Hi! Marketing Volunteer Pam Sanderlin here, blogging about my first overnight tour, Railways and History in Altoona and Johnstown. The first day was a treat for transportation historians, focusing on Altoona (a critical railroad hub for more than a century), the Allegheny Portage Railroad, and the Horseshoe Curve. The second day was spent learning about the Johnstown flood of 1889 and held special meaning for me as my great grandmother survived that flood. Our outstanding leader, Joe Nevin, who provided a detailed historical backdrop to all we experienced, skillfully linked everything together into a fascinating and compelling story.
Day 1: Our first stop was the Allegheny Portage Railroad National Historic Site. When the Erie Canal was finished in 1824, Pennsylvania’s business trading dropped off and the Mainline of Public Works was born to build a Main Line Canal across the state. But how do you build an efficient canal over the Allegheny Mountains? The answer was the Portage Railroad—5 incline planes were built up each side of the mountain and at the head of each incline were engines that moved endless ropes that pulled railroad cars up the mountain. Canal boats were built in sections and at the end of the canal on one side, these sections were loaded onto the cars to be hauled up and down the mountain to the canal on the other side. Although the process seems incredibly cumbersome to me, this unique engineering solution reduced travel time for passengers and goods from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh from 23 to 4 days (when the canals weren’t frozen), and was in service for 20 years until the railroad was built straight through.
Another engineering marvel greeted us at our next stop—the Horseshoe Curve. We went up a funicular (incline) to see the curve first hand. It is a beautiful spot overlooking fall trees and the water of a reservoir that once provided water to the canal. The curve was opened in 1854 and provides a 1.8 foot rise per 100 feet up the mountain, which is a doable climb for steam engines. With the addition of the Horseshoe Curve, passengers could travel from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh in 15 hours. The curve is still the way for trains to cross the Alleghenies today—at the end of the day, we took the train from Altoona to Johnstown and happily experienced the curve ourselves.
Altoona is home to The Railroaders Memorial Museum, our next stop. Here, we watched an informative film and then learned about several vintage train cars on display in and around the newly constructed roundhouse. My favorite story of the day, shared by Joe while we were there, is that Nazi saboteurs targeted the Horseshoe Curve as a key industrial site to be destroyed during World War II. Luckily they were found out and captured on U.S. soil. It is amazing what you learn on these tours!
Day 2: After a pleasant night’s rest, we were off again. We spent the day in and around Johnstown learning about the flood of May 31, 1889. Johnstown has had many floods over the years—the town is in a valley where 2 rivers join to form one and the townspeople were used to flood water in their streets until the mid-20th century when the banks of the rivers were sealed with concrete.
What was remarkable and unique about this flood was that it was not caused by nature, but was the result of a manmade earthen dam that failed at the top of the mountain and released a 40 foot wall of water and debris. The enormous wave broke through a huge train trellis in its path and came thundering down on the unsuspecting town of Johnstown, destroying it within 10 minutes and killing over 2,200 people.
What led to this disaster is a story in itself. The South Fork Dam was initially opened in 1853 to retain water to service the western Main Line Canal (supplying water in drought periods), but due to numerous issues it only operated for one year before the canal went out of business. The dam was well constructed with drainage (sluice) pipes and a control tower to monitor the water level. In the ensuing years, the control tower burned and the dam and area was bought and sold—one owner removed the sluice pipes and sold them for scrap limiting the options for safe removal of excess water. In 1875 the dam was bought in the name of the South Fork Fishing & Hunting Club of Pittsburgh, an exclusive club that boasted the elite of Pittsburgh society as members, and provided a beautiful spot for them to spend summer days enjoying the lake and environs.
However, the Club inadequately maintained the dam—they patched the holes from an earlier, lesser break in the dam with mud, never replaced the sluice pipes, lowered the top of the dam to enable carriages to ride over it, and put fish screens over the spillway, blocking the release of water from the lake.
On that fateful day in May, heavy rains caused the lake to rise at an extraordinary rate—the dam failed at 3:09 PM sending 20,000,000 tons of water hurtling toward Johnstown.
We started our tour at the Johnstown Flood Memorial where we saw a somber film recounting the tragedy. We were joined by a very knowledgeable Park Ranger who gave us a tour of the South Fork Club House and walked us to the edge of what is left of the dam—the deep and wide ravine where the lake had been is impressive—a train track now runs through it at the bottom.
Our next stop was the Johnstown Flood Museum, which was formerly the Carnegie Library, donated by Carnegie after the flood. (It is notable that few of the Club members did anything for the town after their lake destroyed it.) After visiting the top floor which was originally a gym complete with a mezzanine for running, and seeing an award winning film about the flood, we viewed an amazing lighted re-enactment of the flood tumbling through the mountains to Johnstown.
The people of Johnstown rebuilt their city—what a heartbreaking, ugly chore that must have been—and 2 years later they opened the Johnstown Inclined Plane, the steepest in the world, encouraging people to move to the top of the mountain, safe from future floods. We rode the Incline (rebuilt and modernized in 1984), and took in a glorious view of Johnstown today on a beautiful sunny afternoon.
Our final stop was Grandview Cemetery, where many of the flood victims are buried. We visited the “Unknown Plot” where the unmarked gravestones of 777 flood victims who could not be identified are lined up in neat rows. It is a moving spot—only one in 4 victims could be identified after the carnage of the flood and fire that followed.
Although I thoroughly enjoyed our first day in Altoona and hope to round the Horseshoe Curve in the future, our time in Johnstown was particularly meaningful to me and family members who joined me on the tour. I have heard stories of my great grandmother jumping from roof to roof to survive the flood all my life and recently learned that she was probably saved by her father who had worked on a canal boat and could read the currents. She was to be married the next day, and after the flood, borrowed a wedding dress and was married within weeks. There are many lessons to be learned from the Johnstown Flood but perhaps the most important is the message of hope and survival. I hope to go back and visit Johnstown again soon.