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The stunning story of one of America’s great disasters, a preventable tragedy of Gilded Age America, brilliantly told by master historian David McCullough.

At the end of the nineteenth 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.

Topics: Pennsylvania, Gilded Age, Emotional, Informative, Natural Disasters, Survival, and Death

Published: Simon & Schuster on
ISBN: 9781416561224
List price: $13.99
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McCullough's specialty is narrative history, and this book does not disappoint. His descriptions of the life of the town, and its sudden and violent death are vivid and astonishing in equal measure. The technical aspects of the disaster are not glossed over, neither, and the irresponsibility of some is a warning which has become forgotten, and only too many parallels can be made to other disasters in recent memory.more
Interesting, but somehow unsatisfying. A lot of detail on the setting for the disaster - establishing the wealth, and power, and wealth, and past and future, and wealth (it got rather boring, actually) of the club members; the working-class-ness of the town (steel mills, basically); and why and how the dam was built and repaired and re-repaired (that was actually interesting, a bit). And he introduced a few people from Johnstown. Then the flood itself. A very very very detailed description of how the water came down - where it raced through, where it sloshed between mountains where the river swerved back and forth, exactly what it did to each town...not bad, but it would have been greatly improved by a simple sketch map replicated at each point where he was describing what the flood was doing, with a pointer on the map to "I'm talking about _here_". He spent paragraphs, and sometimes pages, locating the flood and describing its movement; the map would have been clearer, more accurate, and smaller on the page. It got even more detailed when the flood reached Johnstown itself; the flood more or less ended there, with a dam of debris up against a bridge that managed to stand. Some of the people introduced in the scene-setting characters showed up, along with a good many more not previously mentioned - the disasters suffered, miraculous escapes, where the flood took them and where they ended up when it finally stopped. Then an equally detailed, but even more confusing, description of the aftermath of the flood - what had been destroyed, what hadn't (not much), what people did to begin to recover and the (justified) fears of disease and the like from the bodies, of people and animals, carried down and thrown about and sometimes buried by the flood. The timeline here was - a spaghetti mess. He kept talking about this happened on Sunday and this happened on June 9th and a couple weeks later these people came to help and then this happened Monday...ghahh! I could not keep track, and it wasn't interesting enough for me to go back and keep checking to figure out what happened when. There's a lot about the rescue and rebuilding efforts, including the role of the railroad and the newly-created Red Cross. The final chapters dealt mostly with various suits brought or threatened against the club, and what the press chose to blame the flood on - it ranged from the sin of the town (God must have wiped them out because of their sinfulness!) to criminal negligence on the part of the club as a whole. There's some mention of how blaming it on the rich people led to attitudes that supported various strikes and continuing dislike for the rich, over the next decades. McCullough takes a balanced view - it was the club members' fault that they believed that those who'd rebuilt the dam actually knew what they were doing, and it was the townsfolk's fault that they believed that the club members knew what they were doing and were keeping an eye on the dam. But the whole thing kind of dribbles out into no conclusion or decision - almost all the suits were dismissed, some before they actually got to court. The dead got a nice big space up on top of a hill, while Johnstown was rebuilt down in the valley where it had been before. And McCullough concluded that if you're going to make changes in natural environments, you need to know what the long-term effects are and consider not just the normal course of events but extreme (weather) events as well - hundred-year storms and the like. Which is a pretty floppy conclusion. Not satisfying, which surprises me - I usually really like McCullough. Or at least I've liked the ones I've read so far, enough that he's an automatic buy at a book sale or the like. Maybe I need to read more of his. I'm glad I read it, I know a lot more about the flood now (I think all I knew before was that a dam had broken and wiped out a town - not even where Johnstown was), but I doubt I'll reread.more
Near Johnstown PA there was a earth and wood dam which had been built to augment the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club, a resort spot favored by members Andrew Carnegie, Andrew Mellon, and other tycoons of the 19th century. However, the construction was poorly executed, maintenance was not ongoing so that conditions deteriorated and later alterations severely jeopardized the structure. Then in spring of 1889, the Johnstown area was hit with more rain than normal, the dam which had started to leak, broke and the town and residents were swept away.One would think that would be the story and nothing further, but Mr. McCollough manages to take the dry historical facts and with interviews from actual witnesses, weaves a story that captivates the reader.I listened to an audio version narrated by Edward Hermann - this was the perfect match of voice and tale. Together Mr McCollough and Mr. Hermann could probably turn training manuals into must reads!more
