The Johnstown Flood

The Johnstown flood is tragic story. Almost a myth these days, thousands of lives were lost only hundreds saved. David McCullough artfully tells the story of the dam that broke, because of ignorance and neglect, and the individual lives that it affected, he crafts together the facts of the disaster with the emotion making you see and feel the pain and hurt. When the huge dam broke and hundreds of thousands of gallons of water went rushing down into the valley there was nothing anyone could do to save the lives of those caught in its path.

There were many lucky ones who managed to get to high ground out of reach of the, “wall of rubbish”, but there were an unbelievable number of victims who were crushed, drowned, injured fatally or burned alive. McCullough’s thorough investigation of the flood leaves him with the ability to write from the perspective of the survivors. He easily creates a way for us to connect with the story by not making it all just statistical facts, but also journalistic facts. You may be wondering how the dam burst in the first place. Well according to McCullough there were many factors.

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The dam itself had many internal flaws, like the fact that it sagged a bit in the very middle of the dam where it needed to be the strongest, it would not have been noticeable to the regular eye though. The dam was part of the South Fork Hunting and Fishing Club, which was a prestigious summer, mountain club. It had members such as Andrew Carnegie and Henry Clay Frick. The dam created a lake for the members of the club to go boating (which was very rare, especially in the mountains), but when the dam was being rebuilt for this club many things were overlooked.

For example the fact that there was no way of controlling the amount of water it held, this meant that once they raised the level of the water there was no way to go back. There were also many small leaks that were overlooked, passed off as, “springs that came from near the ends of the dam. ”(McCullough pg. 175) Many always had fears that the dam would break, but never thought it would cause actual damage. The people were very ignorant of the power of the tremendous amount of water.

The day the dam broke some warnings were sent to Johnstown and the surrounding towns, but most of them didn’t even leave the telegraph towers, because they had heard the warning before and didn’t even think about it. Most of the people in Johnstown were not worried about the dam breaking, it seemed unrealistic to them. McCullough quotes a man named D. M. Montgomery saying, “nobody paid any attention to it… I know I didn’t for one. It seemed like a rumor and they didn’t take any belief in it”. (McCullough pg. 117) He was a tower operator, saying that the warning coming from South Fork was well known, like the boy who cried wolf.

McCullough utilizes diaries, notes, government documents, witness testimonies and many other sources to tell this sad story. When the dam broke and the water went crashing through the valley below, it picked up things like houses and train cars. He tells of how people didn’t see the water coming, they heard it, and when they finally did see it, all they saw the miscellaneous pieces of the towns, buildings, bridges and all sorts of stuff, then the water came afterwards. The flood hit Johnstown at 4:07 P. M. (which is the generally accepted time). McCullough tells us that the, “drowning and devastation of the city took just about ten minutes. (McCullough pg. 147)

He informs us of some personal stories of victims during the flood like that of Gertrude Quinn. She was six-years old and the daughter of James Quinn, who ran the Dry Goods store in town. They lived in, “one of Johnstown’s show places, a three-story, red-brick Queen Anne house. ”(McCullough pg 158) James was worried throughout the day, for he had no confidence in the South Fork dam. When he heard the water coming he grabbed his baby, which had the measles, and told his family to follow him. He ran for the hills, confident that everyone was coming, but when he got there and turned around they were not there.

Aunt Abbie (who was staying with them at the time) had second thoughts and turned back with her baby to the house, Gertrude followed. They ran into the house and hid in a cupboard when the flood hit the house. The water ripped open the house and Gertrude had no idea what happened to Aunt Abbie and her cousin, because she was falling and just trying to stay afloat. Eventually she grabbed hold of a muddy mattress and tried to get help. A man named Maxwell McAchren climbed aboard her mattress and when the time came, threw her to safety. The awaiting arms of Mr. Henry Koch caught her and pulled her into the attic of a still-standing building.

There are many other tragic stories, most not ending as well as Gertrude’s, like Horace Rose who was injured very badly, “with a dislocated shoulder, a broken collar bone, several crushed ribs, and half his face ripped open”, after his house collapsed on him and his family. (McCullough pg. 168) After a while the water started clogging in the big Pennsylvania Railroad Bridge with train cars, houses, and other parts of the town. Eventually it all caught fire and according to McCullough five hundred to six hundred people died in the fire and only eighty people managed to escape.

Many could not do anything to help, and ended up watching as people they knew, their neighbors, got burned alive. “Several people spent the night in trees…there were a number of people who were in such a state of shock and fear that they just started walking, stopping for nothing”. (McCullough pg. 172) My morning the worst of the disaster was over. Rescue crews started showing up to help people still out in the water and helping those who were severely injured like, “little Gertrude Quinn’s grandmother, had had her scalp torn off from her forehead back to the nape of her neck. (McCullough pg. 188) Everything was destroyed, all possessions gone, money gone, houses gone. Farmers from all over began bringing food, water, and clothing in to town to help the refugees. Many cities and companies donated money to help Johnstown. Pittsburgh gave $560,000; Philadelphia gave $600,000; Churches, schools even convicts, sent what they could. The United States Brewers Association came to give $10,000. Even other countries donated money to the cause. The London Stock Exchange gave $5000; Germany came to a total of $30,000.

The Queen of England, Queen Victoria, even gave her personal condolences to President Harrison. The donations from within the United States came to equal $3,601,517. 80, according to McCullough. In conclusion, even though we don’t learn about it in history class, the Johnstown flood was one of the biggest disasters the United States has ever seen. It attracted world-wide sympathy. The carefully constructed story that McCullough tells makes you feel the pain of those involved, he makes you understand the reasons why the dam broke and how it affected not just the individuals but also the whole nation.

McCullough painstakingly winds the facts together with the emotional side of this devastating tragedy. According to McCullough the total number lost in the flood is 2,209 victims, then he goes on to list each victim and what cemetery they are buried in. David McCullough’s, “The Johnstown Flood”, artfully tells the story of this disaster, forcing you to look at it from all sides, and throwing the facts in your face making you feel sympathetic for those who died so many years ago.

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