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Johnstown Flood
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The history of civil engineering may sound boring, but in David McCullough's hands it is, well, riveting. His award-winning histories of the Brooklyn Bridge and the Panama Canal were preceded by this account of the disastrous dam failure that drowned Johnstown, Pennsylvania, in 1889. Written while the last survivors of the flood were still alive, McCullough's narrative weaves the stories of the town, the wealthy men who owned the dam, and the forces of nature into a seamless whole. His account is unforgettable: "The wave kept on coming straight toward him, heading for the very heart of the city. Stores, houses, trees, everything was going down in front of it, and the closer it came, the bigger it seemed to grow.... The height of the wall of water was at least thirty-six feet at the center.... The drowning and devastation of the city took just about ten minutes." A powerful, definitive book, and a tribute to the thousands who died in America's worst inland flood. --Mary Ellen Curtin

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.

Customer Reviews:

  • Great read, even if you're not a history buff
    Most people don't realize that the Johnstown flood was one of the worst man-made disasters in U.S. history. This story will stay with you a long time....more info
  • Incredible book - a must read
    This book is really well written and is told in compelling fashion. The author brings the people life and his attention to fact is incredible. I have it several times and I highly recommend it....more info
  • Shame goes down in history
    I first became familiar with the Johnstown Flood by the book _In Sunlight, In a Beautiful Garden_ by K. Cambor. Intrigued furthur, I bought this book and was not disappointed.

    Carefully researched and brought to life in words, the event is just incredibly horrible. Even worse is the reality that this was preventable, and had it not been for immensely self-centered, wealthy men (Mellon, Carnegie, Frick) the damn dam would never have been inadequately restored and improperly maintained. For the benefits of so few (rich), so many people lost their lives. Towns virtually disappeared, wiped off the face of the earth along with livestock and every tree, bush and flower for miles down-river. The human impact stories are over whelming. Children were torn from their parent's arms in the crush of water that swept through their homes. Families were separated, their relatives buried in mud leaving their bodies unrecoverable for eternity.

    The shame is undeniable. What makes it worse is the fact that the richest men tried to make amends by contributing blankets to the survivors.

    Just blankets.

    This is a clear cut, tell it as it should be told book....more info

  • A Compelling Read
    The Johnstown Flood

    The book dramatically describes how unusually heavy rains collapsed a poorly maintained earthen dam, releasing a massive flow of debris-filled water which literally destroyed everything in its path, including most of the city, and kllled over 2,000 of its people. McCullough starkly recounts the personal trials of many survivors, and the unprecedented outpouring of spontaneous relief efforts from across a horror-stricken mid-19th century America. A masterfully told tale, hard to put down before finishing.
    ...more info
  • Very Interesting
    I grew up in Western Pennsylvania, and I knew that there was a big flood in Johnstown, but after reading this book, I'm ashamed at how little I actually knew about it. I moved far from the area about 6 months ago, and I was recently in a bookstore and saw this book about the flood, and got excited, because I didn't expect to see anything about western PA where I'm living. So, I bought the book, and then thought to myself "ok, why did I buy a book about the Johnstown flood? I'm never going to read it."

    Well, I did read it the other day, and it's very interesting. It's probably confusing for people that didn't grow up in the area, but even then, it's fascinating to find out what really did happen, and what actually caused the flood. I'm not a big history reader, but I really liked this book. I'd recommend it to anyone that enjoys learning about history, and especially anyone from western Pennsylvania....more info

  • As floods go...
    My husband is the history buff in our family & I bought this book as a Christmas stocking stuffer. I began reading it because, well, just because. I'm glad I did. David McCullough's writing put you on a floating roof and carried you down the Little Conemaugh. His development of many of the minor characters was astounding, considering the fact there was not much anecdotal history to go on. Extremely informative, the evidence and roles played around the re-building of the South Fork dam & the rapid growth of Johnstown was eye-opening. An exciting ride. ...more info
  • A perfect Father's Day gift
    This was a Father's Day gift that he really enjoyed. McCullough's 1776 was great, and this seemed to be just as good, even though written a number of years ago & given a new cover....more info
  • Vivid, thrilling and sad... what a great book!
    I've lived in Pennsylvania all of my life but I never knew too much about the Johnstown flood. Now that I've read McCullough's book, I'm hooked on the story and I'm getting to the flood museum as soon as I can.

