Saturday marks the 125th anniversary of the Johnstown Flood. For those interested in history, I recommend you read or listen to David McCullough's take on the disaster. He is more famous for "John Adams" and "1776" but "The Johnstown Flood" was his first historical novel.
A dam breaking at a hunting club in Cresson (a club owned by some of the wealthiest men in America at the time) cut a path of destruction down the Conemaugh Valley that ended in the bowl that is Johnstown.
McCullough uses historical records, interviews with survivors and newspaper account to paint a gripping picture not only of the destruction of a small Pennsylvania city but of the events that led up to the disaster and the aftermath. The tales of tragedy and heroism, of ignorance and arrogance, never cease to amaze me.
More than 2,200 men, women and children perished Friday, May 31, 1889, and more than one-third of the bodies were never identified. The men, women and children who died later from injuries, exposure or disease are not included in the official total. When those are counted, the number rises to almost 2,500. Ninety-nine entire families were gone and almost 400 children younger than 10 were killed. At least 80 people were killed when the debris that trapped them against a stone bridge caught fire. There were almost 23,000 people in the valley that afternoon and 1 in 10 were dead by nightfall. Bodies were found as far away as Stuebenville, Ohio, almost 100 miles to the west and as late as 1906.
The survivors fought against hunger, disease and thirst. Every basic necessity of life had been stripped away. The day after the flood, the people in the region began to show up with food, water and medicine, often carrying the provisions on the backs through landslides and debris. Within days, the entire nation had taken notice. Men worked tirelessly to repair railroad tracks and telegraph lines. Clara Barton and the Red Cross arrived as soon as the lines were open.
Clothing, tents and coffins arrived by the trainload. Thousands of people arrived to pitch in and help the city rebuild. Money came from every U.S. state and from 14 foreign countries. More than $3.3 million in cash was donated, and that doesn't include the goods and services that were donated from across every section of American society, from the Astors in New York City to the convicts at Western Penitentiary in Pittsburgh, who baked hundreds of loaves of bread to be transported by train to the area.
It is a fascinating story of destruction and redemption.
I live only a few miles from Johnstown now and I'm old enough to remember the 1977 version of the flooding that gripped the region (although I lived in Northern Ohio at the time). The audiobook of McCullough's novel is read by Edward Hermann and it is one of the best recitations I've heard.
If you're looking for something interesting to read and you're tired of fiction, David McCullough is tough to beat. Perhaps the only historical novel I rate higher is Shelby Foote's massive tome, "The Civil War."