Salena Zito

ST. MICHAELS, 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 of the “robber barons” of this nation’s greatest industrial era. Club members stayed either in one of the clubhouse’s 24 beautiful suites or in lakeside cottages.

Eight of those “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; it carried railroad cars, tracks and entire buildings into the town, killing 2,209 people.

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 nation’s ills.

The political unrest quickly swirled into Washington, creating four of the most volatile elections in our history.

In the previous November, Republican Benjamin Harrison beat incumbent Grover Cleveland (who, in 1884, was the first Democrat elected as president since James Buchanan in 1856). Harrison’s fellow Republicans won 179 of 332 U.S. House seats.

Two years later, Republicans lost all but 86 of those seats.

Two years after that, 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 holding 218 House seats to just 93.

In short, between 1892 and 1894, Democrats lost 125 seats, about 35% 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 Club, Charles Gravenstine and his wife, Karen, walk around the clubhouse, shooting photos and running their hands over its peeling wood siding.

“My great-grandparents died in the flood,” Gravenstine explains. “Louis and Lizzie Roland, they owned the feed store in town.

“My grandmother Olga was eight at the time. She was spared because she was home … on the slopes overlooking Johnstown.”


Salena Zito

Salena Zito is a political analyst, reporter and columnist.