At the end of the nineteenth century, 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 David 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. It also offers a powerful historical lesson for our century and all times: the danger of assuming that because people are in positions of responsibility they are necessarily behaving responsibly.
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About the Author
Hometown:West Tisbury, Massachusetts
Date of Birth:July 7, 1933
Place of Birth:Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
Education:B.A., Yale University, 1955
Read an Excerpt
The Johnstown Flood
By David McCullough
Peter Smith Publisher IncCopyright ©1990 David McCullough
All right reserved.
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 tenyears 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 deep.
About an hour and a half later, very near eleven, the rain began. It came damming 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 fight out of you. But on top it was as though you had entered another world, clean, open, and sweetsmelling.
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.
Excerpted from The Johnstown Flood by David McCullough Copyright ©1990 by David McCullough. Excerpted by permission.
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Table of ContentsContents
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 message from Mr. Pitcairn
VII In the valley of death
VIII "No pen can describe"
IX "Our misery is the work of man."
List of Victims