POLITICS SEPTEMBER 1, 2009
Congressman John Murtha passed away today. Below, you'll find a recent magazine feature that we ran on him--and the town he represented for 36 years.
One night last August, John Murtha, the U.S. Representative from Pennsylvania’s Twelfth Congressional District, paid a visit to the LBK Game Ranch, a private hunting camp in the hills above his home city of Johnstown. About 60 people had gathered in the ranch’s lodge--a luxury five-bedroom log cabin decorated with deer antlers and flat-screen televisions--to raise money for his 2008 campaign.
There were two odd things about the event. One was that the host was a former drug dealer. Bill Kuchera, a stocky man with a balding pate and a bristle-brush mustache, had run a bar near Johnstown in the mid-1970s, but, after a catastrophic flood in 1977--the third such flood to hit Johnstown since 1889--the bar had tanked along with the local economy. So Kuchera headed to Wisconsin, where he eked out a living hawking fireworks before moving into a more lucrative line of work: transporting marijuana from Miami for sale up north. He was busted in 1981 and served the better part of a year in federal prison.
No less strange was the political situation facing the guest of honor. Murtha was first elected to the House in 1974 and had long been one of the Democrats’ most entrenched incumbents. On several occasions, the GOP had not even fielded a candidate to run against him. But ever since calling for an immediate withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq in November 2005--and, a few months later, alleging that Marines there had “killed innocent civilians in cold blood”--Murtha, a former Marine himself, had been the target of conservatives’ ire. For his 2008 race, Republicans had not only fielded a candidate--a retired Army lieutenant colonel who moved from Virginia to Johnstown for the express purpose of unseating Murtha--but were in the process of showering him with more than $3 million in campaign contributions.
With his career on the line, Murtha had turned to Kuchera and other local supporters in Johnstown because, put simply, they owed him. Like Kuchera, Johnstown as a whole had experienced a remarkable reversal over the past two decades. And, in both cases, it was John Murtha who was largely responsible. For more than a century, beginning in the 1850s, steel had been king in the southwestern Pennsylvania city. “Along toward dusk tongues of flame would shoot up in the pall around Johnstown,” Charlie Schwab, chairman of Bethlehem Steel from 1904 to 1939, once wrote. “When some furnace door was opened, the evening turned red.” But it had been years since Johnstown’s sky burned so bright. Bethlehem began shuttering its twelve miles of mills there in the late 1970s, closing the last one in 1992.
Unlike other Rust Belt cities, however, Johnstown was not completely decimated by the steel industry’s collapse. From his perch on the House Appropriations Committee, Murtha had, over the years, directed $2 billion in federal spending to his district. Kuchera, who, following prison, had moved back to Johnstown and reinvented himself as an entrepreneur specializing in electronics and defense contracting, was just one of the local businessmen who had benefited from this largesse. “I’m certainly a Republican . . . and I don’t think Mr. Murtha and I would agree on everything,” Mark Pasquerilla, a Johnstown businessman who attended the fundraiser, later told me. But “on an economic-development level, he delivers.” In steel’s place, Murtha had become Johnstown’s economic engine, keeping it afloat with a steady stream of government cash that flowed to the city’s private businesses, its hospitals, even its airport--which, like so many things in Johnstown, now bore his name. Murtha was not just Johnstown’s congressman; he was its savior.
That night in August, Murtha would raise as much as $100,000 for his reelection bid. And, in the weeks to come, others who owed their good fortunes to Murtha would direct portions of those fortunes toward his campaign. Ultimately, he matched his Republican challenger in the fund-raising contest. And, although polls taken just a few days before the election showed a neck-and-neck race, Murtha used his war chest to mount a last-minute ad blitz that propelled him to a 16-point victory. For the time being, it appeared that Bill Kuchera and the rest of Johnstown’s business community had managed to save their savior, and themselves. “It’s like we were sitting here with four aces and we weren’t sure if we were going to bet it all or fold,” Bill Polacek, the CEO of a local defense firm, told the Johnstown Tribune-Democrat. “With that kind of hand, why would you let the opportunity pass you by?”
But Johnstown’s return to business as usual would prove short-lived. In late January, little more than a fortnight after Murtha was sworn in to his nineteenth term, federal agents raided the offices of Kuchera’s two companies, as well as the LBK Game Ranch; they seized not just computers and boxes of records but Kuchera’s seven rifles and one handgun, which, as a convicted felon, he was prohibited from owning. The raids, according to The Washington Post, were part of a federal investigation into allegations that Kuchera and his family had improperly used money from his company’s Pentagon contracts for personal expenses, including renovations of his hunting ranch.