    This is an incredible story set in another time, yet I couldn't help be reminded what Katrina did to the New Orleans area and how similar these stories are. Man, in all of his wisdom, relies on those around him to ensure that their great works are safely monitored. The Johnstown flood provides historical proof that we shouldn't be quite so trusting. ...more info
  • History Made Easy
    I have to admit, I'd never heard of the Johnstown Flood and found this book recommended by Amazon when I was reading the reviews for "John Adams", also by David McCullough. "The Johnstown Flood" is well researched, easy to read and a real page turner. I highly recommend this to all history buffs....more info
  • gift
    This book was very much enjoyed by the recipient. He really enjoyed reading about the area where members of his family grew up - tho a few years after the flood....more info
  • Mr. McCullough's earliest works his best
    I want to start out this review by saying, I did not find 1776 or Adams to my liking and although well written, there are many books better than 1776 and I did not, in the least enjoy the story of Adams and felt that Mr. McCullough was more interested in creating a textbook.

    Having said the above, now that I have read The Johnstown Flood and The Great Bridge, I must admit that these are two of the best books I have ever read.

    The detail was perfect, not overdone like in Adams and the mood of those affected by the Flood as well as the thoughts of those in nearby cities and towns rendered as though you were there. While I have not yet read his book on the Canal, these two books, in my opinion, exemplify the best of how a writer of American History should approach the topic of interest. I read both of these books in days as I could not put either down.

    I am not a big fan of the period of American History (more of a colonial, Revolutionary War through Jefferson fan) that this book and The Great Bridge covers which, in my opinion, makes these two books even more incredible. I have begun many books of this era only to put them down after a few chapters. These two stories were compelling and made more so by the fabulous presentation of Mr. McCullough. ...more info
  • Better than fiction
    I was watching a show one time where a boy was asked to explain why he liked his grandfather's stories so much. He said he liked them because they were not only interesting but true. This book by David McCullough is just one example of why this boy made such a profound statement. The Johnstown Flood is one of the worst natural disasters in US history and what makes it all the better is that McCullough tells it like it is a story and not a boring history event. He seems to do this in all his books and this is why he is one of my favorite historical writers along with Steven Ambrose. McCullough not only gives the background of this horrid event but describes the event in such vivid detail that you feel like you must have been there. It isn't really a difficult book to read so if you have a teenager give this book to him/her to get a sense of real history. This is a great story that can be used to get better aquainted with the lesser told stories in the history of the United States....more info
  • Better Than Fiction
    David McCullough's account of the 1889 flood in the Johnstown, Pennsylvania area is more striking than any fiction. He informs the reader of how the reservoir came to be, the changes that occurred as the property changed hands, and various errors in judgment and forces of nature that led to the failure of the dam. Fascinatingly, he travels with the body of water down the mountain, describing how natural terrain changes the course and impact of the flood waters. The numerous personal stories that are interspersed along the way -- preceding, during, and after the flood -- make for simply amazing reading....more info
  • Nothing Less Than The Definitive Account of the Johnstown Flood
    I read this book subsequent to seeing the excellent Charles Guggenheim Academy Award winning 1/2 hour film that was expanded to One Hour and shown on TV as part of the excellent 'American Experience' series of documentary films.
    This is the first book ever written by David Mc Cullough.
    The Johnstown Flood is the single best, most enlightening, and accurate account of the scandalous, and trajic American Disaster that occured back on the last day in May 1889, and its aftermath, which speaks volumes about the generous nature, and wonder that are the American people. After the dismal disgrace of New Orleans after Katrina, this book is an account of how far we have declined as a nation in responding to our fellow Americans when they are desperate. I became a david mc Cullough fan after reading this, and any student of history will almost certainly feel the same after absorbing this book. I have recommended it to many freinds, and every single one thanked me profusely for having done so. ...more info
  • Another great McCullough story
    David McCullough tells a compelling story of this tragic event. As always, he does a thorough job and gets behind just the basics of the story he is telling. It is a wonderful presentation of history....more info
  • Enjoyable read
    McCullough once again proves his talent for making history enjoyable with the Johnstown Flood. His book is very readable, but does not skimp out on the details. The aftermath portion of the book gets a little long, but the build-up and actual flood descriptions more than make up for it. I was entertained and taught at the same time. ...more info
  • First person perspecitve on history
    This early McCullough book provides a look at one of the most catastrophic disasters to strike America. The Johnstown Flood destroyed more than 2500 lives and changed the landscape of western Pennsylvania. It moved the nation towards relief efforts and spurred a country to act on behalf of their common man. As always the author captures the people and the time in stunning clarity and really puts the reader there giving them a first person perspective on what happened to the people. After living in Pennsylvania for more than six years I found that few people really knew about the flood but this book does an excellent job of filling the blanks. If you want to see a trying story told in wonderful detail this is the place to start. ...more info
  • Eerily Familiar
    In May 1889, a dam broke near Johnstown, Pennsylvania. In a swoop down the mountain valley, the water and the wreckage swept up in it wiped out ninety-nine families. "Three hundred and ninety-six children aged ten years or less had been killed. Ninety-eight children lost both parents. One hundred and twenty-four women were left widows; 198 men lost their wives." The final death toll is generally accepted at 2,209, but we will never know the exact number because of the circumstances. For many days, months, even years to come, bodies of the victims were being found. Two bodies were found as late as 1906.

