The Johnstown Flood

Published on August 26, 2022

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Reviewed by Marybeth Ginsberg

Most of the people in Johnstown never saw the water coming they only heard it; and those who lived to tell about it would for years after try to describe the sound of the thing as it rushed on them” (The Johnstown Flood, pg. 145).

In May of 1889, more than 2200 people living in Johnstown were killed when the South Fork dam, built in 1840, gave way. Precipitated by a record rainfall that hit western Pennsylvania, the flood would nearly destroy the bustling 19th century industrial town located in the Conemaugh valley of the Alleghenies, home to the Cambria Iron Company.

It was Memorial Day, and residents of mostly German, Welsh, and Irish descent lined the streets for a parade. At the time of the flood, Johnstown and the area surrounding it had a population of nearly 30,000. The production of steel was Johnstown’s claim to fame, and as a result, the area was thriving. Johnstown was home to stores, banks, hotels, office buildings, churches, an opera house, a night school, and a library. Grand homes, built and owned by Cambria’s managers, were part of the streetscape. Yet, blocked relief values on the South Fork dam, built 14 miles upstream from Johnstown, coupled with heavy rain, would lead to disaster that day.

The South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club was located near Johnstown. It was built as a retreat for America’s most powerful industrialists. While residents of Johnstown felt that the dam, constructed of dirt and rock, loomed as a potential hazard, little was done to improve or reinforce it. Its collapse that Memorial Day would leave many questions and fewer answers.

This is a riveting book, selected for review because of the recent passing of author David McCullough. It includes personal accounts of escape and survival that are set against the backdrop American industrialism, and includes such powerful figures, such as Andrew Carnegie, Henry Clay Frick, and Clara Barton.  After the dam broke, it flood would carry debris and people with it. Rich description sets the tone and captures the gravity of the event: “He saw the whole Mussante family sailing by on what appeared to be a barn floor…And then a mass of wreckage heaved up out of the water and crushed them” (The Johnstown Flood, pg. 152). The aftermath of the flood would lead citizens to question the attitudes and motives of the elite club members. In addition to the lack of a solid masonry core, the installment of fish guards and the lowering of the crest of the reservoir, all for the benefit of the club members, were cited as reasons for the collapse. The book includes press coverage, photographs and list of the Johnstown victims.  

Born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in 1933, David G. McCullough was a popular American historian and author. He was a two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award. In 2006, he was given the Presidential Medal of Freedom. The Johnstown Flood, written in 1968, was McCullough’s first book. In preparation for writing the book, McCullough interviewed survivors of the flood. A graduate of Yale University, McCullough died earlier this month at the age of 89.  

Star Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐




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