In 1889, a dam failure sent a disastrous flood descending on Johnstown, Pennsylvania

Originally published at:

My mother’s family’s immigrant story began in Johnstown. C. Heinze emigrated from the very poor Palatinate region of Germany in 1878 and made his way to the coal mines of PA. He discovered that jobs were plentiful, and so were single women of marriage age, as he wrote his brother back home, urging him to come over.

As a very young child in the 1960s I remember meeting “Aunt Minnie,” a relation who lived through it. She was very old. The Flood was a part of our family history. We had that photo you’re using on the wall of our restaurant, among others documenting the event.


That was followed by the flood in 1936, and the notorious Johnstown Flood Tax that PA residents have been paying ever since:

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And that one followed by the flood of 1977.


Boston here. Coastal cities are going to be a wreck in the next few decades. At least they moved the molasses tanks.



The David McCullough book on the subject is excellent, I highly recommend it.

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Bruce Springsteen’s “Highway Patrolman” from the Nebraska (1982) album references the Johnstown Flood. This song was also the inspiration for the Sean Penn movie The Indian Runner (1991).

I was about to say that! McCullough’s book reads like a thriller. It’s filled with extremely specific details that bring the event to life in all its horrible glory. He’s an amazing writer and historian in general. His books on the Wright Brothers, the Brooklyn Bridge and the Panama Canal are likewise fascinating.


Yep, I’ve read all those. I got onto a McCullough audiobook jag for a while during my commute. They’re all excellent, but when it comes to the audiobooks, I’ll always prefer the ones he reads himself. He’s instantly recognizable as the voice for Ken Burns’ Civil War documentary series.

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