The Corner

Johnstown, the City with a Will

Damage from the 1889 Johnstown Flood (Library of Congress)
Historic floods and new challenges can’t keep this survivor down.

Editor’s note: Author Michael Novak, a native of Johnstown, Pa., will present this keynote address at the 125th-anniversary commemoration of the Johnstown Flood on May 31.

Right to the point: I love this city.

I am very grateful to it. Johnstown breeds a certain kind of people.

Kathleen George, magnificent Johnstowner herself, captures that character in her brilliant new novel, The Johnstown Girls, an extraordinary tale of the flood we commemorate today. And of the turmoil it left behind in so many thousands of lives — but also of the virtues it brought out in many beautiful lives. And of virtues this city continues to bring out. In my own terse summary, here is how Ms. George defines the character of Johnstown people:

Work. Work. Work. Persistence. Love. Sacrifice. Do not ever be surprised at how painful life is. Never, never panic. Hold steady. . . . And: “We still have a chance —THROW that ‘Hail Mary’! Fling it as far as you can.”

For me, at least, Kathleen George nails it. That’s who we are.

Focus your memory now. On May 31, 1889, at seven minutes after four in the afternoon, an enormous roar burst out from Conemaugh Valley up there, just ahead of a 40-foot wall of water that kept tumbling over itself to crush this valley. Within moments it smacked down right here on the spot where we meet today.

In minutes, 2,000 Johnstowners lost their lives. Then came the long hours of more dying, often in the dark, alone.

Next morning, all around where we now sit, lay rubble and acrid smoke from lumber smoldering from the fire that had raged on top of the water the night before. All around lay smashed-up wooden planks as far as eye could see. Not more than a dozen buildings stood erect in this entire basin, surrounded by these hills we see all around us.

*    *    *

More civilians died here in this valley on that May 31st than in any other domestic disaster in American history — except September 11, 2001. More than 90 entire families were wiped out. More than 700 of the dead could not be identified. They lie above us now in Grandview Cemetery, under neat white rows of nameless tombstones.

By 1889, the telegraph had been invented and put into worldwide use. Picture cameras, too. The Johnstown Flood was the whole world’s first internationally shared media event. It was also the first big assignment for Clara Barton’s newly founded Red Cross — the decisive Clara Barton, the undeterrable Clara Barton. She made herself a pain in the arse to a lot of people here, to help save this city. Sometimes that’s what it takes. Johnstowners know that. We’ve each been a pain in the arse, when that’s what it takes.

Just across the way in one of the few standing buildings in the flood’s main path, hundreds of frightened people had huddled for safety during the long night of the flood, angry waters surging against the building all night. Next morning, surviving leaders of Johnstown made their way to the edge of the flood zone to meet there to establish an emergency government, make strategic assignments, divide up responsibilities — and then rush straight to work. Self-government in a sea of disaster. Overnight.

*    *    *

Just the day before the flood, there had been a huge celebration of Memorial Day. Five sprightly bands dressed in brilliant, diversely colored uniforms marched happily and noisily down Main Street. Dogs yapped, and children clapped and cheered. Behind the bands stomped veterans of the Civil War in Union blue. Just 24 years before, that bloodiest of wars had finally ended. Lads who had served at 22 were now 46 and not yet — not yet — too paunchy for their mothballed uniforms.

A baseball game had been played between the boys of Johnstown and a visiting team from Pittsburgh. The Pittsburghers won again, drat it. The smells of long-barbecuing meats wafted through the air — and mustard, and sliced onions. There were lettuce, carrots stored in the dark cellar over the winter, five different kinds of potato salad. Fresh-baked apple pies.

That night, just as the two-month rain had begun to fall again, a variety show from New York, with its gaudy girls and mustachioed men, performed on the indoor stage on Washington Street. Many in the audience, on exiting hours later, held aloft their shoes or lifted high their skirts to avoid the several inches of water already running down the street.

All night the rain continued. Since April 1, according to the National Weather Service, 52 inches had already fallen on Cambria County. The soil on the hills surrounding Johnstown could not hold a drop more. Yet during the night of May 30th and most of the 31st, seven more inches dropped from the skies in sheets. By daylight on the 31st, some streets were under three feet of water. Then later that afternoon, at 4:07 p.m., there thundered an unforgettable roar. A foul and odorous mist swept across the valley, blowing chill above the gigantic walls of water tumbling over themselves to crush this low and humble town, under wave after wave.

*    *    *

For a month after the flood, Johnstown was a grim, grim place. Carpenters and plumbers worked everywhere. First, to build coffins as fast as possible (hundreds more were shipped in from out of town), and then to put up new shelters, and to get a few shops functioning again, and urgently to reconstruct a sewage system. In some of the larger buildings in every area of town, bodies had been laid out in rows for possible identification. Fortunately, the first days of June were very cool, helping to slow the spread of disease from the corpses of the dead — humans and animals — that lay inert for days and days, some washed downstream miles and miles.

Johnstown survived. Only to go down again in 1936, and (unbelievably) in 1977. And in both cases to haul itself up again, and then again. In time, the city went on to host some 400 future major-league baseball players as young men under 21, competing in the annual tournament of the All-American Amateur Baseball Association, played out on the Johnstown area’s nine lovely baseball diamonds. And then to build the War Memorial with its own professional hockey arena, where Slap Shot was put on film.

Sports helped bring us back.

So did the churches. And truth be told, the bars and taverns. In 1888, there were a surprising 27 churches in tiny downtown Johnstown, and almost certainly as many taverns. A hard-drinking and a hard-praying Johnstown, you might say. And you would be right.

One of the Marines putting up the flag on Iwo Jima grew up in Johnstown. From this area, Windber to be exact, came Johnny Weissmuller, the first and greatest Tarzan. Then one of the first of Pittsburgher Gene Kelly’s dance studios. And then All-Pro Jack Ham at linebacker. And Leroy Leslie, All-American basketballer at Notre Dame, chosen for the national team that played all comers that summer, from home and overseas. And . . . 

And an awful lot of very pretty girls (including my mom!).

We came back. We always came back. And we even had a polka written to celebrate us, “Johnstown Polka.” And the line I always liked best was, “The city with a will.”

Believe us, world, will counts! Will always counts a lot! Lower your head, work, persist, sacrifice, love. Will always counts a lot! And so this little iron city sets its face into the wind once again. City of iron. The city where iron first turned to steel.

*    *    *

The colonel of the Minute Men at Lexington in 1775 said to the men of Massachusetts one month earlier: “Our country is in danger now, but not to be despaired of. . . . On you depend the fortunes of America. You are to decide the important questions, on which rest the happiness and liberty of millions yet unborn. Act worthy of yourselves.”

One hundred twenty-five years ago, noble bravery and steady nerve were also shown in Johnstown, Pa. Now our future is again in danger. But this is Resurrection City.

Let me be honest. We face a destructive undertow of illegal drugs here, weakening the will of some. We face far more unemployment than there needs to be: 7.5 percent. Almost 5,000 individuals who want to work. But consider the talents in this valley. Consider the determination in our heritage. This unnecessary unemployment cannot last. It will not last. We will ignite enterprise. As we have done before.

Our city is in danger now, but not to be despaired of. On us the living rests the future of this city — this amazing city. We must act worthy of ourselves.

Johnstown native Michael Novak’s most recent book is his memoir, Writing from Left to Right: My Journey from Liberal to Conservative.


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