For much of the last year, federal law enforcement officials have been investigating not just Kuchera but a number of defense contractors and lobbyists with ties to Murtha; at the same time, the House ethics committee is said to be probing Murtha’s and other lawmakers’ relationships with a now-defunct lobbying firm that was helmed by a former congressional staffer who once worked with Murtha. As a result, Murtha’s decades-long appropriations of phenomenal sums to his home district--and the campaign contributions he has received from some of the beneficiaries of those appropriations--are now at the center of one of Capitol Hill’s biggest ongoing scandals. The controversies cut to the heart of what Polacek, who knows Murtha well, calls the congressman’s “life’s work--the continuation and survival of this community.” Sitting in a conference room just a few hundred feet from an old Bethlehem Steel plant where his company now makes armored plating for military vehicles, Polacek framed the issue in stark terms. “If there weren’t earmarks,” he told me, “this town would be dead.” Murtha, who declined through a spokesman to be interviewed for this story, has been similarly blunt. “If I’m corrupt,” he recently said to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, “it’s because I take care of my district.”
Earmarks, of course, are perfectly legal, and most congressmen go out of their way to bring home money to their districts. “What Murtha is doing everybody else is doing,” says Melanie Sloan, the executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington. “It’s just to such a higher degree that it becomes shocking.” And, while Murtha’s radical approach may well have saved Johnstown--a place that, due to natural or economic forces, always seems perched on the edge of extinction--it also created a city unduly dependent on one man: himself. If other congressional scandals in recent years have primarily revolved around individuals, from Jack Abramoff to “Duke” Cunningham to William Jefferson, the Murtha scandal involves the fate of an entire city.
Johnstown lies just 65 miles east of Pittsburgh, but both its geography and psychology have long conspired to isolate it from the larger world. Nestled in a deep valley at the confluence of the Little Conemaugh and Stonycreek rivers, Johnstown is surrounded on all sides by mountains, as if the city had been dropped from the sky and landed with such force that it punched a giant crater in the Alleghenies. In the 1950s, when federal highway officials were trying to place interstates by all 237 American cities with populations of 50,000 or more, Johnstown (population 65,232 at the time) was one of just seven cities to successfully resist those efforts, its civic and business leaders evidently believing that the thoroughfare would harm the local economy. Even when Johnstown has tried to break out of its isolation, the effort has been largely for naught: The John Murtha airport--the recipient of $200 million in federal spending over the past decade, most of it courtesy of its namesake--currently offers just three commercial flights a day, all bound for Washington’s Dulles airport some 120 miles south. After I spent a few days in Johnstown last month, a reporter from the Tribune-Democrat got in touch with me in the hopes of writing a story about my stay; Johnstown, evidently, is not accustomed to many visitors.
Murtha’s ancestors first came to the Johnstown area from Ireland in the 1840s to work in the coal industry. Born in 1932, he was just a boy when his father and three uncles all went off to fight in World War II. After three years in the Marine Corps and various postings throughout the South, Murtha settled with his wife, Joyce, back in Johnstown, where he ran his family’s car wash and commanded a Marine Reserves company. In 1966, the 33-year-old father of three volunteered for active duty and served a tour in Vietnam as a Marine intelligence officer. “Ever since I was a young boy, I had two goals in life,” Murtha, a hulking figure with a six-foot-six-inch frame and gruff countenance, once confessed. “I wanted to be a colonel in the Marine Corps and a member of Congress.” The first goal attained, Murtha set about achieving the second. When Johnstown’s Republican congressman of two decades, John Saylor, died in office, Murtha ran for his seat in a special election in 1974. He won by 122 votes.
As the first Vietnam veteran elected to Congress, Murtha’s hawkish views on military matters and foreign affairs carried unusual weight for a junior member. What made him even more atypical was the manner in which he conveyed those views. He eschewed floor speeches and the talk-show circuit in favor of closed-door negotiating sessions and overseas trips to visit Marines in Beirut or mujahedin in Afghanistan or other foreign hotspots seldom seen by what he called “Washington policy makers who never left their desks.” From his seat in the back right-hand corner of the House chamber--which eventually came to be known as the “Murtha Corner”--he entertained a steady stream of Democrats and Republicans eager to benefit from his counsel and his ability to cut deals.
