The Johnstown Flood by David McCullough

The Johnstown Flood by David McCullough

Introduction (100)

The Johnstown Flood is a historical book written by David McCullough. The story talks about one of America’s disasters, which could have been prevented. Despite warnings about the looming dangers of the dam, the Johnstown residents and the local authorities did not do anything, and this can be blamed on the dam’s collapse and the death of many people. The author wishes to reiterate that disasters are humanmade and as such, they can be prevented. McCullough writes on the Johnstown disaster to remind people and governments that they have the power to avoid such accidents if only they are keen and employ ethics in business.


“The sky was red” is the first chapter of the book and it provides a sketch of the life in Greater Johnstown, PA, during Memorial Day on the 30th May 1889. He describes the fateful day’s weather, ranging from the bright sunlight in the morning, and the sharp afternoon winds that make the grass along the dam flat. McCullough goes on to describe the living style and activities of the townspeople. He introduces the reader to the events that took place in Johnstown day and night, such as the men working in the mills, the council discussions on the town’s progress, and the town’s nightlife. He then introduces the advent of the rains that heavily slams on the houses in the town.

“Sailboats on the mountain” is the second chapter, and the author introduces Andrew Carnegie, Daniel Johnson, and Benjamin F. Ruff.  These are the influential people in Johnstown and are the owners of the Cambia Iron Mills, and the Edgar Thompson Mill. They are the individuals responsible for the construction of the dam given that they were only concerned about selling their steel for the dam’s construction. The author talks about the dam’s instability and how a tribune set to assess the situation reassured the Johnstown residents on their safety. Ruff, the owner of the dam, is said to have refuted claims presented by Morell that the dam could break at any time and cause a lot of damage. Morell and Ruff died two years earlier without solving the impending problem, and this is what causes the Johnstown disaster.

The third chapter “There’s a man came from the lake” talks about Horace Rose and his role in the floods. As introduced I chapter one, he is the key figure in identifying that the water in the dam starts to increase. As the rains continue to pour, he and other men at the dam warn the residents of the rising waters in the dam. However, most of them are unable to send down messages in the towns or reach Johnstown, and amidst broken communication. Horace is the man who monitors the rising water levels of the dam until it cannot hold the water anymore.

Chapter four “Rush of the torrent” describes the events that take place from the moment the dam breaks. McCullough gives the reader a step by step description of how the water waves travel very fast through Johnstown, destroying the houses, trees, fences, and sweeping away people without any mercy. Some people chose to stay in the train cars while some decide to flee to the highest points of the region.   The train cars are swept away by the raging floods, and the people are not able to run fast and end up being swept by the torrent. McCullough notes that the survivors of the flood were just lucky.

The fifth chapter “Run for your lives” focuses on the Johnstown flood survivor stories. The section provides an account of how some of the families in Johnstown were separated while fleeing the deadly waters, and how some of them were severely injured to the extent that they did not move.  For instance, those who survived talk about how they had to hang on the debris and wait for hours on the pouring rain before being rescued. McCullough introduces the reader to the Chapman family who was lucky to survive from the catastrophe. He also talks about the Smith family who was killed along with other members after the collapse of the Hulbert house. Others lost their family members, for example, the Quinn family. Reverend Dr. David Beale also talks on how they took refuge on the Main building, while the Rose family survived but was separated and injured. The chapter introduces James Walter and Dr. William Matthews who organized a safe place for the survivors.

Chapter six, “A message from Mr. Pitcairn” talks about the flood and how people took measures to ensure their safety. McCullough specifically talks about  Robert Pitcairn, who had experienced the disaster. Mr. Pitcairn is a wealthy man in charge of the train line, and he manages them by traveling on the trains now and then. The chapter provides Pitcairn’s account of the flood as he talks on how he was able to protect the train and keep the passengers safe. After the story, McCullough also talks about the extreme actions by the press and the unaffected persons who came to Pittsburg to see the aftermaths of the floods, the ruptured dam, and the victims.

“In the Valley of death” chapter gives a detailed description of the desolation in Johnstown on the first of January, 1889, and the initial reactions of the disaster by the residents and the American society. The landscape in the ambiance in the town has drastically changed. McCullough writes “After a night of hideous sounds, life at dawn is eerily missing everyday noises.” The flood waters decrease, and many bodies are discovered, prompting the local authority to come up with a place for their safety and identification. Approximately   600 bodies cannot be identified because of decapitation, decomposition, and burns. The debris is cleared to allow for the construction of makeshift hospitals and the safety of people from the Hungarian gangs that were already forming in the area.

In the last chapter “No pen can describe,” McCullough writes on the plans to bring Johnstown back to normal. Reestablishment plans are started, and the Cambria Iron Company starts to build new mills, and the board of health in Pennsylvania introduces rules aimed at clearing the bodies and debris in the Johnstown. The newspapers come up with theories about the incident. Book and short story publishers write on the events that took place without firsthand experience. However, the stories published on the disaster help bring Johnstown back to the American map as it receives donations.  Clara Barton’s arrival uplifts the residents and their living conditions.

As concluding remarks, McCullough writes “Our misery is the work of man.” David McCullough expresses his viewpoint by stating that the problem could have been prevented. He terms the flood as one of America’s biggest disasters in the Gilded Age. He talks about the blame game that emerges after the accident. For example, it is reported that the club’s negligence resulted in the break in the dam.

On the other hand, the newspapers conclude that unskilled engineers built the South Fork dam, hence the disaster.  But, the town can attract more tourists who come as aristocrats, investors, and donors who are interested in the story. The author notes that the Pittsburg papers were warned to be careful not to say anything wrong about the club to avoid more scandals.


Evaluation (100)

The author has provided evidence that the Johnstown Flood disaster would not have happened if the concerns about its instability were dealt with. The book is well written because it gives a clear history of what took place, making the reader live in the experience. I have learned that disasters have always happened; that they are mostly due to man’s error; and that at the end of every bad situation, people still rise and come together for a better tomorrow. The book is fascinating although it evokes sadness to the reader. I would recommend the book to others because I have learned a new history and it has made me develop a new insight on the impending tragedies we might be vulnerable to at present. History and anyone concerned with American disaster will find this book since the information can help prevent future tragedies.


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