JOHNSTOWN, Pa. -- "I walk through the cemetery on a rainy day and hear the spirits of 2,209 souls groaning," the narrator of the film at the Johnstown Flood National Memorial intones. Though overly dramatic, perhaps, the film captures the terror that gripped the town of 30,000 on May 31, 1889 -- the day the dam holding back the Little Conemaugh River ruptured.
From the picture window in the visitors center at the memorial, we look across the valley where the 2-mile-long Lake Conemaugh once impounded 20 million tons of water. The grass-covered shoulders of the breached dam butt out into the dry lake bed. The stream itself is barely visible. On the opposite slope are the homes and lodge of the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club, the exclusive club that included as members Andrew Carnegie and Andrew Mellon, the Pittsburgh industrialists who were among the world's richest men. The club owned the dam, and members used the lake as an idyllic weekend retreat from the smoggy city about 75 miles west.
"After a week of rain and flooding, the poorly maintained dam gave way," the ranger tells us. "It broke at 3:10 p.m. The wall of water wiped out South Fork, Mineral Point, East Conemaugh, and Woodvale. It hit Johnstown 14 miles downstream at 4:07. Survivors said the wave pushed so much debris in front of it that it looked like a mountain thundering through town."
The steep ridges and narrow valleys of the western Allegheny Mountains hide a history of challenge and conquest. The east-west range offered vast riches in coal and iron and timber, but it also presented the greatest engineering challenge of the age. Pittsburgh prospered as a steel-mill town on the banks of the Allegheny, Monongahela, and Ohio rivers, the gateway to all points west. But the 2,500-foot Allegheny Front blocked trade to the industrial cities of the east.
As the western half of Pennsylvania developed in the early 1800s, a route over the mountains was desperately needed. Finally, in 1834, the Main Line Canal and Allegheny Portage Railroad breached the mountainous barrier. The railroad loaded canal boats from Philadelphia onto rail cars in Hollidaysburg, outside Altoona, and hoisted them over the mountains with hemp ropes to Johnstown, where the canal continued to Pittsburgh.
Twenty years later, the Pennsylvania Railroad topped the highest ridge with a giant horseshoe curve. Altoona served as the eastern hub, Johnstown as the western. The Hollidaysburg Canal Basin Park in Hollidaysburg, the Railroaders Memorial Museum in Altoona, and the Allegheny Portage Railroad National Historic Site on Cresson Mountain trace the development of the transportation corridor and its importance to the nation's economy.
Johnstown boomed as a railroad town. Steel mills produced thousands of miles of barbed wire and railroad tracks. Houses and businesses crowded the river banks.
Perched high above the prosperous town, Lake Conemaugh gleamed in the sun like the poised blade of a guillotine.
Richard Burkert of the Johnstown Area Heritage Association shows us around the Johnstown Flood Museum, located downtown, a few blocks from the river. He leads us to a topographic scale model of the valley. From the lake, the Little Conemaugh River twists between the steep slopes and at one point forms a giant oxbow curve.
"The storm of the century had already hit before the dam broke," Burkert says. "Eleven days of rain washed out the tracks over the mountain and all the eastbound trains were stacked up here waiting. The river rose 18 inches in one hour on the morning of the catastrophe and flooded the streets seven feet deep."
Burkert pushes a button, and lights on the model trace the progress and damage of the disaster. The light flows down the valley, showing the path of destruction. The flood tears apart towns along the way and blasts through a 71-foot-high stone railroad viaduct spanning the river. The wave drops from 70 to 40 feet high as it spreads out in the wider lower canyon and gains momentum. It slams into unsuspecting Johnstown at 40 miles an hour. Tons of debris grind through the streets with the power of a tornado. Houses crumble and disappear into the roiling maw. Trees fly through the air like straw, and locomotives tumble like toys. The roar of the rampaging wall of churning rubble drowns out the town's cries.
In 10 minutes, the wave passes and the water begins to recede. Much of the town is reduced to a 45-acre mass of debris collected at the foot of a stone bridge over the river. The oil-soaked jam traps hundreds of victims and catches fire. It burns for three days.
After seeing the exhibits on the first floor of the museum, we go upstairs and view an Academy Award-winning documentary. Instead of stopping with the tragedy, the feature focuses on the undaunted spirit and heroism of the survivors. Clara Barton of the newly formed American Red Cross brought 50 doctors and stayed five months. More than $1 million in relief money poured into the town. Johnstown rebuilt and lived to survive disastrous floods again in 1936 and 1977.
The next morning, we take the Inclined Plane up the steep ridge bordering the river. Built in 1891, the auto-sized funicular mimics the old Portage Railroad and is the largest inclined plane in the world for vehicles. Essentially, it is a railroad car, operated by cables, that stays level as it goes up and down the hill, capable of carrying pedestrians, cars, and trucks up to safety.
From the top, we can see through wisps of fog how precariously Johnstown sits in the narrow river valley.
Survivors of the flood chose the highest location in town to bury the dead. A short walk takes us to the Grandview Cemetery. The fog eerily cloaks the rows of 755 identical markers of victims never identified. Across the path, gravestones identify families that died together.
Shrouded by the morning fog and surrounded by graves, I listen for sounds of restless spirits. I hear only silence, but now I can better understand the horror.
George Oxford Miller is a freelance writer in New Jersey.