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Determining the Facts

Reading 1: A Roar Like Thunder

Johnstown in 1889 was a town of German and Welsh immigrants. With a population of 30,000, it was a growing and industrious community known for the quality of its steel. Founded in 1794, Johnstown began to prosper with the building of the Pennsylvania Mainline Canal in 1834 and the arrival of the Pennsylvania Railroad and the Cambria Iron Company in the 1850s. There was one small drawback to living in the city. