Exclusive clubhouse being restored for anniversary of 1889 Johnstown disaster

Mary Pickels
| Saturday, Dec. 21, 2013, 6:31 p.m.

Keith Newlin likes to imagine what conversations might have taken place among the prominent guests of the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club during its heyday.

Powerful captains of finance and industry — including Andrew Mellon, Henry Clay Frick, Andrew Carnegie and Philander Knox — escaped the noisy, smoky confines of Pittsburgh to relax at a private mountain getaway near Johnstown in the 1880s.

When a restoration is complete, visitors will be able to tour the site and learn about the people who were members of the club, according to Newlin, deputy superintendent of National Parks of Western Pennsylvania.

Vintage photos show club members enjoying genteel leisure activities: men in coats and ties strolling along a boardwalk fronting the lodge; women wearing beribboned hats and boys in knickers setting sail on the lake.

“They were a private club and they were here to recreate in private,” Newlin said.

Their families came along and stayed in the 47-room clubhouse or the 16 privately owned cottages along Lake Conemaugh, formerly the Western Reservoir.

For almost 10 years, the 60 members enjoyed their exclusionary section of what is now St. Michael in Cambria County.

But the decade of tranquility ended in the spring of 1889.

Disaster of epic proportions

South Fork Dam, which established the recreational lake, was constructed in the mid-1800s and had failed twice before the club purchased it in 1879.

Club members did not replace drainage pipes that had been removed, and screens they installed to keep expensive game fish in the lake caught sediment and raised the water level, according to the National Park Service.

During a historic storm on May 31, 1889, the earthen dam broke.

Twenty million tons of water gushed down the valley into Johnstown, flattening more than 1,800 homes and businesses and killing 2,209 people.

Men who prided themselves on controlling railroads, banks and labor forces fled their mountain retreat.

“All of that wealth, all of that power, just evaporated,” Newlin said. “It was all termed an act of God, even though there was evidence of negligence.”

Members who supported rebuilding the retreat opened the clubhouse to flood victims.

Then the doors were locked.

“They never came back. We don't know if there are dissolution papers somewhere,” Newlin said.

A Feb. 19, 1904, auction announcement advertises the sale of “silverware and tableware with the club monogram engraved thereon, many odd pieces of furniture and bric-a-brac.”

Beginning anew

The three-story clubhouse changed hands several times during the next century, housing coal miners in the early 1900s and operating as a tavern into the early 1990s.

In 2006, the National Park Service acquired the clubhouse and several remaining cottages as part of the Johnstown Flood National Memorial.

The structures, a sampling of Victorian cottage architecture, were donated by the 1889 South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club Historical Preservation Society, now Friends of the Johnstown Flood National Memorial.

With park service funding and support from the Friends, plans include opening the 23,000-square-foot clubhouse for tours, programs and events as part of the 125th anniversary of the flood next year.

The roof and a three-story beam were replaced, and the main staircase was stabilized using federal funding.

A first-floor room is used as a black box, or unadorned, theater for interpretive park service programming, Newlin said.

The first floor has the look of a grand home gone to seed. An enormous tiled fireplace is a focal point in what Newlin speculated was a “living room, smoking room, brandy room.”

A spacious kitchen and dining room were destroyed in a 1930s fire, historians say.

In the former sleeping quarters upstairs, plaster is cracked, and layers of paint and wallpaper spiral from walls.

Newlin said $1.3 million in federal funding has been requested to make the site “pad ready,” including heat and utilities.

The goal is to lease the property for business offices or a similar use, Newlin said.

The Friends paid for a $1,200 paint analysis to determine the original color scheme, now known to be feather gray on the porch siding, black exterior window frames and brown trim.

Chairwoman Mary Anne Davis, a retired park ranger at the flood memorial, said the 20-member group raises funds and tries to assist the park service in telling the flood's story.

“The excitement is starting to build. For some of our members, this has been a 25-year dream. I sometimes wondered if I would ever see it in its original colors,” said Davis, who lives in St. Michael.

“It's like the building is going to emerge from the past,” she said.

“It's an amazing story. We've just got to keep trying to push it out. ... There is plenty of integrity left,” Newlin said.

Mary Pickels is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-836-5401 or mpickels@tribweb.com.

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