borrow money for the struggling ironworks and for an old horse he owned, which, according to Pittsburgh legend, was capable of taking him on his rounds of the banks without any guidance whatsoever. By 1889, however, Phipps was one of the three or four top men in the steel business and one of the wealthy men of the country.
Besides the big three—Carnegie, Frick, and Phipps—the Carnegie empire was also represented at South Fork by John G. A. Leishman, the vice-chairman of the firm, and by Philander Chase Knox, a bright little sparrow of a man, who was the company’s number-one lawyer as well as the personal counsel for both Carnegie and Frick.
Then there were Robert Pitcairn and Andrew Mellon, two excellent friends to have if you were doing business in Pittsburgh. Pitcairn ran the Pittsburgh Division of the Pennsylvania Railroad, which, as jobs went in those days, was a most lofty position indeed. In terms of pure power and prestige, few men outranked him.
Mellon was a shy, frail-looking young man, still in his thirties, and exceedingly quick-witted. Along with his father, old Judge Mellor, he was in the banking business, T. Mellon & Sons, and up to his elbows in the financial doings behind much of Pittsburgh’s furious industrial growth. It had been the Mellons who lent Henry Frick the money to buy his first coal land, and who backed him again (with something like $100,000) during the panic of 1873 when he wanted to buy up still more. (One story has it that Judge Mellon, who was a staunch Methodist, made the loan only after Frick implied that he would use his influence to have the Overholt distillery shut down.) Frick and young Andrew were not far apart in age and became fast friends, traveling to Europe together, dealing in business for years, but never calling each other anything but Mister Frick and Mister Mellon.
James Chambers and H. Sellers McKee ran what they claimed was the largest window-glass works on earth. Durbin Home and C. B. Shea ran Pittsburgh’s leading department store, Joseph Home and Company. D. W. C. Bidwell sold DuPont blasting powder for coal mining. Calvin Wells, A. French, James Lippincott, and John W. Chalf ant were in the steel business in one way or other.
And so the list went. It included names from the Pittsburgh “Blue Book” (Thaw, Laughlin, McClintock, Scaife) and from the lists of directors of several Pittsburgh banks (Schoonmaker, Moorhead, Caldwell). There were among them the founders of the city’s new business club, the Duquesne Club, and the new preparatory school for young men, Shady Side Academy.
There were also among them, it is interesting to note, a future Secretary of the Treasury (Mellon, who would serve under Harding, Coolidge, and Hoover) and a future Secretary of State (Knox, who would be Attorney General under McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt before taking over the State Department under Taft). There was one future Congressman (George F. Huff, who was a banker and coal operator), a future diplomat (John G. A. Leishman, who would be America’s first Ambassador to Turkey), and a future President of the Pennsylvania Railroad (Samuel Rea).
Frick and Mellon would not only go on to amass fortunes of spectacular proportions, but would also demonstrate surprisingly good taste in putting together two of the world’s finest private art collections. Carnegie, who was already worth many millions, would wind up with more money than any other American except old John D. Rockefeller and would give away well over $300 million of it with no little fanfare.
In 1889, however, all that was still a good way off. The Carnegie whiskers had not as yet turned their glistening white. No palaces had been built for Carnegie or Frick on New York’s Fifth Avenue. No Rembrandt’s had been bought, no daughters married off to titled Europeans, no parks donated, no foundations established. Carnegie thus far had built only one of his free libraries, in Braddock, near Pittsburgh and the site of his gigantic Edgar Thomson works, which he had named after his old friend Thomson, who also happened to be his best customer. At the dedication of the Braddock library in March of 1889, Carnegie used the opportunity to say that he would certainly like to build another one in Homestead someday, but that there had been really far too much labor trouble over there. The implication was pretty obvious and suggested that the purpose behind these earliest benefactions at least may not have been altogether altruistic.
Good works, public service, and any ideas about giving away surplus money were all still things of the future.
It was in fact during the month of May 1889 that Carnegie was finishing up a magazine article to become known as “The Gospel of Wealth,” in which he said, and much to the consternation of his Pittsburgh associates, “The man who dies thus rich dies disgraced.” The gist of the article was that the rich, like the poor, would always be with us. The present system had its inequities, certainly, and many of them were disgraceful. But the system was a good deal better than any other so far. The thing for the rich man to do was to divide his life into two parts. The first part should be for acquisition, the second for distribution. At this stage the gentlemen of the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club were attending strictly to the first part. Business was the overriding preoccupation for now, and business in Pittsburgh, either directly or indirectly, meant the steel business, which in 1889 was doing just fine.
