Run For Your Lives!

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The first damage suit was filed in August in Pittsburgh, where the club had been originally incorporated in 1879. Nancy Little and her eight children brought suit against the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club for !50,000 for the loss of her husband, John Little. The club members entered a voluntary plea of not guilty, claiming that the disaster had been a “visitation of Providence.” The jury agreed.

There were other suits later on, but the verdicts were the same. Not one nickel was ever collected through damage suits from the club or any of its members. Generous donations to the relief fund were made by club members, including $10,000 from the Carnegie companies, and at one point they offered the clubhouse as a home for flood orphans, but the offer was turned down.

How the damage cases would have gone had they been tried in Johnstown instead of Pittsburgh, or by today’s standards, are questions one cannot help asking. It is quite possible that those Pittsburgh fortunes might have been substantially reduced.

In time Johnstown recovered. The flood was talked about for years and described in a dozen or so personal memoirs and “official histories” done by survivors. The legends grew, including a fine one about a man named Daniel Peyton, the so-called Paul Revere of the Conemaugh, who came charging down the valley on a big steed warning everyone to run for the hills. There was no such person, though a young man named John Baker is said to have made a last-minute ride from the dam to South Fork shortly after John Parke made his dash. But “Run for the hills, the dam has busted” was a standard comedy line the country over for years afterward. There were also the saloon signs that read, “PLEASE DON’T SPIT ON THE FLOOR, REMEMBER THE JOHNSTOWN FLOOD.” At Coney Island and in Atlantic City re-creations of the great disaster were major attractions for many seasons.

Today there is talk in Johnstown about building a tourist center on top of one of the city’s highest hills, with a cyclorama, recorded lectures, diagrams, and so forth. By the summer of 1967 the National Park Service plans to open a fifty-five-acre Johnstown Flood National Memorial at the site of the old dam. The ends of the dam, enormous steep-sided earth mounds, still stand among the trees up the valley above South Fork. A few years ago a group of local citizens cleared the brush off the tops of the mounds, put down gravel walks, set out park benches, guard rails, a sign, and two flag poles. There is also a place to park just off the narrow road that goes through the cut in the rocks that was once the spillway. The old lake bed is now nearly covered by woods. You look out over the tops of tall trees that appear to have been there always, and a rocky creek that is the same new-baseball-glove color as the rivers in Johnstown. Beside the creek a railroad track runs up past the town of St. Michael to the coal mines near Windber. When the coal cars roll by below they look very small.

The clubhouse and a number of the cottages are also still standing, about a mile away in St. Michael, a town of about 1,100 people. The clubhouse is now a hotel, a gray, weathered old ark with tin Seven-Up and Mail Pouch signs nailed to it. There is a big bar inside, just off the front porch, where unemployed coal miners sit drinking and talking. The room, like the others near it, has a high ceiling, dark wood panelling, and an elaborate brick fireplace that looks big enough to roast an ox in. Most of the summer houses have been remodelled. They are mixed in with the flatfaced frame row-houses of St. Michael. But there are a few that, except for paint, look much as they did, three stories tall, with long French windows, front porches, some stained glass and gingerbread. Nearly all the men who sit on the porches are living on relief, and many of them are sick with silicosis, a lung disease caused by inhaling coal dust over a long period of time. They spend some of their time down at the hotel bar; they work in small vegetable gardens out back; or they just sit there on their porches and look along the macadam streets and unpainted back fences of St. Michael, down along where “a long time ago there was a big lake.”