Johnstown Flood National Memorial Visitor Center
South Fork, Pennsylvania
The flood that destroyed Johnstown on May 31, 1889, began right here, 14 miles upriver, at what was then a man-made lake held in place by a flimsy dam. The Johnstown Flood National Memorial Visitor Center is built next to the dam site. You can still make out what's left of it, and the former lake, both now covered with trees and undergrowth.
The Visitor Center offers a chronology of what happened after the dam collapsed, including a fiber optic map where little blue dots race down a valley to engulf Johnstown. Two floors of additional exhibits are arrayed below a 40-foot-high, full-size replica of the flood wave: a crushing, rolling mass of houses, trees, barbed wire, and railroad cars. A dummy represents 16-year-old Victor Heiser, who survived by riding the face of the wave on the roof of his collapsed barn.
The centerpiece of the Visitor Center is an artistic, gray-toned film, "Black Friday." At a rainy, mist-filled mass grave of the casualties, the narrator tells us, sadly, "They are the dead ... victims of Black Friday. Armageddon. The Last Judgment...."
The flood is blamed not on God, but on fat-cat Pittsburgh industrialists, members of the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club. They bought the lake and stocked it with fish but did not maintain its old dam, jokingly referred to as the "Sword of Damocles."
Water explodes everywhere on-screen. Edited scenes from old Titanic and Atlantis movies are combined with the destruction of scale models of houses and buildings. The virtual flume ride ends with a roll call of the dead, while ghostly images march across the cemetery. "Grave No. 45. Unknown. Head burned off...." The doors open, and the numbed audience races for the bathrooms.
A similarly grim movie and more historic exhibits and artifacts can be found at the flood's end point, downriver at the Johnstown Flood Museum.