Published by Michael Novak for The Tribune-Democrat onMay 25, 2014
In my amateur studies of the flood during these past many years, one of the episodes that most surprised me was the beauty of the day before, May 30, and the lively Memorial Day celebration, with hundreds of visitors in town, including the regional convention of the Ancient Order of Hibernians.
There were four or five marching bands in the parade, besides a sizable detachment of veterans of the Grand Army of the Republic who fought in the Civil War, which had ended only 24 years before.
The marching bands were splendidly outfitted and ethnically arrayed: Two bands in scarlet piping on black representing Austria, the AOH band in green, Hussars in brilliant red, the highstepping blue-clad Hornerstown Drum Corps. Behind them all came marching girls in white and red holding aloft a banner that read:
HAPPY BIRTHDAY, USA – 1789-1889
Alongside the banner, girls in identical outfits held American flags with 38 stars, last of all came girls in the same uniform, dipping a red, a white, and a blue flag rhythmically with every other step.
It was a great day, with plenty of meats and mustards, and tables of pickles and potato salads of many kinds, and an abundance of ethnic cookies and sweets. And, of course, lemonades and beers.
The U.S. government weather service had predicted a resumption of the record-high April-May rains of that year during the evening hours of May 30. Sure enough, that’s how the lovely, fresh Memorial Day of 1889 ended. Joyfully, but brought down to earth by the serious and unrelenting rain that came in after dark.
A variety show from New York City had arrived in town to conclude the Memorial Day evening celebration, and went on as scheduled. But when the full house exited, the water was ankle high in the street, and even an inch or more on the sidewalk. Many good shoes were ruined that night, many others held aloft with one hand while long skirts were lifted with the other.
By morning, the lower streets already were awash in water that kept inching upwards. From much experience in prior years, homes in Johnstown were typically built a couple of feet above street level to accommodate the almost annual overflows of the Little Conemaugh and the Stonycreek.
There was talk of formidably high waters beginning to slide over the top of the South Fork Dam 14 miles up narrow canyons, about 400 feet above the Johnstown basin. But this talk arrived almost every year with the heavy rains of spring. Most paid little attention at all.
Besides carrying some of the lighter valuables from the first floor to the second, few did anything to prepare for the worst.
A funeral scheduled for May 31 at St. John Gualbert Cathedral had to be canceled in the last hour, even though the coffin of the deceased elderly woman had been brought to the church in the early morning hours, before the waters suddenly rose prohibitively high.
Then, suddenly, at 4:07 in the afternoon a loud roar and an ominous and sulfurous mist crashed down the valley of the Little Conemaugh and at somewhere between 30 and 40 feet high a hugely tumbling wall of water burst upon the whole city on the valley floor. In minutes, hundreds died, 99 families simply vanished, and within a few hours more than 2,200 were dead.
And yet, strangely enough, the tough people of this valley did not despair or go weak-kneed. They set to work. By noon the next day, strong survivors had elected a leader to oversee the recovery, and all available men and women set to work.
The devastation of all wooden homes and shops was total. Even some brick buildings could not withstand the power of the immense weight of water – 20 million tons of it. Some 1,500 buildings were destroyed. A smattering of the strongest structures still stood erect above the piles and piles of smoldering debris. Even train engines had been thrown about like toys and lay, visibly now, on top of the inert rubble.
Even before the flood, Johnstowners knew how to work. Work is the middle name of Johnstowners. (Even when they are unemployed, many Johnstown men continue to work, rebuilding their homes, and helping out relatives.) Virtually all have family memories of really severe hardships in their lives. Intense loyalties to their families and their faith have served them well in their various cultural traditions for hundreds of years. All of them have suffered much in suffering abroad or in this country.
Many had seen everything they knew taken away from them before. Nearly all of them, at some point in their lives, had to leave behind family and lands of birth overseas. As I like to put this, “the experience of nothingness” – everything pulled out from under our lives – has been familiar to Johnstowners for generations. The experience of nothingness is at times overpoweringly strong. But even stronger in this valley is the will to live, to live nobly, to build, to love, to serve.
Johnstown, as the polka has it, is a city with a will. It is a city with the will to live, to come back, to rebuild, to hold together. It is a kind of “resurrection city.” It has all but been demolished, extinguished, buried. And then it has come back. Again and again.
The “Johnstown Girls” – and the “Johnstown Guys” – are of a special sort, and we silently salute each other in any part of the world in which we happen to be.
Michael Novak is an author, theologian and philosopher who is a native of Johnstown. He is a distinguished visiting professor at Ave Maria University in Florida, after 32 years in the chair in religion and public policy at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington. He was the 1994 recipient of the Templeton Prize, bestowed on him in Buckingham Palace, and was on three occasions U.S. ambassador under Ronald Reagan. Novak has written numerous influential books on economics, philosophy, and theology. His masterpiece, The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism, was republished underground in Poland in 1984, and in Czechoslovakia, Germany, China, Hungary, Bangladesh, Korea, and many times in Latin America. For his work, he has received many international awards.
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