It has been 127 years since Lake Conemaugh served as a summer retreat for some of the nation’s wealthiest men – and just as long since their South Fork Dam broke, releasing an estimated 20 million tons of water toward the Conemaugh Valley below.
Visitors often enter the Johnstown Flood National Memorial expecting to see a lake on the site’s 165 acres, park Ranger Doug Bosley said.
Others scan for signs of the devastation caused by the wave of water that claimed at least 2,209 men and women on May 31, 1889.
But aside from a few remnants of what was once a massive earthen dam, all of that was washed away in the great flood that the site commemorates, leaving little more than photographs, century-old survivors’ letters and people like Bosley to keep the story alive.
“The Johnstown Flood National Memorial is a different kind of park in that ... other than a few dam remains, there’s really nothing left behind from the destruction of the flood to assist us,” Bosley said.
“Our mission is to preserve the stories, so that what happened in Johnstown that day will always be remembered.”
Remnants and replicas
The national memorial was created by Congress on August 31, 1964, turning over dam remnants and property that once was part of Lake Conemaugh’s bed to the National Park Service.
In the decades that followed, the property was slowly developed, with onetime South Fork Hunting and Fishing Club President Col. Elias Unger’s former farmhouse acquired by the early 1980s and today’s visitors center built in time for the flood’s 100th anniversary in 1989, Bosley said.
Visitors can walk alongside Unger’s old springhouse, take a path over the dam’s old spillway and walk onto what the Park Service calls the dam’s north abutment.
An overlook there offers a wide-open view of what was once a lake.