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Johnstown Flood

Johnstown Flood

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Johnstown Flood

4.5/5 (50 évaluations)
492 pages
7 heures
May 31, 2007


Written by Scribd Editors

Critically acclaimed and bestselling author David McCullough, who has twice received the Pulitzer Prize and twice received the National Book Award, offers readers a stunning must read of American history in this nonfiction look at natural disasters.

Jonestown Flood, told in the master historian McCullough signature clear, unflinching report, starts at the end of the nineteenth century where Johnstown, Pennsylvania was a booming coal-and-steel town filled with hardworking families striving for a piece of the nation's burgeoning industrial prosperity. In the mountains above Johnstown, an old earth dam had been hastily rebuilt to create a lake for an exclusive summer resort patronized by the tycoons of that same industrial prosperity, among them Andrew Carnegie, Henry Clay Frick, and Andrew Mellon.

Despite repeated warnings of possible danger, nothing was done about the dam. Then came May 31, 1889, when the dam burst, sending a wall of water thundering down the mountain, smashing through Johnstown, and killing more than 2,000 people. It was a tragedy that became a national scandal.

Graced by McCullough's remarkable gift for writing richly textured, sympathetic social history, The Johnstown Flood is an absorbing, classic portrait of life in nineteenth-century America, of overweening confidence, of energy, and of tragedy.

May 31, 2007

À propos de l'auteur

David McCullough has twice received the Pulitzer Prize, for Truman and John Adams, and twice received the National Book Award, for The Path Between the Seas and Mornings on Horseback. His other acclaimed books include The Johnstown Flood, The Great Bridge, Brave Companions, 1776, The Greater Journey, The American Spirit, and The Wright Brothers. He is the recipient of numerous honors and awards, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian award. Visit DavidMcCullough.com.

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Aperçu du livre

Johnstown Flood - David McCullough



The Path of the Flood - Map

Pennsylvania - Map


List of Illustrations



I. The sky was red

II. Sailboats on the mountain

III. There’s a man came from the lake.

IV. Rush of the torrent

V. Run for your lives!

VI. A message from Mr. Pitcairn

VII. In the valley of death

VIII. No pen can describe . . .

IX. Our misery is the work of man.


About David McCullough

List of Victims



For Rosalee


The material for this book was gathered from the files of newspapers, from unpublished reminiscences, from letters and diaries, from Johnstown Flood histories that were best sellers in their day and from books and pamphlets that were privately printed, from court records, engineering reports, local histories, and rare old maps, from old photographs, and from hours of taped conversations with survivors of the Johnstown Flood.

A bibliography is included at the back of the book, but I want to acknowledge my indebtedness to four works in particular: J. J. McLaurin’s The Story of Johnstown, which for all its Victorian embellishments and inaccuracies is the finest by far of the books gotten up by journalists in 1889; The Reverend David J. Beale’s Through the Johnstown Flood, in many ways the best book on the flood and unquestionably the best-written and most reliable of accounts by survivors; A History of Johnstown and the Great Flood of 1889: A Study of Disaster and Rehabilitation, which is a doctoral thesis written by the late Nathan D. Shappee and the only scholarly study of the disaster; and a recently discovered transcription of testimony taken by the Pennsylvania Railroad during the summer of 1889, which has been invaluable. (Most of the dialogue in Chapters 3 and 4, for example, has been taken directly from this transcription, which, in all, runs to nearly 500 typewritten pages, and no part of which has been previously published.)

I very gratefully acknowledge my debt to the following flood survivors who kindly gave me so much of their time to talk about their experiences, some of whom have since passed on: Mrs. Kate Miltenberger, Mr. and Mrs. Harry Hesselbein, and David Fetterman, all of Johnstown; U. Ed Schwartzentruver of South Fork; Mrs. Gertrude Quinn Slattery of Wilkes-Barre, who also read the manuscript; and Dr. Victor Heiser of New York, who, in addition to vivid descriptions of his own experiences, supplied wonderful insights into the Johnstown of the 1880’s, and who read the manuscript.

I am grateful also to the two Johnstown ladies, both survivors, who shared memories of their illustrious family, but who asked that I not mention their names.

I wish to thank too the many others in Johnstown who were helpful, and especially the following: Irving London, who led me to the Pennsylvania Railroad testimony and who made available his extraordinary collection of flood photographs; Harold Strayer; Gustaf Hultman of the National Park Service; Elit Felix; Walter Krebs, president of the Johnstown Tribune-Democrat, who made available the paper’s reference library and files; Don Matthews, Jr., also of the Tribune-Democrat, who made numerous helpful suggestions; Frank Dell and Ron Stephenson of Station WJAC; the City Clerk’s office; and the staff of the Cambria Public Library.

In addition, I am much indebted to Edna Lehman, who made available important documentary material at the Cambria County Historical Society at Ebensburg; to the late Robert Heppenstall of Pittsburgh, for information on his father’s heroic action; to Mrs. John E. Hannon, Sr., of Detroit, who wrote to me at length about her grandfather, W. Horace Rose; to Mrs. Bernard McGuire of Cresson, who let me borrow a diary kept by her grandfather, Isador Lilly of Ebensburg; to Dr. Philip Bishop, Dr. John White, and Donald Berkebile of the Smithsonian Institution; to Mr. and Mrs. Fred Livengood, Sr., of Somerset; to the late Mrs. O. C. Gaub of Pittsburgh; to Evan Stineman of South Fork; and to Al Danel of St. Michael, Pennsylvania.

Also I wish to express my gratitude for the facilities offered by the staff of the Pennsylvania Room at the Carnegie Library, Pittsburgh; the Allegheny County Court of Claims, Pittsburgh; the Local History and Genealogy Room at the New York Public Library; the New York Historical Society; the Library of Congress; the University of Pennsylvania; the University of Pittsburgh; the Yale University Library; the White Plains Public Library; and the Boston Public Library.

