Friday, May 31, 2013

Remembering the Johnstown Flood

Newspaper Headlines
It was 124 years ago today that a rare storm, sweeping across the U.S., coupled with a neglected dam in a Pennsylvania valley town, led to tragedy and thousands of deaths in the city of Johnstown.

Johnstown Waterways
Before the Flood
Floods were nothing new to Johnstown, Pennsylvania. Built into a river valley along the Appalachian Plateau, which was located at the confluence of two rivers, and a man-made lake 14 miles down the mountains; the local residents had dealt with many high water occasions. At least once a year, the two local rivers would overflow their banks due to melting snows from the mountains above, or intense rains that got trapped in the valley below, and unleash torrential amounts of water.

Water Rushes off Mountains
Heavy rains had pummeled the area for days.  The Conemaugh Lake was overflowing, rain ran down into the valley from the mountains above, and residents, living on a flood plain, thought they knew what to expect.

But no one had paid much attention to the redesign of the dam at the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club, located high above the city.   

The Robber Barons
The Club, a wealthy man’s retreat that included Andrew Carnegie and Henry Clay Frick among the members, had re-engineered the old dam to create the three-mile lake and private mountain retreat for the rich steel and coal barons of Pittsburgh. No one had seriously considered what would happen if the dam, ignored by the club and now in desperate need of repairs, began to fail.

Residents had been given warning of a flood and had taken precautions by carrying their belongings up to the second floors of their homes and businesses – standard procedure for an expected flood.  But this time would be different.

Wall of Water
It was just after 3 p.m. on that dismal Friday afternoon of May 31, 1889 when the South Fork Dam washed away, and over 20-million tons of water rushed down the hill and toward the city of Johnstown.

Train Car in Flood Wreckage
The tumbling torrent carried with it trees, rocks, animals, people, houses, barns, miles of barbed wire from a destroyed wire factory upriver, even train cars torn from the railroad bridges in the tiny towns and communities hit farther upstream. 

The wall of water was over 30 feet high and almost a half-mile wide, traveling at almost 40 miles per hour when it slammed into Johnstown just after 4 P.M.  The northern half of Johnstown was swept away, over 1,500 buildings and thousands of people – gone.

Debris at the Old Stone Bridge
In the ten minutes it took for the flood to sweep through the city, over 2,200 people were drowned or swept away.  Some of the debris became stuck near the old Stone Bridge. Carried with it were several flood survivors, clinging to makeshift rafts, hoping to hold on until help could arrive at daylight.   

As the waters receded, debris continued to get stuck and piled up to a height of 40 feet.  Hot coals and gas began to ignite in the rubble; 80 people died in the flames.

Survivors on Rubble
Clara Barton and The Red Cross arrived soon after, tending the injured, and helping residents put their lives and their town back together. This was the first major peacetime disaster that Barton’s newly formed American Red Cross had responded to.

Flood Victim's Graves
In all, 2,209 died at Johnstown, in the worst flood in the Nation’s history, and the largest loss of civilian life ever experienced in the United States. 

Hundreds of people were never found; over 750 bodies were never identified and their remains were buried in The Plot of the Unknown in Grandview Cemetery.  Remains were found for months, even years after the flood – The final remains were found in Cincinnati in 1911.  It took the City of Johnstown over five years to recover from the Flood of 1889.

Although the collapse of the South Fork Dam was evident as a reason for the flood, neither the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club, nor its rich owners, were ever found to be responsible for the flood or the damage.  However, many of the millionaire members did provide financial assistance for the rebuilding of the town. Damage was estimated to be $17-million – over $500-million in today’s economy.

1936 Flood
Subsequent floods have continued to hit Johnstown hard.  In 1936, the St Patrick’s Day floods caused severe damage and left a path of debris all the way to Pittsburgh.

Rubble from 1977 Flood

Again, in July 1977, torrential rains from passing storms flooded the rivers and the town was under 8 feet of water by dawn the next day. Eighty people died, forty in a dam failure. Over 50,000 were left homeless, and seven countries, declared as disaster areas, incurred over $200-million in property damage. The “100 Year Flood” was another one for the record books.

