Johnstown Flood National Memorial

Western Pennsylvania Tour➤

My friend Patty and I hit the road in October of 2022 for a tour of the Western Pennsylvania NPS units. The National Parks of Western Pennsylvania (WEPA) includes the following five parks: Allegheny Portage Railroad National Historic Site, Johnstown Flood National Memorial, Flight 93 National Memorial, Fort Necessity National Battlefield and Friendship Hill National Historic Site.

We decided to start the circuit at the southernmost unit, Friendship Hill, and work our way North. Along the way we also toured a Frank Lloyd Wright UNESCO Heritage Site and Ohiopyle State Park. After Flight 93, we headed over to a hotel near Johnstown so we could start fresh the next morning.

The Flood➤

The Johnstown Flood National Memorial pays tribute to the thousands of victims of the Johnstown Flood. On May 31, 1889 the South Fork Dam ruptured, sending a wall of water down river, destroying Johnstown. Over 2200 people died. The death toll made the flood the deadliest disaster in US history up to that point. The flood lasted only ten minutes, but it took five years to rebuild.

Johnstown grew from the development of the Pennsylvania Railroad in the early 1800s. Established in a valley between Little Conemaugh and Stony Creek rivers, the community was surrounded by deforested land. They built the South Fork dam at Conemaugh Lake in 1836 to create a reservoir for the Pennsylvania Canal’s western division. Made of earth and stone, it was the largest dam of its type in the world at the time of its construction.

The South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club purchased the dam from the Canal company and raised its height in order to transform the area into a boating and fishing resort community. Andrew Carnegie, Henry Clay Frick and other wealthy businessmen owned the club. In the aftermath of the flood, they were blamed for the tragedy.

Johnstown Flood National Memorial➤

When the ranger started the film, Black Friday, for us in the visitor center, she warned us it wasn’t a typical park film. It runs 35 minutes and recreates the flood with a spooky vibe. The subject matter is disturbing, so it has a PG rating.

We listened to the audio recording of survivor Victor Heiser. He was only sixteen when the dam burst. He survived by hanging on to the roof of a barn.

Outside, we viewed the remains of the dam and some of the buildings left behind by the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club. High up on the hill above the river, these were above the flood waters.

Western PA Posts➤

Location: 733 Lake Rd, South Fork, PA 15956
Designation: National Memorial
Date designated/established: August 31, 1964
Date of my visit: October 10, 2022

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