On the last day of May 2014, I took a day off to travel to Johnstown with my sister. After a brief stroll through the Grandview Cemetery — no roadtrip with me is complete without a stop at a graveyard — we rode the incline down to the city. We spent hours wandering around, visiting museums and admiring the architecture, all beneath a flawless blue sky.
It was mid-afternoon before we ascended on the incline again and took a seat on the observation deck. We enjoyed some ice cream, and then we approached the railing to look out over the city. I’d wanted to come all the way from Fayette County just for this moment.
At 4:07 PM, the bells of several different churches began to ring in the valley below.
The cacophonous sound marked the 125th anniversary of the moment when a wall of water from the broken South Fork Dam struck the city of Johnstown. The flood killed 2,209 people and is still the deadliest in U.S. history.
Today, I wanted to share some photos of Johnstown, along with some special historical items from the PA Room. Let’s start where my visit began: the beautiful Grandview Cemetery.
From the cemetery, we drove over to the Johnstown Inclined Plane, which offers a beautiful overlook of the city below. (Not to mention a neat little gift shop.) This was also the location of the observation deck where we’d later stand to listen to the church bells.
The Cambria Iron Company began building the Inclined Plane after the flood of 1889 and finished it two years later. Apart from people, it also carried horses and wagons; today, it carries cars! The Inclined Plane went on to help Johnstown residents escape later floods in 1936 and 1977. (Source)
One of my favorite stops was the Johnstown Flood Museum, which tells the story of the disaster through photographs, artifacts, and a really wonderful documentary film. They were a bit crowded when we visited — which was nice to see! — but the next time I come, I’ll allot more time to peruse their collection.
If you can catch a guided tour of the city, I recommend it. Not all the sights are plainly marked and the map I picked up in town only caused us more confusion. I ended up using my phone and Google to navigate.
Your best source for planning a visit is the Johnstown Area Heritage Association, which also operates an active Facebook page. If you’d just like to read more about the flood, they have terrific resources on the History portion of their site, and I’d be remiss not to suggest David McCullough’s Johnstown Flood.
While I haven’t been to the South Fork Dam in some time, the National Park Service always has great programs. Their schedule of events for 2015 is now online. It must be breathtaking to see the 2,209 luminaries lighting the remains of the dam — one for each victim of the disaster.
The Johnstown Flood was a tragedy that touched all of Pennsylvania, so naturally, it is represented in the collections of the PA Room.
One book that I discovered early in my time as curator was David J. Beale’s Through the Johnstown Flood. (Full subtitle: A Thrilling, Truthful, and Official History of the Most Appalling Calamity of Modern Times.) This book, written by a survivor of the flood, details the entire disaster — including the contents of the morgues.
Among the places converted into “houses for the dead” were schools, churches, a saloon, a private residence, and a soap factory. At each of those places, the dead were identified or at least described by way of their appearance and what they carried.
Our most unique artifact from the flood is a simple, worn chair that occupies an eastern corner of the PA Room. It is said to have been used by Clara Barton while she was directing relief work in Johnstown. An assistant of hers, Albert M. Masters, passed it down through his family, and it was eventually presented to the Fayette County Chapter of the American Red Cross.
Today it is on display for visitors to admire — and to make me nervous when I’m dusting around it!