Although he didn’t seek the spotlight, his influence was such that the spotlight inevitably shined on him. In 1985, The Washington Post deemed Murtha the House’s “premier political operator.” For his part, Murtha seemed to fancy himself the Metternich of the Rust Belt. His 2003 memoir From Vietnam to 9/11: On the Front Lines of National Security is a boastful recounting of his role in America’s various foreign policy crises over the last four decades and a forceful summation of his own geostrategic views. “I believe the most important lesson of the twentieth century for America is that we can expect our national security to be challenged when our military is weak or when we are perceived as being irresolute,” he wrote.
Saylor, Murtha’s predecessor in the House, had carved out for himself a similar Washington wise-man role, albeit on environmental issues. Conservationists dubbed him “St. John,” and his constituents used to joke, “Saylor cares more about the caribou in Colorado than he does about us.” Nevertheless, the economy in Johnstown was sufficiently strong, due to the steel industry, that voters there kept sending Saylor back to Washington anyway. Murtha couldn’t count on the same. As he was ascending to wise-man status in D.C., Johnstown was descending into economic chaos. The collapsing steel industry and the after-effects of the 1977 flood would drive Johnstown’s unemployment rate up to 24 percent. And that figure failed to capture the full extent of Johnstown’s economic woes, since many people, like Bill Kuchera, were abandoning the city altogether; by 1980, its population stood at 35,496, some 30,000 fewer people than had lived there just three decades earlier. Having a statesman for a congressman was no longer a luxury Johnstown could afford. “If [Murtha] wanted to stay in Washington,” G. Terry Madonna, a professor at Franklin & Marshall College and a Pennsylvania political analyst, says, “he needed to start bringing home the bacon.”
And thus began Murtha’s schizophrenic existence: geostrategic thinker in Washington, grubby pork wrangler in Johnstown. His initial attempts to be the latter were sometimes comically inept. Together with Johnstown’s business leaders, he became convinced that tourism could be the city’s new industry. “The community was already looking toward 1989, which was going to be the centennial of the great flood,” Bob Layo, the president of the Johnstown Chamber of Commerce, recalls. Alas, the $5 million Visitors Center that Murtha helped convince the National Park Service to build at the Johnstown Flood National Memorial failed to turn the city into a vacation destination.
Less amusing was Murtha’s role in the Abscam scandal. In 1980, he was caught on government surveillance tape entertaining but ultimately rejecting a $50,000 bribe from an undercover FBI agent posing as a lawyer for an Arab sheik who needed help securing a visa. “After we’ve done some business, I might change my mind,” Murtha told the agent, explaining that, by business, he meant investing in his district. “I think with a tie to the district, there’s no problem getting [the sheik’s immigration problem] taken care of. . . . I do business like this all the time to get companies into the area.” Murtha wasn’t charged in the case--and testified against two of the congressmen who were later convicted of accepting cash--but the scandal effectively ended his chances of ever joining the House leadership.
After much trial and error, in the mid-1980s, Murtha and Johnstown’s civic and business leaders finally arrived at an effective economic rescue strategy: leveraging Murtha’s position on the defense appropriations subcommittee to build a defense industry in Johnstown. For Murtha, it was a perfect solution--resolving the tension between foreign policy and local politics that had come to define his career. And it turned out to be a pretty good deal for Johnstown as well. “I remember being at some kind of party around 1983, and I met the head of economic development for the Pittsburgh region. And I said to him, ‘What would you do if you were running economic development here?’ ” recalls Mark Pasquerilla, who was then working for his father Frank, a shopping mall and hotel magnate and the richest man in Johnstown. “And he said--I remember this quote--‘I’ll tell you one thing that I would do: I’d grab onto Murtha’s coattails so tight, and I’d never let go.’ ”
One of the people who grabbed onto those coattails was Bill Kuchera. Following his stint in prison, he returned to Johnstown, where, along with his uncle and brother, he founded Kuchera Industries. The name was more impressive than the reality--an electronics repair shop that started with six employees and operated out of a garage--but, in 1993, he spun off a new company called Kuchera Defense Systems (KDS), and business began to boom. With Murtha’s assistance, KDS landed a $2.4-million “mentor-protégé” contract to produce missile and communication systems components for Hughes Aircraft (which was later bought by the defense giant Raytheon). It was the first in a series of multimillion-dollar defense deals for KDS. By 2008, Kuchera’s two companies employed about 300 people and boasted annual revenues of $50 million--much of it from congressional earmarks secured by Murtha.
