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Laramie Movie Scope:
Johnstown Flood

New documentary on the Johnstown Flood

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by Robert Roten, Film Critic
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June 27, 2003 -- “Johnstown Flood” is a new documentary about one of the worst disasters in American history. The flood, caused by the failure of an earthen dam on May 31, 1889, killed 2,209 people, one out of every 10 people living in Johnstown, Pennsylvania. Most of them died in the first 10 minutes after the huge wall of water hit the town. The death toll is comparable to the 2,800 killed in the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. I saw an advance copy of the DVD, which is being released on August 26, 2003.

The documentary, narrated by veteran actor Richard Dreyfuss, relies heavily on eyewitness accounts of the disaster and is liberally illustrated with period photographs, paintings, engravings, and other historic illustrations. A number of scenes from the flood are also re-enacted for the film. Excerpts from letters and diaries are also read by actors. The overall effect is to transport viewers back to the time of the flood and to see the flood from the standpoint of those who witnessed it. The film was written, directed and produced by Mark Bussler (“Shot to Pieces”) who specializes in historic documentaries.

The story of the Johnstown flood is surrounded by myths and legends of the rich versus the poor. The South Fork Dam which failed was owned by the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club, which counted in its membership some of the wealthiest people in the country, including Andrew Carnegie and Andrew Mellon, who used the area of Conemaugh Lake as a resort. Those people, with their vacation houses built above the lake, did not lose their lives and property as did the unlucky souls living downstream. The wealthy club members were sued for neglecting the dam, but the people who brought suit never collected a penny.

According to the film, the earth-filled dam which failed on that fateful day was weakened over the years by several factors. Cheap materials, including horse manure and straw were used to build the dam higher. Drainage pipes used to control the flow of water around the dam were removed. A grate was put over the spillway outlet to keep stocked fish from escaping from the lake. This grate got plugged up with debris and could not be cleared in time to prevent the dam's collapse. There was even a story that a second overflow spillway had been removed from the dam over the years. All of these factors could have led to the collapse of the dam.

The film does not assign blame to the wealthy owners of the dam, but it is clear the owners had the money to maintain the dam in good repair, but did not maintain in a safe manner. The South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club did not build the dam. The club bought the dam 47 years after it had been built by a canal company, and some changes in the dam had been made by another previous owner, the Pennsylvania Railroad company. Originally designed to hold back water to a depth of only 10 feet, the dam was up to 100 feet high and held back a great deal more water than it was originally designed to hold.

One of the myths about the flood was that rich people living in Johnstown survived in far greater numbers than the poor. Richard Burkert of the Johnstown Flood Museum disputes that in his film commentary, which is an alternate film soundtrack on the DVD. He notes that the working class people were more apt to live on the hills above Johnstown, while the wealthier people and businessmen lived close to the banks of the Little Conemaugh and Conemaugh Rivers. Burkert's comments illustrate the overall balance of the documentary which seems to make an honest effort to present its story objectively.

The dam failed during a fierce rainstorm in which the water of Lake Conemaugh was rising at the rate of a foot an hour. The lone spillway with its grate choked with debris, was unable to handle the huge volume of water pouring into the lake from South Fork Creek. Water spilled over the top of the dam. Saturated by water, the center of the dam gave way. A great wall of water some 40 feet high began moving down the narrow valley at a speed of 40 miles per hour. The small towns of South Fork, Mineral Point, Conemaugh, Franklin and the model company town of Woodvale were virtually destroyed by the flood before the huge wall of water hit Johnstown.

It took an hour for the water to make it from the dam to Johnstown. The flood was held up by several barriers, including a stone bridge. There was some warning. Train whistles and telegraph warnings preceeded the flood. The few people in towns who had telephones got some warning. Many ignored the warnings, however, because there had been many false alarms in the past about the dam, and there had been a number of floods. The water surged down South Fork Creek to the Little Conemaugh River and continued to Jonestown, where it crashed into the confluence of Stony Creek, where the Conemaugh River begins. When the huge wall of water hit Jonestown, it came with trees and buildings from the small upstream towns, which increased the force of the impact. Much of the city of 30,000 people was destroyed by the force of the water. The flood was so powerful, it carried 80-ton locomotives nearly a mile downstream. So swift was the wall of water than many people had no time to react to it.

