On the morning of May 31, 1889, there was water in the streets. Johnstown, Pennsylvania had been built into a river valley on the Appalachian Plateau. The Little Conemaugh and the Stony Creek Rivers merged to form the Conemaugh River on the western end of town. Because of heavy snows melting or heavy rains, at least once a year one or both of these rivers overflowed, causing residents to protect what they could of their belongings.
On May 28, 1889 the rain started to fall, and fall it did. Because of a lack of controls and poor design, the South Fork dam, which held back Conemaugh Lake just 14 miles above the city, was about to fail. The lake, which was owned by the prestigious South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club (whose illustrious members included the likes of Andrew Carnegie, Henry Clay Frick, and Andrew Mellon), was way too deep for the strength of the dam’s design.
Johnstown Flood is about the dam’s breaking and the resulting 2,200 deaths that it caused. Until the 21st century, it was the worst disaster in American history. The 45-foot wall of water roared through several towns tearing up everything in its path. Fires erupted and pandemonium and looting ensued. Out of tragedy came stories of heroism and recovery spearheaded by the Red Cross and Clara Barton.
Johnstown Flood is narrated by Richard Dreyfuss and stars Charles King, Jennifer Lee Drake, and Patrick Jordan. It is directed by Mark Bussler. Its running time is 84 minutes and contains full-length commentary track by Richard Burkert, Executive Director, Johnstown Area Heritage Association, 20-minute mini-documentary, and interview with Richard Burkert providing additional information on the history of the Johnstown Flood, and “The Johnstown Flood ,” an 1889 Piano illustration by Alberto Rivieri, performed by Patricia Jennings.
Johnstown Flood is an interesting video for those who know nothing of “The Great Flood of 1889” as it came to be called. I was one who only slightly heard about the flood, but really knew nothing about it even though I am an avid history buff. I learned a lot from this video, including the fact that it was the first major disaster relief effort handled by the new American Red Cross and that the support came from all over the United States and other countries.
Richard Dreyfuss has a great narrative voice that lends some calm to the proceedings. That, along with the presentation of words from the survivors of the disaster, lent an understanding to the documentary. Johnstown Flood is full of pictures and hand drawn sketches of the disaster, which brings a fuller reality.
While I don’t know if Johnstown Flood will appeal to everyone, it certainly presents the facts of the disaster in an easy to understand and accessible format. If you are a fan of historical documentary or just want to know more about the disaster at Johnstown, then I easily recommend Johnstown Flood.