Museum Preserves Johnstown Flood Artifacts

Reed Travel Features

JOHNSTOWN, Pa. -- On May 30, 1889, the residents of this town lined Main Street for the Memorial Day parade.

Just as the festivities were ending, a heavy downpour that lasted for two days began.

As people raced for their homes to escape the rain, they were unaware of the tragedy that would follow.

On May 31, the South Fork dam gave way, sending a wall of water surging down a mountain and killing more than 2,000 Johnstown residents.

The flood brought national attention to the small steel producing community -- relief assistance and supplies came from all over the U.S. as well as from Europe.

Scholars and researchers are still examining the causes and consequences of the disaster.

The dam originally was a reservoir for the Pennsylvania Mainline Canal system and later became the center of the South Fork Fishing & Hunting Club, a rural resort for wealthy Pennsylvanians. The club made several changes to the dam, including lowering the breast of the structure so that carriages could pass over it.

Researchers have pointed to these changes as well as to general neglect as contributors to the dam's collapse.

Clients interested in learning about the disaster can tour the Johnstown Flood Museum, a repository of flood artifacts and memorabilia that is visited by more than 40,000 people each year.

Located downtown at 304 Washington St., the museum is housed in a former Carnegie Library building.

The French Gothic structure was constructed in 1891 as part of the flood recovery efforts with a donation from wealthy industrialist Andrew Carnegie.

In 1973, the library building was purchased by the Johnstown Flood Museum Association (now the Johnstown Area Heritage Association), which opened a small museum dedicated to the flood.

In 1989, the museum reopened its doors after a $4.1 million renovation.

The facility features multimedia exhibits on the construction of the dam; the elite South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club, which owned the dam at the time of its collapse, and the development of the community prior to that fateful day in 1889.

Artifacts and photographs tell of the sometimes triumphant, and the sometimes tragic, rescue and relief efforts.

One of the museum's most stirring exhibits is the film titled "The Johnstown Flood," which was produced by Charles Guggenheim and won the 1989 Academy Award for Best Documentary, Short Subject.

Using archival photographs, creative dramatizations and special effects, the 26-minute film re-creates the chain of events that led to the tragedy.

For information, call the Johnstown Area Heritage Association at (814) 539-1889.

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