Thursday, December 4, 2008

The Johnstown Flood

The Johnstown Flood by David McCullough was originally published in 1968. My paperback copy is 302 pages, including the lists of the victims, bibliography, and index. I originally read The Johnstown Flood years ago and felt it was time to again read McCullough's riveting, accessible, historical account of the tragedy. In his books, McCullough always does an excellent job covering the background, setting the tone for the time and place, and engrossing us in the history. This is an excellent account of the real 1889 disaster that has as much, if not more, compelling drama in it as any fiction book. Maps and photographs are included. Rating: 5

Synopsis from the cover:

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 portrait of life in nineteenth-century America, of overweening confidence, of energy, and of tragedy. This is a powerful historical lesson for our century and all times: the danger of assuming that because people are in positions of responsibility they are behaving responsibly.

"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." opening sentence

"When the storm struck western Pennsylvania it was the worst downpour that had ever been recorded for that section of the country." pg. 21

"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." pg. 24

"By the start of the 1880's Johnstown and its neighboring boroughs had a total population of about 15,000...On the afternoon of May 30, 1889, there were nearly 30,000 people living in the valley." pg. 28

"There appear to me two serious elements of danger in this dam. First, the want of a discharge pipe to reduce or take the water out of the dam for needed repairs. Second, the unsubstantial method of repair, leaving a large leak, which appears to be cutting a new embankment." [report by John Fulton in Nov. 1880] pg. 73

"The water [flooding from the rain]...was anywhere from two to ten feet deep. It was already higher than the '87 flood, making it, by noon at least, Johnstown's worst flood on record." pg. 82

"Sometime between noon and one o'clock a telegraph message came into the East Conemaugh dispatcher's tower [warning that the dam was liable to break]." pg. 87

"...later studies by civil engineers indicated that the water charged into the valley at a velocity and depth comparable to that of the Niagara River as it reaches Niagara Falls." pg. 102

"Most of the people in Johnstown never saw the water coming; they only heard it..." pg. 145

"But this time the new 'dam' would hold quite a little longer than the viaduct had and would cause still another kind of murderous nightmare. For when darkness fell, the debris at the bridge caught fire." pg. 149

*A personal aside concerning the Amazon reviewer who thought this account was a novel: you have made a case that some kind of rule, standard, or test should be administered before you can post a review.


samantha.1020 said...

This sounds really good and if it warranted a reread then I am definitely going to check it out. Thanks for the review :)

Jane said...

OH! I'm going to write this one down & see if my library has it.
I just read _Julie_ by Catherine Marshall, & it was a fictional novel that was based on the Johnstown flood.