The Johnstown Flood, by David McCullough

Second paragraph of third chapter:

Even before night had ended there had been signs of trouble. At five o’clock a landslide had caved in the stable at Kress’s brewery, and anyone who was awake then could hear the rivers. By six everyone who was up and about knew that Johnstown was in for a bad time. The rivers were rising at better than a foot an hour. They were a threatening yellow-brown color and already full of logs and big pieces of lumber that went bounding along as though competing in some sort of frantic race.

I picked this up out of curiosity, having learned that my great-great-uncle was one of the victims of the worst ever civilian accident to hit the United States, in which 2209 people are said to have died.

A Treacherous Pole.

A horse, supposed to be the one upon which Robert Wickersham was riding when the flood overtook him and he climbed a telegraph pole, was found upon the premises of a farmer back of Woodvale. The horse had apparently been in the woods for several days, and was almost starved. Upon his back was a saddle, which was supposed to be owned by Mr. Wickersham. The farmer will keep the horse until called for. Mr. Wickersham was the chief draughtsman at the Johnson Steel company's works.

    Wickersham was seen to climb up the pole until he reached the cross-arms, where he rested. He apparently thought he was safe, and yelled to a number of people to run up the hill out of the water's reach. In a few minutes the pole "sagged" and tipped over. Wickersham still clung to it and the pole began to drop lower and lower. All of a sudden the pole give a lurch and fell into the water. Wickersham disappeared from view and was seen no more. The people living in the row of frame houses on the hillside opposite saw him as he went down.

Wickersham's name was actually Richard, not Robert. He was one of the 980 victims of the flood whose body was never found. Two years later, in 1891, his sister Rebecca married Henry Deming Hibbard (an iron man, like the Wickershams' father Samuel) and in due course Rebecca and Henry became my great-grandparents. Poor Robert or Richard Wickersham was my grandmother’s uncle, though she was not born until 1899, ten years later, and she would have known of him only as one of various dead members of her parents' generation.

David McCullough is one of the great American historians – I've previously written up his John Adams. This was his first book, published in 1968 when a number of survivors of the 1889 flood were still alive. He constructed a compelling and clear narrative of what happened, first in the years between the completion of the South Fork Dam, 100 km east of Pittsburgh, in 1853 and its catastropic collapse thirty-five years later (think of a structure near you that was built thirty-five years ago, in 1986), then on the day of the disaster itself, and then in the days and weeks and months of clearing up afterwards. I must admit that when it came to the point where the dam broke and a wall of water washed away the inhabitants of the valley below, I really could not put the book down. (Even though my grandmother's uncle is not mentioned.)

Some really interesting points came through. Blame of course can be placed in many quarters, but the critical structural damage to the dam was done by John Reilly, briefly a Pennsylvania Congressman, who bought the dam and lake in 1875 and sold them on in 1879, meanwhile having removed the discharge pipes that controlled the outward flow of water and sold them for scrap. He sold the estate on to a private club, whose members included the fabulously wealthy Andrew Carnegie, banker and future Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon and future Attorney-General and Secretary of State Philander Knox, and which did no serious maintenance whatsoever. The club was mysteriously not incorporated in the right county, so the regulatory powers of the local authority, which were minimal in any case, were never properly engaged. The railroad wrote to the owners expressing serious concerns about structural integrity, and were fobbed off.

On 29 and 30 May 1889, that part of Pennsylvania received the highest rainfall ever recorded there, around 200 mm. The club staff spotted that there was a problem on the morning of the 31st, and did their best to shore up the crumbling dam, also telegraphing warnings downstream to Johnstown, where nobody listened because they had had too many false alarms before. The dam broke at lunchtime, and 14.5 million cubic metres of water tipped down the narrow valley, hitting Johnstown with a wall of liquid 18m high in places, travelling at about 60 kph. It had already smashed through the iron works at nearby Woodvale. The valley was devastated.

There are some very evocative eyewitness accounts. Here's Gertrude Quinn, aged six at the time, in her eighties when McCullough talked to her when researching the book:

Gertrude never saw the wave. The sight of the crowds jamming through the street had so terrified her aunt and Libby Hipp that they had pulled back from the window, horrified, dragging her with them into an open cupboard.
    “Libby, this is the end of the world, we will all die together,” Aunt Abbie sobbed, and dropped to her knees and began praying hysterically, “Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, Have mercy on us, oh, God . . .”
    Gertrude started screaming and jumping up and down, calling “Papa, Papa, Papa,” as fast as she could get it out.
    The cupboard was in what was the dining room of an elaborate playhouse built across the entire front end of the third floor. There was nothing like it anywhere else in town, the whole place having been fitted out and furnished by Quinn’s store. There was a long center hall and a beautifully furnished parlor at one end and little bedrooms with doll beds, bureaus, washstands, and ingrain carpets on the floors. The dining room had a painted table, chairs, sideboard with tiny dishes, hand-hemmed tablecloths, napkins, and silverware.
    From where she crouched in the back of the cupboard, Gertrude could see across the dining room into a miniature kitchen with its own table and chairs, handmade iron stove, and, on one wall, a whole set of iron cooking utensils hanging on little hooks. Libby Hipp was holding her close, crying and trembling.
    Then the big house gave a violent shudder. Gertrude saw the tiny pots and pans begin to sway and dance. Suddenly plaster dust came down. The walls began to break up. Then, at her aunt’s feet, she saw the floor boards burst open and up gushed a fountain of yellow water.
    “And these boards were jagged . . . and I looked at my aunt, and they didn’t say a word then. All the praying stopped, and they gasped, and looked down like this, and were gone, immediately gone.”

And then the story of the aftermath is also interesting. The newspapers did their best to get to the scene as quickly as possible, and of course found it good for sales to exaggerate the disaster even beyond the horrific reality. One story that did the rounds involved Hungarian immigrants caught looting and then lynched; there was no truth to this at all. I also found it interesting that the survivors rapidly met and elected one of their number (34-year-old Welsh-born Arthur J. Moxham) as "dictator" until the regular civil powers were able to resume control. Obviously only the men were involved in this process, and perhaps a weakness of the book (not unexpected given who wrote it and when) is a failure to look at the gendered aspects of what was going on.

Still, it's a cracking good read. You can get it here.

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