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February 17, 2013

Charting devastation: Drawings depict destruction from ‘great wave’

JOHNSTOWN — They might be the most accurate maps drafted of some of the damage Johnstown’s Great Flood inflicted on the Conemaugh Valley.

And Cambria Somerset Manager Earl Waddell found them buried in a pile of decades-old authority files last month.

Oversized and colorfully written, the engineering drawings depict part of the Pennsylvania Railroad Co.’s Conemaugh Yard, its roundhouse and other long-gone structures.

They also show locations where several dozen railroad cars were tossed by the “great wave,” as the map describes it.

“For someone looking to reconstruct what happened that day, it’s just fascinating,” Johns-town Area Heritage Association Director Richard Burkert said.

It’s well documented that locomotives were carried up to a mile downriver by 1889 floodwaters, “but this is the first time I’ve seen anything with this kind of detail – actually showing where they ended up,” he said.

The blueprints are likely an original carbon copy of a transcription created within a few years of the flood, Burkert said.

A second drawing was found with it, showing what the same property looked like before the flood.

The Pennsylvania Railroad hired a Blairsville firm to draw up both.

“I don’t think anyone documented the flood more than the Pennsylvania Railroad,” Burkert said, noting the corporation was the biggest in the nation at the time.

Burkert noted railroad transcripts of flood survivors were a major source in historian David McCullough’s 1968 book, “The Johns-town Flood.”

The company had good reason to draw up maps like these too, he said, referring to the recently-discovered drawings.

When the South Fork Dam broke in May 1889, the flood followed the railroad’s path for 14 miles. Raging at a flow rate that researchers say matched the Mississippi River’s at one point, the flood tore through much of the railroad’s property along that path. It turned

40-ton engines into scrap.

The engineer’s drawings listed the weight of locomotives hit by the flood and the weight they were hauling. In one case, a 138,000-pound engine was hauling 15,000 pounds of coal when the water came rushing in, it shows.

“They had a lot of liability here in town, so they were heavily involved in the recovery,” Burkert said.

Waddell speculated that the Que’s previous owner, Manufacturer’s Water Co., probably had the documents for decades.

They’ve likely been in the CSA’s hands since the group was formed to oversee Que resources more than a decade ago.

“How Manufacturer’s got a hold of them, I have no idea,” Waddell said, referring to the drawings.

Just the same, CSA Chairman Jim Greco called it a fascinating find.

“These are amazing drawings – and the verbiage is just so impressive,” Greco said.

The CSA turned the maps over to JAHA on Tuesday, noting the group is well-positioned to preserve the documents.

“These were beautifully done. And they add another layer to this amazing story,” said Burkert.

“We’re grateful to the Cambria Somerset Authority for thinking of us.”

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