I had read about the Johnstown flood that killed over 2,000 civilians (ranks third among civilian catastrophes in the United States, Galveston Hurricane being the worst with over 6,000 casualties and September 11 being second worst – more on that later). I made it a point to take the kids here to explain how these rich guys (Carnegie and Fricke et al) decided to build a fancy fishing club house and dammed up a river to make a super awesome fishing lake. Unfortunately, they did not use good judgement or care in maintaining the dam and ultimately it broke during a heavy rain storm. The kids got to see the actual dam remnants in South Fork, PA and understand what caused it to break (the release pipes had been removed and the spillway was inadequate which caused water to go over top of the earth dam and rapidly erode the dirt structure). The picture above shows the basin that once held the lake, it was about 2 miles long and appeared to be 40 to 50 feet deep in most spots. When the dam broke, a force of water equivalent to the Mississippi River came rushing towards Johnstown (14 miles away). A train was approaching the South Fork dam and saw the collapse, the conductor immediately threw his train in reverse and went backwards as fast as possible, blowing the horn with the utmost frequency and urgency trying to warn everyone, the flood caught up to the locomotive, threw it aside, killing 50 passengers, but the conductor made it out alive. The flood gathered barbed wire, buildings, and factories along the way, it traveled at 40 miles per hour and was SIXTY feet high, crushing many people and small towns as it rolled into Johnstown.
If you wanted to create a scenario of a terrible flood disaster, there’s not much you would change from Johnstown because it was densely populated city in a deep valley, leaving no where for the water to go, it was inevitable for it to level the town. Amazingly, many civilians actually managed to cling on debris or climb onto their roofs to survive the initial wave, but as the wave passed through the heart of town, it collided with a large steel bridge at the end of town, the debris slammed against it to create a wall, causing a second massive wave that bounced backwards off the bridge and tear into Johnstown again. People who survived the two tsunamis of terror then clung to debris in an eddy, waiting for the water to recede when the debris caught on fire. In case this hasn’t sunk in, let me repeat, THE DEBRIS CAUGHT ON FIRE! Can you imagine surviving a horrible raging flood that destroyed your town, you are clinging on a wooden beam from a destroyed house and everyone is crying and screaming in horror and then the stuff floating on the water starts igniting and you can’t go anywhere to escape it (going underwater is not a long term solution), 80 people died in that horrific scenario.
The challenge with visiting the Johnstown Flood area is that it is very spread out and the earth has healed itself remarkably well, it is hard to grasp what happened in such a tranquil patch of earth. I hope the kids took something from the experience, but they both acknowledged that the best part of the day was when they used a fallen tree to cross a small creek.
All this history built up an appetite and we found a wonderful restaurant in Johnstown called The Boulevard Grill. Honestly, the place was awesome. Not worth driving a couple hours to get to, but if you are close by and need food, it is the place to go, far exceeded my expectations. The service was top notch too. Good American food at a good value.
So, we were in Johnstown, which is about 30 minutes away from the Flight 93 Memorial. I knew it would be two somber historical places in one day, but it is just so far out in the middle of nowhere, I just did not know if we would ever be back in this part of Pennsylvania, so made the executive decision to drag the family (and two dogs) into Shanksville, PA. We had the unenviable responsibility to explain the terror of September 11 to our children, to help them understand why this location is important. Unlike Johnstown, the moral of the story would not easily unfold, but I think a thread of positive perspective did emerge. A couple people thought they could do their worst and hurt this country, but this country picked itself up and responded. Our response since that day has been uneven and has not perfect, but our country did respond and came back stronger.
One thing I like about the Memorial is that they are taking a rather desolate field and turning it into a place of beauty. This new lake and walking bridge was recently created, they’ve planted hundreds of trees, and it is emerging into a place worthy of the event that happened there. It is the quietest place.
My kids have managed to hang in there this year, they’ve seen Gettysburg, Johnstown, Flight 93, Ford’s Theater, Freedom Tower, and the Austin Dam. I hope some of this stuff sticks with the kids, some broad framework of responsibility, consequences, difficult decisions, overcoming adversity, and the basic principles of leadership. However, I think their memories will probably look like this:
Gettysburg – that place with rocky hills and we got yelled at for rolling a stone down the hill.
Johnstown – crossed a small creek on a tree
Flight 93 – dad made us be super quiet since it was a serious place
Ford’s Theater – Lincoln was shot there
Freedom Tower – super fast elevator ride
Austin Dam – caught trout in a pond nearby
In any case, it beats watching TV.