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May 25, 2014

'It's still controversial': Debate rages over culpability of wealthy club members

— One hundred twenty-five years have passed since the industrial leaders of the day – with names like Carnegie, Mellon and Frick – last relaxed and recreated on the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club’s Lake Conemaugh shores.

And it’s been nearly as long since engineers of the day publicly – and controversially – exonerated their club from liability of the 1889 Johnstown Flood – an ever-debated, and still evolving, story that continues to fascinate today, Johnstown Area Heritage Association President Richard Burkert notes.

“I think that is a big part of why the story of the flood remains so intriguing today,” Burkert said. “When you talk about how much fault lies on the club ... it’s still controversial.”

In the generations since what was once dubbed the nation’s worst natural disaster, historians, writers – and even hydrologists – have delved into the disaster’s cause, with most saying the flood should be reframed as a tragedy caused not by nature, but a neglected, man-made dam.

“We’ve had visitors who are normally very mild-mannered suddenly become very excited when the topic of the club is brought up. They firmly believe the club members themselves were to blame for all of those deaths,” said National Park Service Ranger Nathan Koozer, who says the Parks Service’s National Flood Memorial’s mission is to present known facts and allow visitors to draw their own conclusions.

“After all,” he said, “there’s never been a clear-cut conclusion.”

How it all began

The dam was built in the 1840s and early ’50s, decades before the Fishing and Hunting Club was established. At the time, it was needed as a valuable water source along the western end of the state’s Main Line Canal.

The dam would exchange hands twice in the years that followed, first under the Pennsylvania Railroad, which let the property sit unattended, and then, in 1875, in Altoona congressman John Reilly’s hands, Burkert said.

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