Friday, September 11, 2015

August 30: Fighters and Floods

It might be worth mentioning that the entire day came together at the last minute. When Nat and I designed the trip, we opted to have an extra day to spend somewhere.  As the trip moved along, we never used it.  We could have gone home a day early, but what the hell fun is that?

You may be surprised to know that the National Park Service has quite a presence in southwest Pennsylvania. After a quick breakfast in town, we hit the first of three Park stops for the day. 

I don’t think I need to get into the details of the events that unfolded on September 11, 2001.  If you are like me, you are experiencing what physiologists call a “flashbulb memory.”  You remember extraordinary details of the when you heard what was happening – what you were doing, exactly where you standing, what you were wearing perhaps or even the song on the radio when the news broke.

To honor the individuals on Flight 93 (the flight that did not reach its target (likely the Capital building)), the National Park Service now oversees the Flight 93 National Memorial.  So you can honor those same individuals, you have to go. 

In what is becoming a trend in the National Parks, simple monuments (like the statues of Augustus Saint-Gaudens) are no more.  A significant artsy-sort-of-plan/interpretation is often used.  In this case, giant stone panels, each etched with the name of a passenger, are in place in an accordion-style wall.  The axis of this Wall of Names matches the flight path the plane took in its final moments and more or less points to the crash site. The crash site itself is accessible only to Flight 93 passenger and crew family members.

There are dozens of ways to correctly assemble a memorial. One way is not automatically better than the other. Different designers might offer different thoughts. That's just how creativity can work.  That said, I’m not sure about two things.  

A stone, which was not visible the day of the flight, marks the point the plane struck the ground. Apparently, it had to be added later to guide the eyes of the visitors who couldn't interpret the map.  With so much effort in planning, a giant stone, the size of a golf cart perhaps, just seems odd to me. A rock? That was the best they could do?

Second, the gate.  At the end of the Wall of Names, a gate prevents visitors from walking to the crash site.  To borrow a phrase from another website, it is “…a faux-wooden gate.”  Big beams.  Rather bland.  It just seemed out of place.  It looked more like something to keep back Nordic barbarians or cattle.  I don’t get it.  The gates at our National Cemeteries are immaculate.  Don’t the people of Flight 93 deserve something similar?  Did they not give their lives just like those we honor in Arlington?

Again, go.  Average people (if there is such a thing) stepped up to perform in an extraordinary fashion.  We owe those 40 individuals everything.  


Don't ever forget what they did.

If, by the way, you believe Flight 93 never existed so as to fulfill your needs to foster a story of a conspiracy, I would like invite you to go screw yourself at your earliest convenience.  You're idiots.  The interpretive center was not open at the time of our visit.  No outside interpretive panels addressed the conspiracy asshats.  Well done, Park Service.

Sadly, the event of September 11th is not the only horror story that unfolded in southwest Pennsylvania. 

Setting your time machine back, we could go to 1977, 1936 and 1889. What did they all have in common? 

Floods in Johnstown.  While all three episodes saw fatalities, the 1889 event marks the single largest loss of civilian life in the United State prior to 2001. 

It could have been avoided. 

The South Fork Dam held back the waters of the Conemaugh River (CON-uh-maw) creating Conemaugh Lake.  The lake was the playground for a hunting and fishing club whose members were, well, rich.  They retreated here from Pittsburgh when time allowed.

As time went by, the original 1853 dam was altered.  It was reduced in height and eventually developed a sag in the middle (the part that needs to be the strongest as it holds the most pressure!).  Stone riprap was poorly maintained, discharge pipes were not replaced and debris was allowed to clog the spillway.

Victor Heiser, a flood survivor, recalled “The townspeople, like those who live in the shadow of Vesuvius, grew calloused to the possibility of danger.” Club members assured the city of Johnstown, 14 miles downstream,  that they were in no danger “…from our enterprise.”

What club members didn’t realize is that the rains of May 30 and 31, 1889 were epic.  Inch after inch of rain dumped into the region. Modern meteorologists believe a storm cell basically parked itself over southwest Pennsylvania.

Elias Unger, the owner of the home in the foreground in the picture below and a senior member in the hunt club, awoke to see the lake swelling and knew the dam couldn’t hold.  Members of the club did what could be done to reinforce the dam but it was largely pointless. An engineer with the club thought that a strategic break along the edges of the dam might relieve some pressure, but he was worried about being blamed for the flooding towns downstream. He did nothing. The dam broke.

Over its 14 mile run, the flood, moving at speeds of 40 miles per hour, carried entire homes, trees, train cars, mud and anything else that was in the way.  The boilers of the Gaultier Wire Works, a leading manufacturer of barbed wire, exploded, creating what survivors called the “Black Mist.” Hundreds were tangled in the miles of wire and drown.  As debris piled up against bridges and viaducts, fires broke out and people were burned to death.  One pile of debris had a footprint of 45 acres (a football field is 1.32 acres).