True, orders for steel rails had tapered off some. Breakneck railroad building in the west had meant palmy days in the accounting offices along the Allegheny and Monongahela. Seventy-three thousand miles of track had been put down in the 1880’s, or more than twice as much track as there had been in the whole country when the war ended at Appomattox. Steel production had more than tripled during those ten years. But now there were also orders for all sorts of architectural steel, huge beams and girders for totally new kinds of buildings called “skyscrapers” which were going up in Chicago. In 1887 the Government had made its first order for American steel for ship armor. A new kind of Navy was being built, a steel Navy, including, in 1889, a battleship called theMaine, the biggest thing ever built by the Navy, for which Carnegie, Phipps & Company was making the steel plates.
And if the rail business was not quite as good as it had been, the United States was, nonetheless, producing about two tons of rails for every one made in England. As a matter of fact, for three years now, the United States had been the leading steel producer in the world. Pittsburgh, which before the war had not had a single mill as big as those in Johnstown, was now throbbing like no other industrial center in the land. The sprawling complex of mills in Chicago had been providing serious competition of late. Prices were not as high as the steel men would have liked to see them (they never were), and there was more talk among them every week about cutting wages. But if the labor leaders could be dealt with (and there was no reason to think they could not be), then there was every reason to believe that Pittsburgh would keep booming for years.
As far as the gentlemen of the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club were concerned no better life could be asked for. They were an early-rising, healthy, hard-working, no-nonsense lot, Scotch-Irish most of them, Freemasons, tough, canny, and, without question, extremely fortunate to have been in Pittsburgh at that particular moment in history.
They were men who put on few airs. They believed in the sanctity of private property and the protective tariff. They voted the straight Republican ticket and had only recently, in the fall of 1888, contributed heavily to reinstate a Republican, the aloof little Harrison, in the White House. They trooped off with their large families regularly Sunday mornings to one of the more fashionable of Pittsburgh’s many Presbyterian churches. They saw themselves as God-fearing, steady, solid people, and, for all their new fortunes, most of them were.
Quite a few had come from backgrounds as humble as Carnegie’s. Phipps and Pitcairn were Scotch immigrants who had been boyhood pals with Carnegie in what was known as Slabtown, one of the roughest sections of Allegheny, across the river from Pittsburgh. Leishman grew up in an orphanage. Frick, despite the wealth of grandfather Overholt, had started out in business with little more than a burning desire to get rich.
They and the others were now living in cavernous, marble-floored houses in the new East End section of Pittsburgh. Several made regular trips to Europe, and those who did not always stopped at the finest hotels in New York or wherever else they went. They now considered themselves, each and all, as among the “best people” in Pittsburgh. They pretty well ran the city. They were living the good life as they thought the good life ought to be lived. But never for very long did they take their eye off the real business of the human condition as they saw it—which was business. That they should spend some time together in the summer months, away from Pittsburgh, but not too far away, mind you, seemed, no doubt, a perfectly natural extension of the whole process.
The reaction in Johnstown to their doings on the mountain was mixed. That the Pittsburghers with all their money should think enough of the country around Johnstown to want to summer there was, of course, terribly flattering. As far back as the 1850’s there had been some discussion in Johnstown about the area’s potential as a summer resort. One Tribune editor decided to set forth Johnstown’s charms in no uncertain terms. “Our scenery is grand beyond description,” he wrote, “the atmosphere cool, and invigorating; trout in the neighboring streams large and numerous; drives good; women beautiful and accomplished; men all gentlemen and scholars, hotels as good as the best.” For all anyone knew, the South Fork venture might lead to other resort developments in the area. The valley might become famous; property values would mount. It was not an unpleasant thought.
The club had already provided a lot of work in the South Fork area, and much to the irritation of the club’s management it had also provided some excellent sport for local anglers. Slipping onto the property in the early morning or toward sundown was no problem for a local man or boy. The well-stocked lake and streams provided any number of suppers in the neighborhood from the time the dam was first restored. The grounds were well posted, but that discouraged nobody especially. If anything, it only added to the fun.
When the club responded by putting in fences over the best trout streams, the fences mysteriously disappeared. Relations then deteriorated fast, with the club authorities threatening to shoot any invaders caught on the grounds after dark. During a flood in 1885, one farmer named Leahy, whose property adjoined the lake, decided to rent out fishing space on some of his submerged acreage. The clubmen said he ought not to do that and threatened to take him to court. This had no effect on Leahy, so they tried to buy him out, but he said he was not interested in selling. It was only after an intermediary was brought in, and lengthy negotiations transacted, that the farm was purchased for $4,000 and the fish thereby further protected.
