For Ages
12 to 99

Sixteen-Year-Old Celstia spends every summer with her family at the elite resort at Lake Conemaugh, a shimmering Allegheny Mountain reservoir held in place by an earthen dam. Tired of the society crowd, Celestia prefers to swim and fish with Peter, the hotel’s hired boy. It’s a friendship she must keep secret, and when companionship turns to romance, it’s a love that could get Celestia disowned. These affairs of the heart become all the more wrenching on a single, tragic day in May, 1889. After days of heavy rain, the dam fails, unleashing 20 million tons of water onto Johnstown, Pennsylvania, in the valley below. The town where Peter lives with his father. The town where Celestia has just arrived to join him. This searing novel in poems explores a cross-class romance—and a tragic event in U. S. history.

An Excerpt fromThree Rivers Rising

South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club
Lake Conemaugh 

Father says he comes for the fishing,
but in truth he comes to keep an eye
on other businessmen.
I have never seen him hook
a worm or tie a fly.
I cannot imagine him gutting a fish
or scraping scales.
The only scales he knows
are for banking and shipping.
But his partners and rivals decided
it was time for fresh air,
peace and quiet,
away from the filth and crowds of the city.
So, even at this pastoral lakeside resort,
my father will not miss  
the glimmer of a business deal
spoken over rifles or fishing reels.  

Mother likes the sociability of the other ladies
though they cut her with their tongues.
She does not always follow their jokes
but laughs along.
The gentlemen come to hunt animals;
the ladies come to hunt other ladies
of a weaker sort.  

Estrella shines--
glossy dark eyelashes
and smooth pink cheeks.
My parents' favorite,
and, at nineteen, my senior by three years.
She starts each day in a steamer chair
with plaid blankets and a book.
She plays the part of the lovesick sweetheart--
her beau, Charles, learns the family business
back home in Pittsburgh--
but her natural buoyancy is not long repressed.
Fun always knows where to find her.
Just now, an errant croquet ball rolls under her chair.
She laughs and runs to the game,
the dappled sunlight,
and the jovial golden boys.
Handsome Frederick
meets her halfway,
extending his arm.
Frederick with his shock of blond hair,
broad shoulders,
and skin glowing with health . . .
Poor old Charles
with his consumptive cough
better arrive soon
if he wants to find his intended still betrothed.
He cannot compete with the gaiety
and romance of our sparkling little lake in the mountains.  

Now about me--
if I am not the fun-loving beauty,
then I must be the serious one,
the one who would toss the croquet ball back,
wave and sigh,
but be infinitely more fascinated
with my book
than with the superficial cheer
of the society crowd.
The one who gets the joke
but does not tolerate it.
The one who baits the hook
and guts the fish
with Peter,
the hired boy.      


Papa says, "It's unnatural--
lakes weren't meant to be
so high in the mountains,
up over all our heads.
Rich folks think
they know better than God
where a lake oughta be."  

He's talking about South Fork Reservoir,
miles of icy creek water
held in place above our valley
by a seventy-foot earthen dam.  

The owners call it Lake Conemaugh.
They raised it up from a puddle,
built fancy-trim houses all in a row
and a big clubhouse on the shore,
stocked it with fish,
and now they bring their families in from Pittsburgh
every summer season.
Most of them stay in the clubhouse,
like an oversized hotel
with wide hallways,
a huge dining room,
and a long front porch
across the whole thing.
Dozens of windows, too,
so every room has a view
of the reservoir--
I mean, the lake.  

Papa says, "They can't stack up enough money
against all that water."  

"Oh, Papa." I wave off the idea.
Everybody in Johnstown
kids each other about the dam breaking.
We laugh because it always holds.
Papa says we're laughing off our fear.
Folks think he's something of a crank
for always bringing it up.  

I don't say anything more--
at least until I can think how to tell him
the sportsmen's club
up at the reservoir
is my new boss.    


Papa says, "Don't go up there.
Being around all those rich folks'll only give you ideas
of things you can't have."  

He looks at Mama's picture.
I know he's thinking of ideas she had
for things he couldn't give her.
That was before she went to rest underground
in the cemetery on the hill.  

Papa works underground
in a different hill,
digging coal for the Cambria Iron Works.
Papa says the mines are graveyards, too,
only without the resting and the peace.
His tears are black
and his cough is black.  

I try not to smile. "I bet I won't hardly see
any rich folks,
they'll have me working so hard,
and pruning
and lugging stuff around."
I see him considering
but I pretend to give in.
"Oh, okay, Papa, I'll just come to work with you, then.
Ask the foreman to find me a spot on the line."
He shakes his head,
coughing over his grumbling.
"No, you go up where the air is clean."
We both know,
now that I've turned sixteen,
I'll be in the mills soon enough,
putting in ten-hour days or more
on the Iron Works payroll.
Why not have one last summer of sun and fish?

Under the Cover