Post-Civil War, the nation’s industry rapidly grew and expanded throughout the continent. Telegraph lines linked every corner of the country, providing nearly instantaneous spread of news.
Railroads brought distant places within a few days’ train ride. Railroads required steel, coal and money. In the center of that expansion, geographically and financially, was Pittsburgh.
Pittsburgh’s most notable citizens included the contemporaries William Thaw (Pennsylvania Railroad), Andrew Carnegie (U.S. Steel), Andrew Mellon (banking) and Henry Frick (all three).
These men made marks as businessmen and as great philanthropists, endowing universities, building libraries, amassing art collections and assisting in countless charitable works. While remembered as philanthropists, they had a much greater, though nuanced, role in American charity and compassion.
Pittsburgh sat in the midst of a major coal shed, iron ore deposits and water. Two large interior rivers, the Allegheny and the Monongahela, join there to form the beautiful Ohio River. Almost 1,000 miles downriver, the Ohio joins the Mississippi. Rivers brought raw product and took away finished goods.
Numerous creeks and smaller rivers fed these larger ones. The Little Conemaugh and Stonycreek in the coal-filled mountains formed the Conemaugh, which becomes the Kistkiminetas which, 27 miles later, pours into the Allegheny.
In the mid-century, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania sought to join the corners of the state with canals linking the various riversheds. Using a series of locks, the canals raised then lowered boats across the divides.
To feed the locks linking Pittsburgh to the east, it dammed the Little Conemaugh. But no sooner were the canals built than railroads came, making the canals, and the lake, obsolete.
It was this abandoned lake, decades later, that the Pittsburgh wealthy purchased, rebuilt and raised the dam, built a lodge and cottages and created the South Fork Landing and Fishing Club. To avoid the dust and heat of the city in the summer, special trains would bring them from the city to enjoy time at the resort.
The club stocked the lake, now called Lake Conemaugh, with expensive fish. Guards kept the locals from fishing and fencing across the spillway, kept the fish in the lake and out of the downstream river. As history shows, the fence kept more than just fish from flowing.
The lake flowed over the spillway into the Little Conemaugh, which passed through the deepest gorge east of the Rocky Mountains until it joined the Stonycreek to form the Conemaugh at Johnstown.
In late March 1889, a low-pressure system parked over eastern Pennsylvania and brought the region’s heaviest rainfall. The U.S. Army Signal Corps estimated that as much as 10 inches of rain fell within 24 hours.
The rain melted the heavy snowpack and the water flooded, gouged and scoured the stream and river beds and banks. Raging torrents of water, trees, dead animals and destroyed buildings moved through the region.
Water and debris filled Lake Conemaugh. The spillway fence kept the debris from falling into the river below and, in time, became a part of the dam itself, forcing the lake to rise above the top of the dam.
Wind-lashed waves beat at the earthen top and in the afternoon of March 31, 20 million tons of water full of debris exploded through the breach. A railroad viaduct briefly stopped the flow until the force toppled it. The delay served only to concentrate and accelerate the deluge.
This 60-foot wall of water, mud, dead animals and debris roared downstream at 40 miles per hour through the narrow gorge, stripping houses, trains and trees from their moorings and in many places cleaning down to bedrock.
This wall hit the already heavily flooded Johnstown like a massive bulldozer. It flattened buildings, moved giant locomotives, ripped out trees and filled the space with deep, muddy water.
Scrambling for safety, residents raced to the top of houses and buildings, only to find that they were either not high enough or the force shattered the building. Instinctively they grabbed onto anything. Floating on roofs and doors, they reached out to trees and sometimes windows in higher-level houses.
The water, mud and debris hit the stone bridge on the edge of town and dammed up. This new debris dam kept the water in the city high and stopped those floating downstream. Stripped of housing, earthly belongings and often clothing, the survivors experienced the greatest horror.
Burning coals in the debris ignited the wooden bridge. Volunteers scrambled to save those they could from this hell. Not all were saved.
In the end over 2,000 people were drowned, killed by debris, buried in mud or burnt in the fire. The survivors, naked, homeless and without food, huddled on the banks during the cold, wet night.