Any love lost locally by such tactics apparently bothered the club management not in the least. A classic undeclared war between poacher and country squire went on for years. It never became a shooting war, despite the threats, but it did leave widespread resentment in the area around the lake that would one day come back to haunt the clubmen.
Far more important, however, was the way people felt about the dam.
Even before the first full season at South Fork got under way in 1881, the dam threw a terrific scare into the people in the valley. On the morning of June 10, during a flash flood, a rumor spread through Johnstown that the dam was about to break. This was the first spring in years that there was a head of water of any size behind the mammoth earth embankment, and it was the first of the many springs from then until 1889 that just such rumors would fly from door to door, across back alleys, up and down Main Street, and all along the line between Johnstown and South Fork.
This time the Cambria Iron Company sent two of its men to the lake with instructions to make a critical examination. The dam looked perfectly solid to the Johnstown men, and they returned home with their report in time to make the evening edition of the paper. The fact that they had found the water only two feet from the breast of the dam did not seem to disturb them especially, or the editors of the Tribune.
The paper summed up its story as follows: “Several of our citizens who have recently examined the dam state it as their opinion that the embankment is perfectly safe to stand all the pressure that can be brought to bear on it, while others are a little dubious in the matter. We do not consider there is much cause for alarm, as even in the event of the dyke breaking there is plenty of room for the water to spread out before reaching here, and no damage of moment would result.”
There it was, in one sentence. In the first place, the dam was probably sound, and even if it did fail not a great deal would happen since the dam was so far away. It was a strange piece of reasoning to say the least, but there it was in the evening paper for everyone, including the alarmists, to read and talk about.
Still, that very night, panic swept through the west end of town, which was the lowest end of town and that part which would have been hardest hit by anything coming down the valley of the Little Conemaugh. People were up through the night “in mortal dread for fear the old Reservoir near South Fork might break,” the Tribune reported the next day. So apparently the paper could say what it might about “no damage of moment”; people were still unsettled, and especially on nights when the dark and the drenching rain blotted out the landscape and imaginations filled with an ancient terror of death raging out of the mountains.
But nothing happened. Dawn rolled around as usual; the day began. The long shadow of Green Hill slipped back from mid-town as the sun climbed into the sky; life went on. And it looked as though the paper and everyone who thought along the same lines were right after all. There was really no cause to get excited.
From then on, practically every time there was high water in Johnstown there would be talk about the dam breaking. One longtime resident was later quoted at length in the newspapers in New York and elsewhere: “We were afraid of that lake…. No one could see the immense height to which that artificial dam had been built without fearing the tremendous power of the water behind it…doubt if there is a man or a woman in Johnstown who at sometime or other had not feared and spoken of the terrible disaster that might ensue. People wondered and asked why the dam was not strengthened, as it certainly had become weak; but nothing was done, and by and by they talked less and less about it…” He also evidently had misgivings about the “tremendous power” of the men who had owned the dam, for he chose to withhold his name.
Others came forth at the same time, that is, after May 31, 1889, claiming to have long held doubts about the engineering of the dam, and premonitions of doom for the whole valley of the Conemaugh. Assuredly most of them spoke from deep conviction; but exactly how much widespread, serious, public concern there was, and particularly in the years of the late ’80’s, is very hard to say.
Certainly there was every reason to have been concerned. The valley from the lake down to Johnstown had sides as steep as a sluice, and there was only one way the water could go if the dam failed. Floods hit the area almost as regularly as spring itself. Johnstown rarely got through a year without water in the streets at least once, and often for several days at a time.
Floods had been a problem from the time of the very earliest settlements in the valley. Lately, for the past ten years or so, they had been getting worse.
The very first flood anyone had bothered to make a record of in Johnstown destroyed a dam. That was in 1808, and it had been only a small dam across the Stony Creek which had been put in as a millrace for one of the first forges. Then there were the so-called Pumpkin Floods of a dozen years later. They hit in the fall and had swept what looked like every pumpkin in Cambria County down into town. In 1847 another little dam on the Stony Creek broke. During the flood of 1875 the Conemaugh rose two feet in a single hour. In 1880 again another dam broke; it had been built by Cambria Iron as a feeder for the mills and was about sixteen feet high, but it was located below town, so no damage was caused. During the next eight years there were seven floods, including three bad ones in 1885, ‘87, and ‘88.
