Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Johnstown - Flood City

We've resumed traveling and headed East to Johnstown, PA to visit friends and reacquaint ourselves with Bruster's Ice Cream (new favorite flavor - "Jamaican Me Crazy" and Gobs, a desert cake-sorta-thingy. We lived in the Johnstown area for a little over three years until I transfered to the Dayton, Ohio area, and made some good friends who we've kept in touch with over the years. Fittingly, it was dreary and drizzly day when we decided to revisit the sites involved in the great Johnstown flood of 1889, when over 2200 people lost their lives. Our first stop was the National Park Service monument at site of what was South Fork Lake, about 14 miles upstream from the town. There's a great visitor center with an award-winning movie, exhibits, and many pictures of what the lake looked like before the flood. It's interesting to stand in front of a photo of the lake taken in 1889 before the flood, and then look out the window at the lake as it is today, tree-covered with a railroad track running through the middle of the cut in the dam. In 1889, this lake was the resort property of Pittsburgh's elite; Andrew Carnegie, Andrew Mellon, and others spent time here. The dam, originally built by the state to provide water for a canal system, was built above the deepest river gorge in the country East of the rocky Mountains. The disaster was set up by the decision to lower the damn to make it wide enough for carriages to pass over. In late May unusually heavy rains saturated the ground, and on May 30 an estimated 6 to 10 inches of rain fell, raising creeks and rivers to unprecidented levels. At 3:10 in the afternoon, the dam broke and the lake quickly emptied into the gorge and began roaring toward Johnstown. The story of the wall of water and it's destruction as it roared toward Johnstown is amazing; you can read more about the flood here. When it reached Johnstown, the wall was 60 feet high and traveling at 40 MPH. If that wasn't bad enough, it had roared through a barbed wire factory and picked up tons of wire on its way. If a wall of water filled with barbed wire wasn't bad enough, it had also picked up a few train locomotives for good measure. You can see the river entering the town at the top of the picture; the water spread as it entered the city, then smashed into the mountain directly under where I took the picture, then swirled around and tried to resume its path down the river to the left. Unfortunately, a stone railroad bridge (still standing) blocked its path, and over 30 acres of debris, including people, became trapped against the bridge. Then it caught on fire and burned for three days. Pictures of the aftermath of the flood portray the devastation, but a visit to Grandview Cemetery, where most of the victims are buried, brings home the heartbreak. 99 families were completely wiped out; driving through the cemetery, it's not unusual to see a group of gravestones, all with the same date of death, May 31, 1889. One section of the cemetery is particularly sad - the unmarked gravestones of 777 victims who were never identified.
Johnstown has a history of bad luck; more floods, the most recent in 1977, and the demise of the mining and steel industry have left this town which had a population of over 75,000 in the early 1900s has a population today of slightly over 20,000 and it continues to dwindle. In 2003, US Census data indicated that Johnstown was the least likely city in the US to attract newcomers. After visiting again, we can see why.
Hey, come back, next time we'll have a happier story!

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