Johnstown Flood National Memorial | RANGER-GUIDED TOURS

Stop at the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club's clubhouse on the Lake Conemaugh Van Tour

Stop at the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club’s clubhouse on the Lake Conemaugh Van Tour (photo by National Park Service)

Ranger-guided tours and special events are held from Memorial Day weekend through the end of October at Johnstown Flood National Memorial. These include van and walking tours, evening lectures, and flood anniversary commemorations. For a list of events and a schedule, see the National Park Service’s Calendar web page for the park. Tours are free, but you do need to register, either in advance by calling the park at (814) 886-6170 or in person at the Visitor Center on the day of your visit. You can also get tour information on the park’s Things To Do web page.

A JOURNEY AROUND LAKE CONEMAUGH VAN TOUR

From June through the end of September on Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays, the National Park Service offers a van tour around Lake Conemaugh. The tour starts in the parking lot of the Visitor Center and stops at the north and south abutments overlooks of the South Fork Dam and the clubhouse of the former South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club. Some of the original cottages of club members are also seen on the tour.

Below is basic information about the three stops on the Lake Conemaugh Van Tour. For those interested in learning more, I have provided much more detail about the history and significance of each stop on the Self-Guided Tour web page here on National Park Planner. Yes, you can do this same tour on your own if the Ranger-guided version is not offered when you visit. The only difference—aside from not being able to ask questions—is that you get to step inside the clubhouse on the Ranger tour, whereas you do not if you are on your own.

NORTH ABUTMENT OF THE SOUTH FORK DAM

The first stop on the Lake Conemaugh Van Tour is the parking lot for the north abutment overlook of the former South Fork Dam. The Ranger speaks about the Johnstown Flood, but does not take the group to this overlook because it is a fairly long walk from the parking lot. The view is pretty much the same from the south abutment, and the tour does visit that location. If you can walk the half-mile round trip, I recommend coming back and visiting the overlook on your own, for this is where the original spillway was located (in the photo below it is at the footbridge in the background).

Path to the South Fork Dam North Abutment overlook and spillway at Johnstown Flood National Memorial

Path to the South Fork Dam’s north abutment overlook and spillway

ST. MICHAEL HISTORIC DISTRICT

The second stop on the Lake Conemaugh Van Tour is at the St. Michael Historic District, home of the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club’s clubhouse and a few surviving cottages once owned by club members. Although it was soon evident that the original clubhouse was not large enough to accommodate all the members and guests, an addition was not completed until 1886. The clubhouse then had 47 rooms as well as a larger dining area. The building that stands today is the addition. The original clubhouse was attached to the left side of the current structure, but was damaged in a fire and torn down in the late 1930s.

Clubhouse of the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club at Johnstown Flood National Memorial

Clubhouse of the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club at Johnstown Flood National Memorial

The only way to see the inside of the clubhouse is on one of the Ranger-guided tours. Due to time constraints, participants on the Lake Conemaugh Van Tour only get to see the main room on the first floor. If you want to see more of the building, take the four-hour Path of the Flood Van Tour or sign up for the annual Clubhouse Tour held each Memorial Day weekend. The inside of the clubhouse is not renovated or furnished with period furniture, but it is still cool to be inside if for no other reason than nostalgia.

Inside the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club's clubhouse in St. Michael

Inside the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club’s clubhouse in St. Michael

The original fireplace at the South Fork Hunting and Fishing Club's clubhouse

The original fireplace at the South Fork Hunting and Fishing Club’s clubhouse

In addition to the clubhouse, sixteen cottages were built by members of the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club, and nine of these are still standing. Six are now private residences, and you can spot them by the plaque posted on the front of the house. The National Park Service owns another three of these original buildings plus the clubhouse annex building (aka Double Cottage). All other cottages have been torn down.

Home built by a member of the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club

Home built by a member of the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club

The Annex building now contains four, two-bedroom apartments which the National Park Service rents to private residents. Another National Park Service-owned cottage is used for staff housing, while a third—once owned by Jesse Lippincott—is now being stabilized.

Original clubhouse annex building is now rented as private apartments

Original clubhouse annex building is now rented as private apartments

SOUTH ABUTMENT OF THE SOUTH FORK DAM

South Abutment overlook of the South Fork Dam at Johnstown Flood National Memorial

South Abutment overlook of the South Fork Dam at Johnstown Flood National Memorial

The final stop on the Lake Conemaugh Van Tour is at the south abutment overlook of the dam ruins. It is near this location that Elias Unger and a group of Italian immigrants who were on the property to build a sewer system tried to save the dam by digging a new spillway. The original spillway was clogged with debris due to a metal screen having been placed over the front of it by club members to keep their fish from escaping down the river. This was just one of the ill-conceived decisions made while renovating an earlier dam on the property so that Lake Conemaugh could be created. Many argue that a cleared spillway would not have mattered, as there was just too much rain water filling the lake, but survivors of the flood put a heavy amount of blame for the collapse of the dam on the clogged spillway.

The south abutment is another location you may want to come back to on your own if you would like to take some hikes of historical significance. The South Fork Dam Trail leads to the bottom of the former lake and through the gap in the South Fork Dam created by the 1889 flood waters. The Carriage Road Nature Trail follows a segment of the original carriage road used by South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club members and their guests when traveling to Lake Conemaugh from the South Fork train station. Both trails are short and relatively easy.

View of the Visitor Center and Unger House from the dam's south side overlook

View of the Visitor Center and Unger House from the dam’s south side overlook

For more information on the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club, its clubhouse and cottages, and the South Fork Dam, read the Johnstown Flood History web page here on National Park Planner.

PATH OF THE FLOOD VAN TOUR

The National Park Service also offers a 4-hour van tour that takes guests through the towns of South Fork, Mineral Point, East Conemaugh, and Woodvale on its way to Johnstown. An extended stop at the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club clubhouse is also included. Unlike the Lake Conemaugh Van Tours, the Path of the Flood Van Tours are only offered on a few select Saturdays from June through September.

WALK THROUGH THE RUINS

Walk Through the Ruins is a Ranger-led walk along the South Fork Dam Trail. Meet at the South Abutment Parking lot. This is typically held twice a day every day from June through the end of September, then twice a day on weekends only in October. Get the latest schedule on the National Park Service’s Calendar web page for Johnstown Flood National Memorial.

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Last updated on October 6, 2021
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