Flood Watch

Nature’s Fury Comes Alive When Visiting Johnstown, Pa.

By Lisa Perez | Photography by Nicolás Humeny | Posted on 07.16.16 – Destinations, Travel

Appropriately, it’s raining the afternoon my friend and I visit the Johnstown Flood National Memorial. Rain had fallen relentlessly all month and this day is no different. The dark gray clouds glowered over us and the storm rolled down over the hills, adding an eerie relevance to the visit.

The memorial, actually located in South Fork, Pa., overlooks the valley where the dam collapsed on May 31, 1889, causing what most people simply know today as the Johnstown Flood. The drive here from Frederick takes about two hours.

Entering the National Memorial building, we are greeted by friendly staff and a large picture window that offers a view of the valley that in 1889 was a three-mile long manmade lake. The two broken sections of the dam are clearly visible and we can make out some of the old outbuildings that at one time were part of the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club nestled along the former lake shores.

The building has a number of displays, including a video, recorded accounts of eyewitnesses, several dozen photographs and a life-sized tree trunk diorama. A topographical display shows the path of the water when the dam broke and 20 million tons of water raced 14 miles through the narrow valleys to Johnstown.

Traveling at 40 miles per hour and destroying everything in its path, floodwater charged through the town, killing townspeople and washing away homes and businesses. As the debris accumulated in front of a stone bridge, it caught fire and even more were killed as a result. The flood claimed 2,209 lives and remains one of the worst natural disasters in the history of the United States. It still holds the record as the nation’s worst flood.

Johnstown, located in the southwestern part of Pennsylvania, was first organized as a town in 1800. Two tributaries, the Little Conemaugh and Stoney Creek, meet between the hills to form the Conemaugh River; early settlers established Johnstown at that confluence. The valleys, while beautiful, are narrow, and one can see now how the shapes of the mountains and valleys drove the water off the mountains into these rivers and down to the low spot that is Johnstown.

As the settlement grew, more houses and businesses were built and the sides of the mountains were cleared. Without tree root systems to hold water, combined with the geography and topography, the early residents of Johnstown accepted the flooding that frequently, almost annually, occurred.

Nonetheless, Johnstown quickly became an important point for travelers from Philadelphia and Harrisburg en route to Pittsburgh. In those days, a trip from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh by Conestoga wagon took 23 days. Because of the high demand for goods and the increasing popularity of travel, people worked to improve the time. By 1826, the Pennsylvania Canal system, connecting those two points by combining railroad, water travel and portage, had cut the journey down to 4½ days.

Because the canals needed a constant supply of water, the need arose for a reservoir in the Johnstown area. The result was the South Fork dam, built in 1830 by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.

But by the 1850s railroads by themselves could make the cross-state trip in 13 hours, rendering the canal system, and the South Fork Dam, obsolete. The Pennsylvania Railroad bought the dam system from the state so it could use the canal beds to lay more track. In 1881, the railroad sold the dam and remaining land to a group of wealthy Pittsburgh businessmen who formed the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club. Members included many well-known names such as Mellon, Carnegie, Frick and Knox. Leading financiers and industrialists of the late 1800s, they used the South Fork area as a getaway to relax and vacation.

Although engineers originally planned and constructed the dam, each subsequent turnover changed the use, maintenance and structure. The fishing and hunting club allowed the water level to rise almost to the height of the dam, while removing drainage pipes and blocking run-offs and spillways, thus increasing risk in the event of heavy rain or snow melt. It was -a recipe for disaster.

The Johnstown flood made national and even world headlines. The American Red Cross, led by Clara Barton, spent five months tirelessly helping survivors. While more than 2,000 people were killed, there were still more than 25,000 survivors, many with nothing— no food, clothes or housing. Temporary living spaces were built and people from across the country sent supplies to help the devastated town.

The town pulled together quickly and got back on its feet. Within three weeks, the railroad was running again, an absolute necessity to the recovery in order to bring supplies, food and clothes to the stranded town.  Within a few years, the town was rebuilt and even larger than before.

As we drive down the valley from South Fork to Johnstown, I find myself marveling that the waters could travel for 14 miles and still wreak the havoc and destruction they did. Arriving in Johnstown, we drive to the Johnstown Flood Museum to learn even more about the town. Much detail has gone into the displays, videos and educational materials, making it a must-visit when seeking to learn more about the historic flood. Allow yourself at least an hour to take in the artifacts.

As we leave the museum we look up and see the Inclined Plane, pegged into the side of the hill. Built in 1891, it is the world’s steepest vehicular inclined plane and was built to provide access to the top of the hill above the town. Vehicles and people were taxied up and down the mountain for many years.

Today, it houses a restaurant and provides a vista overlooking the entire valley.

Other attractions in the area include a symphony orchestra, a nationally recognized folk festival, a gallery of the Southern Alleghenies Museum of Art, and a branch campus of the University of Pittsburgh. The Flight 93 memorial in Shanksville is a short distance away. Further west, going towards Pittsburgh, are Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater and Ohiopyle.

The hills and valleys of the Appalachians in Pennsylvania never cease to please and delight. Even on a rainy day.