At the end of the last century, Johnstown, Pennsylvania, was a booming coal-and-steel town filled with hardworking families striving for a piece of the nation's burgeoning industrial prosperity. In the mountains above Johnstown, an old earth dam had been hastily rebuilt to create a lake for an exclusive summer resort patronized by the tycoons of that same industrial prosperity, among them Andrew Carnegie, Henry Clay Frick, and Andrew Mellon. Despite repeated warnings of possible danger, nothing was done about the dam. Then came May 31, 1889, when the dam burst, sending a wall of water thundering down the mountain, smashing through Johnstown, and killing more than 2,000 people. It was a tragedy that became a national scandal.
Graced by David McCullough's remarkable gift for writing richly textured, sympathetic social history, The Johnstown Flood is an absorbing, classic portrait of life in nineteenth-century America, of overweening confidence, of energy, and of tragedy. It also offers a powerful historical lesson for our century and all times: the danger of assuming that because people are in positions of responsibility they are necessarily behaving responsibly.
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Simon & Schuster
January 15, 1987
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Excerpt from Johnstown Flood by David McCullough
The sky was red
Again that morning there had been a bright frost in the hollow below the dam, and the sun was not up long before storm clouds rolled in from the southeast.
By late afternoon a sharp, gusty wind was blowing down from the mountains, flattening the long grass along the lakeshore and kicking up tiny whitecaps out in the center of the lake. The big oaks and giant hemlocks, the hickories and black birch and sugar maples that crowded the hillside behind the summer colony began tossing back and forth, creaking and groaning. Broken branches and young leaves whipped through the air, and at the immense frame clubhouse that stood at the water's edge, halfway among the cottages, blue wood smoke trailed from great brick chimneys and vanished in fast swirls, almost as though the whole building, like a splendid yellow ark, were under steam, heading into the wind.
The colony was known as the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club. It was a private summer resort located on the western shore of a mountain lake in Cambria County, Pennsylvania, about halfway between the crest of the Allegheny range and the city of Johnstown. On the afternoon of Thursday, May 30, Memorial Day, 1889, the club was not quite ten years old, but with its gaily painted buildings, its neat lawns and well-tended flower beds, it looked spanking new and, in the gray, stormy half-light, slightly out of season.
In three weeks, when the summer season was to start, something like 200 guests were expected. Now the place looked practically deserted. The only people about were a few employees who lived at the clubhouse and some half dozen members who had come up from Pittsburgh for the holiday. D. W. C. Bidwell was there; so were the young Clarke brothers, J. J. Lawrence, and several of the Sheas and Irwins. Every now and then a cottage door slammed, voices called back and forth from the boathouses. Then there would be silence again, except for the sound of the wind.
Sometime not long after dark, it may have been about eight thirty, a young man stepped out onto the long front porch at the clubhouse and walked to the railing to take a look at the weather. His name was John G. Parke, Jr. He was clean-shaven, slight of build, and rather aristocratic-looking. He was the nephew and namesake of General John G. Parke, then superintendent of West Point. But young Parke was a rare item in his own right for that part of the country; he was a college man, having finished three years of civil engineering at the University of Pennsylvania. For the present he was employed by the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club as the so-called "resident engineer." He had been on the job just short of three months, seeing to general repairs, looking after the dam, and supervising a crew of some twenty Italian laborers who had been hired to install a new indoor plumbing system, and who were now camped out of sight, back in the woods.
In the pitch dark he could hardly see a thing, so he stepped down the porch stairs and went a short distance along the boardwalk that led through the trees to the cottages. The walk, he noticed, was slightly damp. Apparently, a fine rain had fallen sometime while he was inside having his supper. He also noticed that though the wind was still up, the sky overhead was not so dark as before; indeed, it seemed to be clearing off some. This was not what he had expected. Windstorms on the mountain nearly always meant a heavy downpour almost immediately after -- "thunder-gusts" the local men called them. Parke had been through several already in the time he had been at the lake and knew what to expect.
It would be as though the whole sky were laying siege to the burly landscape. The rain would drum down like an unyielding river.