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125 Years Later: The Johnstown Flood (May 31, 1889)

05/28/2014 01:53 pm ET | Updated Jul 28, 2014

In my hobbyist's studies of the Johnstown Flood during the past fifty years, one of the episodes that has most surprised me is the beauty of the day before, May 30, and the unusually lively Memorial Day celebration, with hundreds of visitors in town, including the regional convention of the Ancient Order of Hibernians.

There were four or five marching bands in the parade, besides a sizable detachment of veterans of the Grand Army of the Republic who fought in the bloodiest Civil War in history, which had ended only 24 years before.

The marching bands were splendidly outfitted and ethnically arrayed: Two bands in scarlet piping on black representing Austria, the AOH band in green, Hussars in brilliant red, the high stepping blue-clad Hornerstown Drum Corps. Behind them all came marching girls in white and red holding aloft a banner that read:

HAPPY BIRTHDAY, USA - 1789-1889

Alongside that banner, girls in identical white outfits held American flags with 38 stars. Behind them came girls in the same uniform, dipping a red, a white, and a blue flag rhythmically with every other step.

It was a grand celebration, with plenty of meats and mustards, and tables of pickles and potato salads of many kinds, and an abundance of ethnic cookies and sweets. Plenty of homemade apple pies, and lemonades and many kinds of beer.

The U.S. government weather service had predicted a resumption of the record-high April-May rains of that year during the evening hours of May 30. Sure enough, that's how the lovely, fresh Memorial Day of 1889 ended. Joyfully, but brought down to earth by the serious and unrelenting rain that came in after dark.

A variety show from New York City had arrived in town to conclude the Memorial Day evening celebration, and went on as scheduled. But when the full house exited the theater on Washington Street, the water was ankle high in the street, and even an inch or more on the sidewalk. Many good shoes were ruined that night, many others held aloft with one hand while long skirts were lifted with the other.

By morning the lower streets already were awash in water that kept inching upwards. From much experience in prior years, homes in Johnstown were typically built a couple of feet above street level to accommodate the almost annual overflows of the Little Conemaugh and the Stony Creek.

There was talk of formidably high waters beginning to slide over the top of the South Fork Dam fourteen miles up narrow canyons, about 400 feet above the Johnstown basin. But this talk arrived almost every year with the heavy rains of spring. Most paid little attention at all.

Besides carrying some of the lighter valuables from the first floor to the second, few did anything to prepare for the worst.

A funeral scheduled for May 31 at St. John Gualbert Catholic Church had to be canceled in the last hour, even though the coffin of the deceased elderly woman had been brought to the church in the early morning hours, before the waters surged prohibitively high.

Then suddenly at 4:07 in the afternoon came a loud roar and an ominous and sulfurous mist blew down the valley of the Little Conemaugh, followed by a 30- to 40-foot high wall of water that tumbled down narrow valleys and burst upon the whole city on the valley floor. In minutes, hundreds died, 99 families simply vanished, and within a few hours more than 2,200 in all had perished.

And yet, strangely enough, the tough people of this valley did not go weak-kneed. They set to work. By noon the next day, an emergency government was elected by a band of survivors to oversee the recovery, and all available men and women set to work.

The devastation of wooden homes and shops was total. Even some brick buildings could not withstand the power of the immense weight of water -- 20 million tons of it. Some 1,500 buildings were destroyed. A smattering of the structures built of heavy stone still stood erect above the piles and piles of smoldering debris. Even train engines had been thrown about like toys and lay visibly now on top of the inert rubble.

Even before the flood, Johnstowners knew how to work. Work is the middle name of Johnstowners. (Even when they are unemployed, many Johnstown men continue to work, repairing or rebuilding their homes, and helping out relatives.) Virtually all have family memories of really severe hardships in their lives, in Europe as well as America. Intense loyalties to their families (of many different cultural traditions) and their faith have served them well for hundreds of years. All of them have suffered much.

Many had seen everything they knew taken away from them before. Nearly all of them had at some point in their lives had to leave behind family and lands of birth. As I like to put this, "the experience of nothingness" -- everything pulled out from under their lives -- has been familiar to Johnstowners for generations. The experience of nothingness is at times overpoweringly strong. But even stronger in this valley is the will to live, to live nobly, to build, to love, to serve.

Johnstown, as the polka has it, is "the city with a will." It is a city with the will to live, to come back, to rebuild, to hold together. It is a kind of "resurrection city." It has all but been demolished, extinguished, buried. And then it has come back. Again and again.

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