The former drug runner was now a pillar of the Johnstown community. Kuchera served on nonprofit and hospital boards and sponsored the city’s symphony. His home--located on his game ranch’s 161 acres of white pine and oak trees--was close to the former site of the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club, the private resort where an earlier captain of industry, Andrew Carnegie, had been a member. And yet, despite this incredible metamorphosis, Kuchera never forgot the source of his good fortune. “Without Raytheon and without Congressman Murtha,” he told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in 2000, “there would be no Kuchera Defense.”
Now, it remains to be seen whether Kuchera Defense can survive. The January raid on his home and businesses was only the start of Kuchera’s problems. In April, the Navy suspended its contracts with KDS because of “alleged fraud,” including “multiple incidents” of incorrect charges. And, in July, a former executive with Coherent Systems International--which had partnered with KDS on a series of defense contracts worth more than $30 million--began cooperating with federal investigators and pled guilty to corruption charges, including taking $200,000 worth of kickbacks from a subcontractor identified in court documents only as “K” but whose similarities to KDS have been widely noted.
Kuchera (who, through an attorney, declined to be interviewed) has not been charged with any criminal wrongdoing. And, in August, the Navy lifted its suspension of KDS in exchange for tighter government oversight of the company’s financial operations. But, for the time being, Kuchera appears to have lost his patron: While Murtha sponsored $14.7 million in earmarks for KDS in 2007 and 2008, he directed no new money to the company in the recently passed defense appropriations bill. And, when a reporter asked Murtha about the Kuchera investigation at a May press conference, the congressman erupted: “What’s that got to do with me? What do you think? Do you think I oversee these companies? That’s the Defense Department’s job. That’s not my job.” Shortly thereafter, he ended the press conference and stormed out of the room.
Kuchera isn’t the only source of uncomfortable questions for Murtha. Another is Paul Magliocchetti. Around the time Murtha and Johnstown were embarking on their quest to turn the city into a defense-industry hub back in the 1980s, Magliocchetti, who had worked with Murtha for ten years as a staffer on the defense appropriations subcommittee, was beginning his career as a lobbyist. The timing was fortuitous for everyone involved. Johnstown’s businesses needed someone to handle the nuts and bolts of landing defense contracts, and Magliocchetti’s lobbying firm, PMA, needed clients. “Paul knows how Congress works . . . and he knows how the appropriations process works,” says Ed Sheehan, the CEO of Concurrent Technologies Corporation, which was one of roughly a dozen firms in the district to hire PMA. “What he did for the community up here was to basically explain to people what it was going to take to get into the defense industry.” Sheehan says one of Magliocchetti’s instructions couldn’t have been simpler: “You need to follow this guy, meaning Jack Murtha, and don’t ever embarrass him.”
Concurrent, more than any other defense firm in Johnstown, owes its existence to Murtha. Founded in 1987 in partnership with the University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown, the nonprofit company was originally called Metalworking Technology Inc.; its initial $27-million, five-year contract came from money Murtha had earmarked to the Navy for metalworking research. But, with the help of Murtha, Metalworking Technology soon expanded into other areas--from environmental technology to missile defense. In 1992, the company renamed itself Concurrent Technologies, and, two years later--its revenues having grown from $1.5 million to $60 million and its staff from 13 to nearly 450--ended its relationship with the University of Pittsburgh and became independent. The only things that didn’t change were its nonprofit status and its reliance on Murtha, who continued to steer millions of dollars in defense earmarks its way. When I recently visited Concurrent’s headquarters in the John P. Murtha Technology Center in Johnstown, Sheehan boasted, “We just finished our fiscal year, June 30, and we’ve done about two hundred and forty million in revenue.” The company now has 20 offices across the country--many of them located in the congressional districts of other Appropriations Committee members--and employs 1,500 people. But the majority--about 800--work in Johnstown, making it the area’s sixth-largest employer, right after Wal-Mart.
Sheehan, who worked for a defense contractor in northern Virginia before moving to Johnstown in 1989, was eager to tell me that, for the second year in a row, Concurrent had not received any earmarks from Murtha. “In the early years, obviously, the earmarks were there to help us build people and capability,” he explained. “In the last four or five years, we’ve been moving away from earmark requests . . . so most of our work is non-directed, non-earmark.” But that doesn’t mean that Concurrent competes for all of its government contracts. As a nonprofit, it’s eligible for sole-source contracts from the Pentagon. And giving business to Concurrent would seem an obvious way for the Defense Department to stay in Murtha’s good graces. “They know who butters their bread,” U.S. Representative Jeff Flake, an Arizona Republican and a leading critic of the appropriations process, told me. “They can’t risk going against the appropriators.”