The telegraph, unable to warn the residents, sent the story of this tragedy to all corners of the country. The railroads quickly rebuilt tracks and brought rail service to the city. An army of journalists, volunteers and morticians came to observe, to help and to bury.
The governor sent the National Guard to keep order. Clara Barton personally led the new American Red Cross in its first major relief project. Strangers throughout the country collected money, food and clothing, which was shipped on the railroad to Johnstown.
This outpouring of compassion and contribution, almost unheard of at this scale before then, exhibited for the first time that great American spirit of caring for the fellow human in a time of need, a characteristic that it proudly continues to this day.
Aside from bringing order through the militia, government played a minor role in the recovery. The surviving victims, aided by the gifts and volunteers, recovered and eventually claimed victory over the tragedy.
Today, government plays a bigger role. Though the Red Cross, Salvation Army and many other organized and unorganized volunteers come to aid, payments from FEMA are among the most prominent contributions.
Nobody wants to be a victim. Tragic circumstances make individuals victims. The goal of everyone is to avoid being victimized and, if it happens, to come out of that hole into victory.
But being a victim, no matter how well treated, does not make America great. Victors, not victims, do.
The dairy industry has certainly felt the combination of forces that ripped through the dairies stripping many of their equity and, in some cases, their farms themselves. The terrible situation in 2009 tops such a list. It was not the first; it will not be the last.
In the depth of such situations there is a cry for relief, generally in the form of money. But the government only pays out so much and too little, and losses associated with business risk, no matter how great, are not viewed by America in the same class as victims of natural or other disasters. This is so even when the losses are greater.
This becomes relevant in the ongoing debate leading to what all hope will be dairy reform. An important but fine line separates the call for change from a call for victim relief.
Like Pennsylvania and other states that change the laws on dams and for strict liability to provide compensation, Congress can change the rules to protect producers from industry practices and situations that unfairly impose more risk on producers than they should.
It can provide insurance and risk management tools to help dairy farmers through the really deep economic troughs. It can look at different ways of pricing milk. By and large that is what many are asking for, though they come with different ideas.
But there persists in many dairymen a view that dairy farmers are victims of a situation that demands they produce milk at below cost and that the government must guarantee producers profitability when the market fails to do so. It is, in essence, a claim that dairy farmers are victims and that they need relief. Not only that, but perpetual victims with no promise of victory.
Dairy farmers are not perpetual victims. They are victors. Victors, not victims, continue to produce more and more of a safer and more wholesome product every year. Economics may not be great – they might be terrible for some – but enough producers are making enough to produce more and more. Not as victims, but victors.
As victors, dairy farmers have increased production per cow by more than a third in a few decades. As victors, farm sanitation practices have improved as they produce America’s safest food.
Victors find ways to get the most milk out of a ton of feed. Victors have developed and adopted technology that continues to move the industry into the 21st century.
As victors, dairy farmers are among the drivers of our economy. Studies show every job on a dairy farm produces as many indirect jobs as direct jobs. That is the role of victors, not victims.
Today, America as a whole is starting to feel like a victim. Many are claiming that status with the belief there will be relief. What America needs is not more victims, but victors, like American dairymen. As dairymen, we need to rise to this place of champions, not by asking more of government, but by asking more of ourselves.
Yes, the market is brutal, terribly brutal. But we need to enter that fight with the idea that we are victors, not victims.
As Johnstown and the Conemaugh Valley communities cleaned up and houses, churches, schools and factories were rebuilt, the state militia left, Clara Barton moved the Red Cross to the next crisis, and the residents ceased being victims.
There were the inevitable lawsuits, but not one dollar was awarded to any person who was caught in the flood. Some argued it was because of the power of the defendants, but even modern legal scholars acknowledge that the question of causation was not clear.
Certainly, the screen on the spillway raised the lake above the dam, the absence of any drainage to the lake made correction impossible or the dam was improperly engineered and built for such water pressure. But everyone agreed that this was an extraordinary rainfall.
The unique geological structure which narrowed the river channel, coupled with human efforts that deepened the channel, also contributed.
In the end only victors were left, on their own. PD
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