Pennsylvania’s Hard Hills

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Its recently completed visitors’ center is in a club cottage on what was the other side of the lake. Looking out from it, you see an empty valley with a creek at the bottom (the dam was never rebuilt); on the other side of the valley you can make out the clubhouse and the neighborhood around it. Down to the right is the high, breached embankment where the dam broke. The sense of both the placid beauty of the valley and the hideous volume of water it released is visceral.

The main attraction in the visitors’ center is a film titled Black Friday . It turns out to be a horror movie, with footage from old silents about disasters and actors in period garb playing flood victims’ ghosts shrieking from beyond the grave. A sign on the screening-room door warns: “Parental Discretion Advised.” The woman at the desk told me, “Kids just love it, but we like to warn the parents.”

The Heritage Trail heads from there into Johnstown largely along the twenty-two-mile route of the floodwaters, which crushed the city under a thirty-six-foot-high torrent of water, buildings, bridges, trees, and other debris, killing more than two thousand residents.

The nineteenth-century sites along the route are all landmarks of man’s battles—not always winning—against enormous natural forces.

Johnstown has a Flood Museum in a former library built after the flood by Andrew Carnegie, who had been a member of the South Fork Club. Again the highlight is a film, but here it is a straight documentary, and an Academy Award-winning one at that. Its sober account of the cataclysm is as moving as all the horror of Black Friday , and far more informative.

The last stop on the Heritage Trail, after the cemetery where most of the flood dead were buried, is the Johnstown Inclined Plane, a distant relative of the inclined planes of the Portage Railroad. It carries passengers and automobiles up a walllike hillside that Johnstown backs up against. The plane was built two years after the flood, in 1891, as a commuter line but also for evacuation in case of future floods. It survives today mainly for tourists and offers a fine view of Johnstown. At the top you can look at the original machinery that still winds the cable.

Looking down at Johnstown, I took in the dark spread of the aging Cambria Iron Works, the employer around which the town grew. Many of the victims of the 1889 flood worked there, and two thousand Johnstown residents work there still, making bars, rods, and wires for Bethlehem Steel. When I visited, Bethlehem had decided to either sell the plant or close it. I talked to a man who said, “I was there forty-two years, and I never thought it would come to this. They can’t find a buyer. I never thought it would come to it.” As I write, Bethlehem is negotiating with a steel company in India to take it over.

My whole day had been spent among relics of people’s fights against great forces in this difficult region. From portage railroad to horseshoe curve to flood to ailing steel mill—and to an attempt at building tourism around a bleak history—these people had kept at it. It made past and present seem not far apart at all.

—Frederick Alien TO PLAN A TRIP