One of the more interesting survival stories recounted in the film was that of attorney James M. Walters, who was at home when the flood hit. He climbed to the roof of his house, which was swept off its foundations. The house crashed into a large building called Alma Hall. Walters fell through a window in Alma Hall and found himself inside his own law office in that building. He and 200 other people survived the flood by taking refuge in the sturdy building. The rest of Walters' family was killed. The flood waters carried a huge mass of debris into downtown Johnstown, where the debris jammed against the strong stone bridge of the Pennsylvania Railroad. The bridge refused to budge. The water backed up and created a huge eddy, covering much of downtown. An overturned railroad car started a fire in the debris. Many flood survivors perished in the flames.

The death toll in Jamestown was staggering. A total of 396 children under the age of 10 were killed in the flood. A total of 586 children lost one or both parents in the flood. A total of 99 families were completely wiped out. A large number of horses also died in the flood. There was a high economic toll as well. The flood cost millions of dollars in damage. Hard hit was the Cambria Ironworks plant, one of the largest steel mills in the nation. The iron and steel plant was also one of the most technologically advanced operations in the country, having helped to pioneer new processes for making steel at low cost, advancing the industrial revolution. Prior to the flood, Johnstown had been a booming town, growing at a very fast pace. The response to the tragedy from the rest of the country was swift. Clara Barton, founder of the Red Cross, came to Johnstown and set up relief centers. Millions of dollars of aid poured in from all over the country, fueled by widespread newspaper coverage of the event. It was the largest charity campaign in the history of the nation up to that time.

The Red Cross, up to that time an organization set up mainly to render medical care to those wounded in war, would expand to cover natural disaster relief as a result of Barton's work in the aftermath of the Johnstown flood and press coverage of her. The cleanup of the mess following the flood was a gigantic undertaking, requiring the work of thousands of laborers. The debris stacked up against the railroad bridge in Johnstown (the bridge is still standing) covered over 30 acres. Bodies were found hundreds of miles downstream from Jonestown in Ohio. One thing the film does not touch on is public policy changes regarding flood control following the great Johnstown flood. Among these changes are numerous flood control projects by local, state and federal governments, including the Army Corps of Engineers, which started within months after the flood. Flooding occurred in Johnstown long before 1889, and continued long after, including another large flood on St. Patrick's Day in 1936. Flood control project construction continues to this very day in Johnstown and all over the country.

If you are interested in the Johnstown flood, this DVD is a good place to start your research. The main soundtrack, with Richard Dreyfuss' narration is informative and is nicely balanced by the alternate soundtrack featuring Richard Burkert, executive director of the Johnstown Area Heritage Association, who gives different insights into the disaster. Dreyfuss' script seems to run out of synonyms for disaster, terrible, tragic, etc. and it gets a bit repetitious after a while. There is also quite a variation in sound levels. Some times the sound level drops off quite a bit on the main soundtrack. The Burkert soundtrack seems more consistent. Burkert has an unusual speaking style, sometimes using a rising inflection at the end of sentences and phrases even when they are not questions. Some of the dramatic recreations are effective, while others are amateurish. There are similar variations in the quality of the special effects used in the film. The gold standard for this kind of documentary is set by filmmaker Ken Burns. “Johnstown Flood” doesn't rise to that standard, but it is an informative historical tale.

There is an additional 20-minute documentary and interview with Ricard Burkert. There is also a separate piano performance on the DVD, a “Piano Illustration” piece written about the Johnstown Flood in 1889. It is performed by Patricia Prattis Jennings. The 64-minute main documentary is mostly in black and white with some color footage. The period piano music and black and white images are reminiscent of old silent movies. The widescreen version of the film is enhanced for 16x9 television. Sound is Dolby (tm) Digital 2. This DVD rates a C+.

Click here for links to places to buy or rent this movie in video and/or DVD format, or to buy the soundtrack, posters, books, even used videos, games, electronics and lots of other stuff. I suggest you shop at least two of these places before buying anything. Prices seem to vary continuously. For more information on this film, click on this link to The Internet Movie Database. Type in the name of the movie in the search box and press enter. You will be able to find background information on the film, the actors, and links to much more information. For more information on this film, click on this link to the official home page of Johnstown Flood.

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Copyright © 2003 Robert Roten. All rights reserved.
Reproduced with the permission of the copyright holder.
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Robert Roten can be reached via e-mail at my last name at lariat dot org. [Mailer button: image of letter and envelope]

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