With a remarkable economy of descriptive language, McCullough chronicles the horrors of the natural and social disaster of the 1889 Johnstown flood. American innovation and rapid industrialization had generated an increasingly complex economy with its benefits and woes. Much of this story is about realization of the new phenomena of society's mega-rich and their interactions with the rest of society. This story is a graphic description of how weather, extreme wealth, industry, rapid social and human nature can be combined to yield all sorts of effects. It is by no means a must read but a remarkably bright piece of social history that exercises the imagination and diffuses many of history's more detailed lessons.more
I usually don't listen to non-fiction via audio books. I prefer to have access to notes & sources, and the ability to look back at earlier chapters to remind myself of details. But David McCullough writes such smooth narrative non-fiction that it is easy to listen to this book. And it is such a story!I knew that the 1889 flood was really, really bad. I've been to the Flood Memorial, and the Flood Museum. I've seen the photo of a huge tree lanced through a house that's been washed off its foundation. But McCullough brought me to a whole different level of understanding when he pointed out, quite simply, that even before the South Fork Dam broke, Johnstown was suffering the worst flood it had endured to that date. The 40-foot wall of water and debris which came crashing down the valley was something way beyond a "mere" flood.McCullough introduces the reader to Johnstown as it was just before the flood; he recounts the history of the South Fork Dam and of the club which (badly) maintained it. Then the reader experiences the events of May 31, 1889 through the eyes of many people who were in the Conemaugh Valley that day. He examines the press coverage (good and bad) and the relief efforts; he also studies the legal aftermath and why the court proceedings turned out the way they did. And he, ultimately, tries to make sense of it all by extracting a lesson to be learned from the tragedy.Edward Herman's narration of the audio book was perfect in pace and tone.more
This book is an interesting chronicle of the causes and the disastrous effect of the great flood of Johnstown, Pa. It points at the possibility of the justification for resentment against the wealthy who did not properly maintain the dam for their lake and who did not do much to assist the townspeople to recover from the disaster they helped to make.more
Edward Herrmann narrates and he is fabulous. The first part of the book is build-up and background about the dam and things, but then it gets really riveting when the dam breaks. I like connecting with characters, so I think I would have been more into it if the book had followed a handful of people throughout the tragedy. But it was interesting and Edward Herrmann could probably read me the phone book and I'd be okay with it.more
I've been interested in the Johnstown flood ever since I read a novel about it for a fifth grade class. In 1889, a huge storm overwhelmed a dam in western Pennsylvania, leading to one of the worst natural disasters the US had seen at the time. The town of Johnstown was completely destroyed and thousands died. David McCullough is a well known historical writer who manages to deliver tons of data without being dry. This was no exception; at one point I stepped outside and was surprised to see that it was sunny instead of gray and raining. The book is especially interesting for anyone from Pennsylvania or Penn Staters as it was not far from where we were. A word of warning: probably best not to read this during a rain storm for those of you in low lying areas!more
David McCullough's first book is a gripping read about a man-made natural disaster near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in 1889. The Pittsburgh plutocracy, among them Andrew Carnegie and Henry Clay Frick, refurbished a dam on the cheap to create a private fishing resort. They only cared about their recreation. The poor steel workers toiling down below the dam in Johnstown and their families do not enter into their consideration. McCullough is a masterful storyteller who knows not to shatter the illusion of the American Dream.Johnstown illustrates some of the common patterns of typically American catastrophes. A basic neglect, a preference for laisser faire and an absence of regulation and regulatory power means everybody and nobody is in charge. Critical voices do not find listeners, neither in government nor by the dam's owners. Much of the work is outsourced, delegated until nobody feels responsible to check the quality and assume responsibility for the work. When the disaster finally happens, there are no plans nor precautions. The victims, thus, are the poor and the weak. On the positive side, there is a tremendous outburst of human interest, help and contributions, which diminishes as soon as media attention moves on. The corporate owned media is unwilling to call out the real bad guys. The judicial system is unable and unwilling to punish them. Politicians want their contributions, so the guilty robber barons ride into the sunset, free and unpunished, leaving the public to clear up the mess.more
Well done and very readable account of a heartbreaking tragedy long before 9/11 and Katrina but with interesting parallels, though it was published before either of the later disasters.more
