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The Johnstown Flood by David McCullough
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The Johnstown Flood (original 1968; edition 1987)

by David McCullough (Author)

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2,014656,834 (4.04)201
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)
Member:CanardT
Title:The Johnstown Flood
Authors:David McCullough (Author)
Info:Simon & Schuster (1987), Edition: Reprint, 304 pages
Collections:Wishlist
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The Johnstown Flood by David McCullough (1968)

  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: 72 Days on the Mountain and My Long Trek Home by Nando Parrado (dara85)
  5. 00
    The Johnstown Flood by Willis Fletcher Johnson (oregonobsessionz)
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» See also 201 mentions

Showing 1-5 of 65 (next | show all)
Few people do nonfiction as well as McCullough. This one reminds me of Isaac’s Storm, both chronicles a real disaster that rocks a small town. The destruction caused by the event itself and the aftermath were fascinating. More than 2,000 people were killed when the dam broke. I love the way he captures the small moments, like a girl watching ducks swim in the water just before the wave hits. This tragedy was news around the world at the time. ( )
  bookworm12 | Sep 2, 2022 |
At the end of the 19th, Pennsylvania was a booming coal and steel town. In the mountains above Johnstown, an old earth dam had been hastily rebuilt to create a lake for an exclusive summer resort patronized by tycoons such as Andrew Carnegie, Henry Clay Frick and Andrew Mellon. Despite warnings, nothing was done. On May 31, 1889, the dam broke, sending a wall of water & debris down the mountain, smashing through Johnstown and killing more than 2000 people.
  taurus27 | Aug 12, 2022 |
Because my husband is from PA and some of his relatives live in Johnstown, and ancestors founded it, I had particular interest in the flood. This book seemed to be objective, factual and well-written. ( )
  Wren73 | Mar 4, 2022 |
I’ve read many of David McCullough’s highly researched books about the building of the Brooklyn Bridge, the lives of the Wright Brothers, the movement west of The Pioneers, the building of the Panama Canal and others, and now about the tragedy in 1889 of the Johnstown Pennsylvania flood. McCullough continues to amaze me with his ability to research the lives of individuals to the point that the details are almost uncanny. It is as if he was at the scene for days, maybe weeks as an eye witness to the events he reports on. This book is no exception. I was vaguely familiar with the Johnstown flood, but I had no idea the extent to which the damage caused and the lives lost were the result of greed on the part of the super rich in that part of the country. These robber barons built a resort to be their playground and in doing so built a sub-standard dam to create their own private fishing hole, which resulted in the release of hundreds of millions of gallons of water to the valley below it where Johnstown was located when the rains came. In the end, no one paid a price for that greed and liability, which is typical in this country when the haves step on the have nots. The weather, torrents of rain in a short period of time, couldn’t have been prevented. The engineering of the dam, however, could have been designed to withstand that water to the point that property damage below would have been much reduced and lives lost could have been eliminated. It is a sad tale, one that we owe our appreciation to David McCullough for researching and reporting. I listened to the audio book version of this book. The narration (not by McCullough himself but by Edward Hermann, one of Hollywood’s best actors, who passed away in 2014) is excellent. ( )
  DanDiercks | Nov 13, 2021 |
https://nwhyte.livejournal.com/3727438.html

I picked this up out of curiosity, having learned that my great-great-uncle was one of the victims of the worst ever civilian accident to hit the United States, in which 2209 people are said to have died.

David McCullough is one of the great American historians - I've previously written up his John Adams. This was his first book, published in 1968 when a number of survivors of the 1889 flood were still alive. He constructed a compelling and clear narrative of what happened, first in the years between the completion of the South Fork Dam, 100 km east of Pittsburgh, in 1853 and its catastropic collapse thirty-five years later (think of a structure near you that was built thirty-five years ago, in 1986), then on the day of the disaster itself, and then in the days and weeks and months of clearing up afterwards. I must admit that when it came to the point where the dam broke and a wall of water washed away the inhabitants of the valley below, I really could not put the book down. (Even though my grandmother's uncle is not mentioned.)

