Twenty million tons of water.
That’s the amount of water released by the Great Johnstown Flood in May 1889. The South Fork Dam at Little Conemaugh River failed – and twenty-two hundred souls perished. While the worst flood was in 1889, Johnstown also flooded in 1894, 1907, 1924, 1936, and 1977. The worst of these years was 1936, when flood damage reached the whole way from Johnstown to Pittsburgh.
By coincidence, my grandmother’s community in Licking Creek (or “Lickin’ Crick”, as they would say) also flooded in 1936. Unusually warm weather made the heavy snows melt – quickly – and western Pennsylvania paid the price. As the rivers and creeks overflowed their banks, they swept through suburbs and farmsteads, sweeping away even the topsoil.
are cheerful after March floods –
lilies on the rocks
My grandmother was eight years old when she watched the creek creep further and further out of its bank. Her parents were subsistence farmers eking out a living during the Great Depression. They had no crops to lose just yet – but they couldn’t afford to lose the chickens. They watched nervously as water inched higher and higher – closer and closer to the chicken coop. When the water trickled into the coop they had no choice but to rescue the chickens.
Grandma slogged into the hen house with the leghorns. The chickens would stand on one leg, trying to stay warm and dry. As they grew tired they would shift from one leg to the other. Almost eighty years later, Grandma still remembers those miserable chickens.
the creek keeps rising –
hens shake muddy water
from their cold feet
First image: Destruction of Lower Johnstown, PA, USA, after the Great Flood of 1889. Wikipedia.
Second Image: White Leghorn. USDA via Wikimedia.