Until I read this book I did not even know exactly where Johnstown was, except someplace in Pennsylvania. The author, David McCullough, does a masterful job setting the scene, the politics surrounding the dam and the subsequent failure of that dam. Johnstown was a typical American town for that day and time. People worked hard and earned little. The environment was polluted to some extent, but no one considered it a major issue. Nearly everyone considered the dam a threat, but only a few moved to improve the conditions. Huge disparities existed between the rich, the middle class and the poor. These disparities were more than money, but in perceptions of those above and below one’s “station.” This left a situation where in essence the threat was perceived, but all involved seemed to look to the other group, or believe, the dam was safe.Then, the dam broke on May31, 1889. Partly because of torrential rains, partly because of incompetent maintenance at the dam and removal/blockage of drains in the dam and certainly because of complacency of the people downstream from the dam and the threat it was to them disastrous results followed. The author describes the process of trying to save the dam, when and how it broke, the path and destruction of the flood and, most importantly, the effect on the people downstream.The final segment describes the cleanup of the damages. The caring for the survivors, the burying of the dead, the removal of all that was Johnstown – homes, shops, churches is described, especially the stone bridge which stopped much of the broken town in the river’s bed. A discussion of fault, which is never determined, ends the book. In today’s world the fault would be different, but in that time justice was served. This book was well-documented and also told the story of many people, some survivors, some not. Interesting to note, the response today is not all that much different to disasters now. We might have more people or resources or planning, but when you get down to the final issue a disaster by definition seems to disrupt any attempt to resolve it. Some disasters though should be averted by planning first.This book is short, concise and was a quick read for me. I enjoyed the descriptions and the details which told the story of a flood like that. I give this book four and one-half stars.more
David McCullough, as usual does an exciting job of bringing tons of research together into an interesting account to help the reader understand all the complex variables that contributed to this well-known, but often misunderstood disaster. Ed Herrman, the narrator of the audio version I had, keeps the story moving with his wonderful news reporter voice, and a perceptible personal interest in the story.Before reading this, I knew only that the town of Johnstown got washed away in a flood, and I remember images (paintings perhaps?) showing train locomotives floating in an ocean of water and debris along with bodies, and houses. I believe I was taught that a dam burst, and washed everything away. End of that history lesson.......NOTMcCullough traces the building of the dam, the decisions made about how certain engineering feats were handled (or mishandled), lays the groundwork for explaining what really happened, why it happened, and what could have been done to prevent it. By weaving these facts with historical accounts from survivors to portray the human toll taken, the reader is given an almost eyewitness account. It is a masterful work, particularly considering it could have been very boring.The entire time I was reading/listening to this, I kept thinking of New Orleans and FEMA and the disaster that followed the disaster. The people of Johnstown and the surrounding area could have taught FEMA some interesting lessons.Highly recommended for anyone wanting to know more about the flood that cost so many lives, the events leading up to it, and the aftermath.more
David McCullough does a great job at relating history. In The Johnstown Flood he does a great job with the pace and laying the groundwork for the situation. He has organized his thoughts and presented them so well that it is not a struggle to read or understand. Because he is so logical and methodical in his retelling, it is easier to experience the time in history he is discussing, rather than feeling like you are slogging through it.The Johnstown Flood is an incredible story, much deserving of this retelling.more
The tragedy of May 31, 1889 cost the town of Johnstown, Pennsylvania over 2,000 lives and was a combination of man and nature coming together to create a different kind of nightmare. I instantly thought of Hurricane Katrina descending on the levies of New Orleans.In the case of the Johnstown Flood, it was the man-made dam that held back the waters of Lake Conemaugh. As long as the dam held, the bustling valley town of Johnstown below was safe. While the dam was surrounded in controversy - those who thought it was perfectly safe versus those who thought it needed a makeover - no one could have predicted the amount of water the heavy rainstorms of May 31st, 1889 would bring. By midday the dam was in serious trouble. Despite frantic efforts to bolster its walls, by late afternoon it was too late and the dam gave way. It was impossible stop the deluge of millions of tons of water rushing down the mountainside. In a matter of hours an entire town was demolished. McCullough does an amazing job tying personal stories with the facts of the events. His recreation of the chain of events is stunning and almost unbelievable.more
This review pertains to the unabridged audio book version, read by Edward Herrmann.David McCullough is one of my favorite historians. He writes well researched, well balanced books that are both entertaining and insightful. Since he hails from Pittsburgh, it is no surprise that the Johnstown flood was of interest to him. Disasters of that magnitude are always dramatic, both on a personal level and as a backdrop for the socio-political conditions of the day. There’s a lot of detail here, perhaps more than some readers will want, but in the audio book version, with Edward Herrmann’s impeccable presentation, if the details (for example, the litany of deaths) gets to you, you can tune out for a while.There aren’t any dramatic takeaway insights or revelations here, but The Johnstown Flood told me all I wanted to know about a disaster that was previously just a phrase to me.more
