The Johnstown Flood

Table of Content

The tragic tale of the Johnstown flood, once almost mythical, remains a somber reminder of the thousands of lives lost and the few that were saved. David McCullough skillfully recounts the story of the dam’s rupture, caused by ignorance and neglect, and its profound impact on the individuals affected. Through his narrative, McCullough seamlessly weaves together factual accounts of the disaster with raw emotion, enabling readers to vividly perceive and experience the pain and suffering endured. As the colossal dam gave way and countless gallons of water surged into the valley, there was ultimately no salvation for those unfortunate souls caught in its destructive path.

Many individuals were fortunate enough to reach higher ground, beyond the reach of the immense amount of debris. However, a staggering number of victims suffered devastating consequences, such as being crushed, drowning, sustaining fatal injuries, or being horrifically burned alive. Through McCullough’s extensive examination of the flood, he is able to provide a firsthand account from the survivors’ perspective. By including not only statistical facts but also journalistic facts, he effectively allows us to emotionally connect with the narrative. It is natural to be curious about the initial cause of the dam bursting, and McCullough outlines several contributing factors.

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The dam had several internal flaws, including a slight sag in its middle, which was supposed to be the strongest part. This sag, however, would not have been easily detectable. The dam was associated with the South Fork Hunting and Fishing Club, an esteemed summer mountain club that counted Andrew Carnegie and Henry Clay Frick among its members. Its purpose was to create a lake for the club’s boating activities, a rarity in mountainous areas. Unfortunately, during the reconstruction of the dam for the club, many important aspects were neglected.

For example, the lack of control over the water level meant that once it was raised, there was no turning back. Additionally, numerous small leaks were disregarded as harmless springs near the dam’s ends (McCullough pg. 175). Despite concerns about potential damage, people remained ignorant of the immense power contained in the vast amount of water.

Despite several warnings sent to Johnstown and nearby towns on the day the dam broke, they were largely disregarded and not taken seriously. Many people in Johnstown did not view the possibility of the dam breaking as a legitimate concern, considering it unlikely. D. M. Montgomery, a tower operator, attested that nobody paid attention to the warning, including himself who perceived it more like a rumor. The warning from South Fork had gained widespread familiarity and was likened to the tale of the boy who cried wolf (McCullough pg. 117).

McCullough uses various sources, including diaries, notes, government documents, and witness testimonies, to recount the tragic events of the dam breaking and the ensuing flood. As the water surged through the valley, it swept away not only houses but also train cars. The author describes how people were caught off guard by the flood, initially only hearing it before finally seeing the debris of towns, buildings, and bridges. The water arrived later. The flood struck Johnstown at approximately 4:07 P.M., according to prevailing accounts. In just about ten minutes, as McCullough details on page 147, the city was overwhelmed by drowning and devastation.

The flood text highlights personal accounts of victims impacted by the flood. One such victim is Gertrude Quinn, a six-year-old girl whose father, James Quinn, owned the Dry Goods store in town. Gertrude and her family resided in an impressive three-story red-brick Queen Anne house in Johnstown. James had concerns about the stability of the South Fork dam and remained anxious throughout the day. When he finally heard the approaching water, he quickly took his baby (who had measles) into his arms and instructed his family to follow him. Believing that everyone was following, he sprinted towards the hills. However, upon reaching safety and looking back, he realized that his family was not with him.

As Aunt Abbie and her baby returned to the house, Gertrude also followed suit. When the flood hit their home, they sought refuge by hiding in a cupboard inside. The raging water tore apart the house during the chaos. As Gertrude struggled to stay above water, she had no knowledge of what happened to Aunt Abbie and her cousin. In an effort to survive, Gertrude grabbed onto a muddy mattress hoping for help. Luckily, Maxwell McAchren came aboard the mattress and eventually threw her to safety just in time. Waiting for her was Mr. Henry Koch who caught her in his arms and pulled her into the remaining standing building’s attic.

There are several tragic stories that didn’t end as well as Gertrude’s. One example is Horace Rose, who suffered severe injuries including a dislocated shoulder, a broken collar bone, multiple crushed ribs, and a half-opened face when his house collapsed on him and his family (McCullough pg. 168). Over time, the water began to clog the Pennsylvania Railroad Bridge with train cars, houses, and other parts of the town. Eventually, everything caught fire, resulting in a fire that claimed the lives of five hundred to six hundred people according to McCullough. Only eighty individuals managed to escape.

Many people could only watch in horror as their neighbors and acquaintances were burned alive during the disaster. Some individuals were so overwhelmed with shock and fear that they aimlessly wandered without stopping. (McCullough pg. 172) By morning, the worst had passed, and rescue teams arrived to aid those still stranded in water and provide assistance to the severely injured, such as little Gertrude Quinn’s grandmother, who had suffered a scalping from her forehead to the nape of her neck. (McCullough pg. 188) The devastation was complete; everything was destroyed, including homes, possessions, and money. Farmers from various locations brought food, water, and clothing to support the refugees. Generous contributions poured in from cities and corporations across the country. Pittsburgh donated $560,000, Philadelphia gave $600,000, and even convicts, schools, and churches contributed what they could. The United States Brewers Association donated $10,000, while international support also came forth with the London Stock Exchange giving $5000 and Germany providing a total of $30,000.

The Queen of England, Queen Victoria, expressed her personal condolences to President Harrison. The donations from within the United States amounted to $3,601,517.80, according to McCullough. In conclusion, the Johnstown flood, although not often taught in history class, was one of the largest disasters ever witnessed in the United States. It garnered sympathy from around the world. McCullough’s meticulously constructed narrative evokes the anguish of those affected and illuminates the causes of the dam failure and its ramifications on both individuals and the nation as a whole.

In his book “The Johnstown Flood,” David McCullough skillfully combines factual information and emotional storytelling to depict the devastating tragedy. According to McCullough, the flood claimed the lives of 2,209 individuals, and he further provides a detailed account of each victim, including their place of burial. Through his narrative, McCullough forces readers to examine the disaster from multiple perspectives and confronts them with undeniable facts, evoking sympathy for those who perished many years ago.

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The Johnstown Flood. (2016, Oct 15). Retrieved from

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