Posted by: Sally Ingraham | July 28, 2014

The Johnstown Flood

by David McCullough

Last week when I wrote about Three Rivers Rising by Jame Richards, and the Great Flood of 1889, I didn’t really expect to read David McCullough’s book on the subject right away. A casual search at my local library branch turned it up and although I’d only meant to check if they had it, for some future mid-winter entertainment, my curiosity got the better of me and into my bag it went. I started the book over breakfast the next day, and then spent much of a slow day at work being swept along by the terrible rush of the narrative. I was supposed to be selling veggies at the indoor market where I work, but instead of talking taters I was sharing flood facts.

Which are, in brief: Johnstown, PA, in the 1880s was a coal-and-steel town just reaching it’s boom-time. Many families were achieving their first real business success, and at the very least there was work for whomever wanted it. In the mountains above Johnstown an old earth dam, which had changed hands a few times, was then under the ownership and responsibility of an exclusive sporting club, members of which included Andrew Carnegie, Henry Clay Frick, and Andrew Mellon (very rich dudes!) Shoddily repaired, the dam haphazardly held back the waters of Lake Conemaugh, and despite warnings of potential danger and annual nervousness during spring rains, it did hold them for years.

However, during a phenomenal rain storm on May 31st, 1889, the dam finally burst, dropping the swollen lake down from it’s mountain hold at roughly 1,600 feet, through 15 miles of narrow twisting gorge, and right onto Johnstown. The build-up of water pressure and force was like turning Niagara onto Johnstown for 30 minutes. The wall of water destroyed everything in it’s path through the mountains and obliterated the majority of the city. In Johnstown alone at least 2,000 people died. The flood became the biggest news story, and scandal, in the country.

McCullough’s book draws from tons of records, diaries, letters, and interviews with survivors (it was published in 1968 so some of the very youngest survivors were very, very old when McCullough caught up with them). The narrative is engaging, roaring with details and lively characterizations. McCullough wove a painstaking description of the events throughout a richly textured portrait of Johnstown, the place and the people, and how both fit into the grand scheme of that point in PA’s history and the country at large.

McCullough’s view as a good storyteller and a great social historian made for an excellent read, but my enjoyment was deepened because of having just read Three Rivers Rising. Richards listed McCullough’s book as her main source of info about the flood, and it was fascinating to see what sort of details inspired her and what true-life characters and circumstances she explored and let her imagination run with. I’ve always dabbled in writing historical fiction, and this glimpse into the process of another storyteller was nifty.

I mentioned that Richards didn’t really point any fingers in her narrative. McCullough does, but even though a large part of the blame for the disaster can be dumped in the velvet draped laps of the rich club members, the true cause of the dam bursting is fairly complex. I appreciated how thoroughly McCullough investigated all the various arguments, not without bias, but certainly laying blame fairly, and without hysterics. He left that for the newspapermen of the time!

A contemporary illustration of the broken dam from Harper’s Weekly

In the end, he pulled two crucial mistakes out of the wreckage of facts surrounding the dam’s failure. First, ‘that if man, for any reason, drastically alters the natural order, setting in motion a whole series of chain reactions, then he had better know what he is doing.’ (p. 260)

In the case of the South Fork dam (which was the initial alteration of natural order), repairs were not conducted by experts, there was a sag at the center of the dam (due to crappy repairs), the spillway was obstructed (by gates meant to keep the club’s fish in the club’s lake!), and most ridiculous of all, there were no longer any discharge pipes at the base of the dam (meaning that the club owners at no point whatsoever had any control over the level of the lake). Yes, there was a storm without precedent, a biblical rain, but it was general knowledge soon after the flood in Johnstown and across the country, that, as one George Swank wrote, “We think we know what struck us, and it was not the hand of Providence. Our misery is the work of man.” (p. 253)

Andrew Carnegie

Henry Clay Frick


The work of the same men who built the mills and mines that provided jobs, and therefore food and shelter, to the people of Johnstown – the fabulously wealthy, powerful, brilliant business men who were relentlessly building industries and pushing the country toward greatness. It had been foolish to believe that they could also look after a little earth dam in the mountains.

