On Memorial Day 1889, 68 miles north of Cumberland, Md., the South Fork Dam on the Little Conemaugh River burst. Twenty million tons of water surged into the river to Johnstown. Today, we would call the result "scorched earth"; the ground was scraped clean of trees, buildings, people and animals. More than 2,200 people in one of the greatest disasters in American history.
By interstate highway today, it's more a two-hour drive to cover the over 100 miles from Williamsport, Md. to Johnstown, Pa. In 1889, the only communication was telegraph lines, or limited telephone. As the water continued to rise, and the telegraph lines and the few telephones out, yet there were no communications from the north. As the water continued to rise, men waited in the telephone office in Williamsport became evermore nervous. The Williamsport Transcript newspaper reported "All day they continued to come, growing denser and swifter, and at three in the afternoon the showers came down, one after another with but slight intermission. Each succeeding downpour seemed heavier than the one before it. As night approached it could be seen that the Potomac river was rising rapidly; so, also, the Conococheague creek,” There were reports of a cyclone moving north from Martinsburg, West Virginia heading for Williamsport. And the river continued to rise.
Operators called Cumberland asking about conditions, trying to anticipate what Williamsport could expect. The only report from the Queen City was that it was raining. While true, it was an understatement. Cumberland was already experiencing its own problems.
The storm begins
“On Friday of last week the clouds began to come up from the Southeast, in thick, heavy masses, lowering until they seemed to roll over the mountains in dark, broad volumes.
Other reports said that a cyclone had entered the valley near Martinsburg, West Virginia, moving north and crossing the Potomac River a few miles above Williamsport. It was followed by the heavy rains that caused the Potomac flooding.