What is it about disasters? We want to look away, but find ourselves absorbed in the horrifying details of a hurricane or a tornado. Our hearts go out but so does or keen and morbid interest. In general I don’t go in for disaster stories because I already live with enough irrational fear, but I like David McCullough and knew nothing about one of the most sensational stories of the 1880’s in America.
I can’t say I loved this book exactly (can you love a book that gives you nightmares?). Everyone in Johnstown knew there was a dam built up in the mountains above their bustling industrial town, but the people, mostly first generation Germans, Welsh and Irish made a good living in the socially progressive city of 20,000 or so. They had big industry, stores, opera houses and churches.
In the 1860’s the dam had suffered some damage, but not enough to arouse too much concern. Even when the likes of Andrew Carnegie and friends decided the man-made lake in the mountains would be the perfect spot for summering and built a private club with mansions called “cottages” around the lake, only a few people worried about the dam.
Year after prosperous year passed with only the occasional joke about the dam finally breaking and then came the rainy spring of 1888. Cold and wet, some began to eye the dam and worry. The people in the valley often experienced floods on a small scale and when the clouds burst on Memorial Day weekend the people began rolling their rugs on the ground floors of their homes and businesses and moving their valuables to the attic as they’d done so many times before. But this was different.
As the torrential rains poured down, the earthen dam began to buckle. A weak spot right in its center gave way, to the horror of the men readying for a summer season of high class sport and recreation. Some brave men took to their horses and raced down to the towns in the valley warning them that the dam would fail and soon, but most people had heard these things too many times.
And so the great lake over three miles wide emptied itself into the valley within forty minutes. Entire towns disappeared–every last bit of evidence that a community existed–gone in minutes. Trees were ripped from their places, leaving once green mountainsides bald.
The people who saw the water as it made its turn into Johnstown said the water looked more like a black thundering blob of thick grinding air and soot. Indeed so many towns and people and horses and forests were crushed and roiled in the moving lake that the water became more a thick soup of death than anything like water.
Within about 10 minutes much of Johnstown was demolished. The landscape entirely changed. Many people raced to high ground while some survived in air pockets above the water in their flooded and now floating houses. Children, their clothing torn from them, clung to mattresses and rooftops as they flew along over the waves. Dead horses and dogs were everywhere along with tons of barbed wire produced in one of the factories.
The rubble and thunder crashed into the city’s stone bridge in such a way that the bridge held. Every bit of carnage flew up against it creating a monstrous pile of wreckage which then caught fire as night fell.
It is said that no one cried that first night, the shock being so complete. All trains, all telegraph wires and all access to food or clothing were cut off. The only light was the fire at the bridge where some people were trapped alive.
About 2200 people died in Johnstown, some bodies only being found years later down river. Entire families disappeared, orphans mourned the loss of parents and siblings and husbands missed their wives–wishing they’d done something to save them. In one afternoon everything they knew was gone.
Some insist that the big bugs up at the club could have prevented and may have callously allowed for the dam to break. I think everyone just stupidly hoped for the best. We all want what we want. We don’t want to go around thinking about dams breaking all the time. Things happen in a flash. “Yet when I surveyed all that my hands had done
and what I had toiled to achieve, everything was meaningless, a chasing after the wind; nothing was gained under the sun.“ as King Solomon once wisely wrote.
I guess we read about disasters because we know one day our time will come. This world will be washed away even if only we die asleep in our beds. We wonder what the point is. How will we handle the nightmares that may come our way?
In the case of Johnstown, the country stopped all else and helped. Every great city sent money, food, machinery and prayers. The Pennsylvania Railroad out of Pittsburgh did nothing but bring in workers and relief for weeks. People shared. People rescued others, risking their lives– having just seen how frail human life could be dashed against the rubble. People kept going because, in the end, what else can we do?