The Johnstown Flood Remembered In New Novel Of Love, Loss And Cataclysm

By John Ostapkovich

PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — Saturday marks the 125th anniversary of the epic 1889 flood in Johnstown, Pennsylvania and a Pittsburgh University professor’s new novel brings it to life.

Like the story of the Titanic, you can look at the flood as a historic disaster that, in this case, killed 2,200 people and ruined a town, or you can drill down to characters, albeit fictitious, impacted by it.

Pitt theater and creative writing professor Kathleen George chose Plan B for her novel, The Johnstown Girls, following an elderly woman’s die-hard belief that her twin sister had survived a catastrophe that was entirely man-made, starting with a really dumb place to create a lake.

“The wealthy industrialists from Pittsburgh dammed up a space on top of the mountain to make a lake and that lake was the centerpiece of their club,” George says, “but it was hole in the earth with a dam on one end, and their were fears that it was going to give.”

When it did, it was the middle of the afternoon, 14 miles upstream.

“It took some time getting down the mountain,” George says, “but as it did it became more monstrous because the water wasn’t just water any more it, it was trees, earth, locomotives, cows, horses, house. Everything was in this ball of water that was just Armageddon coming down the mountain.”

Johnstown officials ignored warnings by telegraph because there had been so many false alarms.

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