The Scene Of The Crime

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Two weeks after completing a film, in 1989, on the Johnstown Flood, I received word from a woman in New London, New Hampshire, that she had some photographs I might like to see.

Since it was too late to revise or change the film, my call to Virginia Anthony Cooper was more out of curiosity than self-interest. Cooper, it turned out, is the great-granddaughter of Charles J. Clarke, a prominent Pittsburgh businessman, who, in the 1880s, with the Carnegies, Mellons, and Pricks, was a member of the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club, an exclusive vacation retreat located on a man-made mountain lake fourteen miles above the city of Johnstown, Pennsylvania.

It was the dam there, owned and maintained by the club, that failed on the afternoon of May 31, 1889, sending 4.5 billion gallons of water down the narrow Conemaugh Valley, devastating the city of Johnstown and claiming the lives of more than twenty-two hundred men, women, and children.

For Cooper to let it be known that her family had been members of the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club was in itself interesting. After all, it was widely accepted that the Johnstown tragedy was directly related to the club’s negligence. Prior to the disaster the owners had not taken responsibility for proper maintenance of the dam—a dam that had failed once and was considered by many local citizens to be unsafe.

From the day I began making the film, I had considered the Johnstown Flood as two stories; the first being the story of the people of Johnstown, the Scotch-Irish, Cornish, Welsh, and German immigrants who worked in the steel mills and lived in the valley. The other story involved those who summered on the resort mountain lake above the town. Separated by wealth, class, and distance, the two groups lived very different lives, united only by the events of May 31, 1889, which left Johnstown in ruins and the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club abandoned.

In making the film, the job of re-creating the flood would prove formidable. Special effects are costly and run the risk of looking contrived. Finding images to depict the aftermath of the flood, on the other hand, posed few problems. Over the years the Johnstown Flood Museum had collected almost every known view of the flood’s devastation. Many of them were famous: photographs of Johnstown showing entire city blocks with houses piled upon one another like firewood; scenes of locomotives and machinery tossed over the landscape like toys; stone and steel bridges torn apart; bodies buried in the mud.

 
 
 

Finding the scenes of the other half of the story—the story of life on the mountain—was a different matter. Pictures of life at the lake were missing. Assuming they had been taken at all, they now seemed to have been expunged from the archives. The Johnstown Flood Museum did have a few faded photographs of the clubhouse and one of a row of lakefront cottages, but that was about all.

Strangely, even written evidence of the club’s activities was hard to find. Although none of the club’s members shrank from authorizing biographies, not a single reference could be found in the memoirs of Frick, Phipps, Mellon, or Carnegie claiming membership in the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club or, in fact, that they had ever visited the place. This was understandable. The failure of the dam at South Fork had been responsible for one of the great tragedies in American history. Thousands had died. There had been seventeen million dollars in estimated property damage. Obviously the financial and legal consequences of being a member of the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club could prove staggering.

 
It was widely accepted that the Johnstown tragedy was directly connected to the club’s negligence.
 
 

In fact, the day after the dam broke, the club lay abandoned. In Pittsburgh members marshaled their legal forces and, in the coming months, successfully repelled attempts to find the club or its members liable. The dam’s failure, so the courts said, had been an act of God.

Now, a hundred years later, Virginia Cooper was telling me that pictures of life at the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club actually existed. This was exciting news, albeit news that had come too late. I had searched for eighteen months to find photographs of life on the lake without success and had, in the spring of 1988, been forced to move actors, livestock, and boats up to a mountain lake near Hollidaysburg, Pennsylvania, to re-create the scenes in the film we were missing.

When the package of Cooper’s photographs arrived, I was not prepared for what I would see. On my desk rested a rusty metal canister containing roughly eighty rolls of paper looking very much like high school diplomas without ribbons. An attempt to open them proved perilous. At the slightest touch they cracked. Following the advice of the Smithsonian Institution, I sent the pictures away to be humidified and flattened. When they returned a few weeks later. I was astounded!