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Boston's Italian community organizes aid for Johnstown Flood victims #onthiday in 1889

June 6, 2017

On May 31, 1889, the South Fork Dam on Pennsylvania’s Little Conemaugh River broke. 16 million tons of water spilled over the dam and swept towards Johnstown, Pennsylvania, 14 miles downstream. 

Johnstown Flood, 1889: Looking W. from Main St. #20

On its way downstream, the deluge picked up trees, houses, railroad cars, and other debris. The flood poured through two iron works, where it swept up even more deadly debris. By the time the flood reached Johnstown, an hour after the dam’s collapse, the water was traveling at 40 mph and in some places was 60 feet high. More than 2,200 people died in the flood. When the water receded, it left behind a 30-acre debris field.

The Johnstown calamity. A slightly damaged house , 1889

News of the flood and its damage spread throughout the country. Individuals and organizations from across the country sent aid. In Boston, a group of Italian-Americans living on Hanover and North Streets planned a meeting at Faneuil Hall to “consider and devise measures of relief for the sufferers of Johnstown and vicinity.”  You can see their letter to the Board of Aldermen below.

Petition to use Faneuil Hall for a meeting to plan relief for Johnstown sufferers, June 6, 1889, Docket 1889-0261-C, Proceedings of the City Council, Collection 0100.001, Boston City Archives


 Though we’re not sure about the ultimate result of this meeting, we do know that individuals and organizations from across the globe donated more than three million dollars to relief efforts in Johnstown.