Monday, July 10, 2017

Johnstown Flood National Memorial

View down the mountain from the visitor center at the Johnstown Flood Memorial

July 1, 2017

Day 2 found us driving to the city of Johnstown about 40 minutes from the RV park. Johnstown is located deep in a valley with steep sides. Streets are winding and switch back on themselves to keep the roads from being too steep. Neighborhoods look terraced, each road taller than the next. 

The history of the great flood is what brought us to Johnstown and to nearby Stoystown the source of all that water.
Stoystown was home to the South Fork Fishing and Country Club in the late 1800's. That exclusive club was attended by wealthy and influential businessmen from nearby Pittsburgh.  The club had a lake that was created by the South Fork Dam, an earth filled structure. The dam had fallen into disrepair in the 8 years since it was built. Several days of heavy rain in late May of 1889 weakened it further. Despite late repair efforts it collapsed on the afternoon of May 31.

The water rushed 14 miles to Johnstown at an estimated speed of 40 miles per hour sweeping away every thing in its path. People, houses, animals and even a passenger train joined the flood down the mountain. That mass of water destroyed the town of Johnstown killing 2209 people and destroying 1600 homes. 
The estimated 20 million tons of water took only 10 minutes to reach Johnstown. 

To me the saddest thing of all was a fire that started in a massive pile of debris that was blocked by a stone railroad bridge. That fire killed 80 survivors of the flood before rescuers could get to them with tools to free them from the wreckage. Police and fire stations, hardware stores and personal garages, basically any source of equipment had been washed away. 

Clean up and rebuilding started almost immediately. The terrible job of identifying the victims was nearly impossible. There are 777 graves in Grandview Cemetery, with markers that say unknown.
Donations came in from all over the country.

Clara Barton, at age 67, and 5 members of the American Red Cross worked to provide supplies and shelter to those who had lost everything. The Philadelphia Red Cross provided medical relief. The great flood was the first major peacetime relief effort of the Red Cross. 

It took another 5 years for the city to rebuild, but recovery took a lot longer. I can't imagine there was anyone in Johnstown that was not personally touched by the event.

In the early 1960's author David McCullough interviewed survivors of the flood about their experiences. 70 years later their voices broke as they cried while telling their stories. 

The  Johnstown Flood National Memorial is at the site of the South Fork Dam and clubhouse. The Visitor Center exhibits recordings of those interviews. 

There were several contributing factors to the flood and massive loss of life.
*South Fork Dam had deteriorated due to poor maintenance.
*That  May had been very wet. Heavy rain in the days before the collapse created severe pressure on the dam. The screens on the dam became clogged. There were no sluice pipes for controlled water release. The only way for water to leave was over the top of the dam, leading to catastrophic failure.
*Johnstown was a flood prone city. The dam had partially collapsed twice before, flooding homes with 2-3 feet of water. The Little Conemaugh River had flooded many times in the past. When warned of an impending breach of the dam most people in town moved themselves, furniture and personal items to the second floor and attics of their homes and prepared to wait for the water to recede. 

I have ordered David McCollough's book the Johnstown Flood to learn more about the aftermath of the disaster and rebuilding of the city.

It was poor planning on our part to visit the Flight 93 Memorial and the Johnstown Flood National Historic Site on consecutive days. We are glad to have seen both but if you are planning a similar trip I would advise doing something less emotionally charged in between the visits.

On a lighter note.

Johnstown is Hockeyville USA.  The are several cities designated Hockeytown by Kraft foods but Johnstown was the first.  We are reminded that the movie Slapshot was filmed here. 

Inclined Plane 

The city also has the worlds steepest Vehicular Incline Plane. The funicular, built in 1891 is included in the National Register of Historic Places. It was built after the great flood of 1889 and was intended as a means to escape to higher ground in the event of another flood.  
It has been used for that purpose twice.
Today the Incline Plane provides a means of transport up and down the mountain. We rode to the top with a man who biked to work everyday and returned home via the Incline Plane.

View form the top of the hill above the Inclined Plane
The views are spectacular, worth the terrifying 90 seconds of vertical lift.
There is a gift shop, an ice cream stand, and a great Italian restaurant at the top called Asiago. 

July 3, 2017

We are deep in Pittsburgh Country.  Steelers, Pirates, and Penguins logos and colors are everywhere. 
Fred wore his Yankee hat proudly when we attended a game in PNC Park. 

PNC Park has River Views.
The stadium is beautiful with great views of boat traffic on the Alleghney River. The Roberto Clemente Bridge in the background is closed to motor traffic when there is a game scheduled. It makes a wide walkway into the stadium and is lined with street performers, vendors and fans. Definitely a party atmosphere. We enjoyed the game as well as the Pirate music and "Hoist the Colors" rally cry. Big skull and crossbones flags are welcomed in the stands.
Pittsburgh looks like a great city with lots to see and do. We will plan enough time to explore it more when when the Behemoth brings us this way again.

Johnstown Flood National Memorial
733 Lake Rd
South Fork, PA

Johnstown Inclined Plane
711 Edgehill Dr
Johnstown, PA


  1. Now that you've been to Johnstown, I'll bet the book will be riveting, Bonnie. I read it and could imagine the flood....and we haven't visited yet. It is an excellent book.

    Good advice on not going to both places on consecutive days.

    1. Yes the two days in a row was overwhelming but there are a lot of lighthearted things to do in the area.