Some really interesting points came through. Blame of course can be placed in many quarters, but the critical structural damage to the dam was done by John Reilly, briefly a Pennsylvania Congressman, who bought the dam and lake in 1875 and sold them on in 1879, meanwhile having removed the discharge pipes that controlled the outward flow of water and sold them for scrap. He sold the estate on to a private club, whose members included the fabulously wealthy Andrew Carnegie, banker and future Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon and future Attorney-General and Secretary of State Philander Knox, and which did no serious maintenance whatsoever. The club was mysteriously not incorporated in the right county, so the regulatory powers of the local authority, which were minimal in any case, were never properly engaged. The railroad wrote to the owners expressing serious concerns about structural integrity, and were fobbed off.

On 29 and 30 May 1889, that part of Pennsylvania received the highest rainfall ever recorded there, around 200 mm. The club staff spotted that there was a problem on the morning of the 31st, and did their best to shore up the crumbling dam, also telegraphing warnings downstream to Johnstown, where nobody listened because they had had too many false alarms before. The dam broke at lunchtime, and 14.5 million cubic metres of water tipped down the narrow valley, hitting Johnstown with a wall of liquid 18m high in places, travelling at about 60 kph. It had already smashed through the iron works at nearby Woodvale. The valley was devastated.

There are some very evocative eyewitness accounts. Here's Gertrude Quinn, aged six at the time, in her eighties when McCullough talked to her when researching the book:

Gertrude never saw the wave. The sight of the crowds jamming through the street had so terrified her aunt and Libby Hipp that they had pulled back from the window, horrified, dragging her with them into an open cupboard.
“Libby, this is the end of the world, we will all die together,” Aunt Abbie sobbed, and dropped to her knees and began praying hysterically, “Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, Have mercy on us, oh, God . . .”
Gertrude started screaming and jumping up and down, calling “Papa, Papa, Papa,” as fast as she could get it out.
The cupboard was in what was the dining room of an elaborate playhouse built across the entire front end of the third floor. There was nothing like it anywhere else in town, the whole place having been fitted out and furnished by Quinn’s store. There was a long center hall and a beautifully furnished parlor at one end and little bedrooms with doll beds, bureaus, washstands, and ingrain carpets on the floors. The dining room had a painted table, chairs, sideboard with tiny dishes, hand-hemmed tablecloths, napkins, and silverware.
From where she crouched in the back of the cupboard, Gertrude could see across the dining room into a miniature kitchen with its own table and chairs, handmade iron stove, and, on one wall, a whole set of iron cooking utensils hanging on little hooks. Libby Hipp was holding her close, crying and trembling.
Then the big house gave a violent shudder. Gertrude saw the tiny pots and pans begin to sway and dance. Suddenly plaster dust came down. The walls began to break up. Then, at her aunt’s feet, she saw the floor boards burst open and up gushed a fountain of yellow water.
“And these boards were jagged . . . and I looked at my aunt, and they didn’t say a word then. All the praying stopped, and they gasped, and looked down like this, and were gone, immediately gone.”

And then the story of the aftermath is also interesting. The newspapers did their best to get to the scene as quickly as possible, and of course found it good for sales to exaggerate the disaster even beyond the horrific reality. One story that did the rounds involved Hungarian immigrants caught looting and then lynched; there was no truth to this at all. I also found it interesting that the survivors rapidly met and elected one of their number (34-year-old Welsh-born Arthur J. Moxham) as "dictator" until the regular civil powers were able to resume control. Obviously only the men were involved in this process, and perhaps a weakness of the book (not unexpected given who wrote it and when) is a failure to look at the gendered aspects of what was going on.

Still, it's a cracking good read. You can get it here. ( )
  nwhyte | Aug 27, 2021 |
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Epigraph
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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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.

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