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Non-Fiction Review – History of the Johnstown Flood

History of the Johnstown Flood by Willis Fletcher Johnson

Review by Jade K. (Jade4142)



The title page actually says, “History of The Johnstown Flood.  Including all the fearful record; the breaking of the South Fork Dam; the sweeping out of the Conemaugh Valley; the massing of the wreck at the railroad bridge; escapes, rescues, searches for survivors and the dead; relief organizations, stupendous charities, etc. etc. With full accounts also of the destruction of the Susquehanna and Juniata Rivers, and the Bald Eagle Creek.”

It is Friday, May 31, 1889, and it is raining in the Conemaugh Valley in Pennsylvania.  It’s raining hard.  In fact, floods are washing away houses.  The telegraph operator was in the middle of a Morse Code transmission when the receivers heard a most awful sound.  Her house had just washed away.

The doomsayers predicted that this time, the South Fork Dam was not going to hold.  The others laughed.  Those idiots said the same thing every time it rained!  Silly, silly people.  That dam was built to last, and last it would!

But it didn’t.  The South Fork Dam gave way mid-day and wiped out most of Conemaugh Valley.  Johnstown was right in the path of Conemaugh Lake when it burst through the seriously compromised dam and washed through Johnstown in huge destructive waves that flattened the town and killed 2,209, 1 in 10 of the residents of the Valley.

Willis Fletcher Johnson picked his way through the wreckage in the following weeks.  He interviewed survivors and watched the clean-up efforts, which were slow to start because when the South Fork Dam broke, all communication with the rest of the world ended.  It wasn’t until days later that men rode out on the horses they could find, until they found a telegraph operator somewhere who could send word that the Conemaugh Valley got wiped off the map.

It didn’t take long for the donations to start pouring in then, and President Harrison himself made the call to the United States to give from their hearts for those poor people.  And they did.  Some of what they gave puzzled the survivors, like one boot and a mitten, but the gold poured in, too.  Sometimes just pennies from schoolchildren, but it all helped to rebuild Johnstown and the surrounding villages.

How could this have happened?  That dam was built to last!  That lake could never go over the top of it!  It could never get that high!

And it didn’t.  Conemaugh Lake didn’t go over the South Fork Dam.  It went through the South Fork Dam.

But that dam was built to last!  How could that lake, even with all the rain that day, have broken through that dam?

Enter the South Fork Hunting and Fishing Club, a group of wealthy gentlemen, mostly from Philadelphia, who kept their land private.  No one was welcome there who had not paid his membership fee, which was a million dollars, rumor had it.  You had to be powerful rich to belong to that club.

The South Fork Dam was on the South Fork Hunting and Fishing Club’s land.  Was it their responsibility to maintain it? Well, that’s the great unanswered question.  Who is responsible for maintaining a dam that protects the entire valley below it?  Is the landowner?  Is it the state?  The county?  Prevailing opinion at the time held that the South Fork Hunting and Fishing Club was responsible.  Well, that they had responsibility for the dam.  No one pretended they’d behaved responsibly.  They ignored inspectors’ recommendations for shoring up the dam, and in fact, they pulled many of the restraining metal bars off the dam and sold them.  That dam wasn’t important.  There was a placid lake behind it.

As the years went on, the dam lost more and more integrity.  Inspectors sent stronger and stronger letters to the landowners, telling them that the South Fork Dam would not hold that reservoir back much longer.  The South Fork Hunting and Fishing Club ignored those letters.  They were not willing to invest their money in repairing a dam that was doing nothing but holding back a placid lake!  They did, however, enjoy fishing on that placid lake.

Were they then prosecuted and did the survivors win?  No.  These were powerful men in 1889.  They had lawyers, and their lawyers were good.  The citizens of the Conemaugh Valley rebuilt without the assistance of the South Fork Hunting and Fishing Club, those wealthy men who let a great dam die of neglect and intentional harm, and claimed no responsibility for what their actions and inactions caused.

This book was published in 1889 and I have that copy.  It is from the Golden Lending Library and it is, believe me, a treasured friend. But it was reprinted in 2009, and again in 2010.  It is not currently posted on the site, but that’s what wish lists are for, right?

I have read the vignettes of the survivors with horror and sympathy.  I have read about the South Fork Hunting and Fishing Club with anger and a realization that graft isn’t new; it was alive and well in 1889 in Pennsylvania.

The book was written by a man who spoke a different form of English in 1889 than we speak now, but the rhythm is easy to pick up, and the flowery prose is sometimes amusing.  It is a book that never gets dull.  It is slow to start with the explanation of the steel industry, but that explanation later factors into the controversy with the South Fork Hunting and Fishing Club; most of those wealthy men were steel men and they ran their businesses much the way they accepted responsibility for the deaths in Johnstown.

I recommend this book to anyone who wants to get to know and understand the human beings who survived that horror, and who is willing to decide for herself or himself who was really responsible for maintaining the dam that protected the entire Conemaugh Valley, until May 31, 1889.

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2 Responses to “Non-Fiction Review – History of the Johnstown Flood”

  1. Elaine G. (lipslady) says:

    Hi Jade, I remember reading a novel about this flood years ago. I can’t remember the name of the book but I was so intrigued by it I still remember it all these years later. I will definately put this book on my wish list. Thanks for the great review.
    Elaine G. (lipslady)

  2. Barbara (femmefan) says:

    Thank you for the review, Jade, sounds like a good book. I’ve been interested in the flood and all its conflicting stories for some time. Glad to get another title to look for.

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