Deep in the heart of rural Pennsylvania are two memorials, reminders of man’s mortality and the dangers of complacency. Though they are within a short drive of each other, they are worlds apart. But like most of our diversions, they show what great places you can find when you get off the beaten path.
The first represents the ever-present challenge of man versus nature. On Memorial Day in 1889, the South Fork Dam that held a man-made lake 14 miles upstream of Johnstown, failed after several days of heavy rain. Some 20 million tons of water and debris bore down on the prosperous steel town. Telegraph warnings went largely unheeded and more than 2,200 died in the tumultuous, churning floodwaters that raced through the valley.
Tucked away on a quiet road but within earshot of busy U.S. 219 is the Johnstown Flood Memorial. It overlooks the area that once was the peaceful lake where the rich and famous of the day sailed, rowed and fished. The remnants of the dam are there; each side still visible while the once sturdy center is now a gaping hole, a painful reminder of the deadly destruction. Paved walking trails allow one to walk right up to the precipice. At the National Park Service visitor’s center, exhibits, displays and audio/visual presentations relive the terror of that day, and tell the story of the town’s rebirth. The world came to the town’s aid. American Red Cross founder Clara Barton led a contingent of doctors and nurses to bring relief to the stricken town and prevented massive disease outbreaks, firmly establishing the young Red Cross as the nation’s premiere disaster aid organization.
About 30 minutes south is a memorial of a different kind, The Flight 93 Memorial. It is a somber testament to the terrors and complacency of our day…and the bravery of some unlikely heroes. The story of United Flight 93 has often been told, when the 40 men and women onboard refused to be pawns of the Taliban’s terrorist plot and prevented Flight 93 from reaching its intended target. They gave their lives in the process, and forever gave new meaning to the phrase, “Let’s roll.”
Growing out of a wild flower-covered field – long-ago a strip mining operation – is a unique memorial to these fallen heroes. A black granite path along the north edge of the debris field leads to a stark, white stone wall that lies along the final flight path; the names of the passengers and crew permanently carved into the stone, an eternal tribute to their memory. A large boulder at the edge of a hemlock grove marks the crater where the passengers and crew perished, and still remain. Construction continues on a visitor center on the opposite side of the field that will offer panoramic views of the somber landscape.
These are diversions well worth taking, so that we never forget those who gave their lives in the face of natural and man-made terrors, and for the beauty that underlies these tragedies that has been preserved.
© The World A to Z, LLC 2014