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September 28, 2007

The Johnstown Flood

David McCullough - ISBN – 9780671207144

This was the “maiden voyage” of a man who has become one of the best known and respected American historians of this era. His many books include biographies of Teddy Roosevelt (Mornings on Horseback) and Harry Truman (Truman), descriptions of the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge (Great Bridge) and the Panama Canal (Path Between the Seas), and most recently 1776, best sellers all.

On May 31st, 1889 the steel town of Johnstown, PA, was obliterated by a local flood of almost biblical proportions. This book chronicles that event which was, for this boom town, the marriage of D-Day and Katrina. It is a riveting read encompassing the horror of the moment and the magnificence of American humanity, attesting to the grit, determination and endurance of people affected by such calamities.

In the mountains above the community was a manmade lake confined by an inadequate earthen dam. After a winter with unusual snow fall, and a spring of heavy rain the dam burst with little warning—and that not heeded—unleashing thousands of acre feet of water in only a few minutes. This resulted in a wall of water as much as 70 feet high which cleared the mountain trough thru which it raced, picking up whole trees, mammoth boulders, and the splintered homes of smaller upstream communities. Whole trains were tossed about like toys and steel mills crushed like orange crates. Stone churches were brushed out of the way. In only 10 minutes Johnstown went from a thriving community to a ruin clogged by building and railroad remains, thousands of dead animals and several thousand dead humans. Many bodies were never found and many more were so dismembered as to be unidentifiable.

The lake had been constructed originally by the state to maintain water levels in a regional canal, but with the advent of railroads the obsolete canal was abandoned. The lake and surrounding property was sold to a consortium of the wealthiest Americans who made the dam higher and the lake larger to create a week-end retreat. This made the disaster into a national scandal.

McCullough’s enormous writing skill creates a vivid, richly detailed, thoroughgoing description of the physical and emotional results of this catastrophe while creating an absorbing portrait of a thriving community which accurately reflected life in 19th century America.

Amongst interesting details were the original estimates of 10,000 dead, along with plunder, rape and murder. Rather like Katrina, but those ancient rumors were dispelled within 2-3 days. With Katrina, you'll recall, there are still festering rumors circulating 2 years later.

Money flowed in from every state and fourteen foreign countries totaling over four million dollars. In little more than a day the railroad bed was restored to service after having been severely damaged. In less than a week 200 carloads of donated provisions had been delivered and 7,000 workers showed up to assist. The Red Cross had its first real disaster mission as Clara Barton showed up with 50 doctors and nurses, along with hospital supplies in less than four days (remember this was a pretty remote area in the mountains of West-Central Pennsylvania, and the year was 1889.)

In less than 3 months steel was again being manufactured and the community restored, if incompletely. Shops were rebuilt, many were open and more were about to reopen. Band concerts and ball games were being held; and picnics with ice cream had again become regular week-end events.

This is a great and inspiring read, and a proper testimonial to American ingenuity and the vigor of democracy, capitalism and cooperating humanity under duress. As well, it raises questions about the tenacity of modern day Americans.

Posted by respeto at September 28, 2007 12:27 PM