Thursday, July 14, 2016

The Johnstown Flood

Getting Away With Murder

Years ago I watched an episode of the PBS series the American Experience that left me stunned. Charles Guggenheim's Academy Award ® winning documentary chronicled the Johnstown Flood of 1889. The film complemented historian / writer David McCullough's 1968 book by the same name. At the end, while closing credits rolled, I tried to process what I had just seen. Like me, the film is a bit dated now. It may be viewed on "You Tube" here.

The film and book made me resolve to visit Johnstown someday.

As measured in loss of life, only Galveston's 1900 Hurricane claimed more flood victims than the Johnstown Flood. It even eclipses the loss of life attributable to 2005's Hurricane Katrina. Here is a (very) short version of the story.

Johnstown Pennsylvania
In the years leading up to the 1889 flood, Johnstown was a prosperous city of 30,000 residents. It was home to America's largest steel mill (the Cambria Iron works). Its star was rising due to its development of the "Bessemer" process producing cost effective steel of exceptional quality.

This is the steel that triggered rapid expansion to America's railway network and (along with the development of Elijah Otis' revolutionary elevator) enabled the era of the American skyscraper.

The demand for Johnstown's steel delivered its residents commerce, art, culture and an exceptional standard of living.

The South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club and Lake Conemaugh
Fourteen miles above Johnstown was the South Fork Dam and the Western Reservoir.

Dam construction was completed in 1852 by the State of Pennsylvania to provide a stable source of water for its extensive canal transport network. However, due to Pennsylvania's rapidly expanding rail network, its canals (and correspondingly the dam and reservoir) soon became obsolete and were abandoned.

The South Fork Dam was repeatedly sold until it was eventually purchased in 1879 by a group of wealthy investors who made some "repairs" to it in 1870. The club renamed the Western Reservoir Lake Conemaugh to serve as the centerpiece of this ultra exclusive new "invitation-only" Fishing and Hunting Club.

The "Club" consisted of just 66 members including the elite of  Pittsburgh industrialists, bankers and lawyers. Members included Andrew Carnegie, Philander Knox and Andrew Mellon.

Over the next decade maintenance to the dam was cosmetic and performed without aid of appropriate engineers.

Summertime at the Club

 Fishing, Sailing and Gas Powered Boats
Were Popular on Lake Conemaugh

Interim owners and the Club made three critical adjustments to the dam. Its height was reduced at the center to create a wider carriage lane. It's flood release tubes were removed and sold for scrap. And the spillway was obstructed to prevent valuable lake trout from escaping.

The changes meant that the level of Lake Conemaugh could no longer be controlled or systematically drained.

The Club was an instant success and from 1879 until 1889 the shores of Lake Conemaugh saw development of giant "cottages" and a luxurious clubhouse. The club was now a well guarded exclusive private playground for Pennsylvania's richest families.

The Flood
Disaster struck after a record rainfall pounded Lake Conemaugh Memorial Day 1889.  The lake rose by the hour finally breaching the (lowered) top of the dam. 

Once water began flowing over the dam it simply began washing the dam away eventually releasing 20,000,000 tons of water into the valley below. The amount of water released was the equivalent of the water flowing over Niagara Falls in 36 minutes.

As floodwaters churned down the valley they ingested rail lines and a barb wire factory. The water sucked in trees and scoured away most of the valley towns along the way.

As the floodwaters passed there were few traces that the towns ever existed. 

Where the Flood Entered Johnstown
(Viewed from Johnstown's Incline Plane) 

Aftermath Photos 

 The Famous "Staged" Newspaper Photo
A Photographer Asked a Friend to Play Dead
The Clean White Shirt Gave it Away

 The Most Famous Flood Photo

 Magnifiers Show High Waternmarks on City Hall
Top = Flood of 1889
Middle = Flood of 1936
Bottom = Flood of 1977

By the time the flood reached Johnstown it was no longer just a body of water. It was a multi-story rotating and grinding pile of trees, barb wire, steel and debris. 

Club attempts to alert Johnstown of the dam's failure were hampered as the massive storm had left telegraph lines fragile. 

So Johnstown faced the flood with little warning.

When the flood reached Johnstown it spread out flowing over the top of the city destroying virtually all of the wood frame buildings in town.

A 30 ton pile of debris then slammed into the Stone Bridge at the far end of Johnstown causing the flood to ripple and backwash back through the City.  The debris field at the Stone Bridge included everything the flood had picked up along the way including many trapped victims.

 The Unique Internal Rib Structure of the Stone Bridge
The Internal Ribs May Have Contributed to Damning up of the Debris Pile

As desparate attempts were being made to free the victims trapped in the debris (now filled with hot coals and gasses) it spontaneously ignited, burning uncontrollably for days. Bystanders could only watch as trapped victims, many of whom had ridden rooftops into the debris pile, perished in the fire.

The Death Toll
2,209 bodies were officially counted at City morgues. However many victims were never found or accounted for. 99 entire families were killed. 750 victims could never be identified. Bodies were found as late as 1911, as far away as Cincinnati Ohio.

The Roar and the Whimper
The world expressed outrage and responded with a massive outpouring of relief. 

Clara Barton arrived with America's new American Red Cross. She worked tirelessly, never leaving Johnstown, for the next 5 months. 

Club members never accepted any responsibility for the flood and accompanying disaster. A few made small contributions of blankets and supplies to relief efforts. Andrew Carnegie helped repair Johnstown's Library.


Andrew Carnegie
Industrialist and Club Member

Lawsuits against the club were lodged, but eventually were all defeated. Club member's simply contended it was an Act of God and walked away.

Many went on to assume some of the most powerful governmental positions in the US.

 Andrew Mellon
Pittsburgh Banker and Club Member
Went on to Become Secretary of the Treasury

 Philander Knox
Lawyer and Club Member
Went on to Become US Senator and US Attorney General

Despite Johnstown's efforts to rebuild (including the development of the worlds steepest Incline Plane allowing access to new hilltop neighborhoods), Johnstown never fully recovered. Today, it is Pennsylvania's poorest city.

 Johnstown's Incline Plane
The Steepest Incline Railway in the World

American history, right up to the unpunished crimes from OJ to Wall Street, reaffirm that responsibility of the rich for its negligence or lawless behavior, no matter how repugnant, may be made to go away if you avert your eyes to the suffering you cause and have the resources to "lawyer-up". 

To me the Johnstown Flood serves as a mirror to American history. 

And, against that prism, it is disheartening that, even in 2016, American apathy seems to expect that the rich are entitled to, and deserve, special treatment.

Our presidential candidates even openly express how they are above the law.

One even boasts he could "kill someone in broad daylight in Times Square and get away with it".

Failures to learn from our past can foreshadow our future.

Roadboy's Travels © 2016

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