The Johnstown Flood = 27 down, 73 to go

15 Feb

Other nonfiction
The Johnstown Flood
David McCullough
267 pages

On May 31, 1889, a dam located 14 miles above Johnstown, Pa., disintegrated during a horrible storm, sending nearly 20 million tons of water roaring down the valley and wiping many towns completely off the map in just a matter of minutes.

For Johnstown, the largest of the towns in the valley and the focus of the majority of recovery efforts following the disaster, it took just 10 minutes for the city of 30,000 to be virtually eliminated.

The book is a sobering look at this tragedy that killed more than 2,000. It depicts out the personalities involved, takes a microscopic look at the details of the flood, starting at the dam and moving down the valley. It showcases the preview of actions, or lack thereof, that led up to the failure of the dam, through the recovery efforts, which included a defining moment for the American Red Cross and money coming from around the globe. (It reminded me very much of an earlier example of the world rallying to the needs of those affected – such as in modern day times occurred after the tsunami in Asia and in the earthquakes in Haiti.)

Though much of the newspaper coverage was exaggerated, distorted and based on rumor and conjecture, the pile of debris and wreckage at the stone bridge remained days after the flood and likely consumed up to 45 acres of area. (See this photo from the Johnstown Flood Museum.)

A Sun reporter wrote of a very stirring observation of the catastrophe that remained at the bridge:

At one place the blackened body of a babe was seen; in another 14 skulls could be counted…At this time the smoke was still rising to the height of 50 feet.

In an earlier chapter, when the pile of debris at the stone bridge caught fire, McCullough shares this sober sentence:

…by six o’clock the whole monstrous pile had become a funeral pyre for perhaps as many as eighty people trapped inside.

It was also observed that people trapped in the debris who had survived the trip down river could be heard screaming as the fire burned, and the survivors on the shore having no way to reach them.

While the complete absence of engineering oversight crashed against the forces of nature to create this flooded tragedy, it would be interesting if this event occurred within the last five to 10 years. As our society is litigious at the drop of a hat, the members of South Fork Hunting and Fishing Club would not have been likely to walk away unscathed with the fortunes left intact.

This is my eighth David McCullough book. I never tire, even for a moment, of his distinct and extremely thorough storytelling style, which makes you feel that you are riding right alongside characters that we often only remember only fleetingly from grade school history. You never feel that you are forcibly reading a history text while consuming a McCullough book.

It is thrilling to see these historical figures in such detail during the defining moments of their lives and careers. If you dislike historical biographies, I recommend McCullough to you. Though I enjoy historical biographies, it is easy for me to equate his books to reading a delightful novel.

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2 Responses to “The Johnstown Flood = 27 down, 73 to go”

  1. cheryl saltarelli May 14, 2011 at 6:18 pm #

    I came across the information on this book about the Johnstown flood. It interested me because both my grandparents lived through this terrible disaster and spoke about it all of their lives. My grandfather was featured in our local paper and told about this experience.

  2. kateeidam May 19, 2011 at 9:33 am #

    Not that anyone wants to experience this type of tragedy first-hand, it’s good to know that they survived to tell their stories.

    I highly recommend the book. David McCullough is one my favorite authors and an amazing story teller. He captures all of the nuances of the disaster. I would be interested in your perspective on the book especially with having some direct knowledge of it.

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