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After the Flood

In 1889, a wall of water made Johnstown, Pa., synonymous with disaster. It still bears the marks.

By Adam Issenberg
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, November 17, 2004; Page C02

On May 31, 1889, high in the mountains above Johnstown, Pa., the South Fork Dam collapsed suddenly and let loose 20 million tons of water. The deluge rushed down the narrow gorge of the Conemaugh River Lake, which was already swollen by the same heavy rains that destroyed the dam. Forty-five minutes and 14 miles later, a massive wave crashed down on 30,000 unsuspecting townspeople with a fury seldom matched in human history.

Even now, the stories -- told in museum displays and local lore -- echo through the valley. Like this one: Minutes before the flood waters reached Johnstown, 16-year-old Victor Heiser went to the barn behind his family's store to tend to the horses. Hearing a terrifying roar, Victor climbed onto the roof of the barn. He braced himself as a 30-foot wave demolished the store and ripped the roof off the barn. Victor clutched the roof helplessly for 10 minutes as it surfed across the wrecked city until he came to a rest more than a mile from where his home had stood.

The 1889 Johnstown Flood in Pennsylvania killed more than 2,000 people. Clara Barton came with the American Red Cross's first major relief effort. The people standing on the rooftops above were probably sightseers. (Courtesy of Johnstown Flood Museum)

When the waters receded, four square miles in the heart of the steel and coal boom town between Pittsburgh and Harrisburg were devastated, 2,209 lives were lost, and many thousands more were homeless. Victor lost both his parents.

At the time, the Johnstown Flood generated unparalleled interest. Hundreds of reporters descended on Johnstown, and assistance came from as far away as China. Washington's own Clara Barton spent four months in Johnstown administering aid in the American Red Cross's first major relief effort.

I went to Johnstown in search of the history and legend of this epic disaster, and began at the Johnstown National Flood Memorial at the dam site in present-day Saint Michael. The remains of South Fork Dam still peer down on South Fork Creek as the now quiet stream wends between oaks and poplars. As I stood atop the dam abutments 70 feet above and looked back at the empty lakebed, the topography that made the flood possible was obvious.

The valley is a great bowl and I could easily envision the 2 1/2-mile-long reservoir that served as an exclusive summer retreat for some of the Industrial Age's wealthiest scions, including Andrew Carnegie and Andrew Mellon. Sailboats and two small steamships plied the lake's waters. Several lakeside "cottages" -- actually lavish Victorian mansions -- are still visible on the far side of the valley in various states of dilapidation. They are stranded high above the lakebed, now a meadow flush with fading fall colors.

When constructed in the 1850s, the earthen dam was the largest of its type in the world -- more than 70 feet high and 900 feet across. A debate still rages as to whether its collapse resulted from the neglect of basic maintenance by the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club or whether it should be attributed solely to the eight inches of rain dropped by a storm. Contemporary lawsuits vindicated the club's wealthy members, but public opinion condemned them. On the 100th anniversary of the catastrophe, an article in Civil Engineering magazine concluded, "If South Fork Dam had been rebuilt to the original specifications and construction, the disaster of May 31, 1889, never would have happened."

The National Park Service visitor center was designed to resemble a 19th-century barn and sits next to the restored caretaker's house. Panels explain how the caretaker worked frantically, and in vain, to reinforce the dam as it eroded under pressure of the swollen reservoir.

Inside, an interactive diorama illustrates the day's events. The narration weaves the stories of individual victims and survivors, including a taped oral history by Victor Heiser, who was the last known survivor when he died in 1972. As Victor tells his story, a multimedia collage vividly depicts the tangle of debris carried by the wave.

The visitor center also shows "Black Friday," a 35-minute film in ethereal black-and-white. Its graphic reenactment of the flood had me gripping the armrests of my seat.

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© 2004 The Washington Post Company


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