“The question is not what you look at, but what you see.” - Henry David Thoreau
A river watered a garden, and it was paradise. It was so at the beginning of time, and could it be that a remnant of Eden-like bliss still remains to this day when we reside on the water? Many of our leisure moments center around bodies of water -- at a cabin, a vacation rental home, or a lakeside walk. I’ve heard it said there are no cranky people on the water. People smile and wave as they pass you in a boat.
I picture water-skiing, boating, and kayaking whenever I pass the former Lake Shady of Oronoco, north of Rochester. At various times it was a thriving body of water; now all that remains is a small river running through a mostly dry wildlife basin.
The current empty basin brings to mind another landscape, now devoid of water. It is the site of former Lake Conemaugh above Johnstown, Pennsylvania; today there is a field where once there was water.
It too was a place of activity in bygone times. Sixteen cottages and a clubhouse lined its lakeshore, while 15 cottages and a resort hotel surrounded Lake Shady. Near Shady there was also a dance pavilion, riding stables, outdoor theater, bowling. Other activities included ice skating and fishing and rowboats to rent. It was not unlike recreation at Lake Conemaugh. Here there was canoeing, picnicking, musical entertainment, and hunting and fishing.
A lake in the clouds, and sailboats in the mountains -- this was dream-like to the locals around Johnstown who only heard stories about the South Fork Hunting and Fishing Club. It was for the elite, made up of industrialists such as Andrew Carnegie, a summer idyll for the wealthy, much like Lake Shady had been for the Mayos, Plummers, and Kahlers.
On Easter 1923, a flash flood broke Lake Shady’s dam. The water quickly drained; cottages now overlooked mud. This was not the first or last dam to break on Lake Shady, and recreation would come and go in later times.
It was on another holiday, Memorial Day, 1889, that the faulty dike holding back Lake Conemaugh gave way at the resort, after heavy rains. Cottages overlooking mudflats were the least of the problems. The lake had been three miles long and over one mile wide. Twenty million tons of water, roughly the amount that goes over Niagara Falls in 36 minutes, thundered 12 to 14 miles down hills and mountains above Johnstown and annihilated the town at the bottom. It demolished mountain villages in its path and swept away people and massive amounts of debris. More than 2,200 lives were lost in one of worst disasters in U.S. history. But the sobering flood facts are another story.
The lake basin has remained empty ever since. I marvel at pictures of what once was and is now, the incredible contrasts and reversals, rearranged landscapes and realities, the hidden histories. In some ways like Lake Shady.
There is a reservoir near my home I rediscovered during the COVID-19 lockdown; it was a new and happy place to venture around. A world all its own. I view the beauty of cloud and sky reflections as I walk atop the earthen dam. And I imagine one of greater proportion, from another time. But here, in Rochester, the water remains.
The next time you gaze across your favorite body of water, I hope you see glimpses and glimmers of the heavens above -- and your smiling face reflected on the water.
Angela Kom has a husband, three adult children, a teenager, and much loved grand-doggy that visits often. She enjoys nature jaunts and jottings, and taking oodles of photos, all of which are inspiration for painting, artistic endeavors, and writing. Send comments on columns to Jeff Pieters, email@example.com.