May 19, 2010

The Night Of The Johnstown Flood

Monday 29th & Tuesday 30th March - Days 49 & 50

We so wanted to go and see the National Great Blacks In Wax Museum in B'more but it was closed on Mondays (grrrrr). It sounds great though. A waxworks dedicated to African American history that's slap bang in the middle of the hood. We said hi as we drove past anyway. We read some reports on Trip Advisor and a lot of them talked about how bad the neighbourhood was. We figured that was nonsense. We were wrong. So we left town and headed north for Johnstown, PA.

Nearly full circle. Just 120 miles from our first stop in Youngstown, OH. And another Bruce Springsteen song. Sort of.

Highway Patrolman is a typical Springsteen acoustic folksong from the album Nebraska. It has lots of geographical references in it: Ohio, Michigan, someplace called Perrineville and even Canada. But the one that intrigued me most comes in the chorus.

Me and Franky laughin' and drinkin'
Nothin' feels better than blood on blood
Takin' turns dancin' with Maria as the band played
"Night of the Johnstown Flood"

I wanted to hear this song Night of The Johnstown Flood. I'd never even heard of it before. Not surprising really, because there wasn't a song called Night of The Johnstown Flood back then. I guess Springsteen figured there should have been or maybe there was a song about the flood with a different name. However, there is now a song called Night of The Johnstown Flood. It came out this year and it's by a band called The Rock Creek Jug Band. I'm surprised it took so long.

So with no song to investigate I had to check out the story of the flood itself. Holy hell what a disaster. On May 31, 1889 after days of heavy rain, a dam burst 14 miles upstream from Johnstown. It took 57 minutes for the 20 million tons of water in Lake Conemaugh to reach Johnstown, a steel town of about 30,000 people. 10 minutes later over 2000 people were dead. And the town was completely ransacked. The photos of the devastation are truly incredible.

What made the tragedy even more upsetting was the cause. The dam had been built to store water for a canal system. But when the railways killed the canals, the dam and the lake it created became the home of the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club. A very private and exclusive club for the wealthy families of Pittsburgh. Guess what? They didn't really spend the required money and effort to keep the dam secure. After the flood, the victims tried but failed to recover damages from the dam's owners. The only silver lining was that public indignation at that failure helped change American law from "a fault-based regime to strict liability".

The town did recover. In fact, the efforts to re-build it drew donations from around the world and the whole operation was instrumental in the development of the American Red Cross. But I'm almost ashamed to say that the only thing that seemed worthy of a visit to the town was the Museum dedicated to the flood. Thankfully, the museum is good enough to justify the visit. The pictures and articles from before and after the flood are really fascinating. And they show a good 15 minute film which tells the story well. The newpaper coverage, the silent movies that were made about it and the numbers of sightseers who came to see the town afterwards suggest that at one point in history this flood was as famous as any other disaster. And amazing little details like this made me wonder why I'd never even heard of it:

"Train driver John Hess, sitting in his locomotive engine, heard the rumbling of the flood and, correctly assuming what it was, tried to warn people by tying down the train whistle and racing toward the town by riding backwards to warn the residents ahead of the wave. His warning saved many people who were able to get to high ground. But at least 50 people died, including about 25 passengers stranded on trains in the town. Hess himself miraculously survived despite the flood picking up his locomotive and tossing it aside."

It seems impossible to figure out what history and popular consciousness will forget and what it will remember. But for a while Johnstown had the world looking at it. And now... well... it's not on the radar. The little town looks like it's been hit by another disaster... an economic one. Which is bad, but just too common for people to care about. There must be thousands of dying towns in America. Probably always has been. There have been enough songs written about them. Johnstown is in a very remote part of Pennsylvania. Like Virginia, it's way more... way more... if not red-neck then maybe backwoods. It's not really going to draw many day trippers. Long gone are the days when the likes of the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club sought their kicks in these parts. And I can't really blame them.

I had thought I'd spend the last night on the road in a town that didn't have a song about it but ought to have had one. So much so that Springsteen imagined one for it. It seemed paradoxical but this non-existent song made the case for my theory better than any real town or real song. But the thought of staying in town was too depressing. The green lushness of Virginia seemed very far away. We were surrounded by bleak, black, bare pine trees and covered by an ashen grey sky. Our friends in Springville, near Buffalo were just four hours away. But the night was going to fall before we could make it back there and the deer carcasses on these dark, twisty roads made us less than eager to try making it there. When it gets dark in America, it really gets dark... roadside lights ain't as common as they are in the UK. So we tried to get as far as we could before night fall. We passed through Punxsutawney, the town of Groundhog Day. We drove around a few hotels and motels but couldn't bring ourselves to stay in one. There was something about this part of the world which was not working for me. In the end we pulled into a chain motel in Du Bois (pronounced, surprisingly, Dew Boys, not Dubois as in Blanche) because, in the words of Uncle Monty, the sky did bruise. And disaster... it was a dry county. I noticed the gas station didn't have a wall of refrigerators packed with beer like every other one we'd been in and I thought that was strange. But when Walmart had no booze I knew we were in trouble. Luckily there was one bar in town. But finding the door into it was something they didn't want to come easy. It was around the back, tucked away under an iron staircase. It looked like a classic cottaging spot to me, but it had been a long day and I needed a beer. Happily I didn't get buggered. But I felt shagged. This town seemed a piss poor place to spend the last night. Getting pissed seemed to be the only way to deal with it.