    David McCullough presents the background of the dam and its failure; the details of the tragedy itself, utilizing the stories from survivors; and shows the response following the disaster. "The dam was the most dramatic violation of the natural order" and by being built the alteration of nature was "setting in motion whole series of chain reactions."

    While reading, it was hard for me to keep in mind that The Johnstown Flood was written in 1968, seventy-nine years after the disaster occurred. Much of it is eerily familiar to several recent disasters. Which of course leaves me wondering... will we ever learn?...more info
  • Johnstown Flood
    Johnstown Flood. David McCullough. 1967. 304 Pages.

    This was a good book. I read it as a prelude to David McCullough's lecture on 21SEP2006 in Scranton. The book is 70% social history (it was written in 1967!). It is well written and the photos are interesting. About 15% is prelude to disaster, setting the scene. About 20% is post disaster, recovery. Some of that is quite interesting. Apparently the immigrant group moving in and taking cheap labor jobs were the Hungarians (Hunkies). Well, during the recovery there were reports in the press (vilifications really) of roving bands of looting, dead desecrating, raping, killing etc all done by these Hungarians. Except they were not called Hungarians, they were labeled the Huns. Though the drawings of them were stereotypical Hungarians with their big mustaches etc. The bulk then is on the disaster ... the big raging wall of water which passed through Johnstown in 10 minutes flat.

    ...more info
  • The day the dam broke

    The Johnstown flood of 1889 was a subject I knew next to nothing about. McCullough traces the development of the town, the nature of the earthwork dam that breached on May 31, 1889, and the people who in one way, shape or form were connected to this event. In the end, probably over 2,000 people died due to the flood. The personal stories are shocking and heartbreaking.

    David McCullough excels in describing the central elements of his story, which is a talent that makes his works so popular. The nature of the town of Johnstown, its citizens, the railroad and the industries that were critical to is being, and the rivers and natural geography of the area are examples of where description comes into play. The exclusive South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club which included such notables as Andrew Carnegie, Henry Clay Frick and others on its list of members also is a central element of the story. In essence, the dam created the lake that became home to this exclusive club. As the author discusses, especially at the end of his book, the nature of the work done to repair the dam during the club days certainly represented man's role in the cause of the flood, but as the author also mentions, so did the rains.

