Recently I was driving along the empty rolling hills and mountains of rural southwest Pennsylvania when I saw a sign and an arrow:
“Johnstown Flood Memorial,” the sign said.
I know about the flood, having interviewed an actual survivor of it back in the 70s. And I of course knew it happened in Johnstown, but that city was still several miles down the road from where I was.
So why put a memorial to the flood out here in the middle of nowhere, I thought.
When I arrived at the memorial and got out of the car I remembered why. The small visitors center overlooked a large green valley.
The valley used to be full of water, a reservoir created when the South Fork Dam was built on the Little Conemaugh River in the 1800s. Constructed as part of a cross-state canal system, the lake and its dam later became the property and playground of the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club, an exclusive and private mountain lake retreat whose membership grew to include more than 50 wealthy Pittsburgh steel, coal, and railroad industrialists.
At 3:15 pm on May 31, 1889, the earthen dam collapsed. In minutes the valley was empty of water and in less than an hour, after scouring small settlements along the river to bare rock, a massive wall of water slammed into the heart of Johnstown, 14 miles downstream, killing 2,209 people.
Interestingly, Johnstown’s recovery from this disaster was the first major relief effort for the fledgling American Red Cross and the work was led by founder Clara Barton herself. She would spend five months there.
I recall my interview with a female flood survivor back in 1978, one of few still alive then. She was in her early 90s, putting her at about toddler age when the flood hit.
Unfortunately for me, her memories were less than vivid and devoid of the kind of detail I needed to make it a good first person survivor tale. The story made the paper, barely, the woman’s sparse recollections padded with lots of history.
Just as I am padding out this post with some old photos, below.