“My grandfather, Archie Bruce, was running the carpenter shop for the Johnstown Transit. He had finished building the house at 272 Ohio Street, mostly by himself, and was waiting for his bride-to-be to cross the ocean so they could marry. When the flood hit, the newspapers in Scotland said there were no survivors. They were wrong and we are here today!”
— Duncan A. Bruce, Scottish historian and first cousin once removed, in a private e-mail to family
2 1/2 miles of lake tumbled down the high hill
Of South Fork into the bustling steel mill town when the dam broke.
Citizens were preparing their pride
For the Memorial Day parade
As guests checked into their Hotel California rooms to choke
The sound of the marching band practicing outside,
In rain that rose both rivers until
It filled the streets. But it never stopped plans from being made.
Little girls waded their tiny toes in a foot of H2O
Without a care their hair was getting wet;
They didn’t know the dam 17 miles up had just let
Loose, and the lake would take 45 minutes to come down and drown the town.
First came the sound worse than thunder as old trees were forced to pray.
Then the ground shook like it was opening its jaw.
The water sunk the streets and snatched up buildings to saw
Them in half before it wound three miles back up the hills, then gravity had its say.
It slammed through a second time and drained down
The river through the bridge of burning flesh, nowhere else to go.
Archie was building his bride’s new cottage when the flood came.
His arm, raised above his head and holding a hammer,
Was about to strike a nail when he heard the sound.
The ground shook and he thought the floor he just finished was folding.
But no, the sound was from far away, near town.
And then suddenly he heard shouting, screams that found their way
Out of town to where he was. He ran outside, but saw nothing new.
There was terror in the air; he was sure he heard buildings breaking.
And the sound of water, an unfathomable amount of it, wreaking havoc.
Had the two rivers risen to such heights because of the rain? Couldn’t be.
Then he remembered the dam. Oh the dam! What fuss
Had been made, over the dam! He went back in and resumed his work,
And waited. What else could he do?
He hammered loudly to drown out the sound coming from town.
And just as silence wound its way through the streets, he thought it was over.
But the water came again. Now what? The silence that followed seemed to stay,
And so he lifted himself to his feet, preferring blindness, and climbed his horse.
The living corpses slowly made their way out of their hole
Of disbelief into the sharp air of incomprehensible truth.
What is this place? This is not the place
People placed their heart into:
Families lost, Children sudden orphans, wives widowed too soon.
“What happened to Old Lady MacKay,” an uncouth
Woman wondered in a striking state of grace.
“She’ll be found two miles south, still in her chair,” some ghost foretold, brushing off his soul.
A young police officer cut stars from tin cans and gave them to anyone alive and well,
Anyone willing. And so the citizens began anew,
Despite the press that came on trains to report the lies of hell.
No survivors? What are we! Fault of foreigners? It was a Pittsburgh tycoon!
Archie escorted himself in to the town and saw the terror that was there.
He could see smoke rising from afar, where the two rivers shake hands.
There’s no mill there, he thought, the stone bridge has met with death.
But once he smelled it, he knew it wasn’t stone, but bone.
Everything that once stood was now collapsed and unknown.
A tree stuffed its branches into a house, its trunk stuck out in the air.
What will Sarah say, he wondered; his bride was on a boat, halfway to her new home.
She will want to go back to Scotland, but here is where the work is.
Here, where now, there’s destruction. Everywhere. Everywhere, but where
God saved his own home. Among the rubble and chaos of what was left,
The old Presbyterian Church stood unmarred. This was his church.
He had founded it. Archie opened its doors and called it a morgue.
Within a short time 2200 stones were stuck into Grandview Cemetery.
The place was a beautiful piece of property,
A grand stone arch welcomed folks at its gate,
And a large plot was given to the unidentified sufferers of fate.
Sarah came, and left, only to come back a short while later.
After all, Archie was going to be a father.
A boy was born in that house Archie built, the cottage was crafted
For the love of his bride, and Sarah would grow old in it.
It was Archie’s mark, the mark of a Scot.
Long after the flood waters drained and the town was built fresh,
Life seemed to drag a slow hour here, a sluggish day there.
