• Neil M. Coleman


The dam as originally built with a higher crest would have resisted overtopping on May 31, 1889. Even if extremely high lake inflows had continued unabated (an unrealistic assumption), overtopping of the dam at its design height would have been averted for ~14 hrs. Given that streams peaked around noon on the day of the flood, the original dam would not have failed in 1889. The report by Francis et al. (1891) was intentionally suppressed and not released until 2 years after the flood. It was skillfully edited to include discussion favorable to both the Club members and the Pennsylvania Railroad. Such material would not have been included by the hydraulic engineers. It contains no significant criticisms of the Club. Robert Pitcairn’s fingerprints are figuratively all over the report. There is no objective proof, but it is possible the investigation report was altered after being signed and sealed on Jan. 15, 1890. It is otherwise hard to believe that eminent hydraulic engineers like Francis, Worthen, and Fteley would have signed it as published. If they had tried to appeal to higher authority, the appeal would have gone to the unsympathetic president, William Shinn, a past managing partner of Andrew Carnegie. Of the committee, only James Francis went to Chattanooga to present the results.

“If any [one] can convince me and bring home to me that I do not think or act aright, gladly will I change; for I search after truth, by which man never yet was harmed. But he is harmed who abideth on still in his deception and ignorance.”

—Marcus Aurelius, in Meditations, Book VI


Johnstown flood 1889 James Francis ASCE Neil Coleman Mill River Robert Pitcairn Cresson Chattanooga William Shinn Max Becker 


  1. Coleman NM, Kaktins U, Wojno S (2016) Dam-breach hydrology of the Johnstown flood of 1889 – challenging the findings of the 1891 investigation report. Heliyon 2 (6), 54 p,, e00120CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Eng. News (1889) Engineering News, 6/29/1889 p 603Google Scholar
  3. Francis JB, Ellis TG, Worthen WE (1874) The failure of the dam on Mill River. ASCE Trans. vol III, no. 4, p 118–122Google Scholar
  4. Francis JB, Worthen WE, Becker MJ, Fteley A (1891) Report of the Committee on the cause of the failure of the Soth Fork dam. ASCE Trans. vol XXIV, Issue 477, p 431–469Google Scholar
  5. Fulton R (1880) Letter report to DJ Morrell concerning South Fork dam, dated Nov 26 1880Google Scholar
  6. Gay EF (1856) Report of the [Pennsylvania] state engineer for the fiscal year ending Nov. 30, 1856. Report dated Dec 23, 1856. In: reports of the heads of departments. Transmitted to Governor in pursuance of law, for financial year ending Nov 30 1856. HarrisburgGoogle Scholar
  7. Kooser NM (2013) Determining responsibility for the failure of the South Fork Dam, Unpublished thesis, American Public University System, March 11 2013, Charles Town WV [copy on file at Johnstown Area Heritage Assoc., Johnstown, PA]Google Scholar
  8. McCullough DG (1968) The Johnstown Flood. Simon & Schuster, New York, 302 pGoogle Scholar
  9. PRR (Pennsylvania Railroad) (1889) Testimony Taken by the PRR Following the Johnstown Flood of 1889. [Statements of PRR employees and others in reference to the disaster to the passenger trains at Johnstown, taken by John H. Hampton, at his office in Pittsburgh, by request of Superintendent Robert Pitcairn; beginning July 15th, 1889.] Copy in archive of Johnstown Area Heritage Association. Many stories available online at: [Accessed 1 Apr 2018]
  10. Sharpe EM (2004) In the shadow of the dam – the aftermath of the Mill River flood of 1874. Free Press, New York, p 284Google Scholar
  11. Unrau HD (1980) Historic structure report: the South Fork dam historical data, Johnstown Flood National Memorial, PA. Package no. 124, US Dept of Interior, NPS (1980):242Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer International Publishing AG, part of Springer Nature 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  • Neil M. Coleman
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of Energy and Earth ResourcesUniversity of Pittsburgh at JohnstownJohnstownUSA

Personalised recommendations