David McCullough rocks my world. Takes a dam high in the mountains shoddily rebuilt by rich pleasure seekers, take a badass storm, mix together with the best historian in the world evertm and you have another compelling book. If it wasn't true you wouldn't believe it.more
David McCullough explores one of the nation's most devastating natural disasters. His research reveals the events that led up to the tragedy and exposes surprising details about some very prominent characters from our nation's past. As always McCullough delivers the epic tale with a captivating method that will keep you riveted. The book climaxes with the flood but keeps you interested with its revelations about the devastating events results and with heroic stories of rescue and relief. This is an essential read that reveals much more about the nation's history than the solitary story of a single community.more
David McCollough is one of my favorite writers of American history and biography. While his account of the Johnstown Flood is not one of his best works, it is nevertheless very enlightening and educational. In the mid 19th century, the government constructed an earthen dam across South Fork Creek in the Allegheny Mountains for the purpose of ensuring an adequate water supply for a series of canals in the area. Soon after, the Pennsylvania Railroad made the canals obsolete and the dam fell into disrepair. Several decades later, the newly wealthy industrialists in the Pittsburgh area (men with names such as Carnegie, Frick and Phipps) discovered the area around the dam and purchased it in the name of the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club. The old dam was negligently reconstructed and a large lake (Lake Conemaugh) provided a summer resort for the upper class of Pittsburgh. Fast forward nine years to Memorial Day 1889. One of the largest deluges in recorded history not only flooded the Little Connemaugh River valley (including Johnstown, population 20,000) but dangerously overfilled Lake Connemaugh. With no way to release the excess water, the lake soon spilled over the top of the dam, eroding the weakened center of the dam and ultimately collapsing it. An enormous volume of water then proceeded to roar down the narrow, enclosed valley, stripping everything in its path. By the time it reached Johnstown, approximately 13 miles away, it had stripped the entire valley of all vegetation and personal property in its path, generating a wall of water and debris sometimes reaching up to 70 feet in height. When it encountered the town of Johnstown, where the Little Connemaugh meets the larger Stony Creek, utter destruction ensued. McCollough does his usual meticulous job of researching and telling all aspects of this great American tragedy. The background of the dam's failure, the details of the hours encompassing the tragedy itself and the response of various segments of society in the days and weeks thereafter, all tell us much about our society and the American spirit, both good and bad.more
Another book about hometown. Really opened my eyes to the history of the place we all took for granted and that is decaying in our midst. Really made me see the kind of Brazil we were living in in 1889 in this country where supreme court judges were embittered former slave owners, graduates of Harvard Law along with Henry Frick, one of the perpetrators of this crime through abdication of responsibility, inaction and indifference, and well many other internal injustices despite our illustrious constitution. I hope we don't end up back there in 20 years the way things are going around here. By that time, the memory of the Johnstown flood, like Bopal, Chernobyl, and the myriad Chinese mining disasters happening now will be long gone.more
I had heard about the famous Johnstown Flood, probably from a short paragraph in a stale history book along time ago, but I really new nothing about it. This book puts you right there before, during and after the flood even introducing to some of the actual residents of Johnstown, some who survived and some who did not. Even though I knew the outcome it was as hard to put down as an adventure novel.more
Interesting account of an American disaster you don't hear about now a days. Mr. McCullogh is once again thorough about the details of personalities and events up to and after the great flood, but for me, this account reads too much like a collection of press clippings, which is surely most likely where most of the information was collected. Probably the best read around on this event, but not as good as some other McCullough efforts.more
I've read a few of David McCullough's work, and it is obvious that The Johnstown Flood was one of his first books. However, it is still well done in the McCullough style of interweaving numbers and hard facts with the personal eyewitness stories.I didn't know anything about The Johnstown Flood. It is amazing how quickly people were activated to help within 24 hours of the flood and how fast Johnstown was rebuilt. Even with all of our modern conveniences we don't seem able to spring into action like these people did over 100 years ago with only trains and horses for transport and telegraphs to spread news.I think the best quote was the lesson from the governor at the time "We who have to do with the concentrated forces of nature, the powers of air, electricity, water, steam, by careful forethought must leave nothing undone for the preservation and protection of the lives of our brother men."more
