Reviewed in the United States on April 26, 2018
Awesome writing by America’s narrative nonfiction master, David McCullough, the Pulitzer Prize - winning author of John Adams and Truman and recent bestseller, the Wright Brothers (see my review of 2/17/2016) relates the horrible details of America’s worst disaster of its time, the Johnstown Flood. The first part of the book was a little laid - back (it’s almost sacrilegious to say that), but it was necessary to give the reader the background of The South Fork Fishing & Hunting Club and its Pittsburgh millionaires and the mostly common folk of Johnstown located fourteen miles down the mountain from the private club’s mountain Lake and dam. The second part chronicles the bursting of the dam on May 31 1889 and its release of 14.5 million cubic meters of water on its fourteen mile trip down the mountain, wiping out everything on its way to Johnstown, Pennsylvania. This middle section was written with so well, and so exciting, that I thought it was fictive writing. That’s why McCullough is known as the maestro of writing nonfiction that reads like fiction...great job. This is the book that turned around the career of another favorite writer of mine, Erik Larson (I’ll talk about him in my comment section). Anyway, the third part of this book covers the massive cleanup effort, the Press coverage, the arrival of Clara Barton and her American Red Cross, and the various failed litigations against the millionaires on the top of the mountain. “Not a nickel was ever collected through damage suits from the South Fork Fishing and Hunting club or from any of its members. Even though a later engineer report on the dam said, “the job had been botched by amateurs.” The club never thought they did anything wrong after they bought the resort and dam. “The club people took it for granted that the men who rebuilt the dam - the men reputed to be expert in such matters - handled the job properly. They apparently never questioned the professed wisdom of the experts, nor bothered to look critically at what the experts were doing...even though anyone with a minimum of horse sense could, if he had taken a moment to think about it, have realized that an earth dam without any means for controlling the level of water it contained was not a very good idea.” 2,209 innocent people died because of the club’s cavalier attitude. Let’s go over some of David McCullough’s best passages from his historic book.
“The storm had started out of Kansas and Nebraska, two days before, on May 28. The following day there had been hard rains in Kansas, Missouri, Illinois, Michigan, Indiana, Kentucky, and Tennessee. Trains had been delayed, roads washed out. When the storm struck western Pennsylvania it was the worst downpour that had ever been recorded for that section of the country...estimated that from six to eight inches of rain fell in twenty - four hours over nearly the entire central section. On the mountains there were places where the fall was ten inches.” “By the start of the 1880’s Johnstown and its neighboring boroughs had a total population of about 15,000. On the afternoon of May 30, 1889, there were nearly 30,000 people living in the valley...much would be written later on how the wealthy men of Johnstown lived on high ground, while the poor were crowded into the lowlands.” “Year in, year out men were killed in the mills (Johnstown was a big factory town), or maimed for life. Small boys playing around the railroad tracks that were cut in and out of the town would jump too late or too soon and lose a leg or an arm, or lie in a coma for weeks with the whole town talking about them until they stopped breathing forever.” Can this man write or what? I’m using all of his quotes to do my review to illustrate his genius. “So far it had been a good year. Except for the measles the town seemed pretty healthy. Talk was that it would be a good summer for steel. Prices might well improve, and perhaps wages with them, and there would be no labor trouble to complicate things, as there would probably be in Pittsburgh.”
“When the rain started coming down about four o’clock, it was very fine and gentle, little more than a cold mist. Even so, no one welcomed it. There had already been more than a hundred days of rain that year, and the rivers were running high as it was. The first signs of trouble had been a heavy snow in April, which had melted almost as soon as it came down. Then in May there had been eleven days of rain.” About five o’clock, the rain stopped. “About nine the rain began again, gentle and quiet as earlier. But an hour or so later it started pouring and there seemed no end to it.” Meanwhile, the man - made Lake Conemaugh (the Johnstown people called it South Fork dam) was starting to swell. The dam was 72 feet high, 900 feet long and the lake covered 450 acres and was 75 feet deep in spots. The lake water was estimated to be twenty million tons as it swelled higher...fourteen miles above Johnstown. “The construction technique was the accepted one for earth dams, and, it should be said, earth dams have been accepted for thousands of years as a perfectly fine way to hold back water.” “As far as the gentlemen of South Fork Fishing & Hunting Club were concerned no better life could be asked for. They were an early - rising, healthy, hard - working, no - nonsense lot, Scotch - Irish most of them, Freemasons, tough, canny, and, without question, extremely fortunate to have been in Pittsburgh at that particular moment in history. They were men who put on few airs. They believed in the sanctity of private property and the protective tariff. They saw themselves as God - fearing, steady, solid people, and, for all their new fortunes, most of them were.”
While reading this book, I never got the idea that the millionaire industrialists (that owned the private club on top of the mountain) were irresponsible or derelict (well maybe a little), but they just didn’t think of the possibility of the dam failing. Why would they? Do you think club members like Andrew Carnegie or Andrew Mellon would ever think that a historic two day pouring rain would break their dam? Would it even cross their minds? As a matter of fact, the recently hired engineer, John G. Parke, Jr., did his best to warn the people down in the valley, as the rain came in sheets, and the water level rose to a dangerous level in the lake. But most of the people he encountered in the valley towns below didn’t believe him. It was previously said for many years that the dam would break. It was like The Boy Who Cried Wolf, in other words, another false alarm...not this time. “When the dam let go, the lake seemed to leap into the valley like a living thing, roaring like a mighty battle, one eyewitness would say. The water struck the valley treetop high and rushed out through the breach in the dam so fast that, as John Parke noted, there was a depression of at least ten feet in the surface of the water flowing out, on a line with the inner face of the breast and sloping back to the level of the lake about 150 feet from the breast.” “Parke estimated that it took forty - five minutes for the entire lake to empty.” Although this story is a matter of history, I’m going to stop my review here. Do yourself a favor, if you haven’t read a narrative nonfiction book before...start with this dramatic one.