Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Johnstown Flood and Inclined Plane

In the latter part of the 19th century, 14 miles north of Johnstown the Conemaugh River was dammed to provide consistent water flow for a canal. Just like the C & O Canal, this one was also obsolete almost before it was put in service -- and, like the C&O Canal, the spoiler was the railroad. The dammed river was no longer needed; the property was sold to a developer who made the lake into a posh get-away location for the rich fleeing the summer heat in Pittsburgh.

The new owner did not see the need for outlet pipes in a lake, so he removed them and sold them for scrap. The dam was too narrow for two wagons to pass, so he removed a few feet from the top in the middle. He did occasionally dump more dirt and rocks on spots that were seeping, but the lack of outlet pipes meant there was no longer a way to drain the lake to make repairs -- or to remove pressure buildup.

In May 1889, torrential rains fell for days. With no other outlet, the water eventually broke through the weakened middle of the dam and began to race south towards Johnstown. Some said the torrent was as swift as the water falling over the Niagara Falls. The storm had taken down the telegraph wires -- there was no way to warn Johnstown of the impending deluge.

When the flood reached Johnstown, it was a wall of water and debris that was 40 feet high and half a mile wide. It entered Johnstown through the gap seen at the top of the photo above, rushed through the town, and sloshed up the hill where the Incline Plane tracks are (bottom center). The water exited the valley to the left of this photo, but the huge pile of debris was halted by a bridge. Because it had picked up flammable fuels along the way, the debris caught on fire and burned for days. 2209 people died. One-third of all the bodies found were never identified. Clara Barton, president of the Red Cross, was one of the first to arrive to provide aid.

Some people opted to move out, and some decided to rebuild. Financial aid was made available, and those who qualified were given the option of using $250 of their aid to purchase an "Oklahoma House," a one room wooden house that often sheltered multiple families in the aftermath of the flood. A wood-burning stove, a table, cots and a chair were all that could be fitted into the small space.

Many decided to rebuild, but to do so on higher ground -- higher and harder to get to. The Johnstown Inclined Plane was built in response to the need for cars and people to ascend to the top of the hill. The two cars are attached to a single set of cables -- when one goes up, the other goes down (the elevators in the Eiffel Tower are similarly connected). It costs $4.00 for a round-trip ticket. It is still possible to drive an automobile on the Inclined Plane car ($6.00 one way, and you must make the sure the attendant remembers to chock your wheels), but everyone on my trip down and up were on foot. The grade is 70.9% (and I thought the 18% grade at Rickett's Glen was bad!), and it is billed as "The World's Steepest Vehicular Inclined Plane." It was designed by Samuel Diescher, who also designed the mechanism for the first Ferris Wheel, unveiled at the Chicago World's Colombian Exposition in 1893.

In addition to riding the Inclined Plane, I visited the Johnstown Flood Museum. I entered the theater to watch the ubiquitous movie, often a chance for a quick nap, and discovered a true gem. The film was made by George Guggenheim, and it won an Academy Award in the documentary category. It was easily the best "museum" film I have ever seen. Vintage footage and pictures were seamlessly integrated with contemporary recreations, and the effect was "being there." Well worth a visit if you find yourself in Johnstown.


Anonymous said...

I was in Johnstown a number of years ago, in the fall. The Museum was fascinating, the scenery so beautiful and peaceful with the fall colors of orange and red and gold.

Then we went in and watched the movie.

Powerful is an understatement!

When it was over, the only sound in the room was the soft sobs of a little girl sitting near me. Very very very much worth watching! I saw a watered down version (no pun intended) on PBS a few years ago. They should have left it alone! If ever there was a testament to the need for government intervention and regulations over and above the needs and wants of the "landed gentry" that movie was it!
If I had known that you were going there, I would have told you to make sure that you went to the dam site and the museum.

Mary Persall and Jerry Persall said...

Many thanks! I got the Google Reader set up. It works great. Best of them all.