I love David McCullough's books in general, and this was no exception. It was an interesting (if horrifying) look at how various events came together to contribute to an incredible tragedy.more
Read all 27 reviews

Reviews

McCullough's specialty is narrative history, and this book does not disappoint. His descriptions of the life of the town, and its sudden and violent death are vivid and astonishing in equal measure. The technical aspects of the disaster are not glossed over, neither, and the irresponsibility of some is a warning which has become forgotten, and only too many parallels can be made to other disasters in recent memory.more
Interesting, but somehow unsatisfying. A lot of detail on the setting for the disaster - establishing the wealth, and power, and wealth, and past and future, and wealth (it got rather boring, actually) of the club members; the working-class-ness of the town (steel mills, basically); and why and how the dam was built and repaired and re-repaired (that was actually interesting, a bit). And he introduced a few people from Johnstown. Then the flood itself. A very very very detailed description of how the water came down - where it raced through, where it sloshed between mountains where the river swerved back and forth, exactly what it did to each town...not bad, but it would have been greatly improved by a simple sketch map replicated at each point where he was describing what the flood was doing, with a pointer on the map to "I'm talking about _here_". He spent paragraphs, and sometimes pages, locating the flood and describing its movement; the map would have been clearer, more accurate, and smaller on the page. It got even more detailed when the flood reached Johnstown itself; the flood more or less ended there, with a dam of debris up against a bridge that managed to stand. Some of the people introduced in the scene-setting characters showed up, along with a good many more not previously mentioned - the disasters suffered, miraculous escapes, where the flood took them and where they ended up when it finally stopped. Then an equally detailed, but even more confusing, description of the aftermath of the flood - what had been destroyed, what hadn't (not much), what people did to begin to recover and the (justified) fears of disease and the like from the bodies, of people and animals, carried down and thrown about and sometimes buried by the flood. The timeline here was - a spaghetti mess. He kept talking about this happened on Sunday and this happened on June 9th and a couple weeks later these people came to help and then this happened Monday...ghahh! I could not keep track, and it wasn't interesting enough for me to go back and keep checking to figure out what happened when. There's a lot about the rescue and rebuilding efforts, including the role of the railroad and the newly-created Red Cross. The final chapters dealt mostly with various suits brought or threatened against the club, and what the press chose to blame the flood on - it ranged from the sin of the town (God must have wiped them out because of their sinfulness!) to criminal negligence on the part of the club as a whole. There's some mention of how blaming it on the rich people led to attitudes that supported various strikes and continuing dislike for the rich, over the next decades. McCullough takes a balanced view - it was the club members' fault that they believed that those who'd rebuilt the dam actually knew what they were doing, and it was the townsfolk's fault that they believed that the club members knew what they were doing and were keeping an eye on the dam. But the whole thing kind of dribbles out into no conclusion or decision - almost all the suits were dismissed, some before they actually got to court. The dead got a nice big space up on top of a hill, while Johnstown was rebuilt down in the valley where it had been before. And McCullough concluded that if you're going to make changes in natural environments, you need to know what the long-term effects are and consider not just the normal course of events but extreme (weather) events as well - hundred-year storms and the like. Which is a pretty floppy conclusion. Not satisfying, which surprises me - I usually really like McCullough. Or at least I've liked the ones I've read so far, enough that he's an automatic buy at a book sale or the like. Maybe I need to read more of his. I'm glad I read it, I know a lot more about the flood now (I think all I knew before was that a dam had broken and wiped out a town - not even where Johnstown was), but I doubt I'll reread.more
Near Johnstown PA there was a earth and wood dam which had been built to augment the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club, a resort spot favored by members Andrew Carnegie, Andrew Mellon, and other tycoons of the 19th century. However, the construction was poorly executed, maintenance was not ongoing so that conditions deteriorated and later alterations severely jeopardized the structure. Then in spring of 1889, the Johnstown area was hit with more rain than normal, the dam which had started to leak, broke and the town and residents were swept away.One would think that would be the story and nothing further, but Mr. McCollough manages to take the dry historical facts and with interviews from actual witnesses, weaves a story that captivates the reader.I listened to an audio version narrated by Edward Hermann - this was the perfect match of voice and tale. Together Mr McCollough and Mr. Hermann could probably turn training manuals into must reads!more
