JOHNSTOWN -- More than 2,200 people died in the Johnstown Flood, a disaster that horrified and fascinated newspaper readers all over the world in 1889.
On May 31 of that year, torrential spring rains broke the structurally deficient South Fork Dam, sending a 40-foot-high wall of water thundering down the Conemaugh Valley at 40 mph. Ninety-nine families perished; 98 children became orphans.
Reporters descended and melodramatic headlines heralding their sensational journalism followed. Within a year, publishers distributed a dozen histories, most of them wildly inaccurate. One book claimed more than 10,000 people perished while the actual death toll was 2,209.
A new exhibition that opened Saturday at the Johnstown Flood Museum chronicles how various media portrayed the disaster, a story best recounted by David McCullough in his first book, published in 1968 when the author was 35.
The author, who was born in Pittsburgh, went to Linden Avenue Grade School and Shady Side Academy. He has won two Pulitzer Prizes for later books: ("Truman" and "John Adams"). Now 77, Mr. McCullough returned to Johnstown Saturday to speak at a dinner and to receive the Outstanding Achievement Award from the Johnstown Area Heritage Association.
The author's audio interview with flood survivor Victor Heiser still plays inside the Johnstown Flood National Memorial Visitors Center, the national park site that opened in 1964 on the remains of the former dam. Mr. Heiser was 16 when he lost his family and left Johnstown to live with relatives. He became a doctor who traveled the world as a public health officer battling diseases and was credited with saving as many as 2 million lives. Author of the best-selling "An American Doctor's Odyssey," Dr. Heiser said that had the flood not happened, he might have stayed in Johnstown and worked as a watchmaker.
In a 1989 article for Carnegie magazine, Marc Selvaggio, a Berkeley, Calif., bookseller and former Johnstown resident, described the torrent of sensational prose peddled by publishers after the deluge. Mr. Selvaggio observed that like many journalists, John J. McLaurin, editor of the Harrisburg Telegram, gave the flood "human attributes," calling it "the unsparing despoiler."
"Insatiate death, hungry for his prey, awaited the signal to cut down the human harvest which might glut even the grim reaper," Mr. McLaurin wrote.
Kurz and Allison, a Chicago publisher famous for its prints of Civil War battles, produced a color lithograph showing the destruction. In it, men are fully dressed while women are shown in their nightgowns even though the flood happened shortly before 4 p.m.
Sheet music publishers issued heart-rending songs. Nearly 40 years later, Janet Gaynor starred in a 1926 silent movie called "The Johnstown Flood." A New York newspaper published an average poem by no less than Walt Whitman, and even a pavilion on Atlantic City's boardwalk showed images of the flood to vacationing tourists soaking up the sun. A similar pavilion existed at Coney Island.
A kind of "exuberant commercialism" pervaded American in 1889, said Richard Burkert, executive director of the Johnstown Area Heritage Association.
"The idea that you would take a disaster where men, women and children died and turn it into an amusement park pavilion shows the hucksterish quality of America of that period," Mr. Burkert said.
Some survivors even clawed through the mud and muck, searching for souvenirs and storing them in "memory jugs," he added. Tourists arrived to see what remained of Johnstown.
The exhibition includes sheet music for a song called "This Is My Last Message," inspired by the efforts of a telegraph operator to warn people. Thousands of stereoviews of the flood were made and sold so Americans could study scenes from the disaster in their parlors. Some are on display at the flood museum.
"We had an entire exhibit based on stereoviews and called it Victorian virtual reality. It was quite the Victorian fad," said Shelley Johannson, a communications director for the heritage association. "Some of the best images we have come from stereoviews,"
Johnstown resident Fred Karpen donated lobby cards promoting "The Johnstown Flood" movie starring Ms. Gaynor. It was the last silent film for Clark Gable, who had a bit part, along with Gary Cooper.
A newspaper commissioned Whitman to write about the flood and his poem, titled "The Voice of Death," appeared on the front page of The New York World on June 6, 1889, a week after the disaster.
Marcia Kelly, exhibit designer and interim archivist, compares the flood's impact and historic significance to the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 and the San Francisco earthquake of 1906.
But Mr. Burkert said the flood story endures because its main cause could be traced to a poorly maintained dam owned by the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club. Its members, wealthy industrialists such as Henry Clay Frick and Andrew Carnegie, stocked Lake Conemaugh with trout for fishing on summer vacations. The robber barons lived worlds apart from the men who worked in Johnstown's Cambria Iron Works.
"In many ways, the flood stands out in a way that other disasters don't because it exposes the true nature of the society of the time," Mr. Burkert said. "The San Francisco earthquake was a devastating natural disaster.
"In the case of the Johnstown flood, Americans were aghast at the destruction. In the popular media, the flood was portrayed as an engineering crime perpetrated by rich tycoons who were above the law. "
While the Johnstown flood was a well-known catch phrase up until the 1920s, "it did sort of disappear from American consciousness until McCullough's book," Ms. Kelly said.
In 1989, Johnstown marked the flood centennial and used its history as a way to attract visitors. Since then, Mr. Burkert said, the heritage association has invested more than $20 million in establishing a network of sites. There's a half-mile bicycle trail beside the Conemaugh River. There's also a network of historic sites, including the Frank and Sylvia Pasquerilla Heritage Discovery Center. Located in a former brewery, it houses exhibits devoted to industry, the immigrant experience, a children's museum and a re-creation of a typical ethnic social club.
"Since the early '90s, we have funded this through state and private investments," Mr. Burkert said.
Visitors also journey to Johnstown because they have read Mr. McCullough's book. Moreover, "The Terrible Wave," a 1975 children's book by Marden Dahlstedt, attracted countless youngsters and their parents to Johnstown.
Plans are under way to improve the flood museum, which opened in 1973 in a 120-year-old former Carnegie Library that was built just two years after the flood. The building needs new mechanical and electrical systems.
The flood museum exhibits were updated for the disaster's centennial in 1989 but need to be refreshed again with first-person accounts and interactive stations.
"It's like a shrine. It's been fairly static," Mr. Burkert said, noting that the map showing the flood's path "runs on computer circuit boards you can't buy anymore."
Some updates have already been accomplished.
The Robert S. Waters Charitable Trust funded a $100,000 renovation of a second-floor theater. That money paid for new seats, carpet and digitizing an Oscar-winning documentary about the flood made by the late Charles Guggenheim. Narrated by Canadian actor Len Cariou, the film also has been captioned for the hearing impaired.
Mounting the current exhibition, which runs for a year, required moving 900 cubic feet of archives out of the flood museum's third floor, a job that was completed last September. This space, which has a yellow pine floor and paneling, was designed to be a gymnasium and had a basketball hoop. That's gone now, but above the room is a running track. There once were showers, too -- a magnet in an era when indoor plumbing was rare.
"It's way too pretty to use for storage," said Ms. Johannson, a spokeswoman for the heritage association.
Marylynne Pitz: email@example.com or 412-263-1648.