New Novel revisits an old subject: Johnstown’s 1889 flood -by David Hurst, Tribune-Democrat
When New York author Mary Hogan first heard about Johnstown’s 1889 flood, she was captivated by Gilded Age tales of class and calamity – and an undying image of 20 million gallons of water careening toward the steel town. An off-broadway play that featured her actor husband was set in a burg still grappling with a man-made disaster much like Johnstown’s. And when it turned out the true story was more fascinating than its fictional twin, the framework for what has become “The Woman In The Photo” started coming into focus, she said.
On June 14, after years researching Johnstown’s disaster and working on other books, including the bestseller “Two Sisters,” Hogan’s historical novel will be set for a nationwide release under HarperCollins Publishers’ paperbacks line. “I worried for 24 years that someone else would write my book,” she said.
Hogan’s novel tells the fictional story of a struggling California orphan who discovers ties to a Pittsburgh debutante who gave up a life of luxury 125 years earlier in the wake of her summer home’s great disaster, the 1889 flood.
An enduring image
The book is described by HarperCollins as a dual narrative, connecting present-day teen Lee Parker to her great-, great-, great-grandmother through a photo discovered in Parker’s adoption file on her 18th birthday. It shows her ancestor, Elizabeth Haberlin – a woman with features similar to hers – alongside American Red Cross founder Clara Barton. The poignant image of the women standing together in rubble compels Lee to delve into her history and a flood story that Hogan said still resonates today. “To me the flood story is a story about class as much as it is catastrophe,” Hogan told The Tribune-Democrat.
She describes the flood story as “ ‘Downton Abbey’ meets the Titanic,” with titans of the day like Andrew Carnegie, Henry Clay Frick and Andrew Mellon serving as members of the exclusive club whose derelict dam brought devastation and death to the working-class valley below. That’s why it still resonates today, in a world where the nation’s “one percent-ers” fail to understand how their actions influence everyone else, she said. Hogan said her story weaves in flood events – and wealthy South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club members like Carnegie, Frick and U.S. Attorney General Philander Knox – with Parker’s modern-day search to learn more about her ancestor and the life-changing decisions she made more than 125 years earlier.
According to Hogan, Haberlin “risks all” to warn residents in the lake’s shadow that the club’s dam is going to break. “…the tragic story of the Johnstown Flood is background for a fascinating tale of two women, generations apart, who defy expectations to find their own paths to happiness and purpose. Awash in historical detail, this book is a real page-turner,” wrote Melanie Benjamin, New York Times bestselling author of The Swans of Fifth Avenue.
History comes alive
Hogan said she read “every book I could” about the 1889 flood – and the era – to keep her tale as “authentic” as possible. She said she made three trips to Johnstown. The third time, she spent a day touring the 47-room clubhouse where Fishing and Hunting Club members once stayed and played in addition to the flood’s disaster path and other sites.
Richard Burkert, president of the Johnstown Area Heritage Association, served as her tour guide. “We went through the historic part of the Cambria Iron Works – the blacksmith shop – and a lot of that really shows up in the book,” Burkert said, adding that Hogan “immersed herself” in the details of the period. He credited Hogan for creating fresh, believable characters. “And as a creative work of fiction, she really did her homework to ground the story in this place … and within the flood event itself,” he said.
Hogan’s affection for Johnstown shows within the book’s 406 pages, Burkert said. A few pages inside the cover, Hogan dedicated the book “to the resilient people of Johnstown, Pennsylvania. Past and Present.”
‘All good for Johnstown’
HarperCollins, one of the world’s largest publishing companies is releasing Hogan’s novel, through its William Morrow imprint. It also will be available through Barnes & Noble, Books-A-Million andAmazon.com, among other retailers. And any time Johnstown’s flood story is put under a national spotlight, it pays dividends for the local heritage tourism industry, Burkert said. “This is all good for Johnstown. And any time they get it right, it’s even better,” Burkert said, praising Hogan’s storytelling. It will likely draw people in to the story to Johnstown, he said. “The story of the Johnstown Flood continues to shock and amaze people and it leaves them hungry for more,” Burkert said. “They end up wanting to see where it happened.”
David Hurst is a reporter for The Tribune-Democrat. He can be reached at (814) 532-5053. Follow him on Twitter @TDDavidHurst and Instagram @TDDavidHurst.