The Johnstown, Pennsylvania, Flood 31 May 1889

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While this event did not occur on Arranmore Island, it did impact on the lives of the people of the Island


        On May 31 1889 a neglected dam and a phenomenal storm led to a catastrophe in Johnstown Pennsylvania in which 2209 people died. Johnstown had been built into a river valley on the Appalachian Plateau. The Little Conemaugh and the Stony Creek Rivers, which ran along the peripheral of the town and merged to form the Conemaugh River at the western end, drained a 657 square mile watershed which dropped in the rivers from mountains 500 feet above. At least once a year, one or both of the rivers overflowed into the streets sending the town's residents into a scurry to protect what they could of their homes and belongings.

        This day it wasn't an overflowing river they would have to contend with - it was the poorly maintained South Fork dam, just 14 miles above the city, which held back Lake Conemaugh. Just before 4pm, the dam broke, and within the hour, a rolling hill of water and debris about 40 feet high and half a mile wide swept in to Johnstown. The devestation of the town was terrible and the loss of life was in the thousands - many more thousands were injured and thousands more left with nothing but what they stood in.

        The Johnstown Tribune newspaper published a List of the Victims of the Johnstown Flood, which included the names, ages and where they were buried, and indeed, if their bodies were ever recovered. Amongst those victims were :

Boyle, Charles, Sr., 45, Cambria, SM
Boyle, Mary, 12, Cambria, SM
Boyle, Charles, 8, Cambria, SM
Boyle, Thomas, 7, Cambria, SM
Boyle, Rose, 6, Cambria, missing
Boyle, Bridget, 4, Cambria, missing
Boyle, William, 2, Cambria, missing
Boyle, Joseph, 8 mo., Cambria, missing

Charles ‘Hugh’ Boyle b. c1840, a son of Hugh and Madge ? Boyle, emigrated from Ballintra, Arranmore to Pennsylvania in the late 1860’s and worked in the coal mines there. In 1880 he was a saloon keeper in Johnstown. Charles was the brother of William, Michael, Hugh, and Una in the 1901 Ballintra census and of Bridget married to John O’Donnell in the Eighter Island census.

Charles married Anne Keelan c1872 and they had family:

Hugh C. b. Oct 8 1873

Madge b. c1877

Michael b. c1879

Charles b. c 1881

Thomas b. c 1882

Rose b. c1883

Bridget b. c1885

William b. c1887

Joseph b. c1888


Charles and his wife, with their seven children, lived in an exposed part of Cambria Borough, or city, as it is sometimes called. He, like everybody else, was surprised by the avalanche of water. With his family he rushed above stairs. When the water became waist-deep, he held two of the smallest children on his shoulders, until finally, the water rising still higher, they and he were drowned. The house was suddenly torn to pieces, destroying the other members of the family, save his wife Anne and one son (Michael). Anne clung to a piece of timber, upon which she was rushed down the river nine miles to Nineveh. Her hair had become entangled in the branches of a floating tree which moved toward the shore, where she was rescued. She told Dr. C. Sheridan, her physician, that again and again in her awful ride, she was under water, and that she once resolved to let go her hold, permitting herself to be drowned; but just then thoughts of her living boy Hugh, who was at college in preparation for the priesthood, stimulated her for further struggle.

Hugh ‘Charles’ was a student at St Vincent’s Seminary in Latrobe at the time of the flood. When he heard the news of the disaster, he walked the 35 miles to Johnstown, only to discover that his father and 7 of his siblings had been drowned. Hugh was ordained a priest on Jul 2 1898 and ordained Bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh on June 29 1921. He died on Dec 22 1950 and is buried in St Mary’s cemetery, Pittsburgh.

Their other surviving son Michael, married Anna Liguori Smith c1903 and had eight children. He lived in Westmont, PA where he at one time operated a movie theater and, at another time, served as the sheriff of Cambria County. His son Hugh C. became an attorney/judge in Pittsburgh, serving as a senior judge of the Civil Division of the Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas. Hugh C had married Ann McDonough, of Washington County. The couple visited Ireland, where both of their grandparents were born and raised before immigrating to the United States. From all accounts, they were proud of their Irish heritage, reading books on Irish history, culture and poetry. Hugh C was a member of the Gaelic Arts Society and the Knights of Columbus. At the time of Hugh C's death on 13 August 2004 aged 93, he was survived by a daughter and four sons, 17 grandchildren and 28 great grandchildren.

Further reading and resources:


Johnstown Flood Museum

St James Church

Grandview Cemetery

1889 Flood Pictures - Before-After Gallery

Johnstown Flood History



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Lindel Buckley

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