A piece of tragedy
JOHNSTOWN – On May 30, 1889, the world at large had never heard of Johnstown, Pennsylvania.
On June 1, 1889, the world joined together to mourn it.
May 31 will mark the 125th anniversary of the Johnstown Flood, when the neglected, over-stressed South Fork Dam failed and nearly washed away the largest town in Cambria County.
The disaster killed more than 2,200 people and made headlines across the world.
“The flood was really horrific,” said Keith Newlin, deputy superintendent of the National Park Service’s Johnstown National Flood Memorial. “I can’t even imagine what it was like in Johnstown [during the flood].”
This year marks the 125th anniversary of the disaster and the National Park Service and the Johnstown Area Heritage Association will hold commemorative events beginning May 31 and extending into June.
As donations came in from countries far and wide after the flood, and relief efforts – the Johnstown Flood was among the first mass relief efforts for the American Red Cross – funneled help into the area, the public looked for someone to blame.
The court of public opinion decided on a villain: The South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club.
“The South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club was established in the 1880s,” Newlin said. “It was established to allow the members to come from Pittsburgh in a secluded effort to recreate. The club prospered for a number of years before the 1889 flood.”
The club was founded in 1881 by a group of Pittsburgh businessmen led by Henry Clay Frick, an industrialist who founded the H.C. Frick & Company coke manufacturing company, was chairman of the Carnegie Steel Company and also had his hand in real estate and the railroad industry.
“So all the members were the industrial magnates of the day,” Newlin said. “It really was intended to be their retreat. … Mellon, Frick, Carnegie – all the biggest names of the day. There are no real details about how you joined the club, what they did. They were very secretive.”
The club’s members sponsored a restoration of the South Fork Dam and made themselves a haven away from the noise and pollution of the Steel City. Despite years of warnings about the dam’s structural weaknesses and poor repairs, the club continued on with no concern. But when an unusually strong rainfall and winter storm runoff hit the dam all at once on May 31, 1889, the dam gave way and tragedy struck.
As part of the 125th anniversary events, the National Park Service is opening the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club’s clubhouse to tours. The clubhouse, which was bought by the NPS in 2007, has been in the midst of restoration for years. In 2013, the clubhouse’s roof was finished, and the final structural supports were completed in December. Newlin estimated the repairs so far at costing approximately $1.5 to $3 million.
On May 5, Newlin gave Mirror staff writer Keith Frederick and photographer J.D. Cavrich the first public tour of the clubhouse’s second and third floors since restoration began. After the flood, the South Fork club quickly disappeared and the building began to fall into disrepair.
“The building itself was open to flood victims, then the building went up for sale, I think at a sheriff’s sale,” Newlin said. “It went through a series of owners.
“The club was sued [after the flood], but it was ruled an act of God. … But I think people still blamed the club. I had a couple of [victim’s] relatives a few years ago who were still very upset, they still blamed the club.”
The clubhouse, long and foreboding, looking out of place along a simple one-lane road in the small town of St. Michael, sits abandoned, not far from some of the large cottages its members built nearby.
Inside, it’s sparsely decorated, a few historic exhibits on the walls of the ground floor. The building has been a bar and an apartment building at different times over the years.
“This column in the corner of the building had deteriorated from water use and fallen all the way through,” Newlin said. “So we re-established the column and re-established the structural integrity.”
The second and third floors of the clubhouse are in poor shape. Decades of plaster and paint hang from the walls, with layers of wallpaper stacked on top of one another. In many places, the original paint and trim peek through.
The guest rooms are tiny by today’s standards, with enough room for a bed and not much else. Many of the rooms have had walls knocked down to create two-bedroom apartments. The long hallways, with doorways every few feet, are a bit staggering. A stray bird flew through a stairwell during the tour.
“We have in the line-item program in 2016 an effort to restore the utility systems and put some very limited heating in here,” Newlin said. “We’ve essentially putting it into a holding pattern. We have the ability to lease the building by floors or by rooms or whatever we desire. But we don’t see that kind of effort happening quickly.”
The next step in the building’s restoration, he explained, is repainting the exterior of the house. The NPS did a paint analysis to determine the original colors of the building – blue-gray, with black trim – and will start painting soon.
But for now, the focus of the Flood Museum and the National Park Service is on the 125th anniversary events.
On May 31, the Johnstown Flood National Memorial Visitor’s Center, 733 Lake Road, South Fork, will hold a day of events commemorating the flood. But perhaps the most unique event of the day will take place at exactly 3:07 p.m.
“We’re going to ring a bell that was in a church at Mineral Point [a small town completely washed away by the flood],” Newlin said. “It was documented that, as the church was crushed in the flood waters, the bell was ringing as it settled into the flood waters. The church donated the bell to us at the National Park Service. We’re going to ring that at the time of the dam break, at 3:07 p.m., and hopefully it will be church bells ringing all the way down the valley until it reaches Johnstown at 4:07 p.m. …
“I think the bell ringing will probably be made part of our annual ceremony.”
At 7 p.m., 2,029 luminara will be lit at the Visitors Center, representing each victim of the flood. The names of each of the victims will be read aloud as part of the observance.
On June 1, the public tours of the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club will begin. The Johnstown Flood National Memorial will also host Path of the Flood van tours on select dates through the summer. Reservations are required for the tours by calling 495-4643 in advance.
For a full list of the memorial’s anniversary events, visit www.nps.gov/ jofl.
The Johnstown Area Heritage Association is also hosting a series of events commemorating the flood anniversary. The events are ongoing throughout May, leading up to the anniversary weekend.
Shelley Johansson, director of marketing and communications for JAHA, said the organization’s May 31 events include a series of speakers, a speech by historian Michael Novak beginning at 4:07 p.m., the moment the flood struck Johnstown, and a performance of the “Rutter Requiem,” a composition that was written by British composer John Rutter for the 1989 centennial anniversary of the flood.
At 7:30 p.m. at People’s Natural Gas Park will be a dinner and reader’s theater inside the Oilhouse venue. After dinner, a cast of actors will read historical records and first-hand accounts of the flood.
“One of the things that’s really wonderful about the history is there’s an awful lot of first-person testimony,” Johansson said. “And, of course, there are many diaries and letters and remembrances of the flood from people who lived it. … I think that is going to be a particularly moving thing.”
Tickets for the dinner and reading theater are $25, plus fees. Reservations are required for that event by May 24 by calling 539-1889.
June 1 will be highlighted by a Community Heritage Day festival and the Path of the Flood Half-Marathon and 5K Run along the recently completed Path of the Flood Trail. Registration for the races is closed.
“We have 500 runners registered for the race, which is just huge,” Johansson said. “To be able to run that race down that route is another thing that we’re celebrating.”
A complete list of JAHA’s events is available online at johnstown125.com.
Johansson said the flood is a part of life in Johnstown, and it always will be.
“I think there is of course the massive loss of life, but it had such a significant impact on national history,” she said. “It’s something that’s always in the background in Johnstown. It’s a national story and it’s something that never really ceases.”
Mirror Staff Writer Keith Frederick is at 946-7466.