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May 25, 2014

'Power in that stuff': Sites like South Fork Dam move from tragedy to tourism

— A century and a quarter after the 1889 Johnstown Flood, visitors are still drawn to the former South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club property for very personal reasons.

“We are attracted to sites where powerful events happened,” said Edward Linenthal, a history professor at Indiana University Bloomington.

He has written, taught and lectured extensively about memorializing events and individuals.

“There is something about being in Johnstown,” he said. “There is something about being at the former dam. There is power of being at these places.”

People seek out locations of tragedy and heroism, such as the Johnstown Flood National Memorial and the Flight 93 National Memorial in this area, Linenthal said.

“They come to mourn the dead,” he said. “They come to touch the part of history and learn more about what happened there. People come for a ritual of healing or reconciliation.

“There is power in that stuff.”

 Sites of disasters and mass killings have an edgier appeal for some people and were not always considered as tourist attractions, said Kenneth Foote, a University of Connecticut geography professor.

“I am interested in the kinds of attachment people form with place,” Foote said, giving the example of how people become attached to their homes and their hometowns.

“But tragedy can negate those feelings of attachment,” he said. “It changes them. In some cases – very extreme events – people try to avoid places.”

‘Mark of resilience’

Sometimes a tragic school or theater fire has prompted the community to tear down the building and remove all signs that it existed, he noted.

“Sometimes they completely cover them up so people wouldn’t be reminded of the event,” Foote said. “That could have happened to Johnstown, but there was that sense that something had to be done for the people who died – to be sanctified in a sense.

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