Notes on the Johnstown Flood National Memorial (and on David McCullough)

[The New Republic]

The New Republic‘s just put out a special 9/11 issue, and I’ve got a feature in it on the long struggle to build the Flight 93 National Memorial in Shanksville, Pennsylvania. I don’t have a lot more to say about Shanksville, but I would like to write a bit about the Johnstown Flood National Memorial. Like the Flight 93 memorial, the Johnstown memorial sits in rural Pennsylvania and is operated by the National Park Service. Unlike the Flight 93 memorial, though, the Johnstown memorial commemorates something that happened more than a century ago. I visited Johnstown on my drive back from Shanksville; it helped me think, however approximately, about the way time inflects national tragedy.

It also helped me think about David McCullough. Before we get to him, though, let’s talk about the building of the Johnstown Flood National Memorial. In 1964, a Pennsylvania congressman pushed through a bill — well, he championed a bill; it was unanimously approved — that allocated $2 million to build two Pennsylvania memorials, one for the Allegheny Portage Railroad, the other for Johnstown Flood.

The Flood had provided the nineteenth century with its second biggest scandal, after Lincoln’s assassination. It all started at the  South Fork Dam, which backed up the Conemaugh River and created the  Conemaugh Lake. Next to the Lake sat the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club, where the East Coast’s elite would come to, well, fish and hunt. One thing they didn’t do was worry about the fact that the South Fork Dam kept springing leaks. In 1889, though, it failed completely. Nearly 5 billion gallons of water spilled down through the mountains and into the steel mill city of Johnstown. Early telegram reports suggested that the Johnstown Flood had caused 10,000 casualties. The final count was bad enough: 2,200.

*  *  *

Around the same time Congress was taking an interest in the Johnstown Flood — they put the National Memorial ten miles above Johnstown, next to what was left of the South Fork Dam — David McCullough was taking an interest in it, too. It was an odd choice for both of them since memory of the Flood had largely faded. In fact, the only scholarship on the subject was a 1940 dissertation, which McCullough ended up thanking in the introduction to The Johnstown Flood, his first book.

In Paris Review interview, McCullough created a typically charming scene of the book’s origins:

When we were little kids, we used to make a lake of gravy in our mashed potatoes; then we’d take a fork, break the potatoes, and say, The Johnstown flood! — with no idea why in the world we did it. That was about all I knew about it until I saw the photographs of the flood, quite by chance at the Library of Congress. . . .  I wrote The Johnstown Flood at night after work. I would come home, we’d have dinner, put the kids to bed, and then at about nine I would go to a little room upstairs, close the door, and start working. I tried to write not four but two pages every night. Our oldest daughter remembers going to sleep to the sound of the typewriter.

Reviewers loved the book when it came out in 1968. They praised McCulloguh’s research and his writing — especially since he’d chosen an event where, as the Wall Street Journal put it, “no neat narrative line, centered on a dominant protagonist and with all ends neatly tucked in, is possible.”

A “neat narrative line”? A “dominant protagonist”? Today, that feels like a pretty fair description of McCullough’s historical method. Or at least of a prominent critique of that method, where Harry Truman or John Adams simultaneously shape and float above history.

*  *  *

It’s no surprise that McCullough’s Johnstown book didn’t sell like his later presidential ones. Still, it helped bring the Flood back to people’s attention. In 1986, as Johnstown was gearing up for the Flood’s centennial, the director of the city’s new Johnstown Flood Museum — not to be confused with the separate Johnstown National Memorial — could tell the A.P. with a relatively straight face that “it’s part of American folklore. Everyone’s heard of it.”

The government poured another $5 million into the memorial for renovations — by now, the key congressman was John Murtha — and a group of locals formed the Johnstown Flood Centennial Committee. The Committee made an ambitious schedule of more than 100 events. Still, everyone wanted to focus on the historical heroism of Johnstown’s everyday citizens. “We don’t want to build an amusement park,” another city booster told National Geographic.

*  *  *

Those sentiments echoed the ones I heard from anyone associated with the Flight 93 National Memorial. After spending three days there, I started the eight-hour drive back to Connecticut. It was a different route than the one I came on, a route that let me see the Johnstown Flood National Memorial. The memorial’s visitors’ center — the center was one of the things added for the Flood’s centennial — still stocked copies of McCullough’s book. When I stopped by, though, it lacked very many visitors. Thanks to strip mining, the Conemaugh River had turned the color of tomato juice.

Still, the combination of the visitors’ center, which had several wonderful displays drawn from McCullough’s research, and the geographical features — all that remained of the South Fork Dam were its two enormous sloping banks — made the memorial quite powerful. It left me wanting to visit the Johnstown Flood Museum, but I didn’t because I had to keep driving. Honestly, I hadn’t planned on being so moved by the experience.


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