Friday, June 01, 2007

May 31, 1889

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.

(Standing on the breast of the dam and looking to the other side.)

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.

(The position of the original dam.)

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.


angel said...

sheesh... i'm quite speechless dude.
i can't believe they haven't made a movie about that!

Kaycie said...

Wow. Today that would be a national tragedy that we would all watch on network television. I wonder what the newspapers had to say about it at the time.

Bev said...

its fascinating all those little bits of history that are lost to us because we were not there....

there is definately something creepy about all those blank grave markers....seems there should be a ghost story in this somewhere

Thanks for sharing Jason!

Joni said...

Wow, that's so sad. There is something beautiful to me, however, about families leaving this world together. I really believe in the afterlife, so I think it's better to all together in either one place or the other.

I drove through PA a few days ago and thought of you. I was able to better understand how you get all your cool pictures. I'd never been to western PA before.

Anne said...

What a wonderful tribute to your ancestors and those that perished or survived that disaster. I remember watching the remnants of an entire riverfront community swept by me when a swollen tributary of a raging Shenandoah Valley river had its way. Thirteen people were swept up, too.

I'm glad you stopped by my blog; otherwise, I might never ever have come across yours.

Anonymous said...

That was a bad flood. You post is a super reminder of what can happen.

Jaye Wells said...

Oh my word. Can you imagine the lawsuits if that happened today? So sad.

Remiman said...

777 blank tombstones........It does give us reason to pause and reflect on the freagility of life.
It also reminds us once again of the imperfection of humans.
I enjoyed this post.

p.s. Somewhat reminisent of American cemetery in Normandie, France.

sandra seamans said...

Hi Jason, Wonderful tribute to all those lost souls. Back many years ago I read a book about the Johnstown Flood by David G. McCullough. I remember being struck by the brutality of the flood and the sheer serendipity that saved one and not another as the water tumbled through the valley.

Anonymous said...

Angel, that's true. It would make a good action/disaster movie.

Kaycie, it was a very famous event. It was the first relief effort undertaken by the newly formed American Red Cross. Clara Barton was there personally.

Bev, it's a very effective monument. Having a stone for each victim hammers home how many there are.

Joni, I'm glad you enjoyed your trip through Pennsylvania! The loss of whole families is a issue that pulls on me. On the one hand, no one is left behind, but on the other, their line is completely wiped out. I think I'd like to see someone left to carry on.

Anne, that must have been surreal to watch. Thanks for the visit! I'll be stopping back.

Steve, there were towns upstream from Johnstown that were complete obliterated.

Jaye, there were lawsuits arising from the event, but several members of the South Fork club were prominent lawyers. The working class folks of Johnstown lost the case. On the other hand, club members donated quite a bit of money to Johnstown.

Rel, thanks so much for the thoughts! I've never been to France, but I have seen pictures of that memorial. Yes, it does seem to have a similar effect.

Sandra, I think I have that book somewhere. I recall it being a good account. So many fascinating things happened--like the engineer who put his train in reverse and blew his whistle to try to warn people about the flood. Also, the baby who survived a trip many miles downstream by floating on debris.

Verilion said...

Oh my gosh, I didn't have time to read this the other day, but I'm glad I have now. What a thrilling story and yes there must be so many tales to tell from this tragedy. The graves also remind me of the Normandy cemeteries, but the lack of names here is haunting.

P.L. Frederick said...

That barbed wire flood is going to stick with me a lonnnng time. But I appreciated reading about this piece of history that I knew nothing about. Your personal story and pictures really add to it. Especially the tombstones that "form strange blinking patterns when you drive by."

Thanks for commenting on Small and Big. Plus, it led me to your blog!

P.L. Frederick
Small and Big

Anonymous said...

Verilion, I wonder how many stories were lost because no one took the time to write them down.

P.L. Frederick, that part about the barbed wire is unbelievably awful, isn't it? There are more graphic descriptions of the scene by the stone bridge, but I kept it lighter. I'll definitely be back to visit your blog. :)

anne frasier said...


i think bruce springsteen wrote a song about the flood, didn't he?

apprentice said...

The blank stones are enormously powerful. This was a really interesting piece of social history, thanks for the trouble you took with it.

Anonymous said...

Anne, that's ringing a bell, but I'm not sure. I'll have to look that one up.

Apprentice, my pleasure. :) Perhaps I'll do more on it from time to time.

anne frasier said...

i thought it was on nebraska. yep.
from wikipedia:

Bruce Springsteen's song "Highway Patrolman" from the Nebraska album (1982) references the event. The narrator of the song and his brother take turns "dancing with Maria, as the band played 'Night of the Johnstown Flood.'"

mama2dibs said...

Wow! What a story...and not only a story, but a true story. I know it's tragic, but I love history.

Michele said...

Wow! I don't remember ever hearing about this. Thanks for sharing the story and the pictures.

We need to remember when men's barriers fail - that nuture is not tameable. And the sad and tragic results that happen when we forget.

HUGS, Jason

Anonymous said...

Anne, I'm going to have to go find that song! Another quick anecdote: bars in the old west used to have signs saying "Don't Spit, Remember the Johnstown Flood."

Mama2dibs, incredible story, isn't it? Almost too strange to believe.

Michele, you are so right. We really are a tiny force. So much out there can blot us out of existence without even a pause.

J. Edward Cook said...

you should write a poem about those moonlit nights by the gravestones and the flood in general. my grandmother used to tell me stories that her grandmother told her about the flood. very interesting.

tommy said...

Fascinating story and nice pictures!