ST. MICHAEL – For years, park ranger Elizabeth Shope has guided Johnstown Flood National Memorial guests past the precise spot where the South Fork Dam failed in 1889 – sending 20 million tons of water into the valley below, claiming 2,209 lives.
But it was often a challenge for visitors to visualize, even at the center of the former lakebed where South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club members once fished, swam and sailed, Shope said.
More than 25 years’ worth of trees, shrubs and tall grass blanketed its banks and the ruins that remain of the clay and earth dam. A young forest filled the long-gone lake’s bottom.
At least until now.
Through efforts involving landscape experts, contractors, National Park Service specialists and a herd of goats, a $275,000 project to carefully clear more than 70 acres of the former Lake Conemaugh site is entering its final stages.
Approximately 40 acres have already been uncovered, including parts of the rocky face of the former earthen dam, the lakebed and a crater created by the dam breach on May 31, 1889, according to Doug Bosley, chief of interpretation for Johnstown Flood National Memorial.
“Going back to the centennial in 1989 ... the flood museum’s visitor center was built on that hillside ... because of the view it offered,” Bosley said. “It was built there so people could look out the window and see that lake, and now they can again.”
He estimated that it has been 25 years since the last time the view was this striking.
The goal is to offer guests a glimpse at what the dam would have looked like in the aftermath of its 1889 failure.
“The abutments on the northern and southern end of the dam are much more pronounced now,” he said. “Now it’s very clear where the lake was. It’s very clear where the water line was.”
For people returning for the first time in a year or more, he added, “there’s a ‘wow’ moment.”
A soft blanket of grass now covers the exposed area below the ruins. Bosley said it took months of work to get to this point.
With support from landscape engineers and ecologists, crews removed acres of wild growth, including small trees, early last year. One line of trees on either side of the Little Conemaugh River tributary that runs through the site was left as a protective buffer zone.
Relying on national wildfire management standards, National Park Service specialists also conducted “controlled” burning techniques to clear certain sections.
A herd of goats from Allegheny GoatScape, based in Pittsburgh, was used to chew away years of weeds and invasive growth that blanketed the lake slopes. The hungry herd was able to mow down an acre of vegetation per week last fall, the Park Service said at the time.
“The goats,” Bosley said with a laugh, “they were definitely popular with visitors last year, and they will return in June.”
That’s just one step in what will be an ongoing effort to ensure the lakebed remains visible, Bosley said. The park service has added new maintenance equipment, including remote-controlled mowers to access slippery slopes, to ensure the landscaping remains maintained.
Park visitors can see the view for themselves daily from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Hundreds of guests, sometimes several thousand, are expected to journey to the national park to observe the 132nd anniversary of the great flood. Rangers will carry wreaths to the edge of the dam’s north and south abutments at 4:07 p.m. May 31, the moment floodwaters hit Johnstown.
Luminaries for each of the 2,209 lives lost will line the park outside the visitor center, which reopened this spring, and the path winding down to the abutments. They will be lit at 7 p.m.
In accordance with Centers For Disease Control guidelines, those who are not fully vaccinated must wear masks indoors or in crowded spaces outside, park officials said. For those who want to witness the event from home, the ceremonies will be livestreamed through www.facebook.com/JohnstownFloodNPS.
The Johnstown Area Heritage Association will also mark the flood’s anniversary with a virtual event at 7 p.m. Monday. Executive Director Richard Burkert, who has spent 42 years collecting and sharing stories about the flood, will offer insight, discuss current research and share photographs of the tragedy that were digitized for the first time over the past few years.
That event will also be viewable online through JAHA’s Facebook page.