And for their suggestions and encouragement I wish finally to thank Walter McQuade, Walter Lord, Roger Butterfield, David Plowden, Heywood Broun, Jr., David Allison, Frank Fogarty, James Morrison, Royall O’Brien, Charles T. Siebert, Jr.; Audre Proctor, who typed the manuscript; my mother and father; and my wife, Rosalee.

D. McC.

List of Illustrations

Map of Johnstown at time of Civil War

View of South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club

Moorhead house

John G. Parke, Jr.

Remains of South Fork dam

Andrew Carnegie

Henry Clay Frick

Philander C. Knox

Robert Pitcairn

Daniel J. Morrell

John Fulton

Tom L. Johnson

Captain Bill Jones

Two views of Johnstown—before and after the flood

Wreckage near the Methodist church

Schultz house

Debris and corpse

Devastation in lower Johnstown

Pennsylvania Railroad bridge

View of the Point

Gertrude Quinn

Victor Heiser

Richard Harding Davis

Clara Barton

Survivors of the flood

Relief rations

Adams Street schoolhouse—temporary morgue

The broken dam

Relief commissary

Searching among the dead

Happy reunions

Lynch law

Grandview Cemetery

We are creatures of the moment; we live from one little space to another; and only one interest at a time fills these.

—William Dean Howells

in A Hazard of New Fortunes, 1889.


Half a century ago this year, Simon & Schuster published my first effort as an author, a book that, I am proud to say, has never gone out of print and that Simon & Schuster, still my publisher, has honored with this anniversary edition.

When I think of the circumstances by which the book came to be so long ago, I cannot help but feel more than ever a sense of genuine amazement.

The year was 1961. A set of old photographs lay spread out on a large table before me in the Prints and Photographs Division of the Library of Congress, and I stopped to look. They were, I was told, taken by a photographer who managed to climb over the mountains of western Pennsylvania down into what remained of Johnstown within a day or so after the terrible flood of 1889 hit that city.

I was new to doing research at the Library, new to working with old photographs, but the devastation I saw on the table stopped me in my tracks.

I was twenty-seven and just getting started in a new job. Until then, since finishing college, I had been working for Time and Life magazines in New York. But when President John F. Kennedy called on us to do something for our country, I took it quite to heart, quit my job, and went to Washington to serve as the editor of a magazine published by the U.S. Information Agency for the Arab world. My visit to the Library was to see what photographic material might be available there of the kind I needed for the magazine.

At that point I knew next to nothing about what had happened at Johnstown, even though I had grown up not far away in Pittsburgh. About all I knew was that at dinner my brothers and I loved to make lakes of gravy in the mashed potatoes, then break through the potatoes with our forks.As the gravy flowed down among the peas, we would call out, the Johnstown Flood! Evidently we were aware that a dam had broken. But why or what the consequences were, we had no idea.

In one of the old photographs a two-story house has been thrown upside down and skewered by a large, uprooted tree. In another is what appears to be a dead body—but was almost certainly someone posed for effect—amid wreckage as far as one can see.

So many questions were running through my mind at the time and for days afterward that I took a book out of the public library on the subject to learn more about what happened and why, only to be disappointed. For one thing, the author did not seem to understand the geography of western Pennsylvania; that at least I did know. I found another book, but it was even less satisfactory, a potboiler written at the time of the flood and filled with a good deal of obvious nonsense.

I had thought about being a writer since grade school and worked hard at writing all through high school and college, imagining the day when I might become a playwright or novelist. But the prospect of writing history had not entered my mind.

As an English major at Yale, I had been particularly taken by the plays and novels of the American master Thornton Wilder, a Yale graduate who lived near New Haven and was a familiar figure on campus. When asked how he settled on subjects of his plays and novels, he said he would imagine a story he would love to see performed on stage or to read in a book; if, after checking around, he found no one had written what he was looking for, he would write it himself, so he could see it performed or read it.

So at some point, I asked myself if the book I wished I could read about what happened at Johnstown did not exist, why not write it so I could read it?

And though it would be a while before I could get started on my Johnstown project, the pull of the idea never lessened.

Following President Kennedy’s death, I returned to New York to join the American Heritage Publishing Company as the editor of a large picture history of World War II, and it was then that I signed a contract with Simon & Schuster. At night and over weekends I began working on the book.

A second-floor bedroom in our home in White Plains became my office, and as a way of affirming the seriousness of my intentions, I purchased a full-size typewriter to take the place of my college portable. The machine was a second-hand, twenty-five-year-old Royal, for which I paid $25, and it was to prove of immeasurable importance to me. Not only did it see me through numerous drafts of my new book but also every book of mine to follow. And there is still not a thing wrong with it!

There was such a lot I did not know about my subject, such a lot I had still to learn not only about what happened and why and to whom, but about how one went about historic research, how to make the best use of library and archival collections, and the vital importance of librarians in finding what one hopes to find. It was like working on a detective case or finding your way in a land where you have never set foot before. And green though I was to the process, I loved it all from the start.

Working one day at the New York Public Library, hoping to locate biographical material on some of the more notable figures in the rise of the Johnstown steel industry, I found myself getting nowhere. When I went up to the front desk to explain my problem to the librarian on duty, he asked, Have you looked in the DAB? Oh, no, I hadn’t thought of that, I said and went back to my work table, asking myself what in the world is the DAB? So, swallowing my pride, I returned to the front desk to confess my ignorance. "The Dictionary of American Biography," he told me and pointed to a complete set of the twenty-some volumes lining a shelf right beside where I was sitting.

