Johnstown Flood Museum well worth the trip

If you have never visited the Johnstown, Pa., Flood Museum, it’s well worth the one-tank trip.

Housed in the former public library building in downtown Johnstown, the museum tells the story of the devastating loss of life and property in the 1889 flood, known as one of the greatest natural disasters in American history.

On May 31, 1889, a neglected earthen dam located on the mountain several miles upstream from Johnstown burst during a phenomenal storm, sending 20 million gallons in a wall of water roaring into the Conemaugh Valley below. It killed 2,209 people.

The library structure that holds the museum is of particular interest because it was built with funds donated by steel magnate Andrew Carnegie.

Carnegie had been a card-carrying member of the South Fork Fishing & Hunting Club, which owned the South Fork Dam that burst causing the flood. The club had purchased the reservoir and the property to create a getaway for members, mostly wealthy business men and their families, from nearby Pittsburgh. Members traveled to the mountain to escape the grime and smog created by smoke pumped from Pittsburgh’s massive steel mills.

It’s believed Carnegie wasn’t in the area at the time of the flood, and in fact, even may have been out of the country. Still, he donated the funds after visiting Johnstown to survey flood damage. He paid for building maintenance through 1930. The former library now is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

I’m well aware of this story, the city and the earthen dam. You see, I was born and raised in the rural mountains of southwestern Pennsylvania. My high school was located atop the mountain above Johnstown, just about a mile from the site of the crumbled dam. Many times I’ve visited it and stood along wooden fencing erected for an overlook atop the remnants of the dam that remain today. The Flood Memorial in that location is operated by the National Park Service and includes a visitor’s center and a reconstructed replica of the South Fork Fishing & Hunting Club clubhouse.

I share this story today because in recent weeks my hometown newspaper, the Johnstown Tribune-Democrat, published a story about a $250,000 grant being awarded to the Johnstown Area Heritage Association for a flood museum revitalization project and to help tell the incredible Johnstown Flood survival story of Victor Heiser.

Then just 16, Heiser had been working in his family’s barn when he heard the loud roar coming down the valley toward Johnstown. He watched as a huge wall of water and debris struck his house. His parents, George and Mathilda, were killed.

Somehow, Heiser managed to ride out the raging waters clinging to a piece of the barn’s metal roof. Eventually, he scrambled onto a building in Johnstown’s Kernville section to escape the torrent with other survivors.

Heiser went on to live a full life, graduating from then-Jefferson Medical College in Philadelphia. He spent time performing health screenings on immigrants coming into Ellis Island and implemented worldwide public health policies for several diseases, including smallpox, malaria, plague and cholera. He has been credited with saving more than 2 million lives.

The amazing story will be told, along with that of other flood survivors. Heiser died in 1972 at age 99, but his words have been captured by author David McCullough for his 1968 book, “The Johnstown Flood.” Enhancements set to be made at the museum will include an exhibit featuring audio of McCullough’s interview with Heiser — in Heiser’s own words.

Of course, that’s still in the works. But as the weather improves and COVID-19 travel restrictions are eased, I urge you to take the day trip to Johnstown. Tour the museum operated by the Johnstown Area Heritage Association in the former Carnegie library building in downtown Johnstown. Take the time to travel up U.S. Route 219 to the site of the dam operated by the National Park Service.

It is a story of great tragedy, but it also is a story of resilience and triumphant recovery. And it’s well worth the visit.


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