Building a defense firm out of whole cloth is impressive, but Murtha’s work on behalf of another Magliocchetti client, the Windber Medical Center, may be an even greater testament to the congressman’s power--not to mention his creativity. Built in 1906 by a coal company to treat its miners, the Windber hospital, located just southeast of Johnstown, was in desperate shape by 1997, when Nick Jacobs took over as its CEO. “It was a one-hundred-and-two-bed hospital with Pepto Bismol pink walls, indoor-outdoor carpeting that was covered with duct-tape, and ‘Brady Bunch’ furniture,” Jacobs says. “Ernst & Young came in and did an analysis of the future and said, ‘It’s over, you’re going to have to close this thing down.’ ” One night, at a dinner party being thrown by one of his doctors, Jacobs happened to be seated next to Murtha, when the two began talking about heart disease--Jacobs, a heart patient himself, had been trying to institute Dean Ornish’s cardiac treatment program at Windber--and Murtha had an idea. “He said, ‘We’re spending a billion dollars a year on heart disease in the military,’ ” Jacobs recalls. “He said, ‘You know, if there’s somebody at Walter Reed Army Hospital or Bethesda Naval Hospital that’s interested in looking at this program, it might be something I could help you with.’ ” In 1998, Murtha inserted $2.5 million into the defense appropriations bill to fund Ornish programs for military personnel and their families at Walter Reed, Bethesda, and Windber. A year later, Murtha helped Windber secure a $7.5-million Defense Department grant to partner with Walter Reed on a breast-cancer research program; the new facility Windber built to house the program was named the Joyce Murtha Breast Care Center.
The Pentagon money continued to flow into Windber, which Jacobs was then able to use as a lure for additional corporate and academic partners. By the time he stepped down as CEO last December, the Windber Medical Center had doubled in staff and outpatients since his taking over. And next to the original gray stone hospital built by the coal company stood a gleaming steel-and-glass research institute. Jacobs has no illusions about who built the latter. “Do you think that if Mr. Murtha wasn’t in office that all this stuff would be here?” he asks. “I don’t think it would.”
Indeed, it seems as if just about everything in Johnstown that isn’t rust and brick bears Murtha’s fingerprints--from the Johnstown Symphony Orchestra (which is underwritten by Boeing, General Dynamics, Lockheed Martin, and Northrop Grumman, among other defense contractors) to the Starbucks where Jacobs and I met (which, as Jacobs noted, was not the sort of business that existed in Johnstown before its defense boom). “There’s more to do, there’s more arts, there’s better recreation,” Mark Pasquerilla told me when we had breakfast in the restaurant of the hotel he owns in downtown Johnstown. “Everything is better than when I was a kid. It’s more sophisticated.” His restaurant, he added, had recently won a Wine Spectator award.
For years, Magliocchetti did his part to contribute to the Johnstown economy. Even as PMA grew into one of Washington’s top lobbying shops, the company and its employees directed an inordinate amount of their civic energy toward Johnstown--sponsoring a champagne reception at the symphony’s opera festival, for instance, or donating money to a local charity that funds educational programs. Magliocchetti himself, who is originally from Pittsburgh, became a familiar figure around Johnstown, especially in the spring when the economic development group Johnstown Area Regional Industries (a PMA client) co-sponsors the annual “Showcase for Commerce.” A defense-industry trade fair held in Johnstown’s cavernous hockey arena (where Slap Shot was filmed), the Showcase draws upward of 170 companies, some from as far away as Europe and California. Many of them attend to get face time with Murtha, who makes it a point of pride to visit every booth at every Showcase.
But this past May, as Murtha made his traditional rounds at the event, Magliocchetti was nowhere to be found. The previous November, federal agents had raided PMA’s offices and Magliocchetti’s home. According to The New York Times, they were investigating whether Magliocchetti had used straw donors to make campaign contributions to members of Congress. (The Center for Responsive Politics reports that Murtha received $2.4 million of the $40 million that PMA, its employees, and its clients donated.) In March, two months before the Showcase, PMA folded.
