THE JOHNSTOWN FLOOD AND THE DAM THAT WAS IN PERFECT CONDITION
Travel to our hometown allowed me to visit with my sister The Johnstown Flood Museum. I was thankful to hear more of the story and tried to write about it.
In Western Pennsylvania the Little Conemaugh
becomes the Conemaugh River which is a main tributary
of the Allegheny which like the Monongahela receives
overflow rainfall from the Allegheny Mountains.
From Pittsburgh to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, passengers in 1840
were transported down interlocking canals and soon a dam was built
to supply water for the canal for visitors going back and forth
between Johnstown and Pittsburgh to the west
to hold the water from the mountain streams
to feed the canal when the rivers were low in summer.
That Memorial Day in the last week of May, 1889
the dam, they said, was in perfect condition.
Industrial barons and their families traveled
from Pittsburgh to Johnstown to hotel and cottages
that had been built up above the reservoir at
what they named the South Fork Hunting and Fishing Club.
Fishing, boating and swimming were enjoyed by those members
who demanded privacy from the people who lived below;
they raced their sailboats and walked along the water
and the dam, they said, was in perfect condition.
One man sent his engineer to inspect the lake and its stability
and he wrote a report to the founder of the Hunting and Fishing
Club who insisted: “You and your people are in no danger;
the dam is in perfect condition.”
On the evening of Memorial Day, 1889, the rain began to fall in
downpours—cloudbursts thundered all through the mountains.
Families began to visit friends on high ground while others
refusing to believe the warnings scoffed at such foolishness.
Offices in Johnstown closed; some children played in the streets
while others moved to attics and watched the water rise.
Visitors to town from Kansas laughed at the talk of flood which
they could not imagine; they had plans after all to attend a wedding.
As a small crowd of workmen watched from above
suddenly twenty million tons of water burst through at its
weakest place tossing the nearest houses in the air like toys
then dashed them to splinters against the bluff.
Down the valley for fourteen miles the water raged
taking with it the houses and cattle and people who lived below
until it reached the bottom of the valley and smashed into
Johnstown killing almost three thousand people in a few hours.
Some were saved to tell the story of the dam that
flooded that valley: babies flying through windows–alive;
the man who floated past his home three times, calling
to his wife not to spend too much on his funeral
only to return a third time and be deposited like Jonah
back on land to tell the story of the day he survived that
great body of water that came crashing down the valley
breaking out of the dam that was in perfect condition.