Avoidance of Legal Blame

    “I don’t think there has ever been a case in this country where such cold-blooded disregard of the interest of others was exhibited as in this instance. The only thing I can compare it to is the heartlessness of Nero, who fiddled while Rome was burning. These men had been warned of the danger time and again, but they feasted and enjoyed themselves on the lake while the very lives of the people in the valley below were in danger.”
-John M. Cambell 

Legal Consequences (Or Lack Thereof):

        After the flood, the public was eager to determine exactly what caused the dam to fail. Hydraulic experts and engineers flocked to Johnstown to analyze the situation. They soon discovered that the absence of discharge pipes was the primary cause of the breach (Coleman 2019). Since discharge pipes regulate the water level of the lake behind a dam, some experts speculated that the South Fork Dam would not have succumbed to the heavy rainfall if these pipes were installed. A thorough 2014 computer simulation of the disaster confirmed this supposition (Yetter, Bishop, 2014). The dam was originally built with discharge pipes, so the only question that remained was who removed them. The ownership of the dam shifted various times throughout its history, so this was no trivial question. There were two primary conjectures about who was to blame: former Congressman John Reilly and the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club. 

           After years of disuse, John Reilly purchased the dam from the Pennsylvania Railroad in 1875 and operated it for four years. The Club bought the dam from Reilly in 1879 and created a vacation spot to escape the summer heat and clouds of soot in Pittsburg. Members could swim, boat, fish, and socialize in the reservoir atop the dam. The South Fork Fishing Club comprised primarily of wealthy industrialists, including Andrew Carnegie, Henry Frick, and Andrew Mellon (Coleman 2019). Ironically, the resort was built for the industrial giants to flee from the pollution that their companies were responsible for in the city.

View topic - Johnstown, PA: May 31, 1889 | Johnstown flood, Johnstown, Flood
Photograph of South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club

        Complications regarding liability arose after the flood because the club began renovations on the dam before they gained legal ownership. The club made a public agreement with Reilly, and he allowed them to begin work on the dam six months before the official property transfer. Testimonies from the dam construction workers reveal that they removed the discharge pipes during this period of limbo. It was clear that club members instructed the workers to carry out the fatal renovations. However, the legal ambiguity allowed the club to argue that Reilly was to blame.

        The most powerful case against Reilly was provided by Robert Pitcairn, the executive of the Pittsburgh division of the Pennsylvania Railroad. He claimed that Reilly was responsible for the removal of the pipes (Coleman 2019). However, Pitcairn’s position meant that he had a commercial interest in defending the club. The Pennsylvania Railroad was closely tied to the other industries in Johnstown and many club members worked for the railroad. It was also well-known by the time of this testimony that removing the discharge pipes was the primary cause of the breach, so Pitcairn would have known to lie about the subject. No further evidence beyond a few other unreliable testimonies corroborated the supposition that Reilly gave the instructions to remove the pipes.

        The matter of who was to blame was not very contentious. The majority of the public attributed the disaster to the South Fork Fishing Club. However, there was not enough substantial evidence to hold the club legally responsible. Five days after the flood, the American Society of Civil Engineers, or the ASCE, met to form an official record of the event. They took measurements at the site and interviewed many residents. It took them seven months to finish the report and they did not publish it until 1891. The public was very frustrated with the delayed release (Coleman 2019). When it did come out, it favored the club. The report admitted that the club removed the pipes, but maintained that “in our opinion they cannot be deemed to be the cause of the late disaster, as we find that the embankment would have been overflowed and the breach formed if the changes had not been made” (ASCE Report, 1891) As discussed in the Blurring the Lines section, the club was able to avoid liability by portraying the disaster as an act of God beyond human control. Later investigations like the 2014 computer simulation refuted this claim. Yet, the ASCE’s authority allowed them to absolve the club without any evidence that the dam would have flooded regardless of the renovations. There were many doubts regarding the legitimacy of the report. The public had grown weary of corruption during the Gilded Age (see Gilded Age Political Cartoon Analysis), so their distrust was understandable. There were also many suspicious circumstances surrounding the report. For instance, William Shinn became the president of the ASCE just five months after the flood and was one of the primary figures who advocated to keep the report sealed for as long as possible (Coleman 2019). He was a prominent businessman in the railroad and steel industries and therefore had an interest in protecting Carnegie and numerous other club members. 


