Details: Johnstown, Pa.
On a recent visit, I stood near Unger’s porch, looking out over a pastoral valley dotted with trees and the Little Conemaugh gently meandering through it. A railroad track ran along the valley floor. I could see the remainder of the dam: two earthen abutments with a telltale 270-foot gap between them.
Unger’s farm is now the site of the National Park Service’s Johnstown Flood National Memorial in South Fork, Pa., about 14 miles upriver from Johnstown. Unger’s house is the original, but it’s not open to the public.
I’ve always been fascinated by the Johnstown Flood, so I’d come to the memorial to learn more about it. At the visitor center, I read about its causes: A mega storm in which about 10 inches of rain fell in the 24 hours leading up to the tragedy caused the long-neglected earthen dam holding back the lake waters to give way.
Photographs show piles of debris, a huge tree rammed through the front door of a house, freight cars tossed about. A display case shows Victorian mourning garb. The focal point is a display telling the story of Victor Heiser, a 16-year-old who survived the flood. A 92-year-old Heiser’s voice plays over speakers, while a model of him as a boy clinging to his barn roof hangs from the ceiling.
Park Ranger Doug Bosley explained that the lake was the site of the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club, an exclusive private association whose members included the likes of Andrew Carnegie and Andrew Mellon. The rich and powerful of Pittsburgh built lavish “cottages” on the shores of the lake, some of which remain today, making it their private summer retreat for boating, fishing and picnicking. Club members apparently weren’t interested in maintaining the dam and actually lowered it so that carriages could cross the abutment. The people downstream would pay for the pleasures of the rich.
When the dam was breached, according to Bosley, “the water emptied out in about 45 minutes.” And in that interval a wall of water and gathering debris swept everything in its path — tree limbs, freight cars, houses and human bodies. So destructive was the force of the water that several towns in its path were leveled, and locomotives were tossed about like bath toys.
Standing on the dam, looking back at what was once the lake bed, I used my imagination to fill in the little valley with more than 70 feet of water. As I tried to picture the moment of the breach, I realized that this was just the beginning of the story; 400 feet lower and about 14 miles downstream, Johnstown was the end. I headed there to get a complete picture.