Floods of Discontent
ST. MICHAEL, Pa. Remarkably, the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club still stands on what once was the shore of Cambria County’s Lake Conemaugh.
Built in 1881, the Victorian-style white building trimmed in cheerful red was a
social center for many "robber barons" of this nation’s greatest industrial era.
Club members stayed in the clubhouse’s 24 beautiful suites or in lakeside cottages.
Eight "cottages" — more like Victorian mansions — remain standing, in various
degrees of neglect, as if awaiting their powerful owners’ return.
Yet after May 31, 1889, they never came back.
A little past 3 p.m. that day, the club’s earthen dam, built in 1834, gave way
following a series of punishing spring storms. Fifteen million tons of water plunged downhill from an elevation of more than 2,500 feet into Johnstown. A massive wave crushed homes and bridges, carrying railroad cars, tracks and entire buildings,killing 2,209.
Afterward, antagonism toward elites swept the country. Big wealth and big
corporations born in the post-Civil War industrial boom were blamed for all the
The political unrest quickly swirled into Washington, creating four of the most
volatile elections in our history.
The previous November, Republican Benjamin Harrison had beaten incumbent Grover
Cleveland (who, in 1884, became the first Democrat elected president since James
Buchanan in 1856). Harrison’s fellow Republicans had won 179 of 332 U.S. House
Two years later, Republicans lost all but 86 of those seats.
In 1892, Democrats lost just a few seats as Cleveland beat Harrison for the presidency.
By 1893, financial panic gripped the country. In Cleveland’s midterm year, Democrats went from 218 House seats to just 93.
In short, between 1892 and 1894, Democrats lost 125 seats, about 35 percent of the total. Washington’s elites, who failed to grasp the public’s discontent, were powerless to stop the electoral wave.
Back at South Fork, Charles Gravenstine and his wife, Karen, shoot photos of the
clubhouse and run their hands over its peeling wood siding.
"My great-grandparents died in the flood," Charles explains. "Louis and Lizzie
Roland, they owned the feed store in town.
"My grandmother Olga was 8 at the time. She was spared because she was home … on the slopes overlooking Johnstown."
The Gravenstines live outside Washington, in Silver Spring, Md. Karen says she knows enough history to think the unrest after the great flood is "strikingly similar to what is happening today."
"People have had enough of the drama," she says, explaining that President Obama’s numerous debt-negotiations press conferences remind her of the boy who cried "Wolf!"
While national media have done an extraordinary job of branding "tea party" as a
pejorative, that movement was founded on Main Street by Democrats, Republicans and independents.
Those voters, and growing numbers of other Americans, are gravely concerned about how the nation’s leadership is handling the economy. The result of their concern is less consumer confidence, which means less spending.
And why would people spend? Gas prices are high, houses have lost value, jobs are hard to find — and if you have a job, you probably haven’t seen a pay raise in a very long time.
Green Vehicles, a California company, bragged about building "environmentally
friendly" cars and creating jobs. Last week, it folded — but not before the city of Salinas, Calif., handed it more than a half-million dollars. No cars ever rolled out of its plant, no jobs ever were created.
That is symbolic of how the Obama administration has handled job creation, through misdirected stimulus money and phantom "green" jobs.
A cavernous valley three miles wide now marks the spot where a private lake once
played host to luxurious sailboats and grand regattas.
Public sentiment about the Johnstown disaster’s cause came to symbolize what many Americans of that generation thought was wrong with their country. And Washington’s elites of that day felt the repercussions dramatically at the voting booth.
Americans have a remarkable manner of eventually correcting wrongs that way
Pittsburgh Tribune-Review Political Reporter