    Leaders in the Pennsylvania railroad, the Cambria Iron Company and other folks from various backgrounds figure into this story. The description of the aftermath of the flood are also well told and the resulting work done to aid the victims and clear the debris. All sorts of groups contributed to the rescue of Johnstown and its people, including such groups as the Red Cross under Clara Barton's leadership, but we also learn of the journalists who inundated the area, the thieves and scoundrels who took advantage of the plight of the town, and others. The events during the flood and after are by far the most powerful parts of the book.

    Obviously the search for blame figures into the last part of McCullough's narrative, as I briefly hinted at earlier. The author takes several factors and thoughts into consideration, which is only fair. Though we often seek to blame somebody or some group, it isn't always that easy. Some people left the town for good, others stayed and tried to rebuild their lives. Those who lost their families, as the author discusses, often had less reason to stay. It seems strange that these type stories make for such good reading; in fact, it seems perverse. But perhaps stories like these can offer us valuable lessons and can help us better understand the human condition, where it is good and where it is flawed....more info
  • Another winner from McCullough
    I have enjoyed all of Mr McCullough's books. This one is a bit shorter than his others, but it is a wonderful read. Highly recommended....more info
  • Tells the Story Vividly; Grapples with the Larger Social Issues Raised by the Flood
    There is a saying, not original to me, that events are of record, but reality is a construct. McCullough does the research necessary to state the essential facts of this historical event. This is no mean task, given all the disinformation and misinformation in the historical record. But what is even more impressive is McCullough's ability to show why there is so much inaccuracy in the writing about this event.

    The power of the new media, the insatiable appetite of Americans for a story, and the raw class tensions and social issues of the time combine to create all sorts of varied efforts to construct a reality to explain the Johnstown events. Those constructs often tell us more about ourselves than they do about what really happened in Johnstown.

    The early constructions magnified the death toll tenfold and seized upon all sorts of fantastic survivor stories that were patently untrue. Some shades of 9/11 here. Then the focus turned to the responsiblity of the owners of the resort on top of the dam that had rebuilt the dam. This was the class card -- rich guys who had nothing better than to do than pursue leisure (a novel concept at the time) and isolate themselves from other Americans (tapping into ancient American attitudes against elites) running a poorly built dam doomed to fail and to kill the groundlings below. This story resonated with Americans.

    McCullough is exceptionally balanced and thoughtful of his treatment of the issue, and picks apart the crudest and most inaccurate attacks against the dam owners. In the end, however, there is some core truth to the theme that the rich owners' neglect contributed to the tragedy. The dam had been originally built by the State, but the reconstruction job by the resort owners was poorly engineered. The biggest flaw was the lack of any way to control the level of the dam with outlets at the bottom of the dam to let out some water. Screens at the top to keep the fish in that led to a blockage and contributed to the problems, while the most strikingly callous measure (they cared more about fish than human life), probably was a minor matter in the whole tragedy.

    What's also fascinating is that the rich were not brought to account. Tort and corporate law at the time allowed the rich owners to shield personal liability behind a shell owner of the facility and difficult issues of causality rendered all the lawsuits unwinnable. Today, there would be a different result, as McCullough points out. Those decrying the "flood" of litigation in modern days may do well to consider the real floods that fear of liablity (and the concomitant insurance, risk prevention, government regulation, and professional reviews such fears engender to prevent tragedy from occurring in the first place) has prevented. The failure of the press (who were owned by some of these rich guys) and the legal system to call the owners to account tells us a lot about the entrenched power the ruled the country at the time.

    McCollough tells the tale of the flood vividly, corrects the record to tell events truthfully, and then deals with the larger social issues raised by the event. This is a extraordinarily good book...more info