During vacations from my job at American Heritage, I would go off to Johnstown to do research at the local library and in the local newspaper files and to interview a number of survivors of the disaster who were still living in the area and who contributed much of value. Other survivors I tracked down elsewhere. There was Gertrude Quinn Slattery of Wilkes-Barre, for example, whose hair-raising childhood experience in the flood was like no other, and Dr. Victor Heiser, a renowned New York physician who had been sixteen in 1889 and remembered much about life in Johnstown at the time and much that happened during and after the disaster in remarkable detail.

While getting underway with the research, I was quite concerned about telling too many people what I was up to, for fear someone else might decide to jump in and do such a book himself. But I soon came to realize that far better would be to tell as many people as possible, with the understanding that I never could tell who might know something of particular importance or value to me. A wonderful example was Irving London, the owner of a Johnstown camera shop, who, because of his own fascination with the flood, had in his possession a highly revealing transcript of testimony taken by the Pennsylvania Railroad of its employees and their involvement in what happened. It would have been thrown away in the trash had he not intervened and saved it.

As work on the book stretched on, and I was well underway with the writing, I became sufficiently comfortable in my subject to be able to talk about it with some of my academic friends, who almost invariably would ask, What’s your theme? But I had no theme as yet, so to satisfy them I would make something up, whereas in truth I was concentrating on getting things right about my subject and its cast of characters and telling their story. My theme or themes would eventually come to me only that way, I felt certain.

At the beginning of the work, I had thought the best procedure would be to do all the research necessary, then write the book. Quite soon I had come to realize that, for me at least, it was best not to put off the writing, but rather to begin sooner than later, because it is then, in the writing, that you begin to see more clearly what you don’t know and need to find out.

Another lesson learned from the experience was the wonderful realization that curiosity, like gravity, is accelerative. The more you know, the more you want to know. So the research went on right to the end.

And, yes, it was then, when writing the final pages that the theme became quite clear to me—that it is extremely dangerous, very possibly even disastrous, to assume that because people are in positions of responsibility, they are therefore behaving responsibly.

As one comes to understand what happened, all that was ignored by so many before the dam at South Fork broke, one also comes to understand that the whole calamity and its horrific toll in human life need never have happened.

Today, the lessons to be learned from the Johnstown Flood are more relevant than ever. Indifference to or ignorance of the realities of nature, in combination with inexcusable irresponsibility, not only continue but on even larger scales, as do the inevitable consequences we are left to face.

One of the most important of all the many lessons to be learned from history is to learn from our mistakes.


The sky was red


Again that morning there had been a bright frost in the hollow below the dam, and the sun was not up long before storm clouds rolled in from the southeast.

By late afternoon a sharp, gusty wind was blowing down from the mountains, flattening the long grass along the lakeshore and kicking up tiny whitecaps out in the center of the lake. The big oaks and giant hemlocks, the hickories and black birch and sugar maples that crowded the hillside behind the summer colony began tossing back and forth, creaking and groaning. Broken branches and young leaves whipped through the air, and at the immense frame clubhouse that stood at the water’s edge, halfway among the cottages, blue wood smoke trailed from great brick chimneys and vanished in fast swirls, almost as though the whole building, like a splendid yellow ark, were under steam, heading into the wind.

The colony was known as the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club. It was a private summer resort located on the western shore of a mountain lake in Cambria County, Pennsylvania, about halfway between the crest of the Allegheny range and the city of Johnstown. On the afternoon of Thursday, May 30, Memorial Day, 1889, the club was not quite ten years old, but with its gaily painted buildings, its neat lawns and well-tended flower beds, it looked spanking new and, in the gray, stormy half-light, slightly out of season.

In three weeks, when the summer season was to start, something like 200 guests were expected. Now the place looked practically deserted. The only people about were a few employees who lived at the clubhouse and some half dozen members who had come up from Pittsburgh for the holiday. D. W. C. Bidwell was there; so were the young Clarke brothers, J. J. Lawrence, and several of the Sheas and Irwins. Every now and then a cottage door slammed, voices called back and forth from the boathouses. Then there would be silence again, except for the sound of the wind.

Sometime not long after dark, it may have been about eight thirty, a young man stepped out onto the long front porch at the clubhouse and walked to the railing to take a look at the weather. His name was John G. Parke, Jr. He was clean-shaven, slight of build, and rather aristocratic-looking. He was the nephew and namesake of General John G. Parke, then superintendent of West Point. But young Parke was a rare item in his own right for that part of the country; he was a college man, having finished three years of civil engineering at the University of Pennsylvania. For the present he was employed by the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club as the so-called resident engineer. He had been on the job just short of three months, seeing to general repairs, looking after the dam, and supervising a crew of some twenty Italian laborers who had been hired to install a new indoor plumbing system, and who were now camped out of sight, back in the woods.

In the pitch dark he could hardly see a thing, so he stepped down the porch stairs and went a short distance along the boardwalk that led through the trees to the cottages. The walk, he noticed, was slightly damp. Apparently, a fine rain had fallen sometime while he was inside having his supper. He also noticed that though the wind was still up, the sky overhead was not so dark as before; indeed, it seemed to be clearing off some. This was not what he had expected. Windstorms on the mountain nearly always meant a heavy downpour almost immediately after—thunder-gusts the local men called them. Parke had been through several already in the time he had been at the lake and knew what to expect.

It would be as though the whole sky were laying siege to the burly landscape. The rain would drum down like an unyielding river. Lightning would flash blue-white, again and again across the sky, and thunderclaps would boom back and forth down the valley like a cannonade, rattling every window along the lakeshore.

