McCullough’s “Flood” is rich with history and detail

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.


The Johnstown Girls – an incredible story of survival and longevity


Woah, I kind of feel like I’ve been tossed around on a mattress riding through the floodwaters of this novel. Don’t jump to conclusions, though. This is not a negative review. I actually really liked this book despite having a devil of a time getting into it and getting interested in it. From the beginning, I disliked the distant, impersonal narration. Third person present. It seemed such an odd way to tell the story. I got used to it, but I also didn’t like Ben or Nina, so it was hard to get started and become invested in the book. However, that finally happened when the book became more about the lives of Ellen and Anna than about the journalists. The lives led by Ellen and Anna are different, yet the same, and both are fascinating. Both were forward thinking women for their time, which led them to have long, meaningful lives. As Nina points out, these women lived through four wars, the changing from horse-drawn transportation to automobiles, from candles to electric. They watched the entire world change in the span of their 100+ years.

As the book jumped from Ellen and Anna’s lives back to the journalists, I slowly began to like Nina. She was a Johnstown girl, a fighter, a survivor. Finding her way without help and support. Learning to identify, then follow her instincts. She blossomed into her own person and learned what she wanted, both personally and professionally. To me, however, Ben remained a wet noodle throughout the novel. He seemed a man who either didn’t know what he wanted or didn’t have the guts to go get what he wanted. Either way, I could never muster any sympathy for him, despite his awkward, difficult situation.

Kathleen George’s style of blending truth (the Johnstown flood really was a natural disaster that devastated the town in 1889) with fiction was well done and very appealing. Her story of Ellen and Mary riding through the flood gives the reader a sense of what the disaster was like for the real people who survived it. The inclusion of actual photos from the flood and its aftermath heightened the devastation described in the novel and added to the overall sense of loss and attitude of perseverance and survival.

Give this novel a chance. You won’t be disappointed.

University of Pittsburgh Press – April 1st 2014