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Disaster Relief in Response to the Johnstown Flood, 1889

When Pittsburghers woke up on the morning of Saturday, June 1, 1889, they opened their newspapers and were confronted with reports of a terrible calamity less than a hundred miles away. The previous afternoon, the South Fork Dam in the Conemaugh Valley had suffered a catastrophic failure after 24 hours of heavy rainfall. More than 20 million tons of water were unleashed on communities below the dam. The torrent, which picked up debris and became an avalanche of everything, proceeded to smash the villages and towns of Mineral Point, East Conemaugh, Cambria City, Franklin and Woodvale.

Then, less than an hour after the dam broke, the raging water roared into Johnstown, an industrial city of 30,000 people. Fewer than 15 minutes later, all traces of modernity, and the life it supported, had been wiped from the city -- bridges, railroad tracks, telephone and telegraph poles, the Cambria Iron Works, stores, churches, schools and houses. The devastation was complete. More than 2,200 people lost their lives, and 1,600 homes were destroyed.

The catastrophe struck close to Pittsburgh not merely because of geographic proximity and residents who had friends and relatives in the stricken city. There was also the South Fork Hunting and Fishing Club, the exclusive organization with members such as Andrew Carnegie and Henry Clay Frick who came from the pinnacle of Pittsburgh society. The club had owned the dam that failed.

The response to the disaster from the citizens of Pittsburgh was swift. Pittsburghers formed a Citizens' Relief Committee to collect badly needed supplies for the relief of flood survivors -- food, clothing, fresh water, medicine, tools and household goods, wagons and wheelbarrows, and cash. Labor crews from local construction companies headed for Johnstown to help clear the massive debris that choked the streets of the ravaged city. Telegraph communication was restored between Johnstown and Pittsburgh by June 3rd, and the Citizens' Relief Committee of the latter had a telegraph installed at the chamber of commerce with a full-time operator.

As cash contributions from Pittsburgh residents poured in, William Reed Thompson, banker and future trustee of Dollar Bank, was appointed treasurer of the relief fund. Ultimately the relief fund collected in Pittsburgh would grow to more than $1.5 million, or more than $40 million in today's dollars.

Contributions were published daily in local papers. The list of donors published in the Citizens' Relief Committee report of 1890 demonstrated how help came from every quarter of the Pittsburgh community.The nine Westinghouse Companies contributed $15,000. The Bijou Theatre held a benefit show. Iron and steel manufacturing companies donated. Employees from street car companies, railroads and the Carnegie Free Library gave. More than 150 churches and synagogues from Pittsburgh and Allegheny City contributed, as did hundreds more communities of faith from Allegheny and surrounding counties. The city's ten newspapers ran subscription drives for the relief fund. The 1890 report mentions a "Lady at City Hall door" who gave $2.00, and a "little six year old boy" gave twenty-five cents.

The scale of the disaster at Johnstown drew relief efforts from across the country, and even an international response. The relief fund in Pittsburgh received $3,000 from the City of Cleveland, donations from every state in the union, and contributions from groups in Australia, Brazil, Canada, England and Germany.

Forty-eight banks in Pittsburgh donated to the relief fund. On June 21, 1889, Dollar Bank's board of trustees approved a resolution to contribute $1,000 to the relief fund for Johnstown.


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