Then, almost as suddenly as it had started, the siege would lift, and silent, milky steam would rise from the surface of the water and the rank smell of the sodden forest floor would hang on in the air for hours.

Tonight, however, it appeared there was to be no storm. Parke turned and walked back inside. About nine-thirty he went upstairs, climbed into bed, and went to sleep.

About an hour and a half later, very near eleven, the rain began. It came slamming through the blackness in huge wind-driven sheets, beating against the clubhouse, the tossing trees, the lake, and the dark, untamed country that stretched off in every direction for miles and miles.

The storm had started out of Kansas and Nebraska, two days before, on May 28. The following day there had been hard rains in Kansas, Missouri, Illinois, Michigan, Indiana, Kentucky, and Tennessee. Trains had been delayed, roads washed out. In Kansas, along the Cottonwood River, a dozen farms had been flattened by tornado-force winds and several people had been killed. In northern Michigan and parts of Indiana there had been sudden snow squalls. Warnings had been telegraphed east. On the night of the 29th the U.S. Signal Service issued notices that the Middle Atlantic states were in for severe local storms. On the morning of May 30 all stations in the area reported threatening weather.

When the storm struck western Pennsylvania it was the worst downpour that had ever been recorded for that section of the country. The Signal Service called it the most extensive rainfall of the century for so large an area and estimated that from six to eight inches of rain fell in twenty-four hours over nearly the entire central section. On the mountains there were places where the fall was ten inches.

But, at the same time, there were astonishing disparities between the amount of rainfall at places within less than a hundred-mile radius. At the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club, for example, a pail left outside overnight would have five inches of water in it the next morning when the rain was still coming down. The total rainfall at the clubhouse would be somewhere near seven inches. In Pittsburgh, just sixty-five miles to the west as the crow flies, the total rainfall would be only one and a half inches.

But as the storm beat down on the mountain that night, John G. Parke, Jr., who would turn twenty-three in less than a month, slept on, never hearing a thing.


Most of the holiday crowds were back from the cemetery by the time the rain began Thursday afternoon. It had been the customary sort of Memorial Day in Johnstown, despite the weather.

People had been gathering along Main Street since noon. With the stores closed until six, with school out, and the men off from the mills, it looked as though the whole town was turning out. Visitors were everywhere, in by special trains from Somerset, Altoona, and other neighboring towns. The Ancient Order of Hibernians, a stalwart, vigorous looking body of men, as the Johnstown Tribune described them, was stopping over for its annual state convention. Hotels were full and the forty-odd saloons in Johnstown proper were doing a brisk business.

The Reverend H. L. Chapman, who lived two doors off Main, in the new Methodist parsonage facing the park, later wrote, The morning was delightful, the city was in its gayest mood, with flags, banners and flowers everywhere . . . we could see almost everything of interest from our porch. The streets were more crowded than we had ever seen before.

The parade, late starting as always, got under way about two-thirty, marched up Main, past the Morrell place, on by the Presbyterian Church and the park, clear to Bedford Street. There it turned south and headed out along the river to Sandy Vale, where the war dead were buried. The fire department marched, the Morrellville Odd Fellows, the Austrian Music Society, the Hornerstown Drum Corps, the Grand Army Veterans, and the Sons of Veterans, and half a dozen or more other groups of various shapes and sizes, every one of them getting a big cheer, and especially the Grand Army men, several of whom were beginning to look as though the three-mile tramp was a little more than they were up to.

How much things had changed since they had marched off to save the Union! It had been nearly thirty years since Lincoln had first called for volunteers. Grant and Lee were both dead, and there were strapping steelworkers with thick, black mustaches standing among the crowds along Main Street who had been born since Appomattox.

At the start of the war Johnstown had been no more than a third the size it was now; and ten years before that, it had been nothing but a sleepy little canal town with elderbushes growing high along Main, and so quiet you could hear the boat horns before the barges cleared the bend below town.

But ever since the war, with the west opening up, the Cambria Iron Company had had its giant three-ton converters going night and day making steel for rails and barbed wire, plowshares, track bolts, and spring teeth for harrows. The valley was full of smoke, and the city clanked and whistled and rumbled loud enough to be heard from miles off. At night the sky gleamed so red it looked as though the whole valley were on fire. James Quinn, one of Johnstown’s most distinguished-looking Grand Army veterans and its leading dry-goods merchant, enjoyed few sights more. The sure sign of prosperity, he called it.

Years after, Charlie Schwab, the most flamboyant of Carnegie’s men, described the view of Johnstown from his boyhood home in the mountain town of Loretto, nearly twenty miles to the northeast.

Along toward dusk tongues of flame would shoot up in the pall around Johnstown. When some furnace door was opened the evening turned red. A boy watching from the rim of hills had a vast arena before him, a place of vague forms, great labors, and dancing fires. And the murk always present, the smell of the foundry. It gets into your hair, your clothes, even your blood.

Most of the men watching the parade that Memorial Day would have taken a somewhat less romantic view. In the rolling mills they worked under intense heat on slippery iron floors where molten metal went tearing by and one false step or slow reaction could mean horrible accidents. Most of them worked a ten- or even twelve-hour day, six days a week, and many weeks they worked the hated long turn, which meant all day Sunday and on into Monday. If they got ten dollars for a week’s work they were doing well.

A visiting journalist in 1885 described Johnstown as new, rough, and busy, with the rush of huge mills and factories and the throb of perpetually passing trains. The mills were set just below town in the gap in the mountains where the Conemaugh River flows westward. On the hillside close to the mills the trees had turned an evil-looking black and grew no leaves.

Johnstown of 1889 was not a pretty place. But the land around it was magnificent. From Main Street, a man standing among the holiday crowds could see green hills, small mountains, really, hunching in close on every side, dwarfing the tops of the houses and smokestacks.

