Book Review – The Johnstown Flood

I received the Kindle version of David McCullough’s book “The Johnstown Flood” for my birthday. It was on my Amazon wish list and my sister was nice enough to purchase it for me. I had seen this somewhere and thought that it would be interesting to read. Not many people are aware of the flood and even though I had heard about it, I really didn’t know anything about what had happened or what had caused it. This is actually a really sad fact because I had a friend who lived in Johnstown for a few years while her husband attended Christ the Saviour Seminary in Johnstown. She had been to the flood museum many times, but for some strange reason I never went there with her. I now wish that I had.

If you have never read anything by David McCullough I highly suggest you pick up one of his books, or at the very least one of his audio books. He is the acclaimed author of “1776”, “The Great Bridge: The Epic Story of the Building of the Brooklyn Bridge”, “Truman”, and “John Adams” (which was recently made into a miniseries for TV). I love his writing style because it feels like he’s telling you a story instead of teaching you history. I listened to most of “The Great Bridge” audio book, then later bought the paperback version so that I could finish the story. It’s true that I love nonfiction and will read about almost anything, but Mr. McCullough has a way of bringing the history to life and making you feel like you’re right there in the thick of things.

In 1889 on Memorial Day weekend there was a LOT of rain. The people of Johnstown, and the valley above them, were used to the spring floods, but even they were shocked to see how quickly the water was rising. Every time there was a lot of rain there were people who would swear that the South Fork Dam was going to fail this time and then they would all be wiped out.

The South Fork Dam was originally built in the early 1800’s by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania in order to create a canal system similar to the Erie Canal in New York. It created a huge body of water that was bought and sold a few times before a group of wealthy investors from Pittsburgh purchased it. This group purchased it with the intentions of making it into a resort-type of area where the members could spend the summers outside of the city with their families. One of the more famous investors in this group was Andrew Carnegie. The group hired contractors to fix some issues with the dam, but engineers would later discover that there were a few HUGE issues that were overlooked. One of them being an overflow pipe, or pipes of any sort, that would allow the level of the water to be lowered as needed.

In May of 1889 the water rose so quickly that despite their best efforts, the men in charge of the camp were unable to keep the water level from breaching the top of the dam. After fighting the inevitable all day, at a little after 3 in the afternoon the dam broke and 20 million tons of water went rushing down the valley towards Johnstown.

Years later the survivors would still be able to recall the amazing sound of the water rushing towards them. It gave them a few moments notice before it swept away everything in its path. Traveling down through the valley it became a large wave of mud, trees, houses, bodies and other debris that it had picked up on its path of destruction. Train engines were picked up and tossed about like leaves on a pond. The one description that sticks in my mind the most is that it wasn’t like a wave that you would see crashing on the beach. It was more like a rolling and churning mass that crushed down on things rather than splashed down on them. Obviously Mr. McCullough does a much better job of describing this massive… mess… is the best word that I can find to describe it.

The landscape was changed so much by the devastation of the flood that people who had lived there for their entire lives could not tell you in which part of the city they were standing once they were able to survey what remained. Can you imagine? The initial carnage was terrible, but it would only get worse as the days passed. If you survived you would think that you were lucky, until you realized that there wasn’t any food or potable water, the buildings that were left standing were filled to capacity with dirty, stinking mud and filth, and the wreakage invited disease into the city. The stench of the mud, filth, and death hung heavily in the air for weeks.

David McCullough is a talented writer and does an excellent job of bringing this story to life, not only of the flood itself but the aftermath and how the people survived. The story will suck you in quickly and carry you on a wave of emotion as you soak up this book. If you enjoy reading about history then I don’t think you will be disappointed with any of Mr. McCullough’s books. The only problem you will run into is deciding which one to read next. 🙂

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