(director/writer/editor: Mark Bussler; cast: Richard Dreyfuss (Narrator), Patrick Jordan (Reenactment Witness); Runtime: 64; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Michael Bussler; Inecom; 2003)

“It brings to life the tragic event.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Documentary filmmaker Ken Burns set the standard for such projects. This competently achieved film is not up to those lofty standards but still ably tells its compelling historical story with purpose, accuracy, objectivity, and proper emotion. It brings to life the tragic event with riveting stories about both survivors and the dead, and explores the catastrophe with reenacted period scenes, photographs, letters, diaries, archival film footage, and eyewitness accounts. Richard Dreyfuss adds his celebrity to the project by providing the straightforward narration for this conventional documentary. On the DVD, the Johnstown Flood Museum curator Richard Burkert adds additional comments on the bonus footage. Burkert tells how viable a booming industrial center Johnstown was in the 19th century, especially, as a place that had key iron and steel works, and was an important enough location for the Pennsylvania Railroad to regularly stop and for the leading magnates of the time such as Andrew Carnegie to vacation at the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club located by Conemaugh Lake. The man-made dam that burst was built in 1852 by a canal company and had the capacity to hold much less water than it did by 1889. The new owners were the wealthy South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club, who neglected for years making the needed repairs and when they did it was only with cheap patchwork materials such as straw or horse manure.

The film is worthy of being used in secondary schools and colleges as part of studying a shocking event in American history, as I believe there’s an audience that can be found among scholars, students, history buffs, and the curious.

The flood occurred on May 31, 1889, on a Friday during another heavy May rainstorm, when the South Fork Dam burst and America’s most deadly flood occurred. It was well-covered by the country’s news media and touched the hearts of Americans who donated over 3 million dollars in charity to help in the recovery from an estimated 17 million dollars of property damage. Clara Barton and her Red Cross nurses were on the scene as part of the recovery efforts.

When the dam burst, a 40-foot wall of water rushed down the Conemaugh Valley into a half dozen of the outlying Alleghany Mountain towns and into the city of Johnstown, Pennsylvania (population of 30,000). In ten minutes Johnstown became destroyed and 2,209 lost their lives–one out of ten people who lived there. Most people lost their lives not from drowning but from being hit by debris traveling at great speed. The flood first occurred at 2:45 p.m. and reached full impact at 3:10 p.m.. For the most part, the ones who survived heeded the early warnings from those on horseback and fled to safety. During the last 8 years there had been 7 floods and many residents were lulled into thinking that this was just another such incident and failed to react to this real danger.

Though a few irrational people of the fundamentalist persuasion believed it was God’s wrath visiting them with an apocalypse, the prevailing opinion likened it to a freak of nature that took place because of the previous years of neglect by the rich owners. Since there was never a successful civil law suit filed, the accident though preventable remains blameless. The destruction it caused in such a short time to this contented and prosperous city, an American success story, has continued to catch the imagination of people born long after the event. To its credit within a relatively short time after the tragedy the city rebuilt and life went on, though the events of that tragic day will always be remembered by its citizens. Over 700 unidentified dead are buried at Grand View Cemetery and that site, along with the museum, still draws many visitors.

Some of the personal stories that are chillingly recalled add a human dimension that reading alone couldn’t satisfy as much as seeing it on film. A Mrs. Fenn lost her husband and seven children but she survived and relocated, and later remarried to start another family. A lawyer named James M. Walters lost his entire family, but hung on to the collapsed part of the roof of his home and used it as raft and was coincidentally deposited to safety on the second floor of the law office building where he worked. Michael Mann a Britisher who worked as a miner was warned to leave as the flood started but refused to believe he was in danger, and his fate was doomed as he became the first flood victim. There were also disturbing reports of the dead bodies mutilated and looters stealing their possessions, and in one reenacted scene such a looter was hung by an outraged vigilante group. In Burkert’s commentary he mentions that there was a resentment to the eastern European immigrants, derogatorily called Huns, and they were falsely blamed for the looting. He goes on to say that the stories of looting were highly exaggerated.

This historical black-and-white documentary by Mark Bussler does what it sets out to do and succeeds in telling why it happened and its results. If you’re not interested in the history, the film will not be your cup of tea. One of the film’s glaring weaknesses was the inability of the actors in the reenactment scenes to be convincing, as most of the reenactment scenes failed to be effective or add any value. Otherwise, this worthy documentary is both entertaining and informative.