The city was built on a nearly level flood plain at the confluence of two rivers, down at the bottom of an enormous hole in the Alleghenies. A visitor from the Middle West once commented, Your sun rises at ten and sets at two, and it was not too great an exaggeration.

The rivers, except in spring, appeared to be of little consequence. The Little Conemaugh and Stony Creek, or the Stony Creek, as everyone in Johnstown has always said (since it is the Stony Creek River), are both more like rocky, oversized mountain streams than rivers. They are about sixty to eighty yards wide. Normally their current is very fast; in spring they run wild. But on toward August, as one writer of the 1880’s said, there are places on either river where a good jumper could cross on dry stones.

The Little Conemaugh, which is much the swifter of the two, rushes in from the east, from the Allegheny Mountain. It begins near the very top of the mountain, about eighteen miles from Johnstown, at a coal town called Lilly. Its sources are Bear Rock Run and Bear Creek, Trout Run, Bens Creek, Laurel Run, South Fork Creek, Clapboard Run and Saltlick Creek. From an elevation of 2,300 feet at Lilly, the Little Conemaugh drops 1,147 feet to Johnstown.

The Stony Creek flows in from the south. It is a broader, deeper river than the other and is fed by streams with names like Beaver Dam Run, Fallen Timber Run, Shade Creek, and Paint Creek. Its total drainage is considerably more than that of the Little Conemaugh, and until 1889 it had always been thought to be the more dangerous of the two.

When they meet at Johnstown, the rivers form the Conemaugh, which, farther west, joins the Loyalhanna to form the Kiskiminetas, which in turn flows into the Allegheny about eighteen miles above Pittsburgh.

At Johnstown it was as though the bottom had dropped out of the old earth and left it angry and smoldering, while all around, the long, densely forested ridges, hogbacks they were called, rolled off in every direction like a turbulent green sea. The climb up out of the city took the breath right out of you. But on top it was as though you had entered another world, clean, open, and sweet-smelling.

In 1889 there were still black bear and wildcats on Laurel Hill to the west of town. Though the loggers had long since stripped the near hills, there were still places within an hour’s walk from Main Street where the forest was not much different than it had been a hundred years before.

Now and then an eagle could still be spotted high overhead. There were pheasants, ruffed grouse, geese, loons, and wild turkeys that weighed as much as twenty pounds. Plenty of men marching in the parade could remember the time before the war when there had been panthers in the mountains big enough to carry off a whole sheep. And it had been only a few years earlier when passenger pigeons came across the valley in numbers beyond belief. One January the Tribune wrote: On Saturday there were immense flocks of wild pigeons flying over town, but yesterday it seemed as if all the birds of this kind at present in existence throughout the entire country were engaged in gyrating around overhead. One flock was declared to be at least three miles in length by half a mile wide.

Still, many days there were in the valley itself when the wind swept away the smoke and the acrid smell of the mills and the air was as good as a man could ask for. Many nights, and especially in winter, were the way mountain nights were meant to be, with millions of big stars hanging overhead in a sky the color of coal.

Looking back, most of the people who would remember Johnstown as it was on that Memorial Day claimed it was not as unpleasant a place as one might imagine. People were poor, very poor by later standards, one man said, but they didn’t know it. And there was an energy, a vitality to life that they would miss in later years.

Many of the millworkers lived in cheap, pine-board company houses along the riverbanks, where, as the Tribune put it, Loud and pestiferous stinks prevail. But there were no hideous slums, such as had spread across the Lower East Side of New York or in Chicago and Pittsburgh. The kind of appalling conditions that would be described the next year by Jacob Riis in his How the Other Half Lives did not exist then in Johnstown. No one went hungry, or begging, though there were always tramps about, drifters, who came with the railroad, heading west nearly always, knocking at back doors for something to eat.

They were part of the landscape and people took them for granted, except when they started coming through in big numbers and there were alarming stories in the papers about crowds of them hanging around the depot.

One diary, kept by a man who lived outside of town, includes a day-by-day tramp count. Wednesday, May 1, 1889, Two Tramps . . . Thursday, May 2, Two Tramps, and so on, with nearly a tramp or two every day, week after week.

New people came to town, found a job or, if not, moved on again, toward Pittsburgh. But for most everyone who decided to stay there was work. Although lately, Johnstown men, too, had been picking up and going west to try their luck at the mills in St.

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  • (5/5)
    An outstanding history of a deeply tragic event. Mr. McCullough has focused on every important detail, including showing how quickly some events, such as the recovery and the lawsuits, took place, while also analyzing how progress in the USA would have been affected had the lawsuits been decided differently.
  • (5/5)

    1 personne a trouvé cela utile

    Very clearly written and beautifully organized. This is one of the best of the disaster books!