Photos of the 1889 Flood
The Johnstown Flood National Memorial was authorized in 1964 and established in 1969 to commemorate the 2,209 people who died in the 1889 Flood. It contains portions of the Stone Bridge and remains of the South Fork dam.

Point Park
Today, at Point Park, an eternal flame burns brightly in memory of the flood victims, and as a reminder of nature’s destructive power.

~ Joy

*Photos courtesy of the Johnstown Area Historical Association Archives, and the National Park Service,

Friday, May 24, 2013

Memorial Day - The Way One Man Remembers Throughout the Year

Monday, May 27th is Memorial Day in the U.S., a  day set aside to remember those who have died while in the service of this country.

Larry Eckhardt
But it doesn’t have to be Memorial Day for an Illinois man to honor fallen military men and women.  Larry Eckhardt has traveled over 72,000 miles, given out over 70,000 small flags, and been assisted by over 30,000 volunteers in the past seven years, as he's paid tribute to our fallen soldiers.

Eckhardt of Little York, Illinois goes to as many Midwestern communities as he can, and lines the funeral procession route of fallen Armed Forces personnel with American flags. 

Eckhardt began his ‘mission’ in 2006. With the help of the American Legion, Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW), and private donations, he has collected over 3,000 flags over the past seven years.

When Eckhardt finds out about the death of a military person from the Midwest, he takes his trailer, loaded with flags, to that community.

Volunteers from the area assist him in lining a mile or more of the funeral route with American flags mounted on 10-foot steel poles.  Eckhardt sees this as a way of honoring those who have served our country and paid the ultimate sacrifice.

Afterward, volunteers help take the flags down.  Eckhardt gives credit to all who assist, saying he couldn’t do it without the local volunteers. His helpers have ranged from the ages of 3 to 93, and the “Flag Man” appreciates them all.

Surprisingly, Eckhardt was never in the military.  He simply feels that this is a way he can honor those who have died in the line of duty.  He has paid tribute to over 100 service personnel: sailors, soldiers, airmen, and Marines.

Eckhardt came up with the idea after attending a local funeral in Galesburg, Illinois a few years ago.  The community showed up to support the family and pay their respects, but there were few flags flying. And, as a symbol of our country, something these service members pledged allegiance to, it seemed to Larry that something major was missing.

So he purchased 150 flags and began taking them to area military funerals, putting them out along the funeral route. Eckhardt uses donations and his own money to pay for the flags, and his travel expenses, because he feels that this is how every fallen American soldier should be honored.  As he sees it, there can never be too many flags for a soldier.

When in a community, Eckhardt does not attend the funerals or meet the families. He feels that his job is to line the funeral route with flags as a way to express the country’s appreciation for service well done.

Communities have expressed tremendous gratitude for his “labor of love.” Military families have been amazed and touched by his generosity of spirit, and his depth of caring for their fallen sons and daughters.

DAR Award
Eckhardt tends to shun the spotlight. But regardless of his wishes, he has been recognized by several groups and has received the Medal of Honor from the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) and a Patriotic Citizens Award from the VFW in Illinois.

Now citizens across the country are banding together to request that Eckhardt be honored with one of the highest awards in the country.  Doug Hesler has started a Facebook page called, ‘Larry Eckhardt ‘The Flagman’ @  Hesler is hoping that enough people will contact the President and the White House that Larry will be honored with the Presidential Citizens Medal.

Presidential Citizens Medal
This award is the second highest civilian award given in the U.S. (The first is the Presidential Medal of Freedom.)  President Richard Nixon established the Presidential Citizens Medal in 1969 to acknowledge outstanding U.S. citizens.  The medal may be granted to any American citizen “who (has) performed exemplary deeds or services for his or her country or fellow citizens"

If you are interested supporting this initiative, contact White House.  You may send your request to President Obama @

Or you can send a request to Vice President Joe Biden @
You may mail a request to:
The White House
1600 Pennsylvania Avenue NW
Washington, DC 20500
Please include your e-mail address

Eckhardt has hopes that there are others throughout the country who will take this idea and organize similar groups.  If you would like to learn what you, or your group, could do to volunteer assistance with the flags, start a group, or to make a donation, contact Larry at
Larry Eckhardt
323 South Broadway, Apt 1-S
Little York, IL  61453

Memorial Day is a time when we remember those who have died in the service of our country. Each Memorial Day the flag is raised to full staff, then lowered to half-staff in remembrance of more than one million men and women who have died in the service of this country.  At Noon, the flag is raised to full staff to signify a nation that will rise up and continue to fight for liberty and justice, for all.

