Fallingwater. I have longed to visit this architectural gem for years and never had the opportunity. Now we are here and I am overcome with excitement. The building was completed in 1937 as a weekend retreat for Pittsburgh storeowner, Edgar J. Kaufmann. This Frank Lloyd Wright masterpiece is completely in harmony with nature. In design, Wright was so ahead of his time that he had to develop his own system for strengthening the cement floors. It wasn’t flawless, and the balcony has sagged slightly over time, but the structure is still gorgeous. After we tour this world famous home, we drive northeast where I learn of a tragedy that jolts my interest in Pennsylvania’s history. Standing on a hill of yellow grass and looking out into the speckled woods, I listen to the story of the Johnstown Flood.
Shadows cover Johnstown as tears gather in the sky. It is the heaviest rainfall ever recorded in this section of the country. The Conemaugh River swells to the brim, threatening townsfolk and every wooden structure. As the river rises, a sudden gush of water engulfs the town. There is a whirlpool of homes, bridges and desperate men, women and children. The water has come from the breaking of a man-made earthen dam, sending twenty million gallons of additional water over the land. On May 31st, 1889, 2,209 people were killed when a flood destroyed Johnstown, Pennsylvania. It was a great calamity, deemed an “act of God” by the men in suits. But many continue to ask, “What really happened on that dark day?”
Johnstown was a prosperous town, which thrived on business from the Main Line Canal, Pennsylvania Railroad and steel industry. High up in the hills, big businessmen such as Andrew Carnegie, Andrew Mellon and Robert Pitcairn boarded their sailboats and took up their fishing poles at the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club. It was the club’s responsibility to maintain the dam, which provided a leisure lake for the wealthy. There are records of concerns that the South Fork Dam was in need of repair. Patched by straw and mud, it wasn’t until May 31st that anyone realized exactly how deadly the dam could be.
Lawsuits against the dam were thrown out of court due to the flood being declared “an act of God,” so traumatized survivors received no legal compensation. 396 children were killed, while 124 women and 198 men were left widowed. Ninety-eight children lost both parents. 1 of every 3 bodies found were never identified and rest in the “Plot of the Unknown” in Grandview Cemetery. Months after the flood, bodies were found washed as far away as Cincinnati, Ohio.
Within a year of the flood, steel king, Andrew Carnegie, published his “Gospel of Wealth,” where he discussed the responsibility of the wealthy to become “the mere agent and trustee for his poorer brethren, bringing to their service his superior wisdom, experience and ability to administer, doing for them better than they would or could do for themselves.” I find his timing ironic, and can’t help but wonder if it weren’t for those businessmen sailing above Johnstown, administering the wealth, this land might not weep from the haunting memories that it does today.