The reasons were obvious enough to anyone who took the time to think about the problem, which quite a few were doing by 1889. With the valley crowding up the way it was, the need for lumber and land was growing apace. As a result more and more timber was being stripped off the mountains and near hills, and in Johnstown the river channels were being narrowed to make room for new buildings and, in several places, to make it easier to put bridges across.
Forests not only retain enormous amounts of water in the soil (about 800 tons per acre), but in mountainous country especially, they hold the soil itself, and in winter they hold snow. Where the forests were destroyed, spring thaws and summer thunderstorms would send torrents racing down the mountainsides; and each year the torrents grew worse as the water itself tore away at the soil and what little ground cover there was left. Then, in the valley, where the water was being dumped ever more suddenly, the size of rivers which had to carry it all was being steadily whittled away at by industry and the growing population. So there was always a little less river to handle more runoff, and flash floods were the inevitable result.
Some men in Johnstown, curiously enough, thought that encroaching on the river channels would simply force the water to dig deeper channels. But this was impossible because the river beds were nearly all rock. When the volume of water increased, the rivers only came up, and often very fast. In the 1885 flood the Stony Creek rose three feet in forty-five minutes.
The dam was going to break that year, too, and every year, except one or two, up until 1889. At George Heiser’s store, people would come in out of the rain to buy something or just to pass the time in a dry, warm place and nearly always someone said, “Well, this is the day the old dam is going to break.” It was becoming something of a local joke. Many years later Victor Heiser would recall, “The townspeople, like those who live in the shadow of Vesuvius, grew calloused to the possibility of danger. ‘Sometime,’ they thought, ‘that dam will give way, but it won’t ever happen to us!’”
When there were warnings of trouble up the mountain, very few took them to heart. The dam always held despite the warnings. People got tired of hearing about a disaster that never happened. And after all, was not the dam owned by some of the most awesome men in the country? If there was anything to worry about certainly they would know about it.
The Tribune continued to imply that there was no cause for alarm. In 1887 the editors again allowed that a break at South Fork would not greatly affect Johnstown, unless it “occurred in conjunction with a great flood in the Conemaugh Valley which is one of the possibilities not worth worrying about.” Readers all through town nodded in agreement. On the afternoon of May 31, 1889, shortly before four, one leading citizen was asked how much higher he thought the water would rise in the valley if the dam let go. His answer was “About two feet.”
It would appear, in fact, that Johnstown’s leading citizens had taken little or no intelligent account of the threat the dam posed, were it not for some highly interesting letters that changed hands during the year 1880.
When Benjamin Ruff first began his restoration of the old dam in the fall of ’79, the management of the Cambria Iron Company, in the words of its solicitor, Cyrus Elder, became “extremely exercised” over the news. The management at that time was a man by the name of Daniel Johnson Morrell.
Morrell was one of the foremost ironmasters of the age, a ruddy-faced Quaker with gray eyes, who wore his whiskers beneath his jowls, so it appeared he was forever sporting a hair scarf. He looked upon the likes of Carnegie as parvenus in the business, brash, unprincipled upstarts who were not real ironmen at all, but harum-scarum drummers who had jumped into something they knew nothing about just to make a quick fortune. Beside the almost elflike Carnegie or Frick, he looked as though he were of another species. He was under six feet tall, but with his massive, thick shoulders and ample girth (he weighed well over 200 pounds), coming along Main Street he looked every bit the most powerful man in town.
But according to one of his contemporaries, “With all the responsibilities of his position, with all the care and concern of the great works on his hands, he never seemed worried or out of humor. When he left his desk at the close of the day he seemed to be able to shut off all thought of work; and in the midst of other persons’ worry and nervousness in the most distressing times, he would lie down and sleep as contentedly as a child.”
Aside from running the Iron Company, Morrell presided at most town meetings and was President of the Savings Bank and the First National Bank, the water company and the gas company. He had served two terms in Congress and was still a powerful voice in the Republican Party. For many years he was the President of the American Iron and Steel Association, an organization which did as much as any to protect the protective tariff.
He lived on Main Street in the finest house in Johnstown, a tall brick house with a mansard roof, painted white and set among gardens and shade trees on a lawn that took up a full city block. He had the only greenhouses in town, a full-time gardener, and all his property was enclosed with an ornamental iron fence. Children used to gather by the fence after school, hoping for a chance to look at him. “Whatever Mr. Morrell wants, well that’s it,” they heard at home. He was the king of Johnstown.
Morrell had been born in Maine, in 1821 (which made him fourteen years senior to Carnegie), but grew up in Philadelphia and started out clerking in a mercantile store. He had moved to Johnstown in the 1850’s when the Philadelphia financial backers of the then floundering Cambria Iron Company sent him to see what might be done to keep the works from going bankrupt.