Murtha’s office says it has not been contacted as part of the PMA probe. In May, federal authorities investigating PMA subpoenaed records from a Murtha ally, Indiana Representative Peter Visclosky. The House ethics committee is also looking into PMA’s relationships with lawmakers, including, presumably, Murtha. And there is growing concern among Democrats on Capitol Hill about what all this poking around could turn up. Some observers believe PMA has the potential to be for the Democrats what the Abramoff scandal was for the GOP. Keith Ashdown, of the non-partisan watchdog group Taxpayers for Common Sense, told The Hill in February, “It will become the majority’s Waterloo on ethics.”
John Murtha is 77 years old and he has begun to show his age. Never a polished speaker, he has become even more gruff and gaffe-prone--in 2006, deriding as “total crap” an ethics and lobbying reform bill being pushed by Democratic leaders at the same time he was running (ultimately unsuccessfully) for majority leader; and last year, in the middle of his tough reelection campaign, calling western Pennsylvania a “racist area” before apologizing and later explaining that “this whole area, years ago, was really redneck.” The scandals that now seem to swirl constantly around him have only made him appear more vulnerable, both legally and politically, with one reporter recently likening the Old Bull to a “wounded caribou.” Two Republicans, including his 2008 opponent, are running for Murtha’s seat in 2010, and he has even drawn a primary challenge. It seems possible, even likely, that Johnstown will lose Murtha as its congressman sometime in the next few years--due to electoral, judicial, or natural causes.
Yet, to hear Johnstown’s business and civic leaders tell it, that day is far away. They express an absolute certainty that Murtha has not broken any laws, owing to his honesty and integrity. They note that his great-grandmother lived well into her nineties and that, while Murtha’s father died young, it was because of alcoholism and Murtha himself does not drink. And they maintain that the scandals around Murtha have, in a way, strengthened him politically. “If anybody felt like Mr. Murtha . . . had a membership in the Washington country club, it looks to people around here like it’s certainly been revoked,” Pasquerilla says. “He looks like more of a man of the district than ever before.”
And, when that long-off day arrives and Murtha does finally exit the stage--“He would like to die in the House,” Pasquerilla told me--these men and women will be sad, but they will not be sad about Johnstown’s future. “We’ve built a very diverse economy in this region,” Ed Sheehan says. “We’ve got health care, we’ve got financial services, we have some manufacturing, we have some high-tech, applied R&D, we’ve got aerospace companies here, so we have a broad diversity.” More than one person in Johnstown told me, “We are not a mill town anymore.” But, of course, Johnstown’s diverse economy all traces back to one congressman, much the way, 50 years ago, it all traced back to Bethlehem. Once, Bethlehem’s mills in Johnstown produced steel to send to the world; now, Murtha’s mill in Washington produces federal money to send to Johnstown.
There are a handful of people in Johnstown who seem to recognize the peril the city will face once Murtha is gone. “All major corporations have succession plans, and, if you want to think about this as a business model, if Jack is the CEO of the area, what is our succession plan here?” Donato Zucco, who served as the city’s mayor in the 1990s and worked closely with Murtha during that period to rebuild the city, told me. “I don’t think we have one, and I don’t know that people are even thinking about it.” When I asked Nick Jacobs what he thought the impact of Murtha’s eventual departure would be, he paused for a moment, as if he were trying to calibrate what he was about to say, before replying: “I think it will be worse than the Johnstown Flood.”
Of the city’s three catastrophic floods, only the first is typically referred to as the Johnstown Flood. It occurred on May 31, 1889, when an earthen dam at the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club--not far from where, more than a century later, Bill Kuchera would build his LBK Game Ranch--burst after a heavy rainstorm, causing a wall of water to rush down from the mountains and into the city below. The flood killed more than 2,000 residents. For years after, people around the country marveled at how such an obvious danger--a giant mountaintop reservoir created by an earthen dam located just above a city--could have been tolerated. As David McCullough writes in The Johnstown Flood, it appeared “that Johnstown’s leading citizens had taken little or no intelligent account of the threat the dam posed.” But, as McCullough goes on to note, there were at least two Johnstown men who did. In November 1880, after one of them traveled up to the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club to inspect the dam, the men wrote to the club’s president that the structure was in need of serious repair work. On December 2, the president responded, dismissing their concerns. “[Y]ou and your people are in no danger from our enterprise,” he wrote. Eight years later came the deluge.
Jason Zengerle is a senior editor at The New Republic.