When we woke up on Tuesday I couldn't wait to get out of the motel, the town or the state. Things seemed to improve pretty much as soon as we crossed back into New York. Within two hours we were driving through Ellicotville, a prettier little ski town than anyone would imagine could be found within 60 minutes of Buffalo. When we'd seen it last back in January it had been, if not quite arctic, then at least alpine-esque. The slopes were now clinging to some paultry grey patches of snow. The hills were shedding the stuff like a cygnet sheds its grey plumage. The sun was out. We stopped and bought sponge candy and micro brew beers and headed back to the arms and bosom of our friends in Springville.


  1. I'm way behind on your blog and you're already in another country, but the singer/songwriter Oh Susanna did an entire album set in Johnstown on the day of the flood. It's not a concept album, and only a few of the songs even mention the flood--she just imagines the stories of people whose lives were about to be changed or ended by the flood. It's a great album (I like it far better than anything else she's recorded), and it got me reading about the flood. Still haven't made it to the museum, though I plan to. Someday.

  2. Thank you for that. I found you by Googling Night of the Johnstown Flood. Yours was the first link I tried and I won't try another. It was perfect, and actually a bit Springsteen-esque is its tone. Nice contribution.

  3. Do you know How much money was spent to Rebuild johnstown?

  4. I live in Pittsburgh and know these towns well. I'm not surprised you didn't enjoy this part of PA. Beer helps a lot! I stumbled upon this site also for the same reason as the previous entry. What a great way to see the country!

  5. The oldest folk song I'm aware of is called Johnstown Flood by the Brave Boys, its possibly this that Bruce sings about:

  6. Beautiful writing! Thanks

  7. Thanks for this I visited Johnstown a while back and was devestated by the pictures and story in the meuseum. I remembered the Boss's line you mention but could not remember what album and track it was so googled it and found this excelent piece, Thank you.

  8. I came here confused thinking the Springsteen song was about the "Jamestown Flood".

    Surely we'll be hearing more about the terrible flood happening now out in Boulder Colorado.

    Perhaps history will change with this one as well.

    We can only hope.

  9. It's amazing to pay a visit this site and reading the views of all friends on the topic of this post, while I am also zealous of getting know-how.

    Here is my weblog: tata docomo


    Songs about the flood from 1889

    Copyright, 1889, by Chas. D. Blake & Co.
    Words and Music by Joseph Flynn.

    On a balmy day in May, when nature held full sway,
    And the birds sang sweetly in the sky above;
    A lovely city lay serene in a valley deep in green,
    Where thousands dwelt in happiness and love.
    Ah, but soon the scene was changed, for just like a thing deranged,
    A storm came crashing through the quiet town;
    The wind it raved and shrieked, thunder rolled and lightning streaked,
    And the rain it poured in awful torrents down.

    Then the cry of distress rings from East to West,
    And our whole dear country now is plunged in woe;
    For the thousands burned and drowned in the city of Johnstown,
    All were lost in that great overflow.

    Like the Paul Revere of old, comes a rider brave and bold,
    On a big bay horse he's flying like a deer;
    And he is shouting warnings shrill, "quickly fly off to the hills,"
    But the people smile and show no signs of fear.
    Ah, but ere they turned away, the brave rider and his bay.
    And the many thousand souls he tried to save;
    For they had no time to spare, or to offer up a prayer.
    They were hurled at once into a watery grave.-Refrain.

    'Twas a scene no tongue can tell, homes strewn about pell-mell.
    Infants torn away from loving mothers' arms;
    And strong men battling for their lives, husbands struggling for their wives,
    And no one left protecting them from harm.
    Fathers, mothers, children, all, both the young old, great and small,
    Were thrown about like chaff before the wind;
    When that fearful raging flood, rushing where the city stood.
    Leaving thousands dead and dying there behind.-Refrain.

    Soon the houses piled on high, reaching far up to the sky,
    And containing dead aim living human freight;
    Loud shrieks and groans soon wrent the air. from the wounded lying there.
    With no chance to help avert their dreadful fate.
    But a fearful cry arose, like the screams of battling foes,
    For that dreadful sick'ning pile was now on fire;
    While they injured out prayers to heaven, they were burned as in an oven.
    And that burning heap had formed their funeral pyre.-Refrain.

  12. There is song from 1889 about it called