Magazine article USA TODAY

Remembering the Johnstown Flood 125 Years Later

Magazine article USA TODAY

Remembering the Johnstown Flood 125 Years Later

Article excerpt

IN 1889, silent screen star Charlie Chaplin and German dictator Adolf Hitler were born, and the Eiffel Tower was the centerpiece of the World's Fair in Paris, meant to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the French Revolution. However, on May 31, 1889, in a small town in Pennsylvania, something happened that would become the most reported international news event of the year--the Johnstown Flood. If you come from Johnstown, as I do, the first thing someone mentions when you say the name of your hometown is "Oh, the place that had the flood." (It had many, actually, three of them major ones, but the flood of 1889 is known as The Great Flood.)

It was huge. It was cataclysmic--unlike anything anyone ever had seen or imagined before. The man-made lake that was the centerpiece of the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club sat on top of a mountain and the dam that held it in place had been faulty for a while, but the wealthy industrialists who vacationed at the club did not want to dismantle the lake to repair the dam. Over the years there had been many warnings that the dam was going to collapse but, since it had not done so, people became inured to the fear.

A perfect storm put an end to the speculation. It had rained heavily May 30, and through the morning and early afternoon the next day. The screens that held in the best fish for the wealthy vacationings fishermen were clogged, allowing no water to release. The dam wall, bolstered with earth, manure, leaves, and tree limbs, among other things, was eroding. Some drainpipes were missing.

Then it happened. The dam gave way and the town below it was decimated. It took the lake an hour to roll down the mountain, grabbing everything in its path--horses, carriages, cows, trains. When the lake reached town, people saw only what looked like a large black ball, and that ball (water with everything it had picked up along the way) took only a matter of minutes to wipe out Johnstown. Where there had been houses and churches and shops, there was something akin to a raging ocean and, when that temporary ocean drained throughout the day and night, what was left was an expanse of muddy debris.

Would-be survivors rode on rooftops, on logs, anything. Some of them made it; many did not. Much of the debris rode to the stone bridge in the center of town and burst into flames--meaning that some who had lived through the flood perished in the fires that followed. All told, 2,209 people died, including entire families. That was horrible, as was when a mother survived six children, or a child from a large family was completely orphaned.

This year marks the 125th anniversary of The Great Flood. What does it mean to the town? How do people commemorate a disaster? First of all, I think we try to understand what happened. It is easy to twirl the mustaches of those rich men: Andrew Mellon, Andrew Carnegie, Henry Clay Frick, Robert Pitcairn, Henry Phipps Jr., and others. They were millionaires at a time when that was rare. Carnegie and Pitcairn were examples of the American Dream--immigrants who had worked their way up. They were go-getters. These wealthy men tended to be churchgoers. They valued learning. Several were art lovers, but they had reached positions of power and privilege that led them to expect that things always would go their way. If the dam always had held and they could continue to have their regattas--imagine their gorgeous sailboats on the mountaintop--and if they could continue to fish for black bass in the lake, why should they undo all that comfort, even though entire communities dotted the landscape below them.

Most of the people who lived below the glorious South Fork Fishing and Flunting Club only had heard rumors of the paradise on top of the mountain. There were doctors, lawyers, merchants, and schoolteachers in those communities, but mostly there were immigrant laborers, people who had come to America with their own hopes for success. …

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