The second crucial mistake, according to McCullough, was one that was made by the club members as well as most of Johnstown, who ‘went along on the assumption that the people who were responsible for their safety were behaving responsibly.’ (p. 262-63)

The club members took it for granted that the men who rebuilt the dam knew what they were about. And as I said above, the people of Johnstown believed that the clubmen would be sensible enough to mend the dam well. Both were wrong, and catastrophe ensued.

There’s an excellent lesson here, but it’s disheartening to note that history has repeated itself over and over and over again. Men continue to tamper with “the forces of nature on a stupendous scale“, as the director of the U. S. Geological Survey, Mayor John Wesley Powell, wrote later in the summer of 1889. “Woe to the people who trust these powers to the hands of fools.” (p. 263)

Shall we talk about the Sidoarjo mud volcano, set off in 2006 by a drilling operation (probably) and still spewing mud to this day…??

The people of Johnstown rebuilt, the mills and mines reopened, and the clubmen (although charged in court to some degree, and broadly condemned by the workingman) were never required to pay for their part in the disaster. This added to the bitterness and resentment stewing in the lower classes, who were beginning to notice that despite ‘the progress being made everywhere…the growing prosperity and the prospect of an even more abundant future…not all was right in the Republic.’ (p. 248) It is worth noting that just three years later the violent Homestead steel strike erupted in Pittsburgh, and Henry Clay Frick narrowly escaped death by bullet in his neck.

As much as we haven’t taken to heart the lessons of the Johnstown Flood, we haven’t made a lot of progress either on addressing the destructive forces of ‘the trusts, the giant corporations, and the men who [run] them‘ in this country. (p. 249) Back in 1889 folks asked how ‘such a calamity could possibly happen in the United States of America‘. (p. 248) I must ask, how could such calamities possibly still occur here? Appalling, frustrating thought.

But setting that aside, I’d recommend The Johnstown Flood if you’re in the mood for a dramatic tale of devastation. I’ll be seeking out more of David McCullough’s work, as he went on to write Pulitzer Prize-winning books Truman and John Adams, as well as histories of the Brooklyn Bridge and the Panama Canal, and most recently The Greater Journey (2011) , about Americans in Paris from the 1830s to the 1900s. Sounds interesting!

(According to his Wiki page, after writing about the Johnstown Flood, publishers asked him to write about the Great Chicago Fire and the San Francisco earthquake, but he turned those ideas down because he didn’t want to become known as “Bad News McCullough”…! Ha! Poor fellow, he does give disaster a nice ring…)

Oh, and did I mention that he’s a Pittsburgh native? Remember this bridge?

16th St. Bridge - Oct. 21st 2013

In 2012 the David McCullough Bridge (better known as the 16th Street Bridge) was dedicated to the author and historian, who was born in Pittsburgh in 1933 (ten years after the bridge was completed). I’d forgotten about that until I noted how frequently folks commented on what I was reading – Pittsburghers like their local authors!

Aside from visiting Johnstown soon (via train! so exciting!) I mean to read more about Andrew Carnegie, and Clara Barton (who brought her Red Cross unit to Johnstown after the flood – the first major disaster it was present for in America). I also want to find An American Doctor’s Odyssey by Victor Heiser (a teenage survivor of the flood who lost both his parents, but then put himself through medical school and traveled the world researching the prevention of disease – his account of his experience during the flood can be read here).

I, at least, mean to learn something from history…!


  1. Victor Heiser’s account of surviving was amazing and miraculous!

  2. […] book Thunder In the Mountains: The West Virginia Mine War 1920-21. Hot off learning about the Johnstown Flood, I was itching for more local history, so I took it home and inhaled it. It was a lively and very […]

  3. […] PA, on Sunday, to visit the scenes of the Johnstown Flood. Although I didn’t ride the train as I’d planned to, being in a vehicle meant my fellow historians and I could get up into the mountains to view […]

  4. […] history through Margarita Engle’s beautiful books, and became obsessed with the story of the Johnstown Flood and the West Virginia Mine […]

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