    1 personne a trouvé cela utile

  • (4/5)
    McCullough's specialty is narrative history, and this book does not disappoint. His descriptions of the life of the town, and its sudden and violent death are vivid and astonishing in equal measure. The technical aspects of the disaster are not glossed over, neither, and the irresponsibility of some is a warning which has become forgotten, and only too many parallels can be made to other disasters in recent memory.
  • (3/5)
    Interesting, but somehow unsatisfying. A lot of detail on the setting for the disaster - establishing the wealth, and power, and wealth, and past and future, and wealth (it got rather boring, actually) of the club members; the working-class-ness of the town (steel mills, basically); and why and how the dam was built and repaired and re-repaired (that was actually interesting, a bit). And he introduced a few people from Johnstown. Then the flood itself. A very very very detailed description of how the water came down - where it raced through, where it sloshed between mountains where the river swerved back and forth, exactly what it did to each town...not bad, but it would have been greatly improved by a simple sketch map replicated at each point where he was describing what the flood was doing, with a pointer on the map to "I'm talking about _here_". He spent paragraphs, and sometimes pages, locating the flood and describing its movement; the map would have been clearer, more accurate, and smaller on the page. It got even more detailed when the flood reached Johnstown itself; the flood more or less ended there, with a dam of debris up against a bridge that managed to stand. Some of the people introduced in the scene-setting characters showed up, along with a good many more not previously mentioned - the disasters suffered, miraculous escapes, where the flood took them and where they ended up when it finally stopped. Then an equally detailed, but even more confusing, description of the aftermath of the flood - what had been destroyed, what hadn't (not much), what people did to begin to recover and the (justified) fears of disease and the like from the bodies, of people and animals, carried down and thrown about and sometimes buried by the flood. The timeline here was - a spaghetti mess. He kept talking about this happened on Sunday and this happened on June 9th and a couple weeks later these people came to help and then this happened Monday...ghahh! I could not keep track, and it wasn't interesting enough for me to go back and keep checking to figure out what happened when. There's a lot about the rescue and rebuilding efforts, including the role of the railroad and the newly-created Red Cross. The final chapters dealt mostly with various suits brought or threatened against the club, and what the press chose to blame the flood on - it ranged from the sin of the town (God must have wiped them out because of their sinfulness!) to criminal negligence on the part of the club as a whole. There's some mention of how blaming it on the rich people led to attitudes that supported various strikes and continuing dislike for the rich, over the next decades. McCullough takes a balanced view - it was the club members' fault that they believed that those who'd rebuilt the dam actually knew what they were doing, and it was the townsfolk's fault that they believed that the club members knew what they were doing and were keeping an eye on the dam. But the whole thing kind of dribbles out into no conclusion or decision - almost all the suits were dismissed, some before they actually got to court. The dead got a nice big space up on top of a hill, while Johnstown was rebuilt down in the valley where it had been before. And McCullough concluded that if you're going to make changes in natural environments, you need to know what the long-term effects are and consider not just the normal course of events but extreme (weather) events as well - hundred-year storms and the like. Which is a pretty floppy conclusion. Not satisfying, which surprises me - I usually really like McCullough. Or at least I've liked the ones I've read so far, enough that he's an automatic buy at a book sale or the like. Maybe I need to read more of his. I'm glad I read it, I know a lot more about the flood now (I think all I knew before was that a dam had broken and wiped out a town - not even where Johnstown was), but I doubt I'll reread.
  • (4/5)
    Near Johnstown PA there was a earth and wood dam which had been built to augment the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club, a resort spot favored by members Andrew Carnegie, Andrew Mellon, and other tycoons of the 19th century. However, the construction was poorly executed, maintenance was not ongoing so that conditions deteriorated and later alterations severely jeopardized the structure. Then in spring of 1889, the Johnstown area was hit with more rain than normal, the dam which had started to leak, broke and the town and residents were swept away.One would think that would be the story and nothing further, but Mr. McCollough manages to take the dry historical facts and with interviews from actual witnesses, weaves a story that captivates the reader.I listened to an audio version narrated by Edward Hermann - this was the perfect match of voice and tale. Together Mr McCollough and Mr. Hermann could probably turn training manuals into must reads!
  • (4/5)
    With a remarkable economy of descriptive language, McCullough chronicles the horrors of the natural and social disaster of the 1889 Johnstown flood. American innovation and rapid industrialization had generated an increasingly complex economy with its benefits and woes. Much of this story is about realization of the new phenomena of society's mega-rich and their interactions with the rest of society. This story is a graphic description of how weather, extreme wealth, industry, rapid social and human nature can be combined to yield all sorts of effects. It is by no means a must read but a remarkably bright piece of social history that exercises the imagination and diffuses many of history's more detailed lessons.
  • (5/5)
    I usually don't listen to non-fiction via audio books. I prefer to have access to notes & sources, and the ability to look back at earlier chapters to remind myself of details. But David McCullough writes such smooth narrative non-fiction that it is easy to listen to this book. And it is such a story!I knew that the 1889 flood was really, really bad. I've been to the Flood Memorial, and the Flood Museum. I've seen the photo of a huge tree lanced through a house that's been washed off its foundation. But McCullough brought me to a whole different level of understanding when he pointed out, quite simply, that even before the South Fork Dam broke, Johnstown was suffering the worst flood it had endured to that date. The 40-foot wall of water and debris which came crashing down the valley was something way beyond a "mere" flood.McCullough introduces the reader to Johnstown as it was just before the flood; he recounts the history of the South Fork Dam and of the club which (badly) maintained it. Then the reader experiences the events of May 31, 1889 through the eyes of many people who were in the Conemaugh Valley that day. He examines the press coverage (good and bad) and the relief efforts; he also studies the legal aftermath and why the court proceedings turned out the way they did. And he, ultimately, tries to make sense of it all by extracting a lesson to be learned from the tragedy.Edward Herman's narration of the audio book was perfect in pace and tone.
  • (4/5)
