The Nation's Pulse

Dam It

In this week's great flood, eerie reminders of Johnstown 1889.

By 6.30.06

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Knocks on the doors in the middle of the night rousted some 2200 people from their homes in Montgomery County, just north of the District of Columbia. A "mandatory evacuation," said the knockers. "The dam is leaking."

The dam in this case is an earthen pile that forms a lake called "Needwood," and if it gives way a lot more than 2200 people will need wood with paddles and motors and in a hurry. The Needwood threat is but one of the horror stories of the persistent storms that dumped more than a foot of rain on the hapless Eastern states in a couple of days. But there is a lesson in Needwood as well as a strange mathematical coincidence.

Twenty-two hundred happens to be the number dead and missing in what we call the Johnstown Flood of Pennsylvania in June 1889. Then, the South Fork Dam on the Little Conemaugh River burst and sent an estimated 20 million gallons of water pounding through the town of 30,000 people. It was, and is, one of America's memorable natural disasters.

But was it natural, really? The area around the dam was owned by the elite members of the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club whose rolls included some of the titans of early American industry. It was suggested later that the dam had not been maintained, but nothing came of these claims. The salient fact was and is that people chose to live in what could become and did become a sluiceway authored by a dam.

It has been part of the American heritage to build dams, to wrestle nature to its knees, to conquer the natural bent of flowing water. Recently there have been regrets. Notably some dams deemed useless on waterways in the northeast have been taken down, it having been discovered that species of salmon and anadromous fish were disappearing, unable to reach their reproducing grounds. More so-called "fish ladders" are being installed to avert similar situations around dams of the great western rivers.

Nobody, not the most imbued environmentalist, expects to take down some structures. Hoover Dam and its Lake Mead are there to stay. (Remember the attempt to call it "Boulder Dam" when a succession of FDR Democrats came to power during its construction? Probably not.) Grand Coulee isn't coming down soon, either.

There is another place with a name more evocative than Needwood. It is Great Falls, the city on the Missouri in Montana. Great Falls is at the head of five "former waterfalls," the first of which was first seen by Meriwether Lewis on June 13, 1805. The Indians knew of the falls, told Lewis and Clark of their approximate whereabouts. But it was Lewis who, forging ahead, at first heard and then saw "the grandest sight ever beheld." Three hundred yards of river falling over a precipice of 80 or 90 feet. Lewis regretted his limits of description, "that I might be enabled to give to the enlightened world some just idea of this truly magnificent and sublimely grand object." Tough, enlightened world, a dam now sits astride this first falls, and four more concrete creations bestride the four that lie up stream. One falls, named for Colter, explorer of Yellowstone Park, now lies submerged in the bay formed by another of the dams, which corral the water and send it shunting through generators at the sides and base of the dams.

A chronicler of the expedition, the late Stephen Ambrose, urged in speeches late in life that Great Falls give thought to reclaiming this lost beauty, asserting that the dams obscure one of the wonders of the western world. At the least, Great Falls might consider a more descriptive name -- Great Dams ?

But back to Needwood. It wasn't until late Thursday night that officials told the 2200 evacuees that they might safely return to their abandoned homes -- this time.

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About the Author

Reid Collins is a former CBS and CNN news correspondent.