Backwoods iron forges had been in operation in Cambria County for fifty years and more. With plenty of ore, limestone, and coal in the locale, the prospects for turning the Conemaugh Valley into an iron center of some real consequence looked extremely bright. But until Morrell came to town the industry had been beset by repeated failures. Morrell, however, succeeded handsomely. Knowing nothing about the iron business, he reorganized the company, and despite fires and financial panic, he kept his nerve, maintaining to the Philadelphia money men that the works would one day prosper.
By the start of the Civil War the Cambria Iron Company was the biggest iron-producing center in the country. In addition, Morrell had encouraged some rather primitive and haphazard research into a new pneumatic process for making steel which contributed substantially to dramatic changes in the iron business and, for that matter, in the whole character and growth of the country.
In 1856 a man named William Kelly, a Pittsburgher by birth, moved from Eddyville, Kentucky, to Johnstown to set up in one corner of the Cambria yard some experimental apparatus which he assembled from scrap-heap parts and pieces. Kelly was in Johnstown off and on for the next three years. He became known among the millworkers as “The Irish Crank,” and not without justification. His attempts to “refine” molten iron for the rolling mill by blowing air into it had resulted in repeated failures and at least one serious fire, which became known as “Kelly’s Fireworks.” But later on, in 1862, he came back to try again, this time with an egg-shaped “converter” made abroad, and the accepted story is that he had better luck. Kelly would later be credited with having built the converter himself and with developing at Johnstown something very close to what became known as the Bessemer process, a technique for converting iron into steel at far less cost and in considerably larger quantities than had been possible before.
Henry Bessemer, a brilliant English chemist, had devised just such a process at about the time Kelly first arrived at the Cambria works, and, deservedly enough, got nearly all of the credit. The Bessemer converter used a blast of air directed through molten iron to oxidize, or burn off, most of the carbon impurities in the metal to make steel. Previous steelmaking techniques required weeks, even months. The Bessemer process could produce good-quality steel in less than one hour.
It was one of the important technological innovations of all time, and Morrell was among the first to recognize just what its impact might be. He financed Kelly’s erratic pioneering in the technique for close to five years and after the war invested heavily in new Bessemer equipment. In the late ’60’s and ’70’s Johnstown was the liveliest steel center in the country, with the most inventive minds in the industry gathering there—the Fritz brothers, George and John, Bill Jones, and the brilliant and energetic Alexander Holley.
Moreover, Morrell had Cambria Iron do something no other steel company experimenting with the Bessemer process dared try, and something that was to prove immensely beneficial to Andrew Carnegie. He used only American workers, training Pennsylvania farm boys to understand and master the new technology, while everyone else in the business was importing English workers already familiar with it. At first there were months of costly setbacks and disappointments in Johnstown, but the results in the long run proved Morrell right.
In 1867, from ingots made at Steelton, the first Bessemer rails to be rolled on order in the United States came out of the Cambria mill. By 1871 Morrell had one of the first really big Bessemer plants in operation, and for the next five years Cambria would be the largest producer in the country, if not the world.
The war had brought flush times and dazzling increases in iron production capacities. But now the age of cheap steel was on. By the time of the late 1880’s, Cambria Iron had some 7,000 men on the payroll. The works consisted of the Johnstown furnaces Numbers 1, 2, 3, and 4 in one plant, with stacks seventy-five feet high and sixteen feet in diameter at the base. Blast furnaces Numbers 5 and 6 were in a second plant. The hulking Bessemer plant was the main building. Then there was a huge open-hearth building, a rolling mill that was nearly 2,000 feet long, a bolt-and-nut works, and an axle shop.
Added to that the company owned and operated its own coal mines, coke ovens, and railroads. It was the largest landowner by far in the county, having bought up thousands of acres around Johnstown, coal holdings primarily, which were, in many places, used as tremendous farms where nothing but hay was grown to feed the animals used in the mills and mines. The company also owned some 700 frame houses which it rented to its workers, a big department store, and the Gautier Steel Company, a subsidiary, where Cambria Link Barbed Wire was made.
To all intents and purposes, Johnstown, in other words, was a company town and an important one at that. And appropriately enough the company ran the place with an iron hand. Labor unions were not to be tolerated, nor were employees who dared even to talk such treason.
