Field Tripping: National Memorializing

My twin sister and I meant to head straight to the Johnstown Flood National Memorial on our annual Sister Trip, but instead we found ourselves feeling almost blasphemous—an odd feeling for two people with no religious beliefs of note whatsoever—as we watched folks filling up old milk cartons and Dasani water bottles with blessed water coming out of the wall at the National Shrine Grotto of Our Lady of Lourdes, near the Maryland-Pennsylvania border. Things go this way when you hit the road in search of some hot national-parks action and then just let the signs take you away along the flow of things. 

We share many things, she and I, and one of them is a deep love for, if not obsession with, national parks. Mine started with a day trip to the Barataria wildlife preserve in Marerro, Louisiana back in October 2010. The park is the best part of the Jean Lafitte National Historical Park and Preserve, partly because you might see an alligator and mostly because swamps and wetlands are just fantastic places, the raggedy edges where the earth meets the ends of the earth. And then, of course, there's the Visitor Center, where I picked up my National Parks Service Passport and embarked on a career of filling it up with cancellation stamps that mark each visit to each new park—well over 50 for me so far, and at least one in each of the NPS system's seven regions, not that I'm bragging.


It didn't take long to get my twin sister in on the action—she's impressionable, and I gotta say, the NPS Passport makes a good impression. We missed our trip last year due to the annoying confluence of moving, her training for the New York City marathon, and that part where sometimes you just don't get it together. But when she came down to Baltimore for a weekend getaway, we were determined to hit the Johnstown Flood National Memorial in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, just outside of Pittsburgh. I didn't know much about this flood, but at less than four hours away, it was ideal. After a little reading, the field trip started to get real exciting, because this flood is the story of infrastructure, state, capital, rich people building their own private country club getaway without a care for the multitudes living below—pretty much all my favorite stuff to get angry about, all in one visit.

We were in search of flood waters, not holy ones, so we hurried out of the National Shrine Grotto. And then we checked the map. That 25-mile shrine detour actually put us a couple of hours into the hills surrounding the Johnstown valley, so we spent the rest of the afternoon on backroads, Springsteen's 'Promised Land' in our ears as we "cross[ed] the Waynesboro County line/ [we] got the radio on, and [we're] just killing time." He's talking about Utah, but Pennsylvania'll do in a pinch.

The travel was so easy, the drive smooth going up and down the hills. We made it, "me and Frankie laughing and drinking, nothing feels better than blood on blood/ taking turns dancing with Maria/ while the band plays 'Night of the Johnstown Flood.'" (We also have in common a deep love of Bruce; back in high school we worked his lyrics into every paper we wrote, our secret sibling game.) We were there, but there was no water, no sign of what could have flooded this valley back in 1889. And the reason had everything to do with how hard it would have been to get here without the car I borrowed from the ladyfriend. Travel up and down the mountains wasn't easy back in the 1800s, and the answer was to build a canal. Moving things by water is way faster than, say, dragging them up and down by horse, so a canal would really open this region up to trade and industry and all that other stuff we just take for granted we're supposed to love.

The thing with a canal, though, is that you need water, and water doesn't run the same way in rivers all year round. You have a gush of the stuff in the spring when runoff starts, but by late summer, your watery roads are pretty much dried up, your canal worthless. The answer? Build a dam! Make a reservoir to hold back the water and then release it when you need it! This is an old solution—folks have been damming rivers with giant piles of earth and stone for thousands of years—and this would totally work. So the state of Pennsylvania paid to build it, because states do that sort of thing, invest in infrastructure for the greater good.

And then guess what happened, just two years after the canal opened? The Pennsylvania Railroad opened, and the canal wasn't really needed anymore. D'oh! The railroad bought it for its own use, and the dam sat, untended, for decades until some rich dudes—like, Andrew Carnegie and Henry Frick rich—went looking for a private mountain getaway away from the riffraff. And there was that reservoir made by that dam, the perfect fishing spot for the superrich. The South Fork Hunting and Fishing Club was born in 1879, the lake stocked with fish shipped in from Lake Michigan on the trains they'd made their fortunes on.

No one thought it worth the expense or worry to look after the dam itself, and 10 years later on Memorial Day weekend in 1889, following months of heavy rain that the land, stripped bare of its trees to make way for the trains and coal mines and people who now called this area home, could not absorb. The dam overflowed, taking itself in a rush down the mountain, wiping out towns and people along the way. It's a gruesome story, over two thousand dead, bodies found ground into the earth even 15 years later, because that's the thing with water and gravity—it is force, and the hubris to think we can hold it all back and never feel its return is just that.

And then I wondered about the roads we were driving on in this car that spit out its poisons for the 500 miles we drove that weekend. I wonder if we'll recognize the flood when it hits us after these decades upon decades of paving over everything and taking our cars everywhere, or if the slow burn of it all will make us think it's all just so natural.