- Associated Press - Sunday, March 13, 2016

JOHNSTOWN, Pa. (AP) - Tony Abraham was seven years old when a spring thaw and three days of rain ushered in Johnstown’s second great flood - on March 17, 1936.

He escaped the rising waters - but not the ruin, returning to his Cambria City home days later to find it filled with mud and little else.

In that moment, Abraham said his eyes filled with tears.

“We had this big piano … and when I walked in, the keys were scattered all over the place,” he told The Tribune-Democrat. “Almost everything else was gone. It was like we got rubbed out.”

Today, Abraham is 87 years old and among a dwindling generation of 1936 Flood survivors.

They were all children then, who have carried vivid memories of that day with them their entire lives.

Now, with such stories being washed away by 80 years of passing time, it makes preserving them a necessity - and a donation from a onetime Greater Johnstown teacher both valuable and vital, Johnstown Area Heritage Association Executive Director Richard Burkert said.

‘Shouting and crying’

Inside the nonprofit’s stockpile of flood artifacts and records, as many as 50 first-hand accounts were rediscovered last week, JAHA Curator Kaytlin Sumner said. Each one is a former Joseph Johns Junior High student’s handwritten experience of what they witnessed and waded through as rain fell and waters rose the evening before St. Patrick’s Day 1936.

“There was a house on top of the Haynes Street bridge. The statue in the park was upside down,” Robert Sherry wrote. “Most of the ladies were shouting and crying.”

“(It) sounded as if houses were falling together,” added William Schellhammer, in his two-page composition.

According to Sumner, the items were donated in 1977 by retired gym teacher George Bell. In a description, he told JAHA officials that he and fellow teacher Daryl Belluk tasked the students with documenting their personal accounts when they returned to school a week after the ‘36 flood.

Sumner said the essays make up a written collection like none other in JAHA’s archives.

Burkert couldn’t recall many first-hand accounts from either of the city’s first two floods that were written so soon after the event.

They serve as a well-preserved glimpse at the panic of the moment, through the innocent eyes of 13- and 14-year-olds - even if the stories range from vivid and realistic to exaggerated and understandably mislead.

Cattle and cough drops

Several students wrote that people were screaming, “Run for the hills. The dam burst.”

It wasn’t true.

The area’s dams held up in 1936 - unlike in both 1889 and 9177 - but the rumor spread several times that Tuesday and Wednesday, sending many who heard into a frightened frenzy, The Johnstown Tribune reported at the time.

The student’s stories also show how their experiences were often far different depending on where they lived. While some wrote of running through water to help family members, others wrote that they had few problems getting home that day and were lucky to live on higher ground.

One student described being stranded in a slaughterhouse with a herd of cattle. Ralph Mauk wrote that he spent most of the night inside a women’s clothing store “and all we had to eat was cough drops.”

A fellow classmate bemoaned that his “vacation” was mostly uneventful. But he had his fill of shoveling “flood mud.”

During the Depression

Abraham told The Tribune-Democrat that he escaped the flood by running uphill from Cambria City to Brownstown.

He ended up alongside nearly 40 other people, sleeping on the floor of the Zack family’s store

“They took care of all of us,” he said, remembering the family made sure everyone had food to eat.

Once the water began receding from Johnstown’s suddenly mud-covered streets, families such as his slowly made their way back to their homes.

In many ways, Johnstown’s flood of 1936 paled in comparison to the major ones before and since, because water levels rose slowly, Abraham said.

But “this was the Great Depression,” he said. Many families were struggling to get by before the flood.

Now, families were going back to their neighborhoods to find most of what they owned was gone or sodden beyond saving, Abraham said.

“The flood even tore the paper off our walls,” he said. “But we all managed little by little. We all did the best we could do.”

‘Story of real people’

For many, it was all they could do, Burkert said.

Local history books describe many of the hurdles the region had to overcome in the wake of Johnstown’s second major flood. But tales such as Abraham’s - and letters from school children - that bring the event to life.

“The flood is the story of real people,” Burkert said. “There’s so much historical documentation out there, but it’s the personal anecdotes that are what affect people.

“They want to be right there experiencing what happened and these stories allow them to do that.”





Johnstown demanded change after ‘36 flood; lead to flood walls

By David Hurst

Johnstown was thawing out from a wicked winter when heavy rain began falling March 15, 1936.

It would continue for three days. Narrow rivers that commonly overflowed their banks continued to grow, spilling out into the downtown, Cambria City and other low-lying neighborhoods.

Before long, a four-year-old John Kasper said he found himself trapped on the second floor of an apartment building with his father and an everlasting image.

“Flood water broke through one of the neighborhood funeral home’s storage buildings on First Avenue,” said Kasper, now 84. “Empty caskets were floating down Broad Street.”

Across the city, residents stranded in homes and downtown businesses were all surrounded by the sights and sounds of Johnstown’s second great flood.

Once they emerged, it was with a collective resolve “that something had to be done” to prevent such a tragedy from happening again, Johnstown Area Heritage Director Richard Burkert said.

“It was a situation where Johnstown had two killer floods in less than 50 years,” he said. “People began demanding something be done about it.”

In the wake of a natural disaster that killed 24 people, damaged more than 3,000 buildings and inflicted $41 million in property losses, the city launch a campaign for flood control measures that would reach President Franklin D. Roosevelt in the White House and change the city’s landscape forever.

“People began calling for help for Johnstown,” Burkert said. “A campaign was organized and people sent letters to the White House.”

That summer, Roosevelt arrived, riding into town in a convertible to reportedly wild applause from the tens of thousands downtown who were leaving work for the day.

He came with a promise that he’d do all he could to help, Burkert said.

Within a year, the federal government would deliver.

When the Omnibus Flood Control Act became law in 1937, it funneled millions into Johnstown for flood control measures.

Over the years that followed, nine miles of concrete river channels were built through the city.

“It was the first river channel project of its kind in American history,” Burkert said.

The Army Corps of Engineers got to work in 1938, and it required nearly 3 million cubic yards of excavation, according to a story in The Johnstown Democrat from the date of the walls’ dedication.

The river walls took a little over five years to complete - at a total cost of $8.6 million, the equivalent of more than $140 million today.

What is often lost on local residents is that Johnstown, which once suffered minor floods several times a decade, has been served well by the Army Corps’ walls, Burkert said.

The storm that caused the 1936 flood was considered a “100 year” event, while the 1977 flood has been described as far more rare, perhaps a “500 year flood,” by comparison, Burkert said.

Johnstown’s third flood shattered the community’s illusion of being a “flood-free city” - but those walls held up,” he said, noting that streams such as Sam’s Run were the villains of the 1977 disaster.

“Those channels worked,” Burkert said. “They did their part.”





Information from: The Tribune-Democrat, https://www.tribune-democrat.com

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