Two things struck me when I arrived in Johnstown, PA.
First, it was September 10th, a day before the anniversary of 9/11, the worst human caused disaster in U.S. history. That dubious feat unseated Johnstown, which had held that distinction for well over 100 years.
And second, I had just left Wheeling, WV and Pittsburgh, PA which were both battling major flooding from an unusually wet Summer and the remnants of Hurricane Gordon.
And here I was, at the launching point of the devastating Johnstown Flood in rural Pennsylvania.
The Backstory on the Johnstown Flood
For those of you that are unfamiliar with the story, the day after Memorial Day 1889 was a day that would live in infamy in Western Pennsylvania. High above and miles away from the city lay the South Fork Dam, a structure that was built by the U.S. government, abandoned and then modified by rich fat cats, as an exclusive club featuring a stocked lake and a lowered dam wall that was to be used as a foot bridge. While lowering the dam wasn't bad enough, they also put bars across the spillway to keep their stocked fish from escaping and steadily increased the water level of the lake.
This was bad news from the start, but add to that the fact the dam had already burst once before, causing minor flooding in the communities below, made it inexcusable. But the attitude of the club members including Andrew Carnegie and Henry Frick was that they needed this place that could be an escape from all the riff-raff in the valley below.
Because there were threats of a dam breach many times before, when the telegraph message was sent down on May 31st warning that the dam was giving way under heavy rains, it wasn't taken seriously. The immense power of the water crashing down the Conemaugh River valley crushed everything in it's path. Communities above Johnstown were the first to be wiped out. A stone viaduct that carried the Pennsylvania Railroad trains was demolished in minutes by the mighty force of the water. And in Johnstown, a town of 30,000 people, residents ran for their lives and were washed away or burned and drowned simultaneously by the havoc the waters brought down upon them. Over 2200 people lost their lives in a senseless tragedy.
Prepare for the Most Terrible Movie Ever Created by The National Park Service
Terrible is an adjective that can be used two different ways. The first and most common is to suggest something is really bad. But I'm engaging the second meaning here, which is to say, the U.S. National Park Service's movie at South Fork could cause terror in those unprepared - or at least distress. I almost felt bad for the parents who brought young children in. Okay, maybe I'm exaggerating a bit, but by the end of this film I was seriously creeped out.
It starts eerily with 4 minutes of dripping water and a tinkling piano set to a black screen. Alfred Hitchcock would be proud. Then you're introduced to a wide expanse of graves draped in a smoky fog - meanwhile the film never relents, teeming in its dreary black and white glory. Meanwhile a cautionary voice tells you of all the ghosts that remain to tell their story of the great Johnstown Flood.
This is followed by at least 30 minutes of empty faces, photos of distruction, more graves, and stories of communities wiped out by fire and water. Some of the footage was taken from silent movies made in the early 20th Century. None of the footage is of the Johnstown event, as motion pictures weren't invented yet, but as you see the woman standing at the window and then the water crashing in and debris coming from all directions in a film made some 30-40 years later, it almost feels real. As the screen credits roll, they go into an endless run of names and descriptions of bodies that were found. It's pretty graphic and somewhat disturbing.
I must say though, it's a very thorough film and you will walk away with an expansive view of the tragedy from all sides. I think it's definitely worth seeing. But just prepare yourself. And probably don't bring young children with you.
A Beautiful Hilltop at South Fork and Lush Valley
The drive up, using GPS was a little hairy. GPS decided to take me up some steep rough hill on a one-lane road. There are probably more direct ways in. But by the time I got to the top of the hill, the view was incredible.
The South Fork Dam no longer exists, but behind the little house, you'll see where that lake and dam used to be. The flowers and lush green hillsides are a treat for the eyes. It's definitely worth a drive up to see it. And all of this is free of charge.
Johnstown and the Grandview Cemetery
After South Fork, I drove down into Johnstown proper. I'd highly suggest a visit to the Grandview Cemetery. The main reason I went to the cemetery was to see that "grand view" but I have to admit, I never found it. But what I did find was a sea of stones that told an even deeper tale of the events that occurred in the doomed 19th Century town.
The image I used at the beginning of this post was the first shocker. So many grave stones and remains were lost due to the power of that flood. A town's history washed away. Amazingly the Johnstown Stone Bridge still remains (as pictured above).
The other thing that struck me, I couldn't believe all the graves I found of people who had died days or weeks after the flood. In fact, I saw more of those than I did of people who died on the 31st of May. Those graves all weaved a tale of immeasurable heartbreak, injury, mayhem, and disease. The immensity of it all was surreal.
For a day trip just about an hour and a half outside of Pittsburgh, it was a powerful reminder of how we need to value all human life. There is no real riff raff - only people trying to make the best for themselves the only way they know how.
If you want to read more about the Johnstown Flood, one of my favorite American authors and an amazing researcher David McCullough wrote the first of his many successful historical books on that very subject. I highly recommend it and your purchase with this link will go toward helping me provide more stories and suggestions of places to visit as you get out from behind that desk and take on the 9-5 travel lifestyle. Thanks for reading.