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A different kind of inquiry

There’s always the exception.

On Tuesday, The Legal Genealogist reminded folks that disasters of many kinds often produced records in the form of reports of Boards of Inquiry.1

Shipwrecks, railroad accidents, many types of disasters causing loss of life tended to result in the appointment of official investigators and the ultimate publication of a report into what caused the catastrophes.

But not always.

Or, to state it perhaps more accurately, not always focusing on the causes.

Case in point: the official report published as a result of the Johnstown flood.

That flood, the result of the failure of the South Fork Dam in western Pennsylvania, a little less than 70 miles east of Pittsburgh, was 129 years ago today and remains one of the worst human disasters in American history, with more than 2,200 dead.

The dam was on property owned by a private club, the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club, at the time a retreat of many wealthy families. The events of May 31, 1889, are described this way by the National Park Service, which maintains the Johnstown Flood National Memorial:

The few people present at the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club on the morning of May 31 woke to a chilly day and pounding rain. John Parke, the club engineer noted that water was rising at the rate of one foot every 10 minutes. Parke and a small group of workers tried in vain to increase the height of the dam and to open a spillway to release some of the water. Parke knew that once water spilled over the top of the dam, there was little to be done and the dam would give way.


Starting at about 12 PM the first of a series of telegraph messages were sent to warn the residents of Johnstown. The torrential rain had already taken out telegraph lines out at several points along the route to Johnstown and at several junctions the messages were hand delivered through the severe weather. But it’s unlikely that the messages ever reached those they were intended to warn and the last message made it to Johnstown after the dam burst.


In August of 1889, Parke reflected on what happened when the dam failed at 3:10 pm on that fateful Friday, “The fearful rushing waters opened the gap with such increasing rapidity that soon after the entire lake leaped out… It took but forty minutes to drain that three miles of water.” The twenty million tons of water the dam was holding back took its natural course, dropping 450 feet in miles, at times 70 to 75 feet high and reaching speeds of 40 miles an hour.


At 4:07 residents of Johnstown heard a low rumble that grew to a “roar like thunder.” Most people never saw anything until the 36-foot wall of water, already boiling with huge chunks of debris rolled over them at 40 miles an hour consuming everything in its path. Survivors said it “snapped trees like pipestems” and “crushed houses like eggshells.” A violent wind preceded the wave, blowing down small buildings. Making the wave even more terrifying was the black pall of smoke and steam that hung over the wave – the “death mist” remembered by survivors.


The official death toll stands at 2,209 though many bodies were never identified and hundreds of the missing were never found. As everyone dreaded, disease followed in the wake of the flood and typhoid added 40 more lives to the 2,209 that died in the flood. … The cleanup operation took years, with bodies still being found months – and in some cases years – after the flood.2

Now you might think with this much loss of life the very first thing that would be done would be the appointment of a committee to find out exactly what caused the dam to fail, and what might be done to prevent future problems with similar structures.

Nope. Didn’t happen.

Oh, there was an official committee created, and it did issue a public report, but the focus was on relief to the victims, and not the causes of the disaster.3

Now don’t get me wrong: the fact that the Report of the Secretary of the Flood Relief Commission wasn’t reporting the results of a full investigation into who did what doesn’t mean this isn’t a genealogically valuable document. To the contrary, in its pages you’ll find:

• Names of local relief committee members in Renovo, Lock Haven District, Jersey Shore District, Williamsport District, Tioga County, Perry County District, Juniata County District, and Mifflin County District at pages 8-10.

• A list of the names and ages of known dead outside of Johnstown, some 78 people from Centre, Clinton, Clearfield, Cameron, Dauphin, Huntingdon, Indiana, Lycoming and Tioga Counties, at pages 12-13.

• The names of the members of the Flood Relief Commission, on page 17.

• The names of the members of the Commission’s Finance Committee, on page 39.

• The names of the members of the Commission’s Board of Inquiry (a group chosen “for the purpose of securing a list of the sufferers and a knowledge of their several losses,” on page 40.

• The names of local committee members from 18 districts, chosen to assist the Board of Inquiry, on pages 40-41.

• The names of the local committee members from 18 districts, on pages 40-41.

• A list of contributions, and the names of those through whom the contributions came, at Appendix pages 3-36.

No, it’s not the same kind of an inquiry as the ones we focused on earlier this week.

But every official inquiry into any kind of public event is likely to create records we as genealogists can use.


Photo: Wikimedia Commons

  1. Judy G. Russell, “Inquiring into the inquiries,” The Legal Genealogist, posted 29 May 2018 ( : accessed 31 May 2018).
  2. The Johnstown Flood Story,” National Park Service, via Internet Archive Wayback Machine ( : accessed 31 May 2018).
  3. Report of the Secretary of the Flood Relief Commission… 1889 (Harrisburg: Meyers Printing & Publ. House, 1890); digital images, Google Books ( : accessed 30 May 2018).
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