    This book is an interesting chronicle of the causes and the disastrous effect of the great flood of Johnstown, Pa. It points at the possibility of the justification for resentment against the wealthy who did not properly maintain the dam for their lake and who did not do much to assist the townspeople to recover from the disaster they helped to make.
  • (3/5)
    Edward Herrmann narrates and he is fabulous. The first part of the book is build-up and background about the dam and things, but then it gets really riveting when the dam breaks. I like connecting with characters, so I think I would have been more into it if the book had followed a handful of people throughout the tragedy. But it was interesting and Edward Herrmann could probably read me the phone book and I'd be okay with it.
  • (4/5)
    I've been interested in the Johnstown flood ever since I read a novel about it for a fifth grade class. In 1889, a huge storm overwhelmed a dam in western Pennsylvania, leading to one of the worst natural disasters the US had seen at the time. The town of Johnstown was completely destroyed and thousands died. David McCullough is a well known historical writer who manages to deliver tons of data without being dry. This was no exception; at one point I stepped outside and was surprised to see that it was sunny instead of gray and raining. The book is especially interesting for anyone from Pennsylvania or Penn Staters as it was not far from where we were. A word of warning: probably best not to read this during a rain storm for those of you in low lying areas!
  • (4/5)
    David McCullough's first book is a gripping read about a man-made natural disaster near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in 1889. The Pittsburgh plutocracy, among them Andrew Carnegie and Henry Clay Frick, refurbished a dam on the cheap to create a private fishing resort. They only cared about their recreation. The poor steel workers toiling down below the dam in Johnstown and their families do not enter into their consideration. McCullough is a masterful storyteller who knows not to shatter the illusion of the American Dream.Johnstown illustrates some of the common patterns of typically American catastrophes. A basic neglect, a preference for laisser faire and an absence of regulation and regulatory power means everybody and nobody is in charge. Critical voices do not find listeners, neither in government nor by the dam's owners. Much of the work is outsourced, delegated until nobody feels responsible to check the quality and assume responsibility for the work. When the disaster finally happens, there are no plans nor precautions. The victims, thus, are the poor and the weak. On the positive side, there is a tremendous outburst of human interest, help and contributions, which diminishes as soon as media attention moves on. The corporate owned media is unwilling to call out the real bad guys. The judicial system is unable and unwilling to punish them. Politicians want their contributions, so the guilty robber barons ride into the sunset, free and unpunished, leaving the public to clear up the mess.
  • (4/5)
    Well done and very readable account of a heartbreaking tragedy long before 9/11 and Katrina but with interesting parallels, though it was published before either of the later disasters.
  • (5/5)
    Until I read this book I did not even know exactly where Johnstown was, except someplace in Pennsylvania. The author, David McCullough, does a masterful job setting the scene, the politics surrounding the dam and the subsequent failure of that dam. Johnstown was a typical American town for that day and time. People worked hard and earned little. The environment was polluted to some extent, but no one considered it a major issue. Nearly everyone considered the dam a threat, but only a few moved to improve the conditions. Huge disparities existed between the rich, the middle class and the poor. These disparities were more than money, but in perceptions of those above and below one’s “station.” This left a situation where in essence the threat was perceived, but all involved seemed to look to the other group, or believe, the dam was safe.Then, the dam broke on May31, 1889. Partly because of torrential rains, partly because of incompetent maintenance at the dam and removal/blockage of drains in the dam and certainly because of complacency of the people downstream from the dam and the threat it was to them disastrous results followed. The author describes the process of trying to save the dam, when and how it broke, the path and destruction of the flood and, most importantly, the effect on the people downstream.The final segment describes the cleanup of the damages. The caring for the survivors, the burying of the dead, the removal of all that was Johnstown – homes, shops, churches is described, especially the stone bridge which stopped much of the broken town in the river’s bed. A discussion of fault, which is never determined, ends the book. In today’s world the fault would be different, but in that time justice was served. This book was well-documented and also told the story of many people, some survivors, some not. Interesting to note, the response today is not all that much different to disasters now. We might have more people or resources or planning, but when you get down to the final issue a disaster by definition seems to disrupt any attempt to resolve it. Some disasters though should be averted by planning first.This book is short, concise and was a quick read for me. I enjoyed the descriptions and the details which told the story of a flood like that. I give this book four and one-half stars.
  • (5/5)
    David McCullough, as usual does an exciting job of bringing tons of research together into an interesting account to help the reader understand all the complex variables that contributed to this well-known, but often misunderstood disaster. Ed Herrman, the narrator of the audio version I had, keeps the story moving with his wonderful news reporter voice, and a perceptible personal interest in the story.Before reading this, I knew only that the town of Johnstown got washed away in a flood, and I remember images (paintings perhaps?) showing train locomotives floating in an ocean of water and debris along with bodies, and houses. I believe I was taught that a dam burst, and washed everything away. End of that history lesson.......NOTMcCullough traces the building of the dam, the decisions made about how certain engineering feats were handled (or mishandled), lays the groundwork for explaining what really happened, why it happened, and what could have been done to prevent it. By weaving these facts with historical accounts from survivors to portray the human toll taken, the reader is given an almost eyewitness account. It is a masterful work, particularly considering it could have been very boring.The entire time I was reading/listening to this, I kept thinking of New Orleans and FEMA and the disaster that followed the disaster. The people of Johnstown and the surrounding area could have taught FEMA some interesting lessons.Highly recommended for anyone wanting to know more about the flood that cost so many lives, the events leading up to it, and the aftermath.
  • (4/5)
    David McCullough does a great job at relating history. In The Johnstown Flood he does a great job with the pace and laying the groundwork for the situation. He has organized his thoughts and presented them so well that it is not a struggle to read or understand. Because he is so logical and methodical in his retelling, it is easier to experience the time in history he is discussing, rather than feeling like you are slogging through it.The Johnstown Flood is an incredible story, much deserving of this retelling.
  • (4/5)