For example, Rule Number 9 of the plant regulations published in 1874 stated: “Any person or persons known to belong to any secret association or open combination whose aim is to control wages or stop the works or any part thereof shall be promptly and finally discharged. Persons not satisfied with their work or their wages can leave honorably by giving the required notice…”
The Cambria Iron Company, which meant Mr. Daniel J. Morrell, left no doubts as to where it stood on such matters. So there were no unions in the mill, and inside the high, green fence that surrounded it, work went on around the clock, around the calendar, without any trouble from the help.
It would be mistaken, however, to imagine Cambria Iron as an entirely overbearing or inhuman organization, grinding down its employees. By the standards of the day, it was quite progressive and looked out for the welfare of its people and the town with uncommon paternalism.
In his first speech in Congress, Morrell had said, “The American must live in a house, not a hut; he must wear decent clothes and eat wholesome and nourishing food. He is an integral part of the municipality, the State, and the Nation; subject to no fetters of class or caste; neither pauper, nor peasant, nor serf, but a free American citizen.” Judged by the standards of his time, he was almost as good as his word.
In one of its plants the Iron Company maintained the eight-hour day, a practice that had been tried and abandoned by every other steel company, which meant, as one of the trade-union newspapers pointed out, that the only eight-hour mill left in the country was a nonunion mill.
The town hospital was built by the company and anyone injured on the job received free treatment there. It was the company also which had established the library and a night school where its employees could learn elementary science, mechanical drawing, and engineering. At the company store, Wood, Morrell & Company, which advertised itself as “The Most Extensive and Best Appointed Establishment in its Class in the United States,” prices were quite reasonable. At the time the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club was organized, Cambria Iron had somewhere in the neighborhood of $50 million invested in Johnstown and along the valley. So Morrell, very understandably, had special interest in what the Pittsburgh men were up to. That he held no special good feelings toward some of the clubmen also seems likely.
When Carnegie, who had once stoutly proclaimed that “pioneering don’t pay,” decided the time was right to get into the Bessemer steel business and Carnegie, Phipps & Company built the Edgar Thomson works at Braddock in the early 1870’s, he had raided Cambria Iron of its best workers. Among these men, most of whom had been working with pneumatic conversion techniques since Kelly’s days in Johnstown, was the tough, gifted little Welshman, Bill Jones.
Captain Bill Jones, as he was known, had been with Morrell for sixteen years. He had acquired a vast knowledge of the new process and had built a tremendous following among the men at Cambria Iron, largely for his robust, freewheeling willingness not to do things according to the rules if the rules did not suit him. It was the sort of reputation Carnegie took a special interest in. Carnegie never did learn much about steelmaking, but he had a gift for finding men who did, and if they were somewhat unorthodox, so much the better.
When the manager of the Cambria works, George Fritz, died and Morrell had to pick a man to replace him, he turned Jones down for the job, giving it instead to another Jones who seemed a steadier sort. At which point Carnegie immediately moved in and offered Bill Jones a two-dollar-a-day job at Braddock. Jones not only accepted but took a number of his “high-class graduates” along with him. Within one year, by 1876, the Edgar Thomson mill moved ahead of Cambria in production. Carnegie, on a mountaintop in Italy, literally danced with joy on hearing the news. And as Edgar Thomson continued to break every other production record, it was Bill Jones, not Carnegie or his associates, who got the credit from anyone who knew anything about steelmaking. Jones’s papers on production techniques were read before learned societies in Europe. In Pittsburgh he became so important to the Carnegie empire that Carnegie decided to make him a partner, an offer which Jones flatly refused, feeling that he would lose his influence with the men if he ever so openly joined forces with management.
“Just pay me one hell of a salary,” Jones said to Carnegie.
To which Carnegie shot back, “All right, Captain, the salary of the President of the United States is yours.”
“That’s the talk,” said Jones. The salary was $25,000 a year.
So now, if the Pittsburgh crowd was about to go tampering with the South Fork dam, Daniel J. Morrell wanted to know more about their doings than could be gained from mere hearsay. There was too much at stake to go on their word alone. He had no intention of stopping them, as he made clear later on. He had never been one to stand in the way of progress. He had welcomed innovations throughout his working life, and it seems he never objected to this one on principle. He only wanted to be satisfied that the work was being properly managed. He had seen enough explosions and fires at the mill to have a fair idea of the violent consequences of bungled innovation. He had also had some experience with dams, having personally supervised the installation of several small ones put in near town by the water company.
In November of 1880 he sent John Fulton to look over the job. Fulton was an engineer by training and profession, but he was also the next in line to succeed Morrell as head of the works. Morrell, in other words, was not just sending any ordinary employee to South Fork.
