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125 years later, Johnstown flood stories still chill

JOHNSTOWN, Pa. — In the South Fork Clubhouse, built in 1885 above the shores of Lake Conemaugh in Cambria County at a rustic resort for Western Pennsylvanian's elite, Douglas Bosley tells the story of how railroad telegraph operators frantically sent warnings as water spilled over the South Fork Dam on the morning of May 31,1889.

A National Park Service ranger, Bosley has told visitors the story of the Johnstown Flood hundreds of times as part of his job.

But 125 years later, it's also a personal story.

The Mineral Point telegraph operator who sent three warning messages about the failing dam to the valley below was Bosley's great-great-grandfather.

William H. Pickerill clicked three warning messages before the earthen dam broke about 3 p.m.

Each message sent along Pennsylvania Railroad telegraph lines from South Fork to Mineral Point to the city was more dire as water poured over the 930-foot-long dam that held back about 20 million tons of water spread over two miles.

The third message from Pickerill indicated imminent doom.

“It was basically saying the dam has become dangerous. It may possibly go,” said Bosley, 42, of Johnstown.

Minutes after that warning, he heard the roar of the approaching water before he saw it and scrambled out of the telegraph tower through a window.

“He climbed up the hillside as the main wave went by. He took the telegraph key with him and just made it” before the tower toppled, Bosley said.

The water gushing was like “turning Niagara Falls into the valley for 36 minutes,” renowned author David McCullough, a Pittsburgh native, wrote in his 1968 book, “The Johnstown Flood.”

The flood killed an estimated 2,209 people caught in the destruction of about 3.6 billion gallons of water that barreled down South Fork Creek and into the Little Conemaugh River. Then the wall, estimated at 40 feet tall, slammed into Johnstown, a city of 30,000 people 14 miles away.

The tidal wave and debris destroyed four square miles of the city, built on a flood plain at the confluence of Stony Creek and the Little Conemaugh.

The National Park Service is commemorating one of the nation's worst disasters this weekend at the Johnstown Flood National Memorial in South Fork, Cambria County.

“We want to honor those who perished in the flood and the survivors,” said Jeff Reinbold, superintendent of Western Pennsylvania Parks for the National Park Service. “We hope to share the park stories and help visitors understand the importance of this day to Johnstown and our nation's history.”

The nation had never experienced a disaster of that scale and such a loss of life, said park ranger Megan O'Malley, chief of interpretation at the flood memorial.

One of the highlights will be 2,209 luminaries, each bearing a flood victim's name. The luminaries will be placed on the dam's ruins and on paths leading to the park visitor center and lit by staff and volunteers at dusk on Saturday.

A bell from the former Mineral Point United Methodist Church survived the flood, then a fire in 1945. Church members will ring it on Saturday.

Lake Conemaugh had been the mountain retreat for boating and fishing for some of Pittsburgh's and the nation's most wealthiest men — Andrew Carnegie, Henry Clay Frick, Andrew Mellon, Henry Phipps Jr. and Robert Pitcairn – Pittsburgh-based titans of steel, coal, coke, railroads and banking.

The South Fork Dam, built by the state for its canal system in the mid-1880s, formed the recreational lake. But just a year after the dam was completed in 1853, the railroad was built through Johnstown and made the canal system obsolete.

The tycoons formed South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club and purchased the property in 1879. By that time, the dam had failed twice. Club members did not replace drainage pipes that had been removed, and screens they installed to keep expensive game fish in the lake caught sediment and debris and raised the water level. At the same time, the breast of the dam was lowered to allow more room for carriages to cross.

Though the lake had swelled from snowmelt and recent heavy rains in the days before the dam broke, O'Malley said, “it was very clear there was a human component (as the cause) combined with nature.”

Last-minute attempts to relieve pressure on the dam by cutting another spillway proved fruitless, O'Malley said. “There was almost nothing they could do” to prevent the flood, she said.

The flood has taught us “to be more vigilant about these ‘man-made disasters,' ” and about being more aware of the consequences of living in a flood plain, said O'Malley, a Mt. Lebanon native.

None of the owners of the private club was held liable for the dam collapse.

The flood was a test for the American Red Cross, its first large-scale disaster. Founder Clara Barton spent several months in Johnstown directing the relief efforts.

“She became very beloved by the people of Johnstown,” O'Malley said.

In the chaos of death and destruction, it was several days before Pickerill, the telegraph operator, was reunited with his family, who had survived.

Bosley said Pickerill's story was family lore. “I had always heard some various tales as I was growing up,” he said.

It wasn't until he started working for the park service that he learned through research that the stories were true.

In another twist of fate, George Grambling, Bosley's maternal great-great-grandfather, went to the dam that day because heavy rains had washed out his sawmill on a stream below. He watched as the dam broke, Bosley said.

A third ancestor, Samuel Bosley, was washed away and trapped in debris. He was rescued and lived for seven years. But the injuries took a toll on his health and likely hastened his death, Douglas Bosley said.

At the Johnstown Flood Museum on Washington Street, volunteer tour guide David Casker explains how the floodwaters surged from South Fork into Johnstown, using a multimedia relief map that shows the path. Tiny lights on the map track the progress of the huge wave.

The story is part of his family history, too.

Casker's great-great-grandfather John Warren was at work at the giant Cambria Iron Co. plant along the river and survived the flood, as did his wife and children, safe in their house on high ground. But his parents, siblings, nieces and nephews — eight in all — perished.

The flood museum, a three-story brick structure built by Andrew Carnegie as a library after the flood, displays artifacts found or donated after the tragedy: a child's dress, an American flag, morgue books listing names of the dead, a steamer trunk, Red Cross supplies.

And a bottle of black floodwater.

jnapsha@tribweb.com
 

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