When I was in my early teens, I read a condensed book from Reader’s Digest entitled “The Johnstown Flood” by David McCullough. The images and story of that flood always remained with me. So today our adventure took us to Johnstown National Memorial and the Johnstown Flood Museum.
A little about the flood:
On May 31, 1889, the South Fork Dam started to break, letting out over 20 million tons of water into the Conemaugh Valley. “It took forty minutes to drain the lake. Twenty million tons of water took its natural course, dropping 450 feet in 14 miles, at times in a wall 70 to 75 feet high and reaching speeds of 40 miles per hour. In 57 minutes, the wave engulfed the town.”
In those 14 miles, that wave took out the little towns along the river’s path and all the debris was carried in that way. In one little town, it flattened a barb wire manufacturer and carried that debris also. “The churning water swept up earth, stones, trees, livestock, houses, trains, and debris as it advanced, adding to its destructive power and horrifying appearance. Witnesses describe a dark mist which hung over the wave and an ominous sound like thunder.”
The wall of debris and water was 37 feet high when it came into Johnstown.
Here is Johnstown today. The debris/wave came into Johnstown thru the river valley - center left. This wave was over 30 feet and leveled the town in less than 10 minutes. The water continued to the right and wiped out two more towns, then came back thru the town and flowed to the left. At the bottom of town, there is a stone bridge (forgot to get a picture). The debris piled up at this bridge, effectively damming the water. At this point the water was 20’ high through the town. About 30 minutes later, this debris pile caught fire. The water eventually drained and was gone by morning but the fire continued to burn for three days.
Imagine the horrors of this devastating flood. OH MY!
A better history of the flood can be found here:
There are two museums on the flood. The National Memorial is located near the dam. When we walked into the Visitor Center, this is what we saw:
This was the lake and the moment the dam broke (artist rendition):
We first went on the van tour that took us around the lake and gave us the history of the lake and the dam (and possible causes of the break).
Afterwards, we went to the movie about the dam and the wave going down the valley. Before the movie started, the ranger came in to tell us that this movie was loud and very graphic. And it was. All I could say is Oh My.
Afterwards we made some stops around the lake/dam area. Here is where the lake was - two miles by one mile - a very large lake:
There are two overlooks on each side of the dam. The missing area in between is where it broke:
Andy and I took the trail that led down to the lake bed, thru the breech area and back up the other side. There were stations all along the way that told of the lake and the breech and possible reasons why it brook.
The area surrounding the lake was a popular place for the well-to-do. They would take the train to Ebensburg, and then come down to the lake by horse and buggy. This was the road across the lake:
From there we went downtown to the Flood Museum. This museum was like a continuation of the National one. The exhibits and movie told the tale of the flood and the aftermath.
Here is the museum:
This is what greeted us as we went thru the doors - WOW!:
We started first with the movie - different from the National movie. This continued the story of what happened when the flood came and the aftermath.
The Flood Museum Building was beautiful:
Check out the inside:
Our last stop was at the twin towers structural beam. According to the brochure, Johnstown is one of only five cities in the U.S. that has any actual part of the Towers.
Johnstown has been on my bucket list for many, many years. For me, I was able to put real places to the images in my mind. And yes, I did buy the book by David McCullough - “The Johnstown Flood” to read the whole version and not just the condensed version. I am so glad we did this although it was very emotional for me.
We continue being tourists tomorrow so stay tuned.