Floods of Discontent

Salena Zito
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Posted: Jul 24, 2011 12:01 AM

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.”

The Gravenstines live outside Washington in Silver Spring, Md. Karen says she knows enough history to think that the unrest clutching the country 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 have reminded her of the boy who cried “Wolf!”

While the national media has done an extraordinary job of branding the tea party as a pejorative, that movement was founded on Main Street by Democrats, Republicans and independents.

These same 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 money? Gas prices are high, houses have lost their 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 car company, bragged about building “environmentally friendly” cars and creating jobs. Last week, it folded – but not before the city of Salinas, Calif., handed the company more than a half-million dollars. No cars ever rolled out of its plant doors, no jobs ever were created.

That is sort of 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 in the Allegheny Mountains where a private lake once played host to luxurious sailboats and grand regattas.

Public sentiment about what caused the Johnstown disaster came to symbolize what many Americans of that earlier 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.