With a remarkable economy of descriptive language, McCullough chronicles the horrors of the natural and social disaster of the 1889 Johnstown flood. American innovation and rapid industrialization had generated an increasingly complex economy with its benefits and woes. Much of this story is about realization of the new phenomena of society's mega-rich and their interactions with the rest of society. This story is a graphic description of how weather, extreme wealth, industry, rapid social and human nature can be combined to yield all sorts of effects. It is by no means a must read but a remarkably bright piece of social history that exercises the imagination and diffuses many of history's more detailed lessons.more
I usually don't listen to non-fiction via audio books. I prefer to have access to notes & sources, and the ability to look back at earlier chapters to remind myself of details. But David McCullough writes such smooth narrative non-fiction that it is easy to listen to this book. And it is such a story!I knew that the 1889 flood was really, really bad. I've been to the Flood Memorial, and the Flood Museum. I've seen the photo of a huge tree lanced through a house that's been washed off its foundation. But McCullough brought me to a whole different level of understanding when he pointed out, quite simply, that even before the South Fork Dam broke, Johnstown was suffering the worst flood it had endured to that date. The 40-foot wall of water and debris which came crashing down the valley was something way beyond a "mere" flood.McCullough introduces the reader to Johnstown as it was just before the flood; he recounts the history of the South Fork Dam and of the club which (badly) maintained it. Then the reader experiences the events of May 31, 1889 through the eyes of many people who were in the Conemaugh Valley that day. He examines the press coverage (good and bad) and the relief efforts; he also studies the legal aftermath and why the court proceedings turned out the way they did. And he, ultimately, tries to make sense of it all by extracting a lesson to be learned from the tragedy.Edward Herman's narration of the audio book was perfect in pace and tone.more
This book is an interesting chronicle of the causes and the disastrous effect of the great flood of Johnstown, Pa. It points at the possibility of the justification for resentment against the wealthy who did not properly maintain the dam for their lake and who did not do much to assist the townspeople to recover from the disaster they helped to make.more
Edward Herrmann narrates and he is fabulous. The first part of the book is build-up and background about the dam and things, but then it gets really riveting when the dam breaks. I like connecting with characters, so I think I would have been more into it if the book had followed a handful of people throughout the tragedy. But it was interesting and Edward Herrmann could probably read me the phone book and I'd be okay with it.more
I've been interested in the Johnstown flood ever since I read a novel about it for a fifth grade class. In 1889, a huge storm overwhelmed a dam in western Pennsylvania, leading to one of the worst natural disasters the US had seen at the time. The town of Johnstown was completely destroyed and thousands died. David McCullough is a well known historical writer who manages to deliver tons of data without being dry. This was no exception; at one point I stepped outside and was surprised to see that it was sunny instead of gray and raining. The book is especially interesting for anyone from Pennsylvania or Penn Staters as it was not far from where we were. A word of warning: probably best not to read this during a rain storm for those of you in low lying areas!more
David McCullough's first book is a gripping read about a man-made natural disaster near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in 1889. The Pittsburgh plutocracy, among them Andrew Carnegie and Henry Clay Frick, refurbished a dam on the cheap to create a private fishing resort. They only cared about their recreation. The poor steel workers toiling down below the dam in Johnstown and their families do not enter into their consideration. McCullough is a masterful storyteller who knows not to shatter the illusion of the American Dream.Johnstown illustrates some of the common patterns of typically American catastrophes. A basic neglect, a preference for laisser faire and an absence of regulation and regulatory power means everybody and nobody is in charge. Critical voices do not find listeners, neither in government nor by the dam's owners. Much of the work is outsourced, delegated until nobody feels responsible to check the quality and assume responsibility for the work. When the disaster finally happens, there are no plans nor precautions. The victims, thus, are the poor and the weak. On the positive side, there is a tremendous outburst of human interest, help and contributions, which diminishes as soon as media attention moves on. The corporate owned media is unwilling to call out the real bad guys. The judicial system is unable and unwilling to punish them. Politicians want their contributions, so the guilty robber barons ride into the sunset, free and unpunished, leaving the public to clear up the mess.more
Well done and very readable account of a heartbreaking tragedy long before 9/11 and Katrina but with interesting parallels, though it was published before either of the later disasters.more
