Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Book Review: The Johnstown Flood

David G. McCullough, The Johnstown Flood (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1968)

The weather was ugly in Pennsylvania on Memorial Day 1889. It had been a wet spring and the rains had periodically been extremely hard. The rivers were running high, but Johnstown was use to flooding in the lower areas of the city, down by the rivers. But this Memorial Day, unbeknownst to most of the citizens of the city, the caretaker and other others at the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club were worried. The water was rising fast on the earthen dam located fifteen miles above the city. Around 3 PM, the water began running over the top of the dam, quickly eroding it away and sending a mass of water downstream that would wipe out towns and buildings and flood the city of Johnstown. Over 2200 people died. Up to this point, it was the worst disaster in the history of the United States.

David McCullough, author of many books on American history (Adams, 1776, Truman, The Great Bridge, etc), is known for his wonderful storytelling. This early work of his is no exception. He places the flood in the context of regional history, telling the story of the fated dam from it’s beginning as means to supply water to a canal across the Alleghenies, a canal made obsolete almost as soon as it was finished by the coming of the Pennsylvania Railroad. The dam changed hands many times, finally being controlled by a private hunting and fishing camp that existed behind the dam along the shores of Lake Conemaugh. The membership list of the club read like a “who’s who” of Pittsburgh, including steel giants Andrew Carnegie and Henry Clay Frick, Andrew Mellon from the banking family, and Robert Pitcairn of the Pennsylvania Railroad. Their private retreat was a place to get away from the industrial world of Pittsburgh.

There had been questions about the dam for years, especially in Johnstown. McCullough details studies of the dam’s safety and how it was compromised. As the property was “off limits” for those living downstream, there were hard feelings concerning how the dam was maintained. After the flood, rumors abound about how the caretakers were more interested in keeping trout from going over the spillway than they were in saving the dam and those downstream. But as McCullough points out, the problems with the dam was more than a net across the spillway that would get clogged with debris. In addition to the amount of water the dam was holding, probably the most damning thing were that pipes under the dam designed to release more water when the lake was full, had been removed years earlier. There was no good way to save the dam once water started pouring over the top.

McCullough gives great stories into the events downriver, as a wall of water pushes forth, leveling towns and finally Johnstown itself. Heroic deeds are recalled as well as horrific scenes. Once the water got to Johnstown, a stone bridge collected all the debris, creating another dam. With rail cars of fuel, burning coal stoves and lumber from homes swept away, the mass of debris caught fire. Many who died were burned to death in a frightening conflagration than burned throughout the night following the flood. McCullough goes on after the flood to tell about how it was reported around the country. Reports started getting out about the horrors of Hungarian gangs going around and cutting fingers off victims in order to get their rings. Most of these reports were unfounded (sounds like some of the reports from New Orleans after Katrina). One of the funny stories of the flood was how it got out that brothels were washed away and how preachers around the country took it as a sign that God was taking out his anger, washing away iniquity. The only problem was that Johnstown red-light district was high on a hill and survived. As one resident noted, “If this was God’s purpose, he sure has bad aim.” He also talks about the lawsuit against the South Creek Hunting and Fishing Club. Although some of the richest men in America were members, the club itself was barely solvent and the people below the dam who suffered loss were never compensated.

The nation responded generously to Johnstown. Trains from across the country hauled goods into the city and the residents themselves quickly organized into committees that took care of the living and the burial of the dead. It was a massive task; bodies from the flood would continue to be found into the 20th century.

Although the subject matter is horrific, this is a great read. McCullough does a wonderful job of telling the story. It’s also available in an audio format (I listened to it on my ipod at the gym). I recommend it.


  1. I have this book in my "to read" pile. I should get to it sometime in 2008 or 2009 when my daughter is slightly more independent and gives me a chance to read more than just the daily newspaper. I'm about four months behind on my two magazine subscriptions and haven't touched a book in that time either!

  2. What a detailed book review especially if this was all from the audio format that you listened to while working out (and Ed says that I have the memory of a steel trap). It was so nicely detailed that I feel as if I've already read it and hence, probably won't be adding this to my Sage's Book Club List. Thanks, babe. :-)

  3. Read that book years ago. Too bad too many people never learn from history. Forget that--if it happened before the year 2000 it's too old

    Great review

  4. Ed, you'll enjoy the book when you get around to it. When my daughter was small (ie, before she understood), I'd read to her books that I wanted to read and she was content. Then along came Sandra Bolyton or some name like that and her books... and slowly she back to where she was interested in books that were okay, like Little House and Alice in Wonderland, but now she reads all time time by herself and I'm wishing I needed me to read some more...

    Murf, sorry to spoil the book for you! But at least you learn about something else. As the old saying use to go, "Don't spit on the floor, remember the Johnstown flood."

    Pia, you're right, we never learn, do we.

  5. Some of this sounds familiar. Did you put exerpts of this book in your quote posts? Anyway, it sounds like an excellent book.

  6. I'm safe. I'm not that good of a spitter. I tend to just hit my shirt.

  7. Tim, I did use a number of quotes from this book in my weekly quotes a few weeks ago.

    Murf, wear a bib.