According to volunteer docent Richard Hambright, Johnstown’s flood was the second-greatest natural disaster in the country’s history in terms of loss of life, the largest being the Galveston Hurricane of 1900. Hambright, a retired schoolteacher, led a group of us to a fiber-optic three-dimensional model of the flood’s path, offering a bird’s-eye view of the landscape and the settlements along the Little Conemaugh as they existed on that day.
At a signal from Hambright, the display case lit up and the sequence of the flood started. The water in the lake, represented by blue light, started to “move,” spilling out into the Little Conemaugh River. We stared transfixed as the light traveled downstream. Side panels describe what’s happening, and the sound of rain, rushing water, telegraph warnings, train whistles and people’s screams complete the experience.
Hambright told us that the worst part of the disaster was the fire that broke out at the Stone Bridge in Johnstown when a kerosene tanker caught fire amid the piled-up debris, trapping hapless flood survivors. “Eighty people trapped in barbed wire and debris burned to death,” Hambright said. “The fire burned for three days.”
An excellent film shown hourly at the museum explains the flood’s story in considerable detail. It relates so many side stories: a train engineer racing his engine backward, train whistle blaring, to warn the people of the approaching torrent; a train idling on the rails as passengers watch the wave approaching — some jumped to safety and clambered up the hillsides, while those who remained on board drowned; and the horrible fiery deaths at the Stone Bridge.
Rebuilding after the flood was one of the great triumphs to come out of the Johnstown disaster. Clara Barton and the American Red Cross arrived and helped the survivors for five months. Donations poured in from around the country.
The Pittsburgh Relief Commission purchased prefab housing to shelter homeless survivors. About 400 “Oklahoma houses,” so named because they were built for homesteaders headed to the just-opened Oklahoma Territory, were sent to Johnstown as temporary shelters. A surviving example sits next door to the museum; you can look through a glass partition at the four-square structure with its simple household furnishings. Think of it as an early FEMA trailer.
“They were emergency housing not suited to Johnstown winters,” said Richard Burkert, president and chief executive of the Johnstown Area Heritage Association (JAHA). “People would stay in them a year or two until they got back on their feet.”
In reality, it would take years for the once-thriving steel town of 30,000 to get back on its feet.
Before leaving town, I took a walking tour following a JAHA map that took me to the United Methodist Church on Franklin Street. It was one of the few buildings in Johnstown to survive the flood. Although it was severely damaged, this sturdy structure withstood the fury of the raging Little Conemaugh River, in effect parting the waters and shielding several buildings behind it from the destructive wave.
Looking at the church in the gathering twilight, I had a hard time imagining that during the flood, the water where I stood would have been more than five times deeper than my height, and that anything could survive it.
But the church is still there — and so is Johnstown.
Lee teaches journalism at Bucknell University.