South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club

The South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club was a club composed of more than fifty extremely wealthy men who operated an exclusive and secretive retreat at a mountain lake near South Fork, Pennsylvania. The charter members of the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club, assembled by Henry Clay Frick were: Benjamin Ruff; T. H. Sweat; Charles J. Clarke; Thomas Clark; Walter F. Fundenberg; Howard Hartley; Henry C. Yeager; J. B. White; E. A. Myers; C. C. Hussey; D. R. Ewer; C. A. Carpenter; W. L. Dunn; W. L. McClintock; A. V. Holmes.

Prominent members came to include Andrew Carnegie, Andrew Mellon, Henry Phipps (whose descendants operate Bessemer Trust), Philander Knox, John George Alexander Leishman, Duncan Clinch Phillips (father of the founder of The Phillips Collection), Louis Semple Clarke (founder of the Autocar Company), James McCord (owner of the oldest hattery west of the Allegheny Mountains), Benjamin Thaw (Pittsburgh financier and brother of the infamous Harry K. Thaw), Calvin Wells (industrialist), H. Sellers McKee (glass manufacturer and founder of Jeannette, Pennsylvania), John Caldwell, Jr. (George Westinghouse partner); James Hay Reed (founding partner, Knox & Reed, now Reed Smith LLP), U.S. Representative James W. Brown (a member of the 58th United States Congress and President of the Colonial Steel Company), Sylvester S. Marvin (founder of Nabisco), Maxwell K. Moorhead, Durbin Horne and C. B. Shea (of Horne's Department Store), W. A. McIntosh (father of Burr McIntosh and Nancy McIntosh) and Robert Pitcairn.

In 1879, at the suggestion of Benjamin Ruff, Henry Clay Frick founded the club by purchasing an old dam and abandoned reservoir which was originally built between 1838-1853 by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania as part of the Pennsylvania Main Line canal system to be used as a reservoir for the canal basin in Johnstown. It was abandoned by the commonwealth, sold to the Pennsylvania Railroad, and then sold again to private interests.

They created Lake Conemaugh, which was about two miles (3 km) long, approximately one mile (1.6 km) wide, and 60 feet (18 m) deep near the dam. The lake had a perimeter of 7 miles (11 km) and could hold 20 million tons of water. When the water was "up" in the spring, the lake covered over 400 acres (1.6 km²). The South Fork Dam was 72 feet (22 m) high and 931 feet (284 m) long. Between 1881 when the club was opened and 1889, this dam frequently sprang leaks and was patched, mostly with mud and straw. A previous owner had removed and sold for scrap the 3 cast iron discharge pipes that previously allowed a controlled release of water, making it impossible to drain the lake to repair the dam properly. To compound the problem, club members had erected fish screens across the mouth of the spillway, and these became clogged with debris, restricting the outflow of water. Passers-by sometimes commented about the likelihood of a failure, but no action was taken. The flawed dam held the waters of Lake Conemaugh back until disaster struck on May 31, 1889.

After several days of unprecedented rainfall, the dam gave way. A torrent of water raced downstream, destroying several towns. When it reached Johnstown, just under 2,200 people were killed, and there was $17 million in damage. The disaster became widely known as the Johnstown Flood, and locally known as the "Great Flood", since floods in the area are quite common.

When word of the dam's failure was telegraphed from South Fork by Joseph P. Wilson to Robert Pitcairn in Pittsburgh, Frick and other members of the Club gathered to form the Pittsburgh Relief Committee for tangible assistance to the flood victims as well as determining to never speak publicly about the Club or the Flood. This strategy was a success, and Knox and Reed were able to fend off all lawsuits that would have placed blame upon the Club’s members.

In the years following this tragic event, many people blamed the members of the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club for the tragedy, as they had originally bought and repaired the dam to turn the area into a holiday retreat in the mountains. However, they failed to properly maintain the dam, and as a result, heavy rainfall on the eve of the disaster meant that the structure was not strong enough to hold the excess water. Despite the evidence to suggest that they were very much to blame, they were never held legally responsible for the disaster. In keeping with the times, the courts viewed the dam's failure as an Act of God, and no legal compensation was paid to the survivors of the flood.

Individual members of the club did contribute substantially to the relief efforts. Along with about half of the club members, Henry Clay Frick donated thousands of dollars to the relief effort in Johnstown. After the flood, Andrew Carnegie, one of the club's better known members, built the town a new library. In modern times, this former library is owned by the Johnstown Area Heritage Association, and houses the Flood Museum.

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