2,209 people died.  99 families were wiped out while 98 children were left without parents.  The unknown deceased are buried in Grandview Cemetery.

The two abutments are all that remain of one of the world’s largest earthen dams (as of 1889). I added the white lines in the picture below to help you visualize the top of the damn. Lake Conemaugh would have been to the left.

Somewhat drained from the two visits, we opted for lunch.  At a small roadside restaurant, we enjoyed what might be the world’s best hamburger.  Holy cow were those good. (Yeah, sorry. Ha ha.). Sadly, service was a bit slow. It was almost as if we were waiting for the cow to grow up before they processed it!

By 3pm, we made our third stop for the day.  Fort Necessity was needed.  I wanted to re-visit the site as I was there in elementary school.  Natalie, with her new found appreciation of battlefields, was looking forward to it, as well.

The French and Indian War preceded the Revolutionary War. It was basically a conflict between the French and their Native American allies and the British in North America as they both felt they had a stake in it all.  Historians call it the Seven Years War as it eventually went global.

In May of 1754, a Virginia Militia unit, led by a guy named George, headed out to intercept a French military unit.  History is muddy and important details are lost.  The French leader, Jumonville (Zjew-moan-veel), was killed.  Some say in combat. Some say he was functionally assassinated after his capture. 

Fearing a huge French response, George retreated and hastily assembled Fort Necessity, complete with trenches, in a location called the Great Meadow.  Not much larger than a postage stamp, almost 400 soldiers were in or near it when the French attacked on July 3. 

George, lacking the ability to check the weather on a smartphone, found himself in serious trouble when persistent rains got his powder wet.  In short, when your powder is wet, your musket doesn’t fire.  You’re in big trouble because you can’t shoot back.

That night, the French sent George terms of surrender.  The papers, written in French and soggy from the rain, were misinterpreted and George unwittingly admitted to the assassination of Jumonville.  Upon George’s surrender, he and his troops were allowed to leave but the French torched the place. Tempers flared globally and the French and Indian War erupted. 

The fort is a reconstruction. However, its originally location and shape is now known. Once thought to be large and square, we now know it was only 53 feet across. I wasn’t kidding when I joked about a postage stamp, huh!?  We know it was make with split logs based on the archaeology of the site and recovered burned timbers. 

Interestingly enough, I distinctively remember those burned timbers from my childhood visit. My mom said we were going to visit a fort.  I had visions of a castle-sized structure. Imagine my horror when I found out the fort was fake and that all that remained was the same debris that one removes from a fireplace. Needless to say, my views have changed!

Sadly, the thunderstorms chased us out around closing time. Ironically, a storm on the exact same site almost 261 years before changed the course of world history when George signed the soggy surrender and the “admission.”

So what became of George? Oh, he went on to be the President of the United States. Yes, folks, it was George Washington. Fort Necessity was the only surrender in his military career (though he did lose a few here and there).

While we are on the subject of George, let’s take a moment and think something through.  Folks in the recent weeks and months have conjured a firestorm regarding the Confederate flag and what it means.  I have heard arguments that the Confederate States were basically traitors as they tried to secede from the Union. 

George Washington was a member of the Virginia Militia, a combat unit representing a British Colony,  fighting on behalf of the British Crown. Within a decade, he was fighting against the British. 

So help me understand something. Jefferson Davis, President of the Confederate States is a traitor, but George Washington is a hero when they basically did the same thing.  What is the single most glaring difference? Jefferson Davis lost. 

I am not at all suggesting that George was a traitor and should never have been President.  I am simply suggesting that we need be careful how we describe certain people.  Ignorance of history might get you in trouble.

Our original plan suggested lodging in Pittsburgh.  However, believe it or not Morgantown, West Virginia was closer to our next day’s destination. That’s right.  Just a few days previous, we were a stone’s throw from New Brunswick and here we are now in the home of West Virginia University. Lodging was at the historic Hotel Morgan.

With Morgantown hosting the Morgantown Brewing Company, a 5 minute walk away from the hotel, dinner was a no-brainer.  The beer flight was huge, but small (lots of beer, small samples).  Alpha Blonde Ale, Two Week Lager, Old Morgantown Amber Ale, Pathfinder Ale, Coat City Stout, Saison, Oktoberfest, Kettle Bottom Brown, Eighty Schilling Scotch Ale, Zack Morgan’s IPA and the Jessico White IPA (#1623-1633) were offered.  The brown, the amber and both IPAs were well done.  4’s for sure. Sadly, the Scotch Ale was weak. Natalie and I both agreed on this one.  We had to score it a  2.

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