Johnstown celebrates man's capacity for survival

May 26, 1991|By Bob Allen

For the citizens of Johnstown, Pa., a thriving company town for the Carnegie Coal & Iron Works about 75 miles southeast of Pittsburgh, it must have seemed like the undoing of God's promise to the survivors of Noah's Ark.

Around 5 in the afternoon of May 31, 1889, about 20 million tons of water -- a virtual wall of water, as high as 70 feet in places, and moving at 40 miles an hour -- came rushing down the Conemaugh Valley. It swept through Johnstown, a progressive and thriving industrial community of 30,000 nestled in the foothills of the Allegheny Mountains, at the confluence of the Little Conemaugh and Stony Creek rivers.

The flood had been unleashed at about 3:10 that same afternoon when the long-neglected South Fork Dam, 14 miles up the Conemaugh Valley, gave way after several days of torrential rain.

Johnstown, a city in the Laurel Highlands that prided itself not only on its industry but on its 27 churches, 123 saloons and three newspapers, was all but washed away within a few minutes. (Seven smaller towns along the river virtually were also wiped off the map.) Ninety-nine families perished, and the death toll reached 2,209. Many drowned, and many others were crushed or burned when a vast mountain of debris, including entire houses, was swept up by the flood and caught fire after lodging against a stone railroad bridge near the center of town.

Of the total dead, 750 -- nearly one in three -- were never identified. The damage inflicted on the town was in excess of $12 million.

The Johnstown Flood was not only one of the most devastating natural calamities of the 19th century, but one of the most disastrous floods in U.S. history. Ironically, rather than an act of God, it was largely the result of man's own negligence: the consequence of a crumbling earthen dam on Conemaugh River that had not been properly maintained for years.

The South Fork Dam stood at the base of the once grand, but now vanished, South Fork Reservoir. This beautiful, tree-lined, man-made mountain lake was the centerpiece of the elegant South Fork Hunting and Fishing Club. It was a private summertime retreat owned and maintained by some of the wealthiest industrialist families of Pittsburgh, including the Carnegies, the Mellons, the Fricks, the Pitcairns and the Knoxes. They were the very same barons of laissez-faire capitalism who owned the mills and railworks of Johnstown, and thus largely controlled the lives of the thousands of laborers -- many of them Hungarian and Italian immigrants -- who worked there.

In the 102 years since the South Fork Dam gave way, enveloping the lower Conemaugh Valley in a watery hell, the legend of the Johnstown Flood has lingered and even grown in the popular American imagination. It has inspired a dozen books, at least one Hollywood film, and has been the topic of any number of widely circulated folk ballads.

Today, in Johnstown itself, the specter of the watery holocaust of 1889 is very much alive.

Just walk the quiet streets of this pleasant city. Pause for a moment and gaze down the surprisingly shallow and diminutive Conemaugh River (now flanked by concrete embankments and modern flood barriers) near the bend where the debris piled up at the stone railroad bridge and became a human pyre. When you do, it becomes clear that it is from the legacy of this late 19th century disaster that the town has forged its modern sense of identity.

In 1989, in a yearlong gala of festivals, memorial ceremonies and historic exhibitions, Johnstown lavishly celebrated the centennial of the flood. The occasion was marked by everything from commemorative religious services to extensive sales of souvenir hats, badges and T-shirts.

The Johnstown Flood is, after all, not just the story of a terrible -- and clearly avoidable -- national tragedy; it also is a reminder of man's seemingly bottomless capacity for survival and rejuvenation. Amazingly, within a few days after the flood, almost before all the dead were recovered and buried, the fires in Johnstown's mills once again were burning and the rebuilding of the city had begun.

A present-day visitor to Johnstown is afforded -- thanks in large part to the diligent efforts of various historic and civic organizations -- a palpable, dramatic sense of the vast dimensions of the ruin and devastation wreaked by the Memorial Day deluge.

A tour of the various Johnstown Flood historic sites (most are on the National Register of Historic Places) should begin at the impressive Johnstown Flood Museum at 304 Washington St.

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