I'd like to tell you a little story about my hometown of Johnstown, Pennsylvania. I took pictures during my visit back in October in anticipation of this post today.
Western Pennsylvania is a region of mountains, coal, and deep valleys. The cities became centers of iron and steel making, giving rise to the age of the robber barons. Pittsburgh was home to names like Carnegie, Mellon, Frick, and Knox.
The South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club was established near the towns of South Fork and St. Michael high in the mountains above the valley city of Johnstown. It was the playground of Pittsburgh's elite, and their cottages and clubhouse sat along the shores of Lake Conemaugh, a man-made lake two miles long and one mile wide.
The dam forming the lake had been part of a defunct canal system and had last been owned by the Pennsylvania Railroad. The Club altered and raised the dam. The spillway was blocked with screens to keep their prized fish from escaping. The soundness of the structure had long been questioned.
Beginning on May 28, 1889, a storm hit the region which dropped 6 to 10 inches of rain in 24 hours. Waters rose quickly, and soon water was spilling over the dam. All the inadequate safety measures failed, and the center of the earthen dam eroded. Four hundred acres of lake, 20 million tons of water, began emptying into the valley. The chief engineer could only watch.
The waters hit a viaduct crossing the downstream valley, and a new lake temporarily formed. When that viaduct failed, it was not a gradual release like the dam. It broke at once, sending a 60 foot wall of water with trees, houses, people, and animals roaring down the valley at 40 miles per hour.
A stone railroad bridge still stands in Johnstown, which withstood the main wave. It didn't spare the city from wide destruction, however. In addition, a factory had been destroyed miles upstream, and spools of newly manufactured barbed wire mixed with the debris. At the stone bridge, a great debris field formed with many people becoming entangled in the barbed wire. Broken oil lamps lit a horrendous fire, and many people burned in the midst of the flood. In all, 2,209 died, including 99 entire families.
High in the hills overlooking Johnstown sits Grandview Cemetery. There, 777 unidentified victims were interred. I've always been struck by the rows and rows of blank stones. They form strange blinking patterns when you drive by.
Something about those empty stones haunts me. More than once, I sat at the foot of this monument after dark.
During those quiet nights, the moon glowed on the marble and mildewed white. I wish I had written my thoughts.
One of my ancestors was killed before the waters reached Johnstown. In a way, then, I suppose those waters touched me too. Thank you for taking a moment with me to remember him and hundreds upon hundreds of others who perished.