Laborers went back to work in the steel mills, the entire reason why
Men came to Johnstown on their Scottish boats anyway. Work was here.
Men would get paid on Friday, drink it all on Saturday,
Pray for forgiveness on Sunday. One day the sky
Will turn and life would be different. But that was some distant day away.
Archibald grew up far too fast for his father’s liking,
And when high school hit, he was head over heels
With a girl several blocks over,
A polite girl who carried her dimples under a red do.
Marian lived beside an apple orchard in a blue house at the top of the hill.
And when Archibald became a man he married Marian,
Then moved into a Pittsburgh apartment for a sweet start.
Some say with Marian out of the house and moved away,
Her sister Dottie could shine. And shine she did,
So bright a boy across the orchard couldn’t help but take care.
Her blond hair wore a bow so big it could have been a hat.
Her neighbor Donald did just the opposite, brushed his hair flat.
When they were young they ran through the orchard playing tag,
But now they started going steady, abandoning games of Truth Or Dare.
Sometimes they’d ride real slow together on Donald’s stag.
Laura, a friendly girl, caught the eye of Dottie’s brother Fred.
Scots everywhere were always finding something to do on a slow day.
Donald’s father worked at the steel mill until he retired.
He took the long walk home every day for lunch,
Because he couldn’t afford the expense of anything else.
No one missed him at the mill when he went;
He was as much a number as a number could be.
But he took church involvement seriously, as the church did he.
There, someone might write a note to him, as “Mr. Grey.”
He relished in the respect, but was quick with a reply.
“That’s Gray with an A — I’m a Scot, you see.”
The mountain the lake slammed into is Westmont. Townsfolk
Figured they better build their houses on its other side.
But they needed a way to get into town. They needed some sort of ride.
They laid steel for an incline plane to take them down that slope.
An excess of rain caused the Johnstown Flood of ’36.
Waters rose so high the damage done was ten feet tall.
Folks came out and dropped the two rivers by laying stone and brick —
The rivers forever relinquished their stranglehold in heavy rainfall.
It wouldn’t have taken Flood Minor for Donald to be done with Johnstown,
His house was high enough on the hill,
But he was done with the molasses sun all the same.
And when the pouring rains did drench his desires to stay,
He knew a helping hand could only do so much way up high.
It was time to go and make a mark worthy of the life he dreamt for;
Long before the water rose he took off with Dottie for DC,
And started to secure himself to the heels of social work.
The great stone arch is still there, but the entrance to the cemetery
Has moved. Grandview is surrounded by first generation fauna and flora.
Donald and Dottie, Archibald and Marian, Fred and Laura,
All lie beneath their front row seats, high on this hill. It’s Memorial Day,
A score and century after the catastrophe, the criminals never brought to bay.
Only the ones buried beneath the living seem to celebrate this anniversary.
My mother sits in front of her parents and prays.
I remember little about Donald; he died when I was ten.
My son sitting next to me remembers Dottie even less;
He was seven when she gave her body to the heavens.
We drove our vehicle around in search of the victims, and found
All 2200 of them, the unidentified with blank stones.
To see them all gave me my first taste of magnitude; under the ground
Was a community called Spirit. I walk among the unknowns,
Taking photos to help remember the largest American tragedy in a loss of memory.
By the time Katrina came it was too late. Dismissed dam to neglected levee.
Another house now sat between the other two,
Sunbathing where the apple orchard used to watch over the children.
“We played with the apples when we came for turkey,” my mom says.
She was hiding from her cousins in the orchard when a window opened.
Dottie had found her and called out, “Your grandfather’s dead!”
My mother turned to the other house, to pay respects to Mr. Gray.
The people don’t care much for the big-city pace,
Perhaps it always was that way.
Toothless guardian angels will catch you midair and say,
‘There’s really nothing wrong with this place.’
We drove to Ohio Street, a thoroughfare now, a main vein going somewhere.
The neighborhood no longer nice, we didn’t want to stay long.
The guard dog sign sold us to stay in the car,
So we took a few photos and went on our way.
That place was built for a bride, but no one would ever know it today.