Until I read this book I did not even know exactly where Johnstown was, except someplace in Pennsylvania. The author, David McCullough, does a masterful job setting the scene, the politics surrounding the dam and the subsequent failure of that dam. Johnstown was a typical American town for that day and time. People worked hard and earned little. The environment was polluted to some extent, but no one considered it a major issue. Nearly everyone considered the dam a threat, but only a few moved to improve the conditions. Huge disparities existed between the rich, the middle class and the poor. These disparities were more than money, but in perceptions of those above and below one’s “station.” This left a situation where in essence the threat was perceived, but all involved seemed to look to the other group, or believe, the dam was safe.Then, the dam broke on May31, 1889. Partly because of torrential rains, partly because of incompetent maintenance at the dam and removal/blockage of drains in the dam and certainly because of complacency of the people downstream from the dam and the threat it was to them disastrous results followed. The author describes the process of trying to save the dam, when and how it broke, the path and destruction of the flood and, most importantly, the effect on the people downstream.The final segment describes the cleanup of the damages. The caring for the survivors, the burying of the dead, the removal of all that was Johnstown – homes, shops, churches is described, especially the stone bridge which stopped much of the broken town in the river’s bed. A discussion of fault, which is never determined, ends the book. In today’s world the fault would be different, but in that time justice was served. This book was well-documented and also told the story of many people, some survivors, some not. Interesting to note, the response today is not all that much different to disasters now. We might have more people or resources or planning, but when you get down to the final issue a disaster by definition seems to disrupt any attempt to resolve it. Some disasters though should be averted by planning first.This book is short, concise and was a quick read for me. I enjoyed the descriptions and the details which told the story of a flood like that. I give this book four and one-half stars.more
David McCullough, as usual does an exciting job of bringing tons of research together into an interesting account to help the reader understand all the complex variables that contributed to this well-known, but often misunderstood disaster. Ed Herrman, the narrator of the audio version I had, keeps the story moving with his wonderful news reporter voice, and a perceptible personal interest in the story.Before reading this, I knew only that the town of Johnstown got washed away in a flood, and I remember images (paintings perhaps?) showing train locomotives floating in an ocean of water and debris along with bodies, and houses. I believe I was taught that a dam burst, and washed everything away. End of that history lesson.......NOTMcCullough traces the building of the dam, the decisions made about how certain engineering feats were handled (or mishandled), lays the groundwork for explaining what really happened, why it happened, and what could have been done to prevent it. By weaving these facts with historical accounts from survivors to portray the human toll taken, the reader is given an almost eyewitness account. It is a masterful work, particularly considering it could have been very boring.The entire time I was reading/listening to this, I kept thinking of New Orleans and FEMA and the disaster that followed the disaster. The people of Johnstown and the surrounding area could have taught FEMA some interesting lessons.Highly recommended for anyone wanting to know more about the flood that cost so many lives, the events leading up to it, and the aftermath.more
David McCullough does a great job at relating history. In The Johnstown Flood he does a great job with the pace and laying the groundwork for the situation. He has organized his thoughts and presented them so well that it is not a struggle to read or understand. Because he is so logical and methodical in his retelling, it is easier to experience the time in history he is discussing, rather than feeling like you are slogging through it.The Johnstown Flood is an incredible story, much deserving of this retelling.more
The tragedy of May 31, 1889 cost the town of Johnstown, Pennsylvania over 2,000 lives and was a combination of man and nature coming together to create a different kind of nightmare. I instantly thought of Hurricane Katrina descending on the levies of New Orleans.In the case of the Johnstown Flood, it was the man-made dam that held back the waters of Lake Conemaugh. As long as the dam held, the bustling valley town of Johnstown below was safe. While the dam was surrounded in controversy - those who thought it was perfectly safe versus those who thought it needed a makeover - no one could have predicted the amount of water the heavy rainstorms of May 31st, 1889 would bring. By midday the dam was in serious trouble. Despite frantic efforts to bolster its walls, by late afternoon it was too late and the dam gave way. It was impossible stop the deluge of millions of tons of water rushing down the mountainside. In a matter of hours an entire town was demolished. McCullough does an amazing job tying personal stories with the facts of the events. His recreation of the chain of events is stunning and almost unbelievable.more
This review pertains to the unabridged audio book version, read by Edward Herrmann.David McCullough is one of my favorite historians. He writes well researched, well balanced books that are both entertaining and insightful. Since he hails from Pittsburgh, it is no surprise that the Johnstown flood was of interest to him. Disasters of that magnitude are always dramatic, both on a personal level and as a backdrop for the socio-political conditions of the day. There’s a lot of detail here, perhaps more than some readers will want, but in the audio book version, with Edward Herrmann’s impeccable presentation, if the details (for example, the litany of deaths) gets to you, you can tune out for a while.There aren’t any dramatic takeaway insights or revelations here, but The Johnstown Flood told me all I wanted to know about a disaster that was previously just a phrase to me.more
