What did we do on our first full day in Pittsburgh? Go to a museum? No – we left the city. Pittsburgh isn’t bad as cities go, but we really aren’t big city fans. Besides, there was a place I wanted to be able to say “I’ve been there” when they show it on TV news every year.
That’s right – we went to Punxsutawney, PA, the home of famous (or infamous) Phil the groundhog. It wasn’t Groundhog Day, true, but we did get to see Phil and the spot where he gives us his weather predictions every year. And we avoided the 37,000 other people who show up for that big event.
The town of Punxsutawney is rather quaint. Our first stop was the Chamber of Commerce, which houses the official Punxsutawney Phil information center and souvenir shop. Armed with a couple of post cards, a pin for my husband’s collection and directions to Gobbler’s Knob, we set off. As we drove, we looked for the various Phil’s that are scattered throughout the town. If you’ve ever seen the fiberglass horses or cows that are individually painted according to a theme in various cities, or the bison in Custer, SD, you have an idea of what these Phils are about. There was firefighter Phil outside the fire station, doorman Phil outside a hotel and tourist Phil – complete with camera and Hawaiian shirt. There are 32 Phils in all, but we didn’t hunt for all of them.
Our next stop was the Punxsutawney Public Library. Not for research – the library is the site of the Groundhog Zoo. The “Zoo” is Phil’s home when he’s not predicting weather. They have a clever little hutch style habitat where Phil (and a companion?) hang out. The habitat has a glass bubble for viewing, so regardless of the time or weather you can always check out Phil’s antics. We watched him sleep – briefly.
Since Phil wasn’t providing a lot of entertainment value, we went back to the car and drove up to Gobbler’s Knob. We saw the stage and viewing area where Phil does his annual show. It appears the area is used as a local summer activity site in addition to hosting national media once a year. I’m glad we were there without the 37,000 others – God knows where they’d all park. I wonder if they run shuttle buses to keep the pollution down, like some of the national parks do.
Having exhausted the sites we wanted to check out in Punxsutawney, we decided to drive to Johnstown, PA next. Johnstown is the location of the location of one of our nation’s first major disasters – a horrific flood that took over 2200 lives. Johnstown is located in a valley that is surrounded by steep hills. The National Park Service established the Johnstown Flood National Memorial. It features a movie explaining the circumstances of the flood and commemorating those whose lives were lost, many photographs of the town before and after the flood and a view of the remains of the South Fork Dam.
Johnstown, PA in 1889 was a steel company town of 30,000. There was a drawback to living in the city, however. It was built on a floodplain at the fork of the Little Conemaugh and Stony Creek Rivers. As the city had grown, occupants had stripped forests from the surrounding hills and narrowed the river banks to gain building space. Without the trees to slow runoff, rainwater was forced into the constricted river channel and small floods were not uncommon.
However, it was another intervention of man that was the biggest threat. Fourteen miles up the Little Conemaugh was Lake Conemaugh – 2 miles long by a mile wide – formed by the construction of one of the largest earthen dams in the world at that time, the South Fork Dam. This dam held the huge lake on the side of the mountain 450 feet above Johnstown!
The “South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club”, an exclusive club for the Pittsburgh rich, bought the abandoned original reservoir and dam, “repaired” the old dam and built a clubhouse and cabins. However, they raised the level of the lake while lowering the height of the dam – unfortunate decisions. They didn’t maintain the dam well. The fished, hunted, sailed in their own lakeside paradise.
It had been a very rainy spring and it had rained heavily again, starting in the afternoon of May 30th. On the afternoon of May 31st, the town residents heard a low rumble that grew to a mighty roar. The earthen dam had given way, sending 20 million tons of water crashing down into the valley. Most people never saw anything until the 36-foot wall of water, teeming with huge chunks of debris, rolled over them at 40 mph. I’ll leave all the gory details to those interested enough to do research on their own. Suffice it to say, the town was destroyed. Some of the numbers amazed me. Remember – these are 1889 dollars, not today’s. Property damage was $17 million. The Red Cross did respond, including 67 y.o. founder Clara Barton. Contributions for aid from the US and other countries totaled more than $3,700,000.
It struck me that humans really are a stubborn, slow learning breed. We still think we can control and manipulate the forces of nature and we are always, eventually shown the error of our ways. Whether it be living in the shadow of dams and levees, building homes on every possible inch of ocean front or perching home on steep hillsides in the the forest, we are shown by flood, fire, landslide or earthquake that we cannot control those forces. I hope someday we will learn.
I think I’ll close with the words of Major John Wesley Powell, who wrote after the flood of 1889, “Modern industries are handling the forces of nature on a stupendous scale . . . Woe to the people who trust those powers to the hands of fools.”
It’s over 100 years later.