The Johnstown Flood by David McCullough
(Simon & Schuster, 1987, 304 pages)
The Johnstown Flood by David McCullough bills itself as “the incredible story behind one of the most devastating ‘natural’ disasters America has ever known.” It is an incredible and heart-breaking story of the 1899 flood in Johnstown PA. The story begins with an earthen dam built from 1838 to 1852 by the State of Pennsylvania above South Fork, PA which was upriver from Johnstown, PA. By 1879, the dam had fallen into disrepair and was sold to some men from Pittsburgh who were going to build a summer resort in South Fork and wanted to create a lake for fishing and boating. The men from Pittsburgh did make some repairs to the dam, but no engineers were brought in to inspect the work which was improperly done.
In 1899, Johnstown was a coal and steel town. McCullough introduces the reader to some of the families, the businesses, and the importance of the railroad to Johnstown. It is Memorial Day in 1899. There is a parade to celebrate the holiday. Heavy rain starts to fall and people are worried about the dam at South Fork bursting. But the people always worried about the dam bursting and nothing ever happened. Unfortunately, this time the dam did burst and about 2000 people lost their lives.
David McCullough can make almost any subject interesting. I read his book, The Great Bridge, about the building of the Brooklyn Bridge and I enjoyed it. He has also written a book about the building of the Panama Canal which has gotten good reviews. For anyone with an interest in U.S. history or who is a fan of McCullough, The Johnstown Flood, is a worthwhile read.