As this book’s description notes, it is much more than just a story about one of America’s greatest weather-related tragedies, the Johnstown Flood of 1889 – it’s also a social history, set in the nineteenth century’s so-called “Gilded Age”.
Nearing the end of the nineteenth and looking head to the twentieth century, America was flexing its muscle as an industrial power house. Titans of industry made millions on the backs of hardworking men in the coal and steel industry and Johnstown was a leading boom town in southwest Pennsylvania.
David McCullough dedicates the entire second chapter of the book to setting the stage for the tragedy by introducing readers to some of those titans of industry, notable among them the likes of two men named Andrew (Carnegie and Mellon). Along with other successful businessmen, they helped organize an exclusive members-only summer resort in the mountains above Johnstown in 1879 – the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club. The lake had been called many things, including Lake Conemaugh, but residents of Johnstown referred to it as the South Fork dam.
For years members had been warned of the dam’s instability, and each time residents of the valley would be assured the dam was perfectly safe. That would prove to be tragically false on May 31, 1889 when a massive weather system hovered in the area for several hours, dumping massive amounts of rain which caused the dam to burst and flood the valley below.
The wall of water roared through community after community, destroying practically everything in its path and causing the deaths of over two thousand people. When news of the flood began to be published around the country, Americans, including the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club, responded by providing money and much-need supplies and materials to victims. After a time the finger of blame began to point in the direction of the exclusive club – a national scandal was brewing.
McCullough, as always, tells a compelling story peppered with personal accounts and vivid details. The tragedy came at a time when there was a wide gap between the very rich and the poor working classes and indicative of the Gilded Age, so named for that era’s tendency to focus on the overwhelming success of the rich while ignoring the plight of the poor. In this sense it was a rather arrogant and overconfident era when a wealthy person’s word would rarely be questioned. They were rich and powerful and therefore must be honest and forthright. That seems to have been the case in this tragic story as no one seemed to be thinking strategically should the unthinkable happen.
If you’ve read any of David McCullough’s books you know this book has been well researched. Anyone interested in nineteenth century history (and not to mention a fascinating piece of weather history) would find this a great read.
Have a GREAT day . . . someday it will be HISTORY!