The Johnstown Flood (Review)

The Johnstown Flood (Review)

n 1889, the city of Johnstown was happy and prosperous (isn’t this always the way of things?). Located in a steep valley at the convergence of Stoney Creek and the Little Conemaugh River, it enjoyed the service of the Pennsylvania Railroad and the business of several steel mills. The people were happy, oblivious to the slightest hint of foreshadowing on my part.

But up the sharp valley of the Little Conemaugh River, fifteen miles up, topping a side valley, the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club enjoyed their scenic valley and beautiful lake. Composed of Pittsburgh’s elite, the rich and powerful (back when not just anyone could be thus), their group had built the old South Fork Dam to produce their beautiful lake. miles long and quite deep. Lots of water, just waiting for something to happen.

And happen it did when a once-per-century storm dropped buckets of rainwater into hills denuded of trees, filling the lake. Of course, the relief outlets had been removed for scrap in the rebuilding and the spillways had protective grating over them to keep the fish stock in so once they plugged, the water had nothing to do but rise. The club did what it could (i.e. groundskeepers with shovels) but there was no stopping the water – once it was over the sagging top of the dam, the force of millions of gallons of water carved through the earthworks like a knife through a wedding cake, and down the valley the wave roared, thirty-five feet high and loaded with the rubbish of the hamlets it swept up as it thundered downwards.

Of course, what it did the the communities around Johnstown – frightening. Not only was the crushing impact of this mid-continental tsunami devastating, but all the houses swept along in the crest, many of them containing their trapped inhabitants, they all smashed into the stone railroad bridge just north of town. And somewhere in the wreckage was a hot stove. And suddenly it was truly a pyre, with flames and screams and images beyond the most craven of modern cinema.

The Johnstown Flood is a very quick and interesting read, following the runup to the tragedy, the mistakes made (both by the club, the railroad, and the townspeople). It details the event, step by step and gallon by gallon, as a living town is literally ripped apart. And then there is the aftermath, the efforts of people in this disaster zone to deal with the muddy waste that had been their town, now reeking of the 2000 corpses littered about. And, of course, for a socialist like me, there is the followup with the hopeless legal attempts of the poor against the rich. Of course, the club was underfunded and blew away like sand in the wind. The rich slipped off into the shadows, donating money but distancing themselves from the club. Yes, that sort of thing warms my revolutionary heart.

While the history is fascinating, I need to point out that the author didn’t quite understand the true workings of railroads. For one thing, the Pennsy did not relay on telegraph towers – those were interlocking or signal towers that happened to come with telegraphs to connect them up and down the line (for the control of trains). Most of the telegraphy would have been between the depots. Worse, the author slanders the Yardmaster who had three eastbound passenger trains in his yard, literally calling him stupid for not “doing anything”. Simply put, a yardmaster cannot “do anything” beyond the yard limit signs. As it read, he took what precautionary measures he could, ordering the three passenger trains to tuck against the depot, a move which actually saved a great number of people. His only other alternative (with the lines going down and no authority for moving trains outside of yard) would be to back all three movements under a walking flagman west along the valley. And, of course, if the one-in-a-million flood did not occur, and his five-hour overdue first-class trains were now inching backwards in the boonies, out of all contact, it would have spelled the end of his career. So, yes, it’s easy to play the century-and-a-half-after quarterback on this. Here, I think the author was trumping up blame where none existed.

Overall, it was a great book, one that I’d recommend. While there have been disasters since then that surpassed the events of Johnstown, there is something about an event that came crashing down out of a rainy afternoon.