In 1889, a nightmare for thousands of people living in Johnstown, Pennsylvania came to life. Every year in Johnstown there were people who would start the rumors up again, especially after a good thunderstorm passed through. The rumors were surrounded by fear. The fear was that the South Fork Damn, which sat 14 miles upstream from the town, would no longer be able to hold back the millions of gallons of water that made up Lake Conemaugh, which slowly fed into the Little Conemaugh River. The river was lazy for the most part, and it wound its way into and through the town of Johnstown. The town was booming, with a population of around 30,000 at the time, it was a great place to work and raise a family. Upstream at Lake Conemaugh sat a beautiful hotel where the rich would spend their summer fishing and enjoying the finer things of life. Among those who would regularly visit the lake was Andrew Carnegie, the great steel tycoon, who at that time was one of the richest men in America.
On the morning of May 31, after a night of torrential rains, the lake was reaching the crest of the damn. Although efforts were made to clear the causeway and divert the water to avoid the pressure on the damn, it was too late. The damn gave way and ushered a tidal wave of water downstream, destroying anything and anyone in its path. Over 2,200 people lost their lives that day (the number is most likely much higher) and the town was leveled. The majority of people in Johnstown were caught by surprise, having essentially no time to find higher ground. The pressure of the water was so great that those who were caught directly beneath the wave were literally engrained into the earth. The stories of the survivors of that fateful day will shake you to your core. Many had to watch their neighbors lie trapped by debris and either be drowned or burned alive from the fires that were started by the destruction of the mills. Much more could have been done to prevent such a catastrophe. The warnings were given, and they were ignored.
David McCullough is one of the brilliant story tellers of the modern time. Everything he has written deserves a place in your library. The Johnstown Flood is a book that will take you back to the late 19th century, make you feel like you are witnessing the events taking place, and know the men and women who made Johnstown such a special place to live. With his wit, wisdom, and phenomenal writing style, McCullough will hold a special place in your heart. I encourage you to read this book, but be ready. Be ready to be enthralled by the past. Be ready to shed a tear for those who died in such a painful and unfortunate way. Be ready to be encouraged by the stories of those who worked for months to give Johnstown a second chance. To order the book click the link below.