On Memorial Day in 1889, the South Fork dam, overburdened by monsoon-like rains and years of neglect, gave way and a disastrous flood ripped through the working-class town of Johnstown, PA. The town was wiped out and over 2,200 people lost their lives.
While much has been written, and embellished, about the flood and its aftermath, Pulitzer Prize-winning author David McCullough’s work on the subject is the best and most factual to date. The Johnstown Flood overflows with information that is well-written and engaging. The meticulousness of McCullough’s research comes through in the many journals, diaries, newspapers, and personal accounts that he cites throughout.
McCullough spends several chapters building up the image of the town prior to the flood, giving the reader a portrait of Johnstown and its people. It was an industrial place with iron works, steel mills, and railroads providing most of the employment. The population was a diverse one, drawing immigrants from Europe and Great Britain. Life was hard and the people were poor, but the town was booming and employment was steady. On May 31st, the townspeople were preparing for the Memorial Day parade and lamenting another rainy day.
The author also introduces readers to the men of The South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club, the same men who owned and failed to maintain the South Fork Dam. Most were Pittsburgh magnates of steel mills and railroads. Many were or would become millionaires. The club was their rural retreat, a means of getting out of the hot city during the warm summer months. The South Fork Dam was their key to ensuring that members had a lake full of fish to catch and a body of water large enough to sail on. Unfortunately, none of them ensured that the old dam was sound. By the time the club members acknowledged that it wasn’t, it was too late.
Unlike the sensationalized accounts written by journalists who traveled by train, horse, or foot to reach Johnstown just days after the disastrous flood, McCullough’s Flood conveys the horror of the aftermath without unnecessary embellishments. Human bodies damaged beyond recognition, bloated animal carcasses washing ashore, a debris pile made up of smashed houses, train cars, lumber, barbed wire, mattresses, and stranded survivors that caught on fire. The threat of disease. None of these things required dramatization, and The Johnstown Flood is much more poignant without such manipulations.
The book is an enticing and informative account of social injustice. The homes, livelihoods, and families of the working class residents of Johnstown were destroyed by the cavalier and indifferent attitudes of the wealthy. Not a single club member was ever held accountable for a disaster that caused $17 million (the equivalent of $460 million today) in damages and destroyed an entire town. Perhaps the most evocative part of the book is the 17 pages it takes to list the names of the 2,200 people who died in the flood. Gripping and factual even 50 years after its initial publication, this book is well worth reading.