16 May 2013

The History of the Johnstown Flood: Audacious Oligarchy, Reckless Disregard

The history of the Johnstown Flood of 1889, at that time the worst natural disaster in the US as measured by loss of life, is little understood these days, but quite fascinating.

A group of about fifty wealthy 'robber barons' took over an old dam which had been used as a reservoir for a canal system,  and used it to create a lake resort for their private pleasure.  It served as a weekend retreat from the heat and noise of nearby Pittsburgh. 

Prior to selling the dam to them, the owner, a Congressman Reilly who had purchased the abandoned reservoir from the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, removed the discharge pipes from the dam and sold them for scrap, thereby eliminating any emergency water relief measures, excepting the spillway.

They constructed buildings, and cottages, and formed the Southfork Fishing and Hunting Club.

They screened the spillway in order to preserve the fish with which they stocked the lake.  The screening tended to collect debris, and hamper the function of the spillway to relieve pressure on the dam caused by the occasional heavy rains.

Poorly maintained, the dam gave way, and wiped out the towns located down river. Having received no warning, many of the people who could have retreated to the nearby foothills were lost in the deluge.

The powerful members of the Club were never held to account because the law was interpreted to find no single member had been personally involved.

The Club itself was sold at auction to pay its mortgage to the banks.  The litigants received nothing.

It would have been even worse if the wealthy had bought insurance on the lives and property of the towns below, in order to further profit from the tragedy, and had cut telegraph wires and warning whistles to maximize the damage, loss of life, and their profit. 

And it would have been despicable if they had hired experts and newspapers to falsely lecture the public on the nature of dams, and how their concerns were misplaced and ridiculous. And if they had 'captured' the public officials and inspectors so that they would overlook and excuse the reckless disregard of the Club members for others.

I hope the lessons from this story from history are not lost on you.

When things don't make sense, that is often because there is deception involved.  How can there be widespread destruction and crime, but no one is held accountable? 

It is easy to underestimate the brazenness with which wealthy and powerful people will game the system for their personal profit, and then to cover up their wrongdoing.   That is because most people themselves would not lie and cheat to profit from the misery of others.  They find such behavior to be almost inhuman.

It is natural perhaps to blame the victims. They should have known, one might say. And how often can one be fooled before being blamed for their misfortune as a fool?

But most people, when faced with the uncertainty of conflicting stories, tend to accept the one that is put forward by the mainstream media, and backed by very important people. 

This is especially true if it seems like something they might do. Who could believe in such deceit? But they forget that they themselves are not heartless sociopaths.  And they are not well-practiced, almost pathologically proficient, con men who will say and do almost anything for money, without a twinge of conscience. Surely they may bend the truth a little, but never about anything so great.

The Banks must be restrained, and the financial system reformed, with balance restored to the economy, before there can be any sustainable recovery.