Tag Archive | Pennslyvania

2018 Circus Trip: Johnstown Flood National Memorial

Day 38, Wednesday, August 22, 2018

Johnstown, Pennsylvania

The previous evening, I crossed into Pennsylvania (sorry I wasn’t able to get a pic with a sign!), and discovered that Pennsylvania really LOVES its toll roads.  In the span of about 30 miles, I racked up $17 in tolls!  Ugh!  I was excited to start exploring a new state though!

I first learned about the Johnstown Flood when I read a book about the event by David McCullough about a dozen years ago.  I have always thought that this tragedy could have been avoided, and find the story pretty interesting, so I wanted to see the Johnstown Flood National Memorial.

In 1889, the city of Johnstown, Pennsylvania was a thriving community built on the banks of the Conemaugh River, just past where the Stonycreek and Little Conemaugh Rivers joined together.  The Cambria Iron Works was a bustling iron and steel mill supporting a town of about 30,000 people.  Above the city was the South Fork Dam, an earthen dam originally built by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania between 1838 and 1853 as a part of a cross-state canal system.  Once the railroads took over, Pennsylvania sold off the canal and dam to the railroad, who in turn, sold the dam and its lake to a private interest.

That private interest was the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club, a membership club for the wealthy elite of nearby Pittsburgh.  The hunt club was built near Johnstown, and members and their families could enjoy a country respite from the dirty, crowded city.  Unfortunately, over several years before the flood, a series of alterations were made to the dam which affected its structural integrity, regular maintenance was lacking, and leaks that sprang up were repaired haphazardly.

Which leads us to May 31, 1889.  During the three days leading up to this fateful Friday, there was rain.  In fact, so much rain that they estimated between 6 and 10 inches fell in the 24 hours before the dam breached.  Colonel Elias Unger, who managed the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club, lived above the dam, and recognized that it was in bad shape that morning.  He called in engineers and laborers who tried desperately to clean out the spillway, which had been clogged by debris.  They also tried to dig a new spillway to release water, but stopped when they became convinced that it would just cause the entire dam to give way.  Unger also sent a man to the telegraph station to warn communities down below of the danger, but it is unclear whether the message was received in Johnstown.  Oops.

When the dam finally breached at about 2:50 pm, more than 3.8 billion gallons of water released in a torrent downstream.  It hit several communities along its path, which suffered more or less depending on whether they had enough advance notice to get to higher ground.  One community was wiped away completely; the land where the town had been located was scoured down to bedrock.  Johnstown, about 14 miles from the dam, was hit about an hour after the dam breached, and by that time the river was carrying a huge amount of deadly debris along with it, including trees, logs, houses, locomotives, barbed wire, animals, and human victims.

The horror was unimaginable and people died from drowning, being bludgeoned to death by debris, and even being burned, as a large pile of debris got trapped by a bridge over the river and caught on fire.  Bodies were found as far away as Cincinnati, Ohio, 357 miles away by today’s roads, and as late as 1911.  When it was over, 2209 people had died, including entire families; at the time it was the largest civilian loss of life in U.S. history.

The Johnstown Flood National Memorial preserves the site of what remains of the dam and gives visitors a view of the narrow valley where the waters raged, and have continued to flood the towns below periodically (most recently in 1977).  The Visitor’s Center has exhibits on the flood, photos and artifacts that were collected from the flood waters, stories of the people who died and those who survived.  There is also a very powerful (and not suitable for young children) movie on the event; it evokes the fear that you would have felt as that wall of water crashed into town.

The Johnstown Flood National Memorial was authorized by Congress on August 31, 1964 and annual visitation of the National Memorial is approximately 112,000.

It was very interesting to see the artifacts and the movie; they also have a list of nearby sites that also relate to the flood, including the Grandview Cemetery (where most of the victims are buried) and the historic structures of the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club.  I’ll blog about those next!