After the Flood

The tragedy that befell Johnstown more than a century ago echoes through history, offering a lesson to those in the post-Sept. 11 world.

Pennsylvania

Cover Story

August 18, 2002|BY STEPHANIE SHAPIRO | BY STEPHANIE SHAPIRO,SUN STAFF

"Flood's over!"

That's the hook for Johnstown's current campaign to lure visitors to the site of the notorious disaster that struck the town more than a century ago.

It's a reassuring motto, but not an entirely accurate one. After torrential rain, the neglected South Fork dam burst on May 31, 1889, unleashing a crushing wall of water that claimed 2,209 lives and leveled the bustling Conemaugh Valley steel town, tucked deep within southwestern Pennsylvania's Alle- gheny mountains.

Because of its biblical scope and the stature of those held responsible, the deluge instantly took its place in American mythology and, like the events of Sept. 11, will never truly be over.

Johnstown has embraced its epic story as a commodity, and that's a good thing. In a place where steel once ruled, heritage-based tourism is now a key industry. The town of about 24,000 has become a popular destination for those who like their history up close and personal.

For many of Johns-town's citizens, whether or not they're banking on tourism dollars, the flood continues to play a vital role in daily life.

Sally Lou Taylor, a retired schoolteacher who volunteers at the Johnstown Flood Museum, remembers stories told by her grandmother, who not only survived the flood but proceeded with her plans to marry even though her home and trousseau had vanished in the cataclysm.

The newlyweds "went ahead and started a family and I'm very glad they did," Taylor says, eliciting a chuckle from a group of out-of-town visitors.

But Taylor also speaks of the flood as "an accident that didn't have to happen." For her and others, it remains an emotional issue.

When I arrived in Johnstown on a stifling Saturday afternoon in late June, the town was already shut down. Emerging from the Holiday Inn, I glumly noted the empty streets and closed shops. There was little indication that during the next two days, the economically depressed town would yield an eloquent object lesson in the American experience.

During my stay, I would visit numerous sites, including the Johnstown Heritage Discovery Center, the exuberant Back Door Cafe and the Inclined Plane, a steep railway built in 1891 for transporting blue-collar and upper-class citizens to their homes in Westmont, a shady community on a bluff above Johnstown proper.

I would also tour Grandview Cemetery, where hundreds of unknown flood victims are buried. Each stop, in its own way, enriched my sense of Johnstown and why the flood remains an indelible part of its psyche.

In preparation for the trip, I read David McCullough's The Johnstown Flood: The Incred-ible Story Behind One of the Most Devastating 'Natural' Disasters America Has Ever Known. It was an invaluable primer that also offered uncanny parallels between the flood and the World Trade Center tragedy.

It would be a stretch to say that the wealthy members of the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club who allowed their dam to deteriorate were terrorists on par with al-Qaida. But when the dam gave way, survivors and the media minced no words accusing Andrew Mellon, Henry Clay Frick, Andrew Carnegie and other club members of class warfare.

McCullough described a post-flood cartoon that appeared in the Chicago Herald in which millionaires swig champagne at the clubhouse while the flood annihilates Johnstown.

As with Ground Zero, hordes of people arrived in Johnstown after the flood, to help and to gawk. Newspapers across the country published extra editions, and filled thousands of column inches with vivid accounts.

The first books about the disaster appeared almost immediately, even sooner than they did after Sept. 11. An auction of flood relics raised money for victims, foreshadowing displays of mangled World Trade Center relics. Squabbles over relief money occurred, just as they did after last year's attacks.

In The Johnstown Flood, McCullough's descriptions called to mind images of shell-shocked survivors and the kin of terrorist victims so ubiquitous after Sept. 11:

"Across the whole of the valley the dead were being found in increasing numbers. And as the morning passed, more and more people came down from the hillsides to look at the bodies, to search for missing husbands and children, or just to get their bearings, if possible. They slogged through the mud, asking after a six-year-old boy 'about so high,' or a wife or a father. They picked their way through mountains of rubbish, trying to find a recognizable landmark to tell them where their house or store had been, or even a suggestion of the street where they had lived. Or they stood silently staring about, a numb, blank look on their faces. Over and over, later, when the day had passed people would talk about how expressionless everyone had looked and how there had been so few people crying."

These parallels helped me to understand the power, magnetic and repellent, of Ground Zero for those who have gone there.

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