As we've seen, just one person, rising up, can make a difference. Thanks for the reminder, Larry!

~ Joy

Friday, May 17, 2013

The Black Aggie

Agnus Statue - Black Aggie
The Black Aggie is a cemetery statue surrounded by myth and legend.  When it was placed upon the grave of General Felix Agnus in Druid Ridge Cemetery in Pikesville, Maryland, the statue immediately stirred controversy and superstition among the locals.

Felix Agnus was a Civil War Union Brevet Brigadier General and owner/publisher of the Baltimore American newspaper.  Agnus was also one of the original members of the Associated Press. He died on Halloween - October 31st, 1925 and was buried under the petulant gaze of what became known as 'Black Aggie.' But Agnus was not the first to have this image guard his grave. 

Marian 'Clover' Adams
The original sculpture was created by the famous American artist, Augustus St. Gaudens.  He was commissioned to create a statue for the grave of Marian ‘Clover’ Hooper Adams by her husband, Henry.  Adams wanted a sculpture that embodied the Buddhist concept of nirvana: “release from the cycles of life and death, desire and pain.”  It was to memorialize his wife who had committed suicide in 1885. Six years later, in 1891, the statue was placed on her grave in Rock Creek Cemetery in Washington, D.C.

Adams Memorial - 'Grief'
St. Gaudens sculpted a shrouded figure in bronze, sitting, eyes closed, with its back against a granite wall. He called the work “The Mystery of the Hereafter and the Peace of God that Passeth Understanding.”  Henry Adams wanted it known as the Adams Memorial. The public simply called it “Grief.” 

The Face of 'Grief'
The sculpture has been described as mysterious, beautiful, moody, and haunting. The result of the shadows cast by the changing light during the day make the face inside the cowl appear to take on different expressions.

American Art Museum
Replica of Adams Memorial
The Adams Memorial is said to be one of St. Gaudens most original and beautiful works.  It was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1972.  A replica of the Adams Memorial – the life-sized, genderless statue, was cast in 1969 for the Smithsonian American Art Museum.  It can be seen on the second floor, in the east wing of the museum.

Agnus Copy
The Agnus statue was an unauthorized copy of the Adams Memorial, created by sculptor Eduard L.A. Pausch. General Agnus purchased the unauthorized copy of “Grief” in 1906.  He had it erected on the family’s plot in Druid Ridge Cemetery after his mother’s remains were shipped from France and buried there in 1907.

Grass Would Not Grow...
Black Aggie
While there is little in the way of legend that surrounds the Adams Memorial, the Agnus sculpture is rife with superstitions.  Tales abound of the Black Aggie walking Druid Ridge Cemetery at night; legend has it that grass would not grow in the statue’s shadow, and that the menacing eyes glowed red at the stroke of midnight.  Many said that the spirit of Marian Adams inhabited the statue.

Smithsonian Institution
The urban legends grew and visitors flocked to the cemetery, mainly after hours, to see the Black Aggie. Some tried to spend the night sitting on 'her' lap, others were said to have been found dead near the statue.  Vandalism grew rampant and the Agnus statue had to be removed from the cemetery.  The Agnus family decided to donate it to the Smithsonian Institution in 1967. 

Back of Agnus Pedestal
Agnus Pedestal Today
Today, the Agnus plot retains the empty granite pedestal.  All that remains is a faint outline where the Black Aggie once rested. A bronze sculpture of Felix Agnus’s face hangs on the back of the granite stone.

Dolley Madison House
The Smithsonian placed the Agnus statue in storage where it remained for years before being given to the General Services Administration.  In 1987, it was placed on display in the rear courtyard of the Dolley Madison House on Lafayette Square in Washington, D.C.

Black Aggie Today
Black Aggie remains there today, now looking more serene than menacing as 'she' contemplates life and death from a seat among the trees, with a shrouded point of view.

~ Joy