A lean Ulster County Irishman, Fulton wore his beard close-cropped and had a fix to his mouth like General Grant’s. He had wonderfully heavy eyebrows and a resolute gaze that gave him the look of an Old Testament prophet. He was a man to reckon with, one of Johnstown’s most ardent temperance leaders and a pillar at the Presbyterian Church, where he taught Sunday school and would be long remembered for closing his Bible classes with the most interminable prayers ever uttered by man.
Fulton had made his reputation as a mining engineer and geologist before joining Morrell at Cambria Iron. That there was anyone in Johnstown better qualified to pass judgment on the dam is doubtful. Nor was there any man, save Morrell himself, who was less likely to be dazzled or cowed in any way by the representatives of the club, a factor which Morrell must have taken into account.
Fulton was met at South Fork by two club members, Colonel E. J. Unger and C. A. Carpenter, as well as some of the contractors who had worked on the dam. His report was filed in a letter to Morrell dated November 26. The letter began by stating that he had gone as requested to inspect the dam now owned by the “Sportsmen’s Association of Western Pennsylvania.” (The correct name of the club was evidently still unknown to the Cambria management.) He then said that he did not think the repairs were done in “a careful and substantial manner, or with the care demanded in a large structure of this kind.” He stated that he believed the dam’s weight was sufficient to hold back the water, but that he had grave misgivings about other aspects of the dam:
There appear to me two serious elements of danger in this dam. First, the want of a discharge pipe to reduce or take the water out of the dam for needed repairs. Second, the unsubstantial method of repair, leaving a large leak, which appears to be cutting the new embankment.
As the water cannot be lowered, the difficulty arises of reaching the source of the present destructive leaks. At present there is forty feet of water in the dam, when the full head of 60 feet is reached, it appears to me to be only a question of time until the former cutting is repeated. Should this break be made during a season of flood, it is evident that considerable damage would ensue along the line of the Conemaugh.
It is impossible to estimate how disastrous this flood would be, as its force would depend on the size of the breach in the dam with proportional rapidity of discharge.
The stability of the dam can only be assured by a thorough overhauling of the present lining on the upper slopes, and the construction of an ample discharge pipe to reduce or remove the water to make necessary repairs.
Morrell promptly sent the report to Ruff, who responded on December 2.
Ruff was not much impressed by Fulton’s findings. He pointed out to Morrell that Fulton did not have the correct name of the club, and told Morrell what that name was. He said there was no leak such as Fulton claimed and that Fulton’s figures on the comparative weights of the water and the dam were off, since Fulton had overestimated how much water was in the lake. The tone was one of obvious impatience and suggested not very subtly that Morrell would do well to hire himself a more competent man. He ended the letter by saying:
We consider his conclusions as to our only safe course of no more value than his other assertions…you and your people are in no danger from our enterprise.
B. F. Ruff, President
Ruff, quite clearly, was not in the least interested in continuing the discussion. The club had managed nicely to keep its affairs private until then, and the idea of any prolonged or possibly complicated negotiations with the Cambria Iron Company had small appeal.
Morrell, however, was unwilling to let it go at that. On December 22 he answered Ruff’s letter. After a few opening courtesies, he got to the heart of the issue:
…I note your criticism of Mr. Fulton’s former report, and judge that in some of his statements he may have been in error, but think that his conclusions in the main were correct.
We do not wish to put any obstruction in the way of your accomplishing your object in the reconstruction of this dam; but we must protest against the erection of a dam at that place, that will be a perpetual menace to the lives and property of those residing in this upper valley of the Conemaugh, from its insecure construction. In my judgment there should have been provided some means by which the water would be let out of the dam in case of trouble, and I think you will find it necessary to provide an outlet pipe or gate before any engineer could pronounce the job a safe one. If this dam could be securely reconstructed with a safe means of driving off the water in case any weakness manifests itself, I would regard the accomplishment of this work as a very desirable one, and if some arrangement could be made with your association by which the store of water in this reservoir could be used in time of drouth in the mountains, this Company would be willing to cooperate with you in the work, and would contribute liberally toward making the dam absolutely safe.
Morrell, in short, was suggesting exactly what Fulton had urged: give the dam a major overhaul and install a discharge system of some sort. At the same time, he was making it plain that Cambria Iron considered the present job shoddy enough, the situation critical enough, to be willing to help foot the bill to set things right.
The offer was declined. The matter was dropped—almost.
Morrell felt that just to be on the safe side it might be a good idea to have an inside view of doings at the lake. So he decided to join the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club, and evidently the Pittsburgh men had no objections. Morrell therefore purchased two memberships in his own name.
