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Flood debris wall.
Flood debris wall.

Johnstown Flood Museum

Field review by the editors.

Johnstown, Pennsylvania

The city of Johnstown, built in the narrow Conemaugh River valley, was always going to flood now and then. But on May 31, 1889, a 40-foot-tall wall of water and debris crashed into downtown, destroying most of it in less than ten minutes, killing over 2,200 people.

Stereoscopic viewer and photos.
Stereoscopic viewer and photos.

The Johnstown Flood came from a lake 14 miles upriver, the private playground of the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club. Its members were Pittsburgh millionaires who spent money stocking the lake with fish but not maintaining the old dam that held it in place.

The courts later ruled that the dam collapse was an Act of God, so the millionaires got off scot free. But one of them, Andrew Carnegie, felt bad enough to build Johnstown a new library (With his name in big letters over the front door). A century later the library building still stands, but it's now the Johnstown Flood Museum.

Hollywood Views the Flood.
Hollywood Views the Flood.

The Museum, like the Johnstown Flood National Memorial Visitor Center at the dam site, displays a multimedia relief map that follows the unstoppable liquid death ball as it rolls into town, and a film that grimly recounts the aftermath of the disaster (It won the 1990 Academy Award for Best Documentary, Short Subject). The Museum even constructed its own wall-spanning replica debris pile, a reminder of the muddy mountain of trash that buried thousands of Johnstown's unlucky inhabitants.

"Bodies," says one placard, "were found as late as 1906."

A lengthy showcase presents an array of salvaged artifacts: pocket items from those who died, a quilt used to drag survivors to safety, a lock of hair from a drowned woman found hanging in a tree. There are morgue books to peruse; their brief descriptions of the dead led to the creation of a mass grave of unknowns in a nearby cemetery. And there's a display about Morley's Dog, a miracle survivor statue that still stands only a couple of blocks away from the Museum.

Flood postcards, souvenirs, and gifts for the folks back home.
Flood spoons, souvenirs, and post cards for the folks back home.

South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club frog diorama.
South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club frog diorama.

The museum has acquired and ably presents a variety of flood leavings, highlighting the many ways it was communicated to the world (and subsequently exploited). With 3-D viewers fixed in plexiglass, visitors can see stereoscopic photos of the disaster; old films and cartoons loop on a monitor and show Hollywood's take on the tragedy.

Upstairs, the unexpected "Selling the Flood" gallery recounts how the "greatest calamity of modern times" became an immediate tourist sensation, as well as its own juggernaut of pop culture calamity-for-profit. Melodramatic lithographs and Victorian stereoscopes of blown-out houses vied for the wallets of the morbidly curious, along with collectible silver spoons engraved with scenes of the disaster.

There's a showcase of Johnstown Flood books, with titles such as The Terrible Wave and Run For The Hills. Most impressive of all was the full-size "Sceneographic" staged recreation of the flood with over a dozen technicians; it toured the world and was a hit in places such as Atlantic City, where it was advertised as "our time's greatest electromechanical spectacle."

In the aftermath of the disaster, Johnstown bravely adopted the name "Flood City" and assured everyone that nothing like it would never happen again. But the third floor of the museum displays items from the grim floods of 1936 (25 dead) and 1977 (85 dead), including a section of steel bridge that was found twisted into a pretzel and wrapped around a tree.

Johnstown Flood Museum

304 Washington St., Johnstown, PA
From US Hwy 219 exit onto Hwy 56 (Johnstown Expy). Drive about six miles to the Walnut St. exit. Turn right onto Walnut St. At third stoplight turn right onto Washington St. Museum is on right.
May-Sep. T-Su 10-5; Oct-April W-Sa 10-5 (Call to verify) Local health policies may affect hours and access.
Adults $9.00
RA Rates:
Worth a Detour
Save to My Sights

Nearby Offbeat Places

Morley's DogMorley's Dog, Johnstown, PA - < 1 mi.
World's Steepest Railway for CarsWorld's Steepest Railway for Cars, Johnstown, PA - < 1 mi.
Grave of USA's First WWII Air AceGrave of USA's First WWII Air Ace, Johnstown, PA - < 1 mi.
In the region:
Vietnam Memorial - The Wall That Heals, Altoona, PA - 30 mi.

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