Pennsylvania Memories is a special series marking the turn of the millennium featuring readers' memories of events, experiences, incidents, individuals, innovations or inventions that profoundly affected them or gave them a deep appreciation of personal history.

Living and working in Hummelstown, only five miles from Middletown, the home of Three Mile Island (TMI) and it nuclear power plant, I listened anxiously as the radio announcer warned of a radiation emission or leak from the plant (see “From Chaos to Calm: Remembering the Three Mile Island Crisis, An Interview with Harold Denton” by Kenneth C. Wolensky, Spring 2000). Windows were to be closed and young children and pregnant mothers were to stay inside. I felt vulnerable since the ventilation systems at my workplace, a lollipop factory, required open windows.

Although news reports were often vague and conflicting, as the weekend approached news dips hinted of worsening conditions at TMI. Announcements were made of proposed evacuations and school closings. Late on Friday afternoon, March 29, 1979, my mother called and advised me to leave town. I obliged, quickly packed a few things, and returned
that evening to my family’s home about fifty miles to the west, near Newville.

I spent Saturday working at the Perry Historians, and the news from TMI seemed distant and non­threatening. Nevertheless, my sister, her husband, and their one-year-old son also returned home from Dillsburg.

On Sunday morning the news reports concerning Three Mile Island appeared more ominous than ever. Consequently, there were discussions among family members whether we should call distant relatives near Peoria, Illinois, and travel there to be safe in case of an actual meltdown of the nuclear reactor. Another option was to board up the basement windows and take shelter there. That afternoon to escape the tension, I took a drive. I ended up at the top of North Mountain at Doubling Gap. Here I could view the Cumberland Valley on one side, and Henry’s Valley on the other. I could see through the leafless trees the hills and alleys my ancestors had cher­ished since the eighteenth century.

Questions began swirling in my head. What if there was a nuclear meltdown? How long would we live? Would we have to watch our family members die in agony? My youngest sister was only twelve. She’d miss so much in life. If we did escape with our lives, there would be no returning to the land we loved. It would be hard to leave this area forever. I decided it was not safe to return to Hummelstown yet, so Sunday night was spent at home. The news reports on Monday showed little promise that the situation at TMI was improving.

In the afternoon I ventured back to Hummelstown to retrieve cherished possessions. What are the most important things to carry with you? I ended up taking some history books, some of my family writings, and a prized stoneware jug.

Tuesday morning I rose early and traveled hesitantly back to work in Hummelstown. Although the situation at TMI remained uncertain, I stayed in town that night. Much of the uncertainty was due to the fact that, in my mind, the utility company had lost all credibility. Although it would be some time before I would again feel safe in Hummelstown, the experience had yielded benefits. I had learned how fragile all of life can be, and my appreciation grew for my family and the bountiful Pennsylvania countryside where my ancestors had lived, worked, and died.


Jerry A. Clouse of Hummelstown, Dauphin County, is a native of Cumberland County. A graduate of the University of Kentucky at Lexington, he received his master’s of arts degree from Penn State Harrisburg. He is currently serving as a historic structures consultant for McCormick, Taylor and Associates, Harrisburg. A former staff member of the PHMC’s Bureau for Historic Preservation, Clouse is the author of The Whiskey Rebellion: Southwestern Pennsylvania Frontier People Test the American Constitution, published by the PHMC in 1993. His article entitled “The Whiskey Boys Versus the Watermelon Army” appeared in the Spring 1991 issue of Pennsylvania Heritage. With Kate Kauffman, he wrote “Watts’ Folly,” which appeared in the Fall 1989 edition of this magazine. His interests include researching local and regional history, and he is a founder of the Perry Historians in Newport, a genealogical and reference library, and the co-author of Perry County: A Pictori­al History. He is especially interested in antique stoneware, made, used, or owned by central Pennsylvanians.