Good Life

12 questions with author and historian Becky Buchko

Tree in house
Tree in house

Who said that history had to be dry?

Author and historian Becky Buchko has been knee deep in the waters of the 1889 Johnstown Flood for almost 14 years and it doesn’t seem like she’ll be seeking higher ground any time soon.

Her research into the failure of the South Fork dam, a tragedy that unleashed 20,000,000 tons of water onto Johnstown and killed more than 2,000 people, will form the backdrop of her upcoming series of books, a yarn of historical fiction that centers on the friendship between two young girls.

Before she could get to any of that, though, Buchko first had to address some discrepancies she found in the flood’s official victim list, an investigation that ended up spawning a different and altogether unexpected tome, the “1889 Johnstown Flood Victim List.”

Recently, the author talked about the extent of her research and her upcoming slate of books.

Q: What is your background as a historian?

A: My interest in Johnstown history began as a child looking up at buildings at the faded business names and wondering what life was like when those signs were freshly painted.

For many years each May 31 all of the local attractions about the Johnstown floods were free and we visited each. As my daughters grew, I took them, too. I’ve always felt that to know who you are you must first know where you come from. Johnstown’s historic floods are a vital part of that.

Q: What has been the most interesting aspect of working as a historian in western Pennsylvania?

A: Our state was pivotal in the coal and steel industries. We were a destination for people immigrating into this country. For a very long time, Johnstown was a progressive and wealthy town. It had sidewalks, gas streetlights, gas-lit stores and magnificent hotels long before other towns. Johnstown’s residents had plenty of jobs if they wanted them at Cambria Iron Works.

What fascinates me is realizing the true story of how history happened when you put together a variety of sources. There is much to be discovered on the Internet but nothing compares to holding the original document, researching on the street where the flood occurred or talking to descendants of survivors.

Reading vintage newspapers is something I suggest. It gives you a glimpse into history that you won’t experience elsewhere.

Q: Have there been many surprises?

A: There have been a lot of surprises, actually. Finding so many discrepancies in the Flood Victim List was a huge one for me. Discovering my greatgrandmother was a chambermaid at the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club was another.

One of the biggest surprises was discovering that my editor and friend of many years who lives in Australia is a descendant of Louis Semple Clarke, the photographer of the SFFHC.

Q: How long have you been circling the Johnstown Flood?

A: I began researching the 1889 Johnstown Flood in earnest in 2001 with the 1889 Johnstown City Directory. After looking at the photos in several more books on the flood and realizing how much devastation there was I needed to know more.

Q: What appealed to you about that episode of local history as a subject for a book?

A: On May 31, 1889, the residents of Johnstown were busily moving furniture and belongings up to their second floors so they wouldn’t get wet because the streets once again were flooded. Some were sitting down to eat, perhaps. Ten minutes later they were dead and the town was all but obliterated. I wanted to know why. How did this happen? Could it have been prevented? Surely it couldn’t have been about greed.

Q: The research process for something like this must be extensive. Where did you find your sources?

A: I have taken information from the original morgue lists, various newspapers, cemetery records, survivor stories, the census, official records, city directories, books on the event, family histories and so much more. For a name to appear in this book, it has to appear in two separate sources.

Q: You’ve spoken to the family and descendants of flood victims. What does their perspective or insight add to a project such as this?

A: The tales of the flood that descendants share with me make it all so real, so personal. They are not just a name on a list, they are people who had families, jobs, homes, pets. They were not so different than we are today, and they each deserve to be recognized.

Q: How long did it take before you were ready to begin writing?

A: I began the research in 2001 and began writing “Kate and Ellie and the Great Johnstown Flood” in 2010. I was also working on other projects at the same time and raised two daughters as a single parent.

I took time out to finish a novel in a different genre then came back to Kate and Ellie.

Q: Did you enter the project with a specific focus or thesis in mind?

A: The “1889 Johnstown Flood Victim List” wasn’t a book that I set out to write. My goal was to write a book for young adults called “Ellie and Kate and the Great Johnstown Flood.” The main characters are a rich child with paralysis (polio) whose family belong to the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club and a poor child from Johnstown whose mother works at the SFFHC Clubhouse.

The tale was to be about their friendship and how it changed as the events of 1888 and 1889 came into play. In my research I discovered one book would not be enough, and the 1889 Johnstown Flood Series was born. Three books, “Ellie and Kate and the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club,” “Ellie and Kate and the Great Johnstown Flood” and a yet to be named third book will make up that series.

Of that series “Ellie and Kate and the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club” is set to be released in time for Christmas.

Q: Did any of that change as your research continued?

A: Yes. As I researched victim names and family tales for the original book I kept uncovering discrepancies in the Official Victim List. It is important to me that my books be as historically accurate as possible, and ultimately I plan to write a novel on the flood so I stopped writing. I searched for a better list but it didn’t exist, so I compiled one.

Q: Is it challenging to have to readjust your thinking mid-project?

A: This project is constantly evolving. It does become challenging, however, because an author does not make money until the book sells. So I decided to put the Flood Victim List out as a book. By listing the victims in families it will also show a truer picture of the personal devastation some people faced.

Q: How did you proceed once you discovered the discrepancies with the official victim list that had been accepted for the past 125 years?

A: I tried several different ways to fix the official victim list so I could continue with Kate and Ellie’s tale. I added new names, took off wrong ones. I tried starting off with the 1889 City Directory and removing those that I knew survived.

Finally I started over from scratch. Once I announced the book for sale I began getting emails and messages from people whose family members were either not on the list or who were wrongly identified.

Those interested in pre-ordering a copy of the “1889 Johnstown Flood Victim List” can contact the author at 1889JohnstownFlood@ gmail.com.

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