Thrice-flooded Johnstown shows human spirit

It was 42 years ago this week, in the wee morning hours of July 20, 1977, when, perched in pajamas on the basement steps of my family’s small ranch home in rural Cambria County, I watched as water inched up the concrete block walls.

Mom and Dad were dressed in an odd combination of sleep clothes and hip waders that Dad usually wore when he spent lazy afternoons fishing for rainbow trout in western Pennsylvania streams.

But there was nothing lazy about this night as they, along with Dad’s brother Stanley, worked to clumsily hoist appliances like Mom’s precious electric washer and drier high onto stacks of cement blocks above quickly rising water.

Through the narrow basement windows situated beneath wooden rafters of the basement ceiling I could see flashes of lightning. The rain still poured down.

It wasn’t the first time my older brother Bobby and I had witnessed such a scene. In fact, in those days, the basement flooded quite often. But the water was never this high, and it never rose so fast.

As they grumbled and lashed out at the situation, none of us had any idea that just a few miles away the city of Johnstown, Pa., was flooding again.

This time, 73 people died, and damage reached more than $200 million.

Johnstown was supposed to be flood-proof, now. Of course, it was home to the Great Flood of 1889 that killed more than 2,300 people when the dam creating the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club reservoir in the mountains above Johnstown burst sending a wall of water thundering into the Valley. The remnants of the dam can still be visited today on the mountain just a few miles from my high school.

Another significant flood hit Johnstown in 1936.

The latest flood of 1977 came when 12 inches of rain pounded the Conemaugh Valley in just five hours. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers said the weather event was so rare it would come once every 10,000 years.

In the days following, my family traveled by car over heavily damaged and washed out roadways, taking in the enormity of the damage that, at age 9, I’d never before experienced.

There were automobiles piled atop one another and buildings with furniture floating outside. Perhaps most of all, I remember the mud that covered everything. For months we traveled many miles out of the way because a bridge to exit our street had washed away.

The French Gothic building built and donated in the 1890s by an apologetic Andrew Carnegie — member of the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club — served for years as a library in downtown Johnstown. It had since been converted, ironically, into a museum commemorating the 1889 flood.

In 1977, the building sustained more than $50,000 in damage. It eventually reopened and remains a “Flood Museum” today.

Luckily damage to my family’s little white ranch house was limited to our basement. We cleaned and recovered.

Likewise, the people of Johnstown dug out, rebuilt and recovered, once again showcasing the resiliency of the human spirit.

I’ve mentioned my hometown a few times in this space, and recently a very kind Trumbull County reader brought to my office a wonderful publication titled, “The Great Flood of 1977: A Story of the Catastrophe in the Conemaugh Valley.” His mother had kept the 64-page newsprint booklet, and he thought I might like to have it. He was correct in that assumption.

The stories and black-and-white photos inside depict the destruction in Johnstown and surrounding areas that I so vividly remember. And it captures the drive to rebuild.

The book was published in August 1977 by the Altoona Mirror, a newspaper located near Johnstown, Pa. Coincidentally, the newspaper was sold many years later and now is owned by Ogden newspapers — the same company that owns and operates the Tribune Chronicle.