It was not for another nine years that engineers from many parts of the country came to the site of the dam to study what had gone wrong. Fulton’s findings appeared to have been correct. But there were four other changes in the dam which Ruff and his men had made which Fulton had not noticed, and these were as crucial to what finally happened as the faults Fulton cited.
To begin with, in order to provide room for a road across the breast, the height of the dam had been lowered from one to three feet. This would give enough width for two carriages crossing the dam to pass each other comfortably. But it also meant that the capacity of the spillway had been reduced, for now the bottom of the spillway was not ten or eleven feet lower than the crest of the dam, but perhaps only seven or eight feet. This was a very significant change, since it meant that a rising lake would start to go over the top of the dam that much sooner.
Then, too, a screen of iron rods, each about half an inch in diameter, had been put across the spillway to prevent the fish from going over and down into South Fork Creek. The screen was set between the heavy posts which supported the wooden bridge over the spillway. Under normal conditions the combination of posts and screens decreased the spillway capacity only slightly, but they had the potential of decreasing it a great deal should the screens become clogged with debris.
The third change was probably the most important of all. The dam sagged slightly in the middle, where the old break had been. Exactly how bad the sag was no one was able to say later for certain. It may have been only a foot or two, but according to one study, the crest at the center may have been as much as four feet lower than the ends. The center was where the dam should have been highest and strongest, so in the event that water ever did start over the top, the pressure would be at the ends rather than at the middle. Now the reverse was the case.
To have seen the sag with a naked eye, and particularly an untrained eye, would have been next to impossible. It is conceivable therefore that it went unnoticed by Ruff and the men who did the reconstruction work. Fulton took no note of it apparently; whether it would have been observed and corrected had experienced engineers been responsible for the reconstruction is a question no one can answer.
What it meant in practical terms was that the depth of the spillway was now only about four feet lower than the top of the dam at its center. In other words, if more than four feet of water were going over the spillway, then the lake would start running over the top of the dam at the center where the pressure against it was the greatest.
The fourth change was unnoticed by Fulton because it had not as yet taken place when he made his inspection. The water then, as he says, was only forty feet deep, which is about the depth it had been kept at during the old days before the first break in 1862. The club, however, brought the level of the lake up to where it was nearly brim full, meaning that the depth ran to sixty-five feet or thereabouts. In spring it sometimes rose even higher. With the lake that full, it was not beyond reason to imagine serious trouble in the event of a severe storm.
But, as both Fulton and Morrell had made abundantly clear, with the discharge pipes gone, the club was faced with the unfortunate position of not being able to lower the level of the lake, ever, at any time, even if that were its expressed wish.
The water that high at the dam also meant that the over-all size of the lake was increased. The lake backed up well beyond where it had been in the old days, which lead to the widespread misconception, still current today in and around Johnstown, that the club had actually raised the height of the dam from what it had been.
How satisfied Morrell was after the business of the letters was over and done with is not known. For when the sun went down behind Laurel Hill on Monday, August 24, 1885, Daniel J. Morrell was in his grave at Sandy Vale. He had been ill for several years, having suffered what appears to have been an advanced case of arteriosclerosis. He had gone into a steady mental decline not long after he took out his membership in the South Fork fishing club. In 1884 he had given up all his various civic responsibilities and retired from business. After that, it seems, senility closed in hard and fast. He was seen almost never, “lost in mental darkness,” as one account put it years later. When he died, “calmly and peacefully” at eight in the morning on Thursday, August 20, 1885, he was sixty-four years old.
On Sunday thousands of mourners queued up along the south side of Main Street to go through the iron gates, up the long front walk, and into the big house to view the remains. For three hours the doors were open and a steady procession filed through.
The next day, from noon until five, the whole town was shut down. The procession that marched out to the cemetery was as fine a display of the town’s manhood as anyone had ever seen. Ahead of the hearse tramped men from the Cambria mines and railroads, the rolling mills and blast furnaces, row on row, like an army, followed by the merchants and professional men, the police, the city fathers, men of every sort who worked for or did business with or depended on the Cambria Iron Company, which meant just about everybody. The only sound was the steady beat of their heavy boots and shoes on the cobblestones.
After the hearse came the special carriages for the mourners. Bill Kelly and his wife were there; so was Captain Bill Jones, and a Cleveland steel man and family friend named Marcus Alonzo Hanna.
There never was a bigger or better funeral in Johnstown.
Two years later, on March 29, 1887, the day a wagonload of fruit trees arrived at his cottage on Lake Conemaugh, Benjamin F. Ruff died suddenly in a hotel in Pittsburgh. The cause of death according to the papers was a carbuncle on the neck.