Three years after water from the collapsed South Fork dam slammed into downtown Johnstown, killing 2,200 people, a final resting place for the disaster’s unknown victims was dedicated. The state’s governor, Robert Pattison, attended the dedication and was joined by an estimated crowd of 10,000.
The site, Grandview Cemetery’s Unknown Plot, was resplendent in the sunlight. Its hundreds of gleaming, perfectly placed, white granite headstones were overshadowed by the 21-foot-tall Monument of Tranquility.
“When the rip-cord pulled the veils from the beautiful memorial, all people bowed their heads,” wrote Nathan Shappee in his 1940 dissertation “A history of Johnstown and the great flood of 1889: A study of disaster and rehabilitation.”
It was an impressive memorial to unidentified victims of the Johnstown Flood of 1889.
But time and the elements have taken their toll and these days the stones are hardly white and aren’t nearly as impressive.
A group of volunteers is about to change that.
Friends of Johnstown Flood National Memorial plans to clean the stones and is inviting the public to lend a hand.
“I don’t think they have been cleaned since they have been installed,” says Rob Koenigsberg, vice president of the group. “They are moss-covered, weathered and water-stained. It looks like nobody really cares about their history and we are out to change that.”
Koenigsberg says the group has received a grant and donations to cover the cost of materials to get the job done. “There’s a special product that has to be used,” he says. “You can’t use anything abrasive.
“The product we use works over time. When we are done, it keeps working and the (stones) will be very white when it’s all said and done. It’s the same product they use to clean the outside of the White House and it should take the stones back to pretty close to what they used to look like when they were installed.”
Koenigsberg has had special training in the care of historic monuments. “I’ve cleaned hundreds of stones for the National Park Service in Antietam and Gettysburg,” he says.
He is happy to pass on what he has learned and will conduct a training day at 10 a.m. April 17 at the Unknown Plot. “We’ll teach the group how to properly clean the headstones according to National Park regulations,” Koenigsberg says. The public is invited to attend.
“The next Saturday, April 24, at 10 a.m., we will do the actual cleaning,” he adds. “Those who are already trained can help those who have not been trained.”
The small group has a big job to do. “We’d like to have as many volunteers to join us as possible,” Koenigsberg says. “But we probably won’t be able to get them all done in one day.”
Volunteers will be provided with everything they need and refreshments will be available.
Although registration is not required, the group would like to have an estimate on how many plan to attend.
To register or for additional information, call Koenigsberg at (814) 244-0899 or email him at email@example.com.
For more information on the group, check out Friends of the Johnstown Flood National Memorial on Facebook.
“Those people that didn’t get identified need to be remembered,” Koenigsberg says. “It’s very important. That’s our history. When visitors see that the site is clean and cared for, it will let them know that people actually do care.”