Run For Your Lives!
In the hills above Johnstown the old South Fork dam had failed. Down the Little Conemaugh came the torrent, sweeping away everything in its path
June 1966 | Volume 17, Issue 4
But the outsider who stirred up the most action, and the most talk, was a stiff-spined little spinster in muddy boots who came in on the B&O early Wednesday morning leading a band of fifty men and women. Clara Barton and her newly organized American Red Cross had arrived at their first major disaster. Clara was sixty-seven: she had been through the Civil War, the Franco-Prussian War, and several nervous breakdowns. She had not a gray hair in her head. She stood five feet tall; she took what little sleep she needed on a hard, narrow cot and had no use for demon rum, bumbling male officials, or, for that matter, anyone who attempted to tell her how to run her business.
She set up headquarters inside an abandoned railroad car, using a packing box for a desk. She worked almost round the clock, directing hundreds of volunteers, distributing blankets, clothes, food, and half a million dollars. Temporary housing was put up according to her specifications, as was a Red Cross “hospital.” Her work kept her on the scene for five months. When she left, it was with all sorts of official blessings and thanks. Glowing editorials were written; a diamondstudded locket was presented; and back home in Washington a dinner was given at Willard’s Hotel with President and Mrs. Harrison in attendance. The Red Cross had clearly arrived.
But along with the press, the Army, the work gangs, and the Red Cross, there was also a handful of petty crooks and crackpots, plus a goodly number of oldfashioned American sightseers, who turned up in Johnstown. A few small-time crooks queued up with the flood victims to collect whatever the Red Cross happened to be handing out at the moment, or grabbed what they could from among the debris; one or two suspicious-looking characters were nabbed before they had a chance to do much of anything and were quickly hustled out of town. The crackpots were largely of the religious-fanatic sort and included one gaunt prophet from Pittsburgh known as “Lewis, the Light” who wore nothing but long red underwear and passed out handbills that said, among other things: Death is man’s last and only Enemy, Extinction of DEATH is his only hope. Your soul, your breath, ends by death. Whew! Whoop! We’re all in the soup. Who’s all right? Lewis, the Light.
The sightseers arrived on excursion trains that chugged in along the B&O weekend mornings. On Sunday, June 23, several hundred arrived, turned out in holiday attire and carrying picnic baskets. They strolled about, got in the way, and infuriated nearly everyone except a few enterprising Johnstowners who began selling official Johnstown Flood relics: broken china, piano keys, horseshoes, buttons, even bits of board or brick.
Meanwhile the search for corpses went on. Every day a few more were uncovered. And so it continued until well into the fall. In October, twenty-six bodies were found between Johnstown and Ninevah, seven miles down the Conemaugh. Estimates were made on the total property damage (about $17,000,000), and life began to return, more or less, to normal. Cambria Iron got part of its mill back into operation by July. The city still smelled terrible; thousands of people were still living in tents or rudely built huts on the hillsides; but by October the schools and banks were open again. Johnstown was back in business.
As for the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club, all was quiet along the huge mud flat that had been Lake Conemaugh. Grass was starting to grow along the creek that worked its way through the center of the old lake bed, and deer left tracks where they came down to drink. Up close to where the shoreline had been, the big frame clubhouse and the summer houses stood silent and empty with some of their windows smashed. After the disaster the club members never came back again. In July the property was divided up and sold at a sheriff’s sale for $600 a parcel.
But the club members and the part their dam had played had not been forgotten. The outcry began almost immediately after the disaster. By Sunday, June 2, the newspapers were proclaiming that the “death dealer” was the “mud-pile” at South Fork. Editor Swank wrote that “our misery is the work of man … The Pittsburgh men wanted an exclusive resort where in all their spotlessness and glory, they might idle away the summer days.” The Chicago Herald ran a cartoon showing the clubmen drinking champagne on the clubhouse porch, while Johnstown is being wiped out in the valley below. Reporters for Pittsburgh newspapers tried to interview some of the club members, but they were not talking. But as pressure mounted, a meeting with the press was arranged by three of the sportsmen during which two of them suggested that the water had come from some other reservoir near Lilly, since their lake could never have caused so much damage. The third member, a lawyer, then went on to say that the tragedy had been caused by the severe rainstorms and that in his professional opinion anyone trying to bring charges against the club would have small chance in court. As it turned out, he was right.
On June 7, just one week after the flood, the coroner of Westmoreland County held a mass inquest on 218 bodies that had been taken out of the Conemaugh River up to that time. Officials had gone to inspect the ruins of the dam and to talk to anyone in the neighborhood who claimed to know anything about its construction or about the people who were supposedly looking after it. There were, not surprisingly, plenty who were willing to talk. When the coroner’s jury met, the verdict was “Death by violence due to the flood caused by the breaking of the South Fork Reservoir.”