Monday, December 8, 2014

The Johnstown Flood



I picked this book up for research purposes originally, having a flood in mind (among other things), and thought I'd just skim for pertinent information. But I ended up reading the whole book from start to finish. It was fascinating. Here's what happened:

In 1879 some wealthy Pittsburgh folks - among them Andrew Carnegie, Henry Clay Frick, and Andrew Mellon - decided to create a lake for a private summer resort in the mountains above Johnstown, PA. There was already an old reservoir and while the earthen dam (by then left unattended for 22 years) was in need of repairs the price for the property was cheap - a mere $2000. The South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club was born and the dam was then rather hastily rebuilt. To be sure there were concerns about its safety but an inspection made was summed up in the local paper thus: "Several  of our citizens who have recently examined the dam state it as their opinion that the embankment is perfectly safe to stand all the pressure that can be brought to bear on it, while others are a little dubious in the matter. We do not consider there is much cause for alarm, as even in the event of the dyke breaking there is plenty of room for the water to spread out before reaching here, and no damage of moment would result."

Nevertheless, concern for the dam did not end there and the management of the Cambria Iron Company sent John Fulton (an engineer by training), to check things out. His report noted two elements of concern: one the lack of a discharge pipe and two a leak that was carving out a new embankment. The report was forwarded the Benjamin F. Ruff, President of The South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club who responded with this:

"We consider his conclusions as to our only safe course of no more value than his other assertions...you and your people are in no danger from our enterprises."

The management, then under the direction of Daniel Morrell, suggested politely that the dam needed a major overhaul, including a discharge system of some sort so that the water in the lake could be let out "in times of trouble." Morrell considered the situation dire enough that he was willing to help fund the operation and said so in his reply to Ruff. Sadly, his offer was declined.

By 1889 the need for lumber had stripped the mountains and nearby hills of the trees that helped hold the soil in place, and the river channels had been narrowed to make room for growth. This resulted in "less river to handle more run off," more flash floods, and eventually the break that few people thought would ever occur.

It happened on May 31, 1889 after a terrific rainstorm dumped six to eight inches in a 24 hour period, causing the lake to rise, and the dam to break. The water swept down into the valley "at a velocity and depth comparable to that of the Niagara River as it reaches Niagara Falls." Trees were uprooted, hills left bare, and a small town called Mineral Point "was simply shaved off, right down to the bare rock."

As for Johnstown, nearly the whole of it was destroyed, and the debris the water had brought with it piled up at a stone bridge, creating a huge mound of "boxcars, factory roofs, tees, telegraph poles...dead horses and cows, and hundreds of human beings, dead and alive." Worse yet, the debris then caught fire, creating a horrific funeral pyre and trapping people to burn alive.

In the end over 2,000 people died but none of them the wealthy owners of The South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club. Nor were any of the members ever held accountable despite a number of suits, all of which failed in the courts.

What I found most interesting were the tales of survival: people who flew down the river in or on top of their houses, people who braved the flames at the bridge and rescued as many as they could, even dogs who supposedly towed their owners to safety. More surprising was how quickly rescue efforts began in light of how difficult travel must've been in those days and the dollar amount of the donations that came - not only from the people of the United States, but from other countries as well. The amount donated toward the relief effort totaled $3.7 million dollars!

Overall, The Johnstown Flood was a fascinating tale of a disaster that could've been averted and I highly recommend the book.




25 comments:

  1. I knew of it, but don't think I'd ever heard the details. Sad when a tragedy like that could've been avoided.

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    1. It could easily have been avoided if the owners had followed through on the recommendations they got. They chose to hear what they wanted to hear.

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  2. I haven't heard of that tragedy! I can't believe so many people died and it could have been avoided. Thanks for the review.

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    1. I'd never heard of it before either. I just happened to spot the book and knew I had to check it out.

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  3. So sad it could have been avoided. Awesome that the book was good enough to read, not skim.

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    1. It's very sad, as were the accounts of how people perished. But it was also a very good book.

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  4. Being from Pennsylvania, I am quite familiar with the Johnstown Flood and taught it as part of PA history. I also read McCullough's book, and it inspired a whole novel in me. I actually outlined almost the whole thing ... and never wrote it.

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    1. I had a feeling you'd know about it. Now...what about this story...?

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  5. Fascinating stuff Marcy. I'm adding this book to my TBR list. I'd say it's hard to believe that no law suit gained traction, but it's not really.

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    1. They were big men with lots of money and power. Interestingly, if they had had to pay damages, a number of them might have lost their fortunes and names like Carnegie and Mellon wouldn't mean anything.

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  6. I read an old account of that terrible flood. Can you imagine the lawsuits today? It was really horrific.

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    1. They would've been left with nothing. It was pretty obvious they'd been warned and on more than one occasion.

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  7. I've read that one (and then nearly lived it a year ago in our floods. blah). David McCullough is one of my most favorite NF writers. John Adams was just brilliant. :)

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    1. I can't imagine going through something like that, seeing your whole town destroyed not to mention the loss of life. And yes, McCullough is definitely brilliant.

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  8. Interesting. Sounds like my kind of historical read.

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    1. It was very interesting - my kind, too!

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  9. I've read a couple of accounts of the flood. One was a non-fiction book, and the other was historical fiction. This book sounds as if it's more comprehensive. It's definitely a sad, but interesting story.

    Love,
    Janie

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  10. Such a testimony to the power of money and political corruption back in "the day."

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  11. I love disaster stories - so exciting! This reminds me of a movie I saw depicting the French Malpasset Dam disaster of '59. "The breach created a massive dam break wave, or wall of water, 40 metres (130 ft) high and moving at 70 kilometres (43 mi) per hour, destroying two small villages, Malpasset and Bozon." Thanks for all the info about the Johnston Flood. Very interesting stuff!

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  12. Fascinating. I seem to remember hearing something about this once upon a time, but not in this detail.

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  13. Wow! Thanks for the review. I don't think I've ever heard of this flood, but it is a fascinating and sad part of history - sad on the part of the needless death and damage, and yet fascinating in the way it all played out and the way that people came together to help!

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  14. OMG, the Johnstown Floor was horrible. A few years ago, hub and I watched a documentary on PBS. There was video footage of people fleeing in the street as the water came rushing towards them. Horrible, absolutely horrible!

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  15. Wow. I always thought the flood was simply the result of natural causes. How awful that so many died because of the greed and disregard of a wealthy few.

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  16. I read this book a number of years ago (and blogged my review). This is a well written book and I would highly recommend it.

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