Both moments of solemn reflection and hours of lively celebration took place in Johnstown over the weekend.
Residents and visitors remembered the tragic Great Flood of 1889 when 2,209 people perished in one of the nation’s worst natural disasters. Others came together to dance, eat and share camaraderie during the 17th annual Friendly City PolkaFest, hosted by St. Mary Byzantine Catholic Church.
One of the most emotional events occurred Saturday at Peoples Natural Gas Park, near the point where the Little Conemaugh and Stonycreek rivers converge to form the Conemaugh River. A memorial service started at 4:07 p.m., the time a wall of water, unleashed when the South Fork Dam collapsed, smashed into the city on May 31, 1889.
Johnstown Mayor Frank Janakovic, U.S. Rep. Keith Rothfus, R-Sewickley, Superintendent of the National Parks of Western Pennsylvania Jeff Reinbold and author, theologian and philosopher Michael Novak, a Johnstown native, participated in the ceremony.
“All in all, I think everyone was really moved by that program” said Richard Burkert, Johnstown Area Heritage Association president and CEO.
Other flood-related activities included Community Heritage Day, the Path of the Flood Historic Half Marathon and 5K, events at the Johnstown Flood National Memorial and a showing of Irving Cummings’ 1926 silent film, “The Johnstown Flood,” at The Grand Halle in Cambria City.
Those activities helped commemorate the most significant event in Johnstown history.
“I think it’s a responsibility and an opportunity for Johns-town to remember,” Burkert said. “The flood is something that still defines Johnstown.”
Elsewhere in Cambria City, polka music rang out on Friday, Saturday and Sunday.
“Everything went very well,” said Monsignor Raymond Balta, pastor of St. Mary. “The weather was perfect.”
Balta said it was probably the largest crowd ever for PolkaFest.
“It was a great event,” he said. “There were a lot of people there. There were people of all ages.”
Dave Sutor is a reporter for The Tribune-Democrat. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/Dave_Sutor.