Johnstown Flood Reflections

This afternoon, I took my son to our local Borders for a talk on the Johnstown Flood documentary. The flood was caused by the 1889 collapse of a dam originally built for Pennsylvania’s canal system, then abandoned when rails came along. The presenter, Richard Burkert, a museum director whose commentary is included on the DVD (which is narrated by Richard Dreyfuss), gave a good background on the geography, economics, and social layout of the region.

The site became a hunting club for the likes of Andrew Carnegie and other Pittsburgh-area steel magnates; when the dam collapsed, a 90-foot wall of water, pushing a thundering wall of rubble, huge trees, and even locomotives, tore down a narrow valley. A young engineer who had been brought to the site for some unrelated work noticed the problem with the dam, and shortly before the collapse (hastened by record rains) telegraphed the city (the local telephone operator started calling the three dozen or so telephone subscribers), then mounted a horse to warn the people, Paul-Revere-style. Although the people had several hours warning, they were already flooded and thus many couldn’t escape.

I’d say about 100 people turned out; based on the conversations I overheard before the talk began and the questions asked, I’d say the crowd was full of local history buffs and/or people with connections to Johnstown. Other than a poster version of the DVD cover, there were no visuals at the presentation — not even clips of the DVD, which I found disappointing for Peter’s sake. (He sat pretty still, though he lost interest after about 25 minutes and started playing with my PDA. His age was about a tenth of the average age of the audience members, so he did remarkably well.)

When I taught advanced technical writing, I frequently used risk management examples, so I was hoping for a bit more about the engineering involved. And while the presenter mentioned that the circumstances generated a lot of folklore surrounding the Johnstown flood incident, he didn’t relate any of those folk stories in any depth. So I was left feeling unsatisfied in both the technical and humanities areas. At times, Burkert seemed to be enjoying the carnage too much. I can understand his excitement over the subject matter, but I couldn’t help thinking of John Carpenter clutching his little statue and shouting “I am the kind of the world!” and reveling in the personal fame and fortune that the Titanic disaster eventually brought him.

Burkert described the event as America’s largest one-day loss of civilian lives before 9/11, and said that the extensive media coverage and psychological impact was comparable. (Of course, I wanted to hear a little more about that, but Peter wanted to play with the Thomas the Tank Engine trains.)

An article in the local paper previews the Burkert talk. I’m assuming that the Johnstown Flood Museum website uses Flash or some other multimedia application; I’ve installed a utility to disable those bells & whistles because I find the long download times extremely disruptive. Those sites who know how to design good content invariably have a plain HTML introduction and a button that invites you to click on a multimedia presentation; if the plain HTML introduction looks worthwhile, I disable the Flash-killing feature and reload the page. But if not, I don’t bother.

9 thoughts on “Johnstown Flood Reflections

  1. Meg, my name is Peter. I love listening to books. I love listening to my parents reading more than reading to them. Some of the words are difficult for me to pronounce. Cause I don’t know how to pronounce them. I especially love Teletubby books.

    Teletubbies eat two things. Tubby custard and tubby toast. The tubby custard machine is bigger than the tubby toast machine. The tubby custard machine is like a table with a conveyor belt on it. And the tubby toast machine is like a toaster. Teletubbies sometimes show you videos, and the way they get the videos is by getting signals. On their stomachs, they have TV screens, but probably fuzzy.

    Tinky Winky is purple. And he’s the biggest Teletubbie, and maybe even the silliest. Dipsy is green. He is a little bit smaller than Tinky Winky. La La is yellow. She is a little bit smaller than Dipsy. Po is red, and Po is the smallest Teletubby. Tinky Winky and Dipsy are the boys. La La and Po are the girls. Sometimes they even get to do dances. And they often have different kinds of music. And they also tell you stories about them. They have a housekeeper. His name is Noo Noo. He is blue, and he sucks up anything that is a mess. He can mop, sweep, and vaccuum. [Daddy, why don’t you put in an exclamation mark there, because I said vaccuum!] The teletubbies have a house, and their house is a dome. It has a hole in the top so the Teletubbies can go down the slide. They have an automatic door. Whenever they get close to the door, the door opens up. Sometimes they go up their slide. They can be in snow, or spring. At the beginning, they pop out from the holes. At the end, they jump down the hole and go to bed. They play all day. They say Bye Bye to you three times. The first time, they pop up and say “Boo!” and they laugh. But then, the storyteller says, “No,” and then the Teletubbies say, “No”. Then they say goodbye for a second time. And then the third time, they say goodbye and jump into the hole. Their sun I call the baby sun. They take a picture of a real baby, and the rest of the sun is a camera trick.

  2. Neha, I have to things I would love to tell you. [Daddy, it’s supposed to be the word two, the word that says the number two. Daddy, you don’t have to write what I say.] I have decided what I would love to be when I grow up. I want to be a doctor when I grow up. I’m a little bit confused for which car will I choose when I am a doctor. I’m going to check a few things a little bit like Mom’s car. But there is one thing that I’m hoping will be different to my car. And I have a music game — a CD of course — and you have to catch sour notes. Sour notes are wrong notes. And whenever the little monkey says “sour music”, he means “wrong music”. And whenever you hear “sweet music”, that means “right music”. And sweet notes are right notes. A sweet note can be two-headed, or one-headed. I have seen yellow sweet notes, pink sweet notes, and blue sweet notes. But the blue is a little dark blue.

  3. One of the tracks on Bruce Springsteen’s “Nebraska” album includes the following lyric:
    “. . . as the band played ‘Night of the Johnstown Flood.'”
    Does anyone know if this is a real song?

  4. There’s a very good children’s book on the Johnstown Flood, published in the 1950s (or maybe early 1960s), that Peter might enjoy. It’s probably categorized as “middle reader/age 8-12.” I read it about once a year as a kid, and it never palled (and I was pretty picky even then). I last read it when I was perhaps 20, and it was still a good read — and that’s saying something, for that generation of children’s nonfiction (although this is, er, dramatized).
    The title may indeed be *The Johnstown Flood*.

  5. His mother is also very good at that sort of thing! It was she who suggested I take Peter to this event. Several times a week she arranges for some outing. Yesterday, Peter and I attended a class on dragons at the Pittsburgh Zoo. Lots of fun. (Though sensitive Peter got a bit worried when the teacher described the kimodo dragon’s diet habits in terms of how many children it could eat in one sitting. “Peter, you won’t be eaten by a kimodo dragon, I’m pretty sure about that,” I had to tell him.)

  6. You know what the best part is though. Peter, hopefully will grow up to be an informed adult because his father’s taking the time to teach him about the world.

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