    The tragedy of May 31, 1889 cost the town of Johnstown, Pennsylvania over 2,000 lives and was a combination of man and nature coming together to create a different kind of nightmare. I instantly thought of Hurricane Katrina descending on the levies of New Orleans.In the case of the Johnstown Flood, it was the man-made dam that held back the waters of Lake Conemaugh. As long as the dam held, the bustling valley town of Johnstown below was safe. While the dam was surrounded in controversy - those who thought it was perfectly safe versus those who thought it needed a makeover - no one could have predicted the amount of water the heavy rainstorms of May 31st, 1889 would bring. By midday the dam was in serious trouble. Despite frantic efforts to bolster its walls, by late afternoon it was too late and the dam gave way. It was impossible stop the deluge of millions of tons of water rushing down the mountainside. In a matter of hours an entire town was demolished. McCullough does an amazing job tying personal stories with the facts of the events. His recreation of the chain of events is stunning and almost unbelievable.
  • (4/5)
    This review pertains to the unabridged audio book version, read by Edward Herrmann.David McCullough is one of my favorite historians. He writes well researched, well balanced books that are both entertaining and insightful. Since he hails from Pittsburgh, it is no surprise that the Johnstown flood was of interest to him. Disasters of that magnitude are always dramatic, both on a personal level and as a backdrop for the socio-political conditions of the day. There’s a lot of detail here, perhaps more than some readers will want, but in the audio book version, with Edward Herrmann’s impeccable presentation, if the details (for example, the litany of deaths) gets to you, you can tune out for a while.There aren’t any dramatic takeaway insights or revelations here, but The Johnstown Flood told me all I wanted to know about a disaster that was previously just a phrase to me.
  • (5/5)
    David McCullough rocks my world. Takes a dam high in the mountains shoddily rebuilt by rich pleasure seekers, take a badass storm, mix together with the best historian in the world evertm and you have another compelling book. If it wasn't true you wouldn't believe it.
  • (4/5)
    David McCullough explores one of the nation's most devastating natural disasters. His research reveals the events that led up to the tragedy and exposes surprising details about some very prominent characters from our nation's past. As always McCullough delivers the epic tale with a captivating method that will keep you riveted. The book climaxes with the flood but keeps you interested with its revelations about the devastating events results and with heroic stories of rescue and relief. This is an essential read that reveals much more about the nation's history than the solitary story of a single community.
  • (5/5)
    David McCollough is one of my favorite writers of American history and biography. While his account of the Johnstown Flood is not one of his best works, it is nevertheless very enlightening and educational. In the mid 19th century, the government constructed an earthen dam across South Fork Creek in the Allegheny Mountains for the purpose of ensuring an adequate water supply for a series of canals in the area. Soon after, the Pennsylvania Railroad made the canals obsolete and the dam fell into disrepair. Several decades later, the newly wealthy industrialists in the Pittsburgh area (men with names such as Carnegie, Frick and Phipps) discovered the area around the dam and purchased it in the name of the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club. The old dam was negligently reconstructed and a large lake (Lake Conemaugh) provided a summer resort for the upper class of Pittsburgh. Fast forward nine years to Memorial Day 1889. One of the largest deluges in recorded history not only flooded the Little Connemaugh River valley (including Johnstown, population 20,000) but dangerously overfilled Lake Connemaugh. With no way to release the excess water, the lake soon spilled over the top of the dam, eroding the weakened center of the dam and ultimately collapsing it. An enormous volume of water then proceeded to roar down the narrow, enclosed valley, stripping everything in its path. By the time it reached Johnstown, approximately 13 miles away, it had stripped the entire valley of all vegetation and personal property in its path, generating a wall of water and debris sometimes reaching up to 70 feet in height. When it encountered the town of Johnstown, where the Little Connemaugh meets the larger Stony Creek, utter destruction ensued. McCollough does his usual meticulous job of researching and telling all aspects of this great American tragedy. The background of the dam's failure, the details of the hours encompassing the tragedy itself and the response of various segments of society in the days and weeks thereafter, all tell us much about our society and the American spirit, both good and bad.
  • (3/5)
    Another book about hometown. Really opened my eyes to the history of the place we all took for granted and that is decaying in our midst. Really made me see the kind of Brazil we were living in in 1889 in this country where supreme court judges were embittered former slave owners, graduates of Harvard Law along with Henry Frick, one of the perpetrators of this crime through abdication of responsibility, inaction and indifference, and well many other internal injustices despite our illustrious constitution. I hope we don't end up back there in 20 years the way things are going around here. By that time, the memory of the Johnstown flood, like Bopal, Chernobyl, and the myriad Chinese mining disasters happening now will be long gone.
  • (5/5)
    I had heard about the famous Johnstown Flood, probably from a short paragraph in a stale history book along time ago, but I really new nothing about it. This book puts you right there before, during and after the flood even introducing to some of the actual residents of Johnstown, some who survived and some who did not. Even though I knew the outcome it was as hard to put down as an adventure novel.
  • (3/5)
    Interesting account of an American disaster you don't hear about now a days. Mr. McCullogh is once again thorough about the details of personalities and events up to and after the great flood, but for me, this account reads too much like a collection of press clippings, which is surely most likely where most of the information was collected. Probably the best read around on this event, but not as good as some other McCullough efforts.
  • (4/5)
    I've read a few of David McCullough's work, and it is obvious that The Johnstown Flood was one of his first books. However, it is still well done in the McCullough style of interweaving numbers and hard facts with the personal eyewitness stories.I didn't know anything about The Johnstown Flood. It is amazing how quickly people were activated to help within 24 hours of the flood and how fast Johnstown was rebuilt. Even with all of our modern conveniences we don't seem able to spring into action like these people did over 100 years ago with only trains and horses for transport and telegraphs to spread news.I think the best quote was the lesson from the governor at the time "We who have to do with the concentrated forces of nature, the powers of air, electricity, water, steam, by careful forethought must leave nothing undone for the preservation and protection of the lives of our brother men."
  • (3/5)
    I love David McCullough's books in general, and this was no exception. It was an interesting (if horrifying) look at how various events came together to contribute to an incredible tragedy.