National Park Service to acquire South Fork club, which was at heart of Johnstown disaster

Share with others:

Print Email Read Later

St. Michael -- Here at the South Fork Fishing & Hunting clubhouse during the 1880s, savvy businessmen such as Andrew Mellon, Henry Clay Frick and Andrew Carnegie strolled a boardwalk on the shores of Cambria County's Lake Conemaugh.

Darrell Sapp, Post-Gazette
The South Fork Fishing & Hunting Clubhouse, built circa 1881, still stands in St. Michael, a former coal mining town near Johnstown. By summer's end, the National Park Service will own the clubhouse and three nearby cottages.
Click photo for larger image.

More Information

If you have a suggestion for a new way to use the clubhouse and cottages, e-mail Mr. Keith Newlin at
To see more of Louis Semple Clarke's photos of life at the South Fork Fishing & Hunting Club, visit

It was a summer playground for Pittsburgh's elite, where vacationers sailed, rowed, fished for black bass or hunted wild ducks. Some families built cottages on the private lake; others bunked at this red clubhouse with white trim, circa 1881.

Today, the clubhouse still stands, but it is badly dilapidated. A group of preservationists is donating it and three nearby cottages to the National Park Service, which will own the four properties by the end of the summer.

The club and its members are forever linked to the horrific Johnstown Flood of 1889 because their privately owned dam collapsed and sent Lake Conemaugh roaring downhill. Still, preservationists hope that the rustic simplicity of the clubhouse and the era it evokes will be restored.

Estimates to repair the building range from $800,000 to $2.5 million. With 12,525 square feet of space, it's a project for someone who possesses the moxie and determination of the entrepreneurs who once smoked cigars on its front porch.

"Its sheer size has scared people. It's too big to be a bed-and-breakfast. It's going to have to be a mixed use," said Keith Newlin, superintendent of two nearby National Park Service sites, the Johnstown Flood National Memorial and Allegheny Portage Railroad.

The Stick-style clubhouse served as the dining room and social hall for 69 of this region's wealthiest men and their families; menus show that servants ate early or late so as not to interfere with their employers' meals.

"You could own a cottage, but you took your meals at the clubhouse," he said.

Beyond the long front porch that evokes the restful charm of an old seaside hotel, a visitor to the clubhouse confronts razor-sharp realities.

Inside the large dining room, a titanic blast of mildew assails your nostrils. A long, admiring look at a 12-foot-high brick and ceramic tiled fireplace conjures the delicious aroma of crackling flames, which must have warmed many a vacationer on cool mountain nights even during the summer.

A dark gloom casts shadows in the vast, three-story building, sheltering more than a century's worth of blithe spirits who are probably lingering on the weakening wooden staircases. Water damage has softened ceilings, cracked plaster walls in 24 guest rooms and peeled away wallpaper.

Vacationers at the South Fork Fishing & Hunting Club listen to live music while sitting on the front porch of the clubhouse. This photo, by Louis Semple Clarke, is reprinted courtesy of Mrs. Virginia Soule.
Click photo for larger image.Darrell Sapp, Post-Gazette
Keith Newlin, a superintendent of two National Park Service sites in Cambria County, describes the water damage the clubhouse sustained from a leaky roof.
Click photo for larger image.

A dam breaks, an era ends

The good life at the relaxing resort ended abruptly on May 31, 1889.

At 3:10 p.m. that day, the club's earthen dam, whose strained walls had contained Lake Conemaugh, gave way during a torrential spring storm, sending 14 million tons of water downhill into Johnstown. That gigantic wave swept away homes, coal stoves and rail cars. The flying debris and water crashed into Johnstown's stone bridge and killed 2,209 people.

Afterward, angry townspeople accused club members of failing to maintain the dam properly, but none of their lawsuits yielded a penny in damages.

Virginia Soule, a New Hampshire woman whose grandfather, Louis Semple Clarke, captured life at the South Fork Fishing & Hunting Club in nearly 40 photographs, is a descendant of two club members.

"A lot of those people didn't want to claim the club after the catastrophe," Mrs. Soule said, adding that her twin sister recently toured the clubhouse.

"We are not even defensive about the fact that our grandfather and our great-grandfather were members of the club. Here were people enjoying the hard work of their predecessors. In those days, that's just the way it was. The people who had the brains and the drive are the ones who built up the big fortunes," Mrs. Soule said.

Club members, she added, were a convenient target of blame.

"It's easy enough to try to point to the members of the club and say they were deficient, that they were careless. They didn't want to lose their lake. They cared about people," Mrs. Soule added.

Many club members abandoned their cottages, and by the summer of 1889, at least a dozen homeless Johnstown families found shelter in the clubhouse or nearby cottages, said Eliza Smith Brown, author of a two-volume historic structures report published in 1993.

Michael McGough, author of a forthcoming book on the fishing and hunting club, believes club members played a role but considers other factors. An associate professor at York College, Mr. McGough is the author of "The 1889 Flood in Johnstown, Pa."

"When [club president] Benjamin Ruff began rebuilding the dam in 1879, it was not built to the standard of the original construction in the 1840s. Ruff fixed the crevice in the dam. It was a makeshift repair," Mr. McGough said, adding that pine boughs, dirt and manure were used to fill the crack at the dam's center, its weakest point.

