November Book of the Month: The Johnstown Flood by David McCullough

David McCullough is one of America’s foremost historians and a two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize, best known for his works 1776, John Adams, and Truman. However, his first book, The Johnstown Flood, written in 1968, is this month’s Common Room Book of the Month. The Johnstown Flood pays homage to McCullough’s western Pennsylvania roots (he grew up in Pittsburgh), by describing the horror of the 1889 Johnstown Flood. On a personal note, I enjoyed learning about the background, details, and aftermath of the Johnstown Flood, since I had the chance to spend a week in Johnstown last year working with a hospital in the area. I found Johnstown to be a charming, historic town in a beautiful area of the country, and am glad to have had the opportunity to visit.

The Johnstown Flood occurred on May 31, 1889, when the South Fork Dam on the Little Conemaugh River broke after days of heavy (and historic) rainfall. The earthen dam, which created a 60 foot deep lake 450 feet above the Conemaugh valley in which the cities of South Fork, Mineral Point, East Conemaugh, Woodvale, and Johnstown were located, was originally built in the 1830s by the state of Pennsylvania as part of a canal system. With the rise of the railroad and decline of canals, the dam, lake, and surrounding area were purchased by the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club in 1879 with the intention of building a summer resort in the Alleghenies for Pittsburgh’s elite, including Henry Clay Frick, Andrew Carnegie, Philander C. Knox, and Andrew Mellon. Tragically, the Club made the decision to remove the drainage pipes which would have allowed them to control the height of the lake, and also placed a grate over the spillway to prevent fish from escaping the lake, a grate which became clogged with debris during the storm. When the rising of the water ultimately overflowed the center of the dam, the dam collapsed and released 20 million tons of water on the valley. The water rushed 14 miles to Johnstown, picking up speed and debris and crushing everything in its path. The flood would eventually claim 2209 lives and cause $17 million in damage ($450 million in 2015 dollars). The flood triggered the first major disaster relief effort in United States history, with Clara Barton and her American Red Cross volunteers working with the Pennsylvania National Guard to distribute the donations that poured into the valley from around the country.

In addition to giving a vivid, comprehensive description of the actual flood based on primary source writings, survivor interviews, and newspaper articles, McCullough’s The Johnstown Flood also provides a glimpse of life in the Gilded Age that helps to understand the events that came together to cause the tragedy and drive the events of its aftermath. McCullough describes a Johnstown of 15,000 hardworking Americans that before the flood had grown in prosperity due to the railroad and the Cambria Iron Works. Citizens in Johnstown had high hopes for their future and believed with hard work, they could build a good life for themselves and their children. However, those that managed to escape the flood with their lives were left with nothing but memories of the terror of the flood and friends and family lost.

In the aftermath of the flood, blame quickly fell to the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club, since they owned the dam and were responsible for its upkeep. The Club, a collection of wealthy Pittsburghers, stood in stark contrast to the citizens of Johnstown and the Conemaugh Valley. McCullough describes the tension in the aftermath of the flood, saying “For despite the progress being made everywhere, despite the growing prosperity and the prospect of an even more abundant future, there were in 1889 strong feelings that perhaps not all was right with the Republic…Old-timers said that with every gain [the people in the South Fork Hunting Club] made [citizens of Johnstown] were losing something. If that was so, people were beginning to think a little more about just what it was they might be losing, and to whom.”  The citizens of Johnstown responded to the devastation by going to the courts, bringing suit against the Club and its members. However, due to the laws of day being based on fault, not liability, courts found in favor of the Club, deeming the flood as an “act of God.” Interestingly, the Johnstown Flood was the impetus for changing American law surrounding culpability for damage to be based on liability rather than fault. McCullough points out that had the Johnstown Flood happened today, the Club, and many of its members, would have been liable for millions in damages.

McCullough concludes that the great tragedy of the flood was that it was so avoidable–all it needed was a little oversight. The citizens of Johnstown understood the danger the dam posed, but trusted that the Club was taking care of the dam. The Club members trusted that the dam, built by the state, was still strong, and believed their engineers who said there was no danger.

Even though the court cases did not go in their favor, the city of Johnstown did rebuild from the flood, and reached a population of over 66,000, overcoming the St. Patrick’s Day Flood of 1936 and the Great Depression to become one of the leading steel towns in the United States. However, distance from iron sources and increased foreign and domestic competition in the steel industry led to a decline in the steel industry, and today the population of Johnstown hovers around 20,000–just slightly above its 1889 population. The memories of the flood are still there, experienced firsthand by this blogger on a trip through the area a few years ago, with the library donated by Andrew Carnegie in response to the flood now housing the Johnstown Flood Museum.

In the end, if you are looking for a great book to curl up with this winter, The Common Room wholeheartedly recommends David McCullough’s The Johnstown Flood.


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