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.