Thursday, June 9, 2011

Mr. Carnegie, a final note.

The South Fork Fishing & Hunting Club was established in 1879 by a group of wealthy industrialists and financiers of the Pittsburgh area for the purpose of providing a place of rest and relaxation for themselves and their families away from the dirt and clamor of the city. The dog-eat-dog world of big money is often tiring.

The place included a fairly large lake and about 160 acres of other land, upon which they built a large 47-room clubhouse with a dining room seating 150 and, eventually, 14 "cottages" for those of themselves who didn't want to rub elbows with or sleep near mere regular millionaires. The "cottages" were something more than that, as you might imagine.

There were many sailboats and small craft and their attendant boathouses. There were even a couple of steam yachts. There were 61 of these men in all, involved in what, to them, must have been a trivial fancy. Among these moneyed elite were Henry Clay Frick, Andrew Mellon, Philander Knox and our hero Andrew Carnegie. Birds of a feather.

I just love the name Philander. I wonder if he did? Silly me.

The lake was really a reservoir, a man-made lake made possible by an earthen dam built in the 1850s to imprison the waters of the Little Conemaugh River. The lake was quite large, and maintenance of the damn dam was of low priority: A previous owner had even removed the drain pipes to sell for scrap. The waters of the lake were perilously close to the top of the dam. It has been known to rain in western Pennsylvania.

Were the current wealthy owners concerned? If so, they hid their concern well. First they scraped a few feet off the top of the dam to make the road across it wide enough so two carriages could pass. Then they put screens over the overflow tubes to keep the expensive stocked game-fish from escaping out of the lake. I'm sure they tipped their top hats to one another as their carriages passed over the top of the lowered dam, but the screens trapped not only fish but debris as well. Soon the water was only a few inches below the top of the dam.

Did I mention it was known to rain in western Pennsylvania?

Johnstown, Pennsylvania, was/is located about 14 miles downstream from the hunting club. "Downstream" is key: Yes, there was still a river under that lake. In late May of 1889 it began to rain. And rain. And rain. The streams were overflowing and the streets of Johnstown were getting streams of their own. Merchants and homeowners began moving their stock and belongings up to the second floors of the buildings in preparation for the rising water.

And it rained and rained and rained.

The story is too long to tell in detail in a simple blog post. Besides, the Johnstown flood is already well known, in a list of American disasters like the Chicago Fire and the San Francisco Earthquake. Many books have been written about the Johnstown Flood, including a famous one in the 1960s by one of my literary historian heroes, David McCullough.

As the rising water began spilling over the top of the dam at South Fork, observers who happened to be out standing in the pouring rain said the dam, as if in slow motion, just sort of "moved away", and water with the force of Niagara Falls rushed into the pretty little steep-sided valley and began a 14-mile journey of hellish destruction to Johnstown.

The filthy evil wave of roiling debris and death was 35-40 feet high and was moving at about 40 miles an hour when it struck the city. By then it contained farmhouses and animals and barbed wire and all the debris from smaller towns along the way, and even a few locomotives. It stuck the big stone bridge in downtown Johnstown and paused, swelled, and slowly subsided as the bridge held. The pile of debris at the bridge in the center of town was enormous and contained everything imaginable, including much oil. The pile covered thirty acres, they say. That night it caught on fire.

Ah, well. The story is old and you have probably heard it before:

1600 homes destroyed. 4 square miles of the center of Johnstown completely destroyed. The great Cambria Iron Works was no more. 2209 people dead (before 9/11, the largest civilian toll of any American disaster.) 99 entire families wiped out, including 396 children. 750 bodies weren't able to be identified. Bodies were found as far away down river as Cincinnati. Bodies were still being discovered as late as 1911. Clara Barton's new American Red Cross got it's first trial, and performed magnificently. The South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club donated 1000 blankets.

Andrew Carnegie built them a new library.



  1. I would have thought a thousand blankets, a library and ten years jail more appropriate myself!

  2. And this was a good post. I have never heard of this, it is not as important as San Fransico obviously, and a sad story well told.

  3. I had not really heard of this either though I might have heard the term "Johnstown flood." You do mean "man-made disasters" right, because natural disasters have taken far larger tolls.

    Still, interesting stuff. I wonder why I haven't heard more about this.



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