David McCullough rocks my world. Takes a dam high in the mountains shoddily rebuilt by rich pleasure seekers, take a badass storm, mix together with the best historian in the world evertm and you have another compelling book. If it wasn't true you wouldn't believe it.more
David McCullough explores one of the nation's most devastating natural disasters. His research reveals the events that led up to the tragedy and exposes surprising details about some very prominent characters from our nation's past. As always McCullough delivers the epic tale with a captivating method that will keep you riveted. The book climaxes with the flood but keeps you interested with its revelations about the devastating events results and with heroic stories of rescue and relief. This is an essential read that reveals much more about the nation's history than the solitary story of a single community.more
David McCollough is one of my favorite writers of American history and biography. While his account of the Johnstown Flood is not one of his best works, it is nevertheless very enlightening and educational. In the mid 19th century, the government constructed an earthen dam across South Fork Creek in the Allegheny Mountains for the purpose of ensuring an adequate water supply for a series of canals in the area. Soon after, the Pennsylvania Railroad made the canals obsolete and the dam fell into disrepair. Several decades later, the newly wealthy industrialists in the Pittsburgh area (men with names such as Carnegie, Frick and Phipps) discovered the area around the dam and purchased it in the name of the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club. The old dam was negligently reconstructed and a large lake (Lake Conemaugh) provided a summer resort for the upper class of Pittsburgh. Fast forward nine years to Memorial Day 1889. One of the largest deluges in recorded history not only flooded the Little Connemaugh River valley (including Johnstown, population 20,000) but dangerously overfilled Lake Connemaugh. With no way to release the excess water, the lake soon spilled over the top of the dam, eroding the weakened center of the dam and ultimately collapsing it. An enormous volume of water then proceeded to roar down the narrow, enclosed valley, stripping everything in its path. By the time it reached Johnstown, approximately 13 miles away, it had stripped the entire valley of all vegetation and personal property in its path, generating a wall of water and debris sometimes reaching up to 70 feet in height. When it encountered the town of Johnstown, where the Little Connemaugh meets the larger Stony Creek, utter destruction ensued. McCollough does his usual meticulous job of researching and telling all aspects of this great American tragedy. The background of the dam's failure, the details of the hours encompassing the tragedy itself and the response of various segments of society in the days and weeks thereafter, all tell us much about our society and the American spirit, both good and bad.more
Another book about hometown. Really opened my eyes to the history of the place we all took for granted and that is decaying in our midst. Really made me see the kind of Brazil we were living in in 1889 in this country where supreme court judges were embittered former slave owners, graduates of Harvard Law along with Henry Frick, one of the perpetrators of this crime through abdication of responsibility, inaction and indifference, and well many other internal injustices despite our illustrious constitution. I hope we don't end up back there in 20 years the way things are going around here. By that time, the memory of the Johnstown flood, like Bopal, Chernobyl, and the myriad Chinese mining disasters happening now will be long gone.more
I had heard about the famous Johnstown Flood, probably from a short paragraph in a stale history book along time ago, but I really new nothing about it. This book puts you right there before, during and after the flood even introducing to some of the actual residents of Johnstown, some who survived and some who did not. Even though I knew the outcome it was as hard to put down as an adventure novel.more
Interesting account of an American disaster you don't hear about now a days. Mr. McCullogh is once again thorough about the details of personalities and events up to and after the great flood, but for me, this account reads too much like a collection of press clippings, which is surely most likely where most of the information was collected. Probably the best read around on this event, but not as good as some other McCullough efforts.more
I've read a few of David McCullough's work, and it is obvious that The Johnstown Flood was one of his first books. However, it is still well done in the McCullough style of interweaving numbers and hard facts with the personal eyewitness stories.I didn't know anything about The Johnstown Flood. It is amazing how quickly people were activated to help within 24 hours of the flood and how fast Johnstown was rebuilt. Even with all of our modern conveniences we don't seem able to spring into action like these people did over 100 years ago with only trains and horses for transport and telegraphs to spread news.I think the best quote was the lesson from the governor at the time "We who have to do with the concentrated forces of nature, the powers of air, electricity, water, steam, by careful forethought must leave nothing undone for the preservation and protection of the lives of our brother men."more
I love David McCullough's books in general, and this was no exception. It was an interesting (if horrifying) look at how various events came together to contribute to an incredible tragedy.more
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