June 24, 2003
Mr. Chairman, thank you for the opportunity to present the views of the Department of the Interior on H.R. 1521, a bill to provide for additional lands to be included within the boundary of the Johnstown Flood National Memorial in the State of Pennsylvania.
The bill would add seven parcels of land to the boundary of the park to provide permanent protection for resources that are integral to the historic events that the park was established to commemorate. Six of the parcels, totaling 2.33 acres, are approximately three miles from the park in the village of Saint Michael where the former South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club was located. The seventh parcel, comprising approximately 12 acres, is adjacent to the current boundary. Recently, a property owner of a 0.18-acre parcel has indicated that he does not wish to sell his property. We ask the Committee to amend the map reference in the bill to reflect this change of only six parcels being added to the park. Land acquisition costs for these six parcels are approximately $805,000. All parcels are for sale by willing sellers.
The Department supports the President's Initiative to address the deferred maintenance backlog and taking care of our current responsibilities. In this instance, we are faced with a unique situation concerning this boundary adjustment. The historic structures central to this acquisition have always been considered key components of the park, but were to be protected, maintained, and interpreted through a public-private partnership. However, the partner can no longer perform this function, based on financial problems. For this reason, the Department believes it is appropriate to move forward with this bill at this time.
Johnstown Flood National Memorial comprises nearly 165 acres in western Pennsylvania. The park's mission is to tell the stories of the events leading up to the Johnstown flood, of the flood itself, and of its effects on Johnstown and the nation. The addition of the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club properties would significantly increase the park's capability to interpret the important events surrounding the Johnstown flood and the individuals associated with it.
On May 31, 1889, a poorly maintained earthen dam breeched, sending 20 million tons of water down the Little Conemaugh Valley into Johnstown and other surrounding communities. A 36-foot wall of water rolled over the town at 40 miles per hour, flattening houses, trees, locomotives, and everything else in its path. By the disaster's end, 2,209 people had perished in the flood, another 40 died in the weeks after from typhoid, and property damage was estimated at $17 million. It was the worst inland flood in the nation's history and the first test of the newly formed American Red Cross, headed up by Clara Barton.
A pivotal part of the story revolves around the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club, located in Saint Michael, which in 1879 had purchased an abandoned reservoir, repaired the old dam, and created a private lake and recreational area for its members. Because the dam was not properly constructed or maintained, it gave way after heavy rains pounded the area, overtaxing the Lake Conemaugh dam spillway and eventually causing the dam to fail.
In 1986, the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club Historic District was listed on the National Register of Historic Places at the state level of significance.
In 1989, the Park Service and residents of Saint Michael undertook a joint planning effort, which produced the Preservation and Interpretation Plan for the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club Historic District. This plan outlined concepts and guidance for basic visitor services, interpretation, cultural resource preservation and maintenance. As a result of the plan, there developed a structured partnership between the village of Saint Michael and the Park Service, designed to protect, maintain and manage the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club clubhouse and other significant cottages in the historic district. The 1889 South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club Historical Preservation Society was formed to be the principal community body working with the Park Service in the implementation of the plan. Since the original planning efforts, the Society has obtained ownership of the Clubhouse, the Annex, the Moorehead Cottage, and the Brown Cottage. These properties were not originally included within the boundary of the park because it was understood that a local entity could adequately provide for their protection and interpretation.
Unfortunately, the Society lacks the resources to continue to maintain the properties they own, let alone preserve and develop them according to approved plans. The Society is struggling to make mortgage payments, and while they are desperately seeking a solution, the properties are deteriorating and losing historic integrity. In 2000, the Society worked with a private, non-profit historic property development company to try and obtain private sector interest in purchasing the properties, but was not successful. There is an imminent threat to the protection of these resources. The private owner has already listed these historic structures and properties for sale on the open market.
In 2001, the National Park Service completed a special resource study and environmental assessment to evaluate options for protection and interpretation of the additional parcels of land. Based upon the report, the Park Service proposed to add these parcels of land to the boundary of the park and to acquire the parcels in fee simple. Within the village of Saint Michael, four historically significant properties would be acquired. These structures include the former clubhouse of the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club, the Clubhouse Annex, and two cottages built by club members. One undeveloped parcel, the Clubhouse Side-yard that sits between the Clubhouse and the Clubhouse Annex, would also be added. The final parcel would protect the historic viewshed of the park, preserving the rural character of the Unger House property (Elias Unger was president of the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club), owned by the National Park Service.
If the Park Service acquired the historic buildings, we would explore the option of a public-private partnership to lease the buildings to the private sector for commercial and residential use. Through our historic leasing program, the private sector could sign a long-term lease with the Park Service that would cover a portion of the operations and maintenance costs of the properties, which ranges from $75,000 to $310,000. In addition, the private sector could rehabilitate the buildings, estimated to cost upwards of $2.9 million, using private funds in return for federal historic preservation tax credits. This would decrease the financial burden placed on the Park Service by the addition of these properties to the park. There has already been interest expressed by local businesses in this proposal.
The proposal to add these properties to the boundary of the park has widespread support among the property owners, state and local governments, and the public who attended a public meeting in July 2001 in Saint Michael. Public comments received were unanimous in support of the proposal.
We look forward to working with the local communities in Saint Michael and Johnstown to acquire these historically significant properties that will help tell the entire story of the events of the 1889 Johnstown Flood, from the actions leading up to the flood through its devastating aftermath.
Thank you for the opportunity to comment. This concludes my prepared remarks.
I would be glad to answer any questions that you or the members of the committee