A flood of memory

September 16, 2013 — Leave a comment

I own two antique books.

I discovered the first little treasure buried in a box of quilting supplies that were passed on to me after my husband’s Grandma Fleagle died. The little cloth-bound book is a mere two inches wide, three inches tall, with the title: Daily Texts, With Verses of Hymns: Adapted for General Use, and Suited for Every Year, published by the American Tract Society. There’s no copyright year inside, but the pen and ink inscription inside the back cover reads, “Presented to Ralph Fleagle by his Great Aunt Anne Knox, March 24th, 1886.” Ralph, my husband’s great uncle, would have been a young boy at the time. The book is more than 120 years old, but in excellent condition.

The other was a gift from my dad about ten years ago — probably one of his Goodwill finds. This 500+ page book is from the same period as the little devotional. Its title: Johnstown Horror — Valley of Death, copyright 1989, published within months of the historic flood. Dad knew I was interested in the topic because I had lived in the area around Johnstown for nine years.

On May 31st, 1889, the residents of Johnstown were already moving their belongings to the second floor of their homes and businesses, as heavy rainfall filled the streets. They were accustomed to frequent flooding during heavy rains or rapidly melting snow, since their town was situated down in a valley at the fork of the Conemaugh and Stoneycreek Rivers. But the impact of this particular flood would far surpass anything they’d previously experienced: human neglect would compound the devastation and destruction.

The South Fork Dam, a man-made structure built fourteen miles upstream, created Lake Conemaugh, a two-mile by one-mile pleasure lake belonging to an elite fishing and hunting club. This earthen dam gave way that day because three cast iron discharge pipes that previously allowed a controlled release of water had been removed by a previous owner. The dam’s collapse unleashed a wall of water that cascaded down the valley toward the town, 450 feet below. Engineers have compared the force of hat wall of water to Niagra Falls; the volume of water rushing toward the city was temporarily equivalent to the Mississippi River. In the narrower parts of the valley, the wave rose to a staggering sixty feet high. It sped along at forty miles per hour and swept away trees, houses, buildings, vehicles, animals and people; several 8.5 ton locomotives were even moved nearly a mile by the raging water.

The Great Johnstown Flood of 1889 was the worst in our nation’s history and caused the greatest loss of American life in a single day (2,209) prior to September 11. It would be a major test of Clara Barton’s newly formed Red Cross. The city wouldn’t recover for five years. Then less than fifty years later, in 1936, Johnstown would experience another significant flood, caused by heavy run-off from melting snow and three days of rain. The water rose to fourteen feet in some areas, destroying 77 buildings and severely damaging over 3,000 more. Two dozen lives were lost. Then, again in 1977, a third major flood would hit the area.

My husband and I had just arrived in Pennsylvania on July 20th. He was going to start a new position, so we checked into a motel about 45 minutes away; we planned to house hunt the next day. We heard thunder and heavy rain during the night but had no idea what was transpired overmight. The next morning’s front page was shocking.

The storm that stalled over Johnstown and its neighboring communities dropped an incredible 11.82″ within a ten-hour period. According to the National Weather Service, it would only take a rainfall of 7.32″ to precipitate a ‘once in a thousand years’ flood; but nearly 12″ is enough to cause a ‘once in five to ten thousand years’ flood! Six dams along along the converging rivers failed because they couldn’t handle the overflow; nor could the sewer systems in the affected communities. Once again, with over a hundred million gallons of water crashing down the valley, flood waters rose more than a story high in the center of town. This time the death toll reached 85, and property damage topped $300 million.

During the nine years we lived in the Johnstown area, we retraced the 1889 flood route, driving in our car from the point where the dam broke, all the way down the valley to the heart of town, where thirty acres of debris lodged against the stone arches of the railroad bridge and caught fire. We even had the opportunity to have dinner with an elderly man who had survived the 1889 flood as a baby. We would take visiting guests to see the Johnstown Flood Museum, where many amazing survivor stories from all three floods are recounted.

Again and again I would attempt to imagine what it would have been like to be a resident in 1889 or 1977, trying to survive a catastrophe of such massive proportions. The book is very aptly titled, in my opinion: it is indeed a horror, the likes of which my mind cannot actually fathom. I seem to be hardwired to cling desperately to the notion that I can somehow control of my fate, manage all the variables, thus averting unwanted discombobulation. Events of this intensity, unfortunately, prove otherwise.

I suppose the folks in Colorado could attest to this reality.


The gift book from my dad


Debris piles up at the railroad bridge, 1889 flood


1889 flood


1889 flood

1936 flood

Exchange Johnstown Flood of 1977

1977 flood


1977 flood


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