First Person / The Swedish Johnstown flood

A chance remark took me back to a 1909 world's fair

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In April, the Johnstown Flood Museum premiered a new exhibit, "From Scholarship to Souvenirs: Telling the Story of the Johnstown Flood." The exhibit, which shows how the flood has been remembered in everything from poetry to paintings to books, got a good amount of local and regional media coverage, including an article in the Post-Gazette.

This is where the story takes a personal turn. I sent one of the articles about the exhibit to my mother-in-law, who lives in Sweden. (As my last name attests, I'm married to a Swede; I'm also fluent in Swedish). The articles made much of the amusement park attractions based on the flood. My mother-in-law said an elaborate Johnstown flood attraction, one in which the characters experienced things that actually happened, was mentioned in a famous Swedish historical novel.

So I got curious and started Googling in Swedish and discovered that there was, in fact, an attraction based on the Johnstown flood at the 1909 Stockholm Exhibition. It was described in a 2006 article in a Scandinavian museum journal.

From there it wasn't hard to track down the author of the article, Anders Ekstrom. I emailed him and introduced myself, enclosing the articles about the new exhibit in Johnstown. In his reply, he said he'd published a book in 2010 with more about the 1909 exhibition, and offered to mail me a copy.

The book (translated title: "The Will to Be Seen, The Will to See: Media Consumption and Public Culture Around 1900") contains nine pages about the Johnstown flood attraction at the Stockholm Exhibition (including footnotes from the Johnstown Flood Museum's website at jaha.org, which I write and maintain). It gives some of the most detailed information we've seen about what these displays were like, as we've had no images of the attractions themselves, just of the exteriors of pavilions.

The stage was huge, about 82 feet wide, and its scenery was manipulated to show Johnstown before, during and after the disaster as a narrator told the story.

Mr. Ekstrom explains that the show was created with layers of scenery on fabric drops, complemented by moving three-dimensional models as well as light and sound effects. He writes (translations mine), "The point with this type of reconstruction seems to have been that the audience should lose themselves in the illusion, and at the same time admire how well it was created."

So was the Johnstown attraction at the Stockholm Exhibition any good?

Mr. Ekstrom points out that people were increasingly sophisticated about this kind of attraction and had high expectations for both the melodrama of the story and the multimedia techniques used to tell it. Thus, advertising and posters for the Johnstown attraction used the words "see" and "hear" prominently, and promised "our time's greatest electromechanical spectacle" (although one critic made snide remarks about the poor Swedish grammar used on the posters). Another wrote, "Yes, there were a great number of scenic effects, which especially for the children left an indelible, fairy tale-like impression." Another was especially impressed with the recreation of the fire at the Stone Bridge.

Not all feedback was positive. One critic noted sourly that a woman who claimed to have a connection to the disaster said the "depiction" was "not a bit like the actual event." There were additional complaints:

"We adults maybe snickered a little when we saw the fighters march away like tin soldiers dragged with a string, or when the narrator, who with his expressive voice described the unleashed fury of the elements, became much too pathetic in his lyrical description of the fate that befell the poor city."

In other words, the narrator was so over-the-top that he made people laugh in embarrassment -- hardly the desired effect. (Mr. Ekstrom wrote that several reviewers made the same point, and the narrator was soon replaced.) Other improvements were made and advertised, not only in response to criticism but also to encourage people to come back more than once.

To improve profitability, the attraction was portable and could be set up other places, and it was flexible enough to be altered to depict the Messina, Italy, earthquake and tsunami of 1908, although this event was judged to be too sensitive and recent to show in Stockholm.

The Johnstown flood attraction, which had what was considered a high admission price, took in the most money of all entertainment offerings at the Stockholm Exhibition. In fact, more than 100,000 people saw it -- impressive, considering that the entire population of Sweden in 1909 was about 5.5 million. Even so, the managers barely broke even -- all those effects were expensive to produce, and 13 employees were needed to run it.

Mr. Ekstrom told me that he'd been unable to find any photographs of the interior of the pavilion. But I Googled in Swedish the name of the attraction, Johnstowns undergang, and there, at the top of the search list, was a page from a contemporary Swedish magazine with a photograph! Unfortunately it was too low-resolution to reproduce, but it's the first photo we've ever seen of any of these exhibits.

I've since been in touch with the Stockholm City Museum, and they were able to provide me with some of Ekstrom's source material -- three pages on the attraction from an official summary of the exhibition, containing facts and commentary from someone who actually saw the thing.

Naturally I am continuing to research this with enthusiasm, and so far every Swedish source I've contacted has replied with information. Although they are understated about it (as Swedes tend to be), I have to assume they're rather surprised to hear from a Swedish-speaking American who works for the Johnstown Flood Museum.

And that's the story of how a chance remark from my mother-in-law, the Internet and a Swedish professor combined to give the Johnstown Area Heritage Association new information about how the world has experienced the Johnstown flood.


Shelley Johansson is director of communications and marketing for the Johnstown Area Heritage Association ( sjohansson@jaha.org ).


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