Built on a flood plain, Johnstown was susceptible to flooding from spring rains and many of its hillsides were already denuded by the Cambria Iron Works, which felled trees to use at its plant.

Some club members, Mr. McGough said, tried to alleviate Johnstown's misery.

"Andrew Carnegie sent money instantaneously. S.S. Marvin, one of the bigwigs in the National Biscuit Co., sent box car loads of material to Johnstown. Robert Pitcairn was in charge of the western division of the Western Pennsylvania Railroad and rendered tireless service in Johnstown," Mr. McGough said.

During the next 12 years, the club's 600 acres were sold off in various transactions. In 1904, a public auction at the clubhouse allowed bidders to buy everything from furnishings to flatware.

After coal was discovered in the former bed of Lake Conemaugh, the Maryland Coal Co. bought 31 acres of the South Fork property and sank Maryland Shaft No. 1 in 1907.

The coal company also built housing for its employees, some of whom occupied the Moorhead and Brown cottages. During the same era, John Sechler bought 30 acres and the clubhouse, which he operated as a hotel. By the 1980s, the clubhouse had become a rooming house and a biker bar, but it was deteriorating badly.

The man who has led a 17-year effort to preserve the clubhouse and cottages is 82-year-old Walter Costlow, a retired U.S. Marine who lives in the cottage built by Robert Pitcairn, the railroad executive and club member.

"I grew up in St. Michael. My uncle [Ed Schwartzentruver] was the only one who saw the dam break. He had been employed by the fishing and hunting club," Mr. Costlow said.

A retired aircraft maintenance mechanic for Boeing, Mr. Costlow is nostalgic about his boyhood in St. Michael, which was a heady stew of Italian, Polish, Germans, Eastern Europeans and Russians.

"It was probably the nicest coal mining town in the world. Every year, they painted the houses red, green or yellow. If you broke a picket fence, all you had to do was call the mine office and they sent one of their carpenters out there to repair it. On Friday nights, there were fights between ethnic groups down at the clubhouse barroom. It could get pretty wild down there," Mr. Costlow recalled.

In August 1988, he called a meeting and, a year later, organized the 1889 South Fork Fishing & Hunting Club Historical Preservation Society which is made up, Mr. Costlow said, of "the best 70 volunteers in the history of the planet."

Another U.S. Marine, U.S. Rep. John Murtha, helped the volunteer preservationists obtain a series of federal grants. So far, the federal government has invested $441,160 in preserving the clubhouse and cottages, Mr. Costlow said, while the volunteers have raised $317,067.

The preservationists' biggest fund-raiser is the annual Forest Hills Festival on Labor Day weekend, which features a beer garden, food booths and fireworks.

Most recently a $320,000 grant from the Save America's Treasures fund paid for a new clubhouse roof and ventilation system and the installation of a structural beam that runs from the basement to the attic.

During the past decade, the preservationists raised money to remodel the Brown cottage, a 2 1/2-story Stick-style building with a wraparound front porch. The Brown cottage, which was converted into a duplex in 1921, has modern conveniences, and the park service hopes to rent it out eventually, Mr. Newlin said.

Next door is a three-story, Queen Anne-style home called the Moorhead cottage although no evidence exists that businessman Maxwell Moorhead built it, according to Brown's report.

"That porch was about to collapse," Mr. Newlin said, pointing out the X-shaped beams that were recently installed to hold it up. A federal grant of $44,000 paid to stabilize the structure.

One possible use for the two cottages is turning them into bed-and-breakfasts, Mr. Newlin said.

The preservationists also raised about $143,000 to elevate and renovate a yellow clubhouse annex, which contains four, two-bedroom apartments that generate about $15,000 a year in rental income for the park service.

Earlier this year, Mr. Costlow's group changed its name to the Friends of the Johnstown Flood National Memorial.

"I think the friends deserve a mountain of credit. They kept public attention focused on it," said Mr. McGough, praising their efforts to save the clubhouse and cottages.

Recent suggestions from some of the town's 900 residents have included using the clubhouse as a dinner theater and restaurant, a reception hall, an antique mall or as a site for mystery weekends. Actors would stage a murder and solve it for the benefit of house guests, Mr. Newlin added.

Meanwhile, more mysteries are being uncovered. This summer, the clubhouse grounds are the site of a dig by a team of archaeologists from Indiana University of Pennsylvania, who uncovered a terrace behind the structure, indicating that a garden may have existed there.

"If you bring your wife and children up there and you're going hunting and fishing, the wife had to have some place to go," Mr. Newlin added.

Also behind the clubhouse, archaeologists found an oddly shaped underground room that measures 5 feet high and 7 feet at its widest. Theories are that it was a root, coal or wine cellar.

Once the National Park Service finishes installing the major heating, plumbing and electrical systems in the clubhouse, it will try to lease the clubhouse by advertising in the Federal Register and major newspapers in Pennsylvania and Washington, D.C.

Mrs. Soule hopes the clubhouse can be restored so that the era comes alive for tourists.

"I would love to see somebody walk into that clubhouse and say, 'So, this is the way those people lived,' " she said.

Darrell Sapp, Post-Gazette
Members of the South Fork Fishing & Hunting Club and their guests took their meals in this dining room, which features a 12-foot high fireplace of brick and decorative ceramic tile.
Click photo for larger image.

Post-Gazette staff writer Marylynne Pitz may be reached at 412-263-1648 or .


Create a free PG account.
Already have an account?