        Despite the conclusions of the ASCE, many individuals attempted to sue the South Fork Fishing Club and its members. However, people usually only turned to lawsuits as a last resort, since it was nearly impossible to win against the industry titans. Attempting to prove that a particular owner acted negligently was often futile and the members designed the financial structure of the club so that their personal assets were separate from it (PA Inquirer, June 27, 1889). The Club members also had many connections, allowing them to insert court-appointed experts that happened to favor their positions. Philander Knox and James Reed were two powerful attorneys and club members who often defended other members in their lawsuits. One example was the Mrs. John Little lawsuit. She was a mother of eight and sought compensation for the loss of her 43-year-old husband. She was met by Knox and Reed, and the jury was overwhelmingly comprised of railroad and steel workers whose jobs and livelihoods would be threatened if the industrialists were found guilty (Coleman 2019). Little’s case was dismissed almost immediately. According to Johnstown citizen Victor Heiser, “It is impossible to imagine how these [club] people were feared” (PA Inquirer, August 23, 1889). Despite a large number of court cases filed against the South Fork Fishing Club, no individuals were able to recover damages from the dam’s owners. Scholars suggest the if the flood happened today, the club would have almost certainly been held responsible (Coleman 2019). However, their vast influence over America’s judicial system allowed club members to escape any liability. 

        Even though the club members were able to avoid legal consequences, the public indignation regarding these lawsuits helped push the American legal system to shift from a fault-based system to one based on strict liability (Coleman 2019). Strict liability maintains that a person can be held legally accountable for consequences that result from their actions, even in the absence of fault or criminal intent. This new standard prevented negligent businessmen from escaping liability in future lawsuits.

Social Consequences:

         Regardless if they were to blame or not, the public resented that the club members provided little relief relative to their respective wealth. Many members did contribute, but their offerings were minuscule compared to the overall contributions. One comment published in the Philadelphia Inquirer captures the public’s attitude towards the club members. He wrote, “What is the fishing club doing? No announcement has yet been observed of the millionaires who constitute the South Fork Fishing Club doing anything remarkable toward bearing the expense of caring for the sufferers and clearing away the debris at Johnstown. Perhaps they have been so busy lamenting over the loss of their big fish pond that they have really not had time to think much of the destruction down the valley” (PA Inquirer, June 13, 1889). The public was bitter that these wealthy businessmen took so little action and seemed unconcerned by the tragedy.

          Some individuals even ravaged the club members’ houses in the resort. According to the newspaper in Harrisburg, PA, “already several villas owned by members of the club have been broken into fragments. Their pleasure and fishing boats destroyed” (Harrisburg, 1889). The public wanted the club members to face the same type of destruction that they did. Many businessmen seemed more concerned with repairing their damaged property rather than aiding Johnstown. The Philadelphia Inquirer stated, “While the work of digging out the remains of the dead and clearing away the ruins is going on in the valley below, members of the club are having photos of their ruined pleasure resort taken.” The South Fork Fishing Club shut down shortly after the event, largely due to negative publicity. Following its closing, few would admit to its membership and therefore their role in the disaster.

        Carnegie donated a library to Johnstown, but besides that, he tried to distance himself from the situation as much as possible (Harrisburg, 1889). The library represented the shallowness of the club member’s actions. They donated the bare minimum to preserve their reputations, but they cared little for the people whom they harmed in the first place. Though the club members faced no legal consequences, the Johnstown Flood exposed the corruption of businessmen in the Gilded Age.

Cambria Public Library Johnstown, PA
Library Donated to Johnstown by Andrew Carnegie