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The Johnstown Flood (1968)

by David McCullough

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1,744576,810 (4.03)181
The stunning story of one of America's great disasters, a preventable tragedy of Gilded Age America, brilliantly told by master historian David McCullough. At the end of the nineteenth century, Johnstown, Pennsylvania, was a booming coal-and-steel town filled with hardworking families striving for a piece of the nation's burgeoning industrial prosperity. In the mountains above Johnstown, an old earth dam had been hastily rebuilt to create a lake for an exclusive summer resort patronized by the tycoons of that same industrial prosperity, among them Andrew Carnegie, Henry Clay Frick, and Andrew Mellon. Despite repeated warnings of possible danger, nothing was done about the dam. Then came May 31, 1889, when the dam burst, sending a wall of water thundering down the mountain, smashing through Johnstown, and killing more than 2,000 people. It was a tragedy that became a national scandal. Graced by David McCullough's remarkable gift for writing richly textured, sympathetic social history, The Johnstown Flood is an absorbing, classic portrait of life in nineteenth-century America, of overweening confidence, of energy, and of tragedy. It also offers a powerful historical lesson for our century and all times: the danger of assuming that because people are in positions of responsibility they are necessarily behaving responsibly.… (more)
  1. 20
    A Night to Remember by Walter Lord (Stbalbach)
    Stbalbach: McCullough dissected Lord's book for style and technique and was "greatly influenced by Walter Lord's example" in writing The Johnstown Flood.
  2. 00
    Ruthless Tide: The Heroes and Villains of The Johnstown Flood, America's Astonishing Gilded Age Disaster by Al Roker (Anonymous user)
    Anonymous user: One reviewer on Goodreads claimed that both books are similar with Roker's focusing a bit more of the members of the South Fork club than McCullough does.
  3. 00
    Julie by Catherine Marshall (dara85)
    dara85: Marshall used a lot of the details from the Johnstown Flood to create the flood in the fictional book, Julie.
  4. 00
    Miracle in the Andes by Nando Parrado (dara85)
  5. 00
    The Johnstown Flood by Willis Fletcher Johnson (oregonobsessionz)
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» See also 181 mentions

Showing 1-5 of 57 (next | show all)
Even in this, his first published book, McCullough exhibits his trademark style of gathering a wealth of information from contemporary sources, subsequent reflections and current reassessments, and then weaving it all together into a gripping narrative. There was a lot of engineering talk in the first third of the book, which I found sluggish going. But McCullough is a master at engaging the reader; once I got past the tricky technical bits about the construction and maintenance (or lack of it) of the South Fork dam, he had me totally hooked. You know that cliche about not being able to look away from a train wreck...that's what reading this was like for me. I could wish the photos and maps included in the book had been more sharply reproduced. Even with McCullough's fairly comprehensive descriptions of what was being represented, it was difficult to make out details. Most of them are available on-line, though, where they show to much better effect. The Johnstown Flood is a piece of history that just begs for a treatment like this. If only we could learn from what happens when disaster strikes... ( )
  laytonwoman3rd | Apr 18, 2020 |
The first book published by famed historian David McCullough was this one, about the devastating Johnstown Flood of 1889 that destroyed most of the city and its industry and killed more than 2,200 people. As the book methodically explains, the region was drowned by days of heavy rain. The rain created significant flooding of the Little Conemaugh River and its tributaries. It also washed over the dam forming large lake higher up in the mountains about 5 miles north of Johnstown. The lake-water gushed down the narrow, curving river valley, carrying broken buildings, uprooted trees, train tracks and locomotives and cars, livestock, and people. And, of course, creating and plowing even more debris and victims ahead of it as it surged through East Conemaugh with its railroad yards, locomotive roundhouse, rolling stock, and two idling trains filled with passengers.

In a fashion and style he'd use in building each subsequent book, McCullough captures the times, the locations, the telling details, the names, genders, ages, and occupations of dozens and dozens of victims and survivors.He dissects the event, its features, its causes.

A very good book, but undermined somewhat by the inadequate maps and illustrations and poorly reproduced photos. (Maybe the reproduction was better in the initial hardcover edition.)
  weird_O | Mar 19, 2020 |
David McCullough does an excellent job covering everything from the initial building of the dam, through the flood, and the aftermath of the disaster. It's almost impossible to believe the scale of the destruction as well as how little attention was paid to the safety and maintenance of the dam. ( )
  jordanjones | Feb 21, 2020 |
Account of how the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club dam above Johnstown, Pennsylvania failed on May 31, 1889 destroying the city of Johnstown and killing thousands of people. This was the worst man-made disaster in the United States up to that time. Neither the club or any of its members were ever held accountablle in a court of lay. ( )
  MrDickie | Sep 14, 2019 |
Another extremely good book by David McCullough. I knew of the 1889 flood in Johnstown, Pennsylvania but only vaguely. I chose this book for the history category for my nonfiction challenge. I expected it to be well written because McCullough and it was something I wanted to learn more about.

In May 1889, a massive storm and a neglected and ill-repaired dam combined in a recipe for disaster. Originally planned to provide a source of water for a canal, the South Fork Dam was later owned by a fishing and hunting club catering to wealthy industrialists from Pittsburgh. When the dam failed, the water in the lake behind it and the debris it picked up along the way roared down the valley destroying nearly everything in its path and killing over 2000 people.

McCullough sets the stage and history then focuses on the fateful day. He then follows the water down the valley. There are descriptions of devastating damage, tales of heroism and tragedy. Once the water and debris hit Johnstown proper, it becomes a swirl of stories from survivors about what it was like to live through that day and the following days.

This was McCullough's first book. I've read and enjoyed some of his later work and I'm glad I read this early one. Definitely recommended. ( )
  SuziQoregon | May 23, 2019 |
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We are creatures of the moment; we live from one little space to another; and only one interest at a time fills these.
--William Dean Howells in A Hazard of New Fortunes, 1889.
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For Rosalee
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Again that morning there had been a bright frost in the hollow below the dam, and the sun was not up long before storm clouds rolled in from the southeast.
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(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
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