After leaving Allegheny Portage Railroad NHP, I was excited and intrigued to visit Johnstown Flood National Memorial. I took a wrong turn and had to detour to get gas, so I had plenty of time to think- what was the deal with this flood? Why hadn’t I heard anything about it? It’s one of 400 sites the federal government thinks is important enough to create a NPS unit for, so it must have been pretty dramatic! When I got closer, I realized how much I was driving uphill. Why was the visitor center for a flood so high?
The visitor center is gorgeous and modern, I think it must have been redone recently- it was fully accessible and the theater still smelled like paint! Outside, there is a lovely pollinator garden of native plants.
Immediately after entering, you are STUNNED by this diorama- a life-sized, huge tree’s root ball, railroad car, bits of houses and barns, and even a flood survivor clinging to a piece, SMASHING through the wall of the visitor center. I think the first words I said to the ranger were “HOLY COW.” The speakers mounted on the railing play the story of the young man depicted, who rode a section of barn roof through his town and valley in a truly catastrophic flood that was at least partially caused by human decisions.
On May 31, 1889, the South Fork Dam on the Little Conemaugh River failed. There had been a lot of rain recently, and the dam was poorly made- it didn’t have any relief valves to allow water to safely drain out, and was essentially a pile of soil and rocks. The owners of the dam and its reservoir were the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club, mostly out-of-towners who wanted a pleasant country retreat. When they purchased the land, they actually lowered the dam and added screens to the reservoir so fish wouldn’t escape. These screens also would trap debris and slow water draining.
You can read about the events around the flood on the site’s website (nps.gov/jofl) but if you’re ever in the southern Pennsylvania area, I highly recommend checking out this site. In addition to the striking diorama there is a very well-done movie that tells the story of the dam, the flood, the 2,000+ people who died, and the recovery efforts. In fact, Clara Barton, founder of the American Red Cross, organized the relief efforts. After the diorama and movie, there is a museum area with documents, photos, and maps of the flood and efforts to warn people of it. Since Johnstown was built in a floodplain, residents had a routine of bringing children and valuables to the second floor. But with the dam failing and massive amounts of water draining into the valley, those measures weren’t enough. Houses, railroad cars, bridges, everything was swept downstream.
Stepping out on the back patio after watching the video is surreal. It was a humid Summer day when I visited, not the downpouring Spring of the flood, and it was very quiet. Birds were chirping and I was able to survey the valley and read the signage without disturbance.
Johnstown Flood National Memorial tells a story of a time in history that I was not familiar with. I was sad about the lives and livelihoods lost, impressed at the people who worked together to save as many people as possible, and sobered by the thought of the doctors and volunteers who tried to identify bodies (over 700 remained unidentified.) The visitor center and movie did a great job of making these 100+ year old events familiar to me.
I took a deep breath of fresh mountain air and steeled myself for the next park, which commemorates an event that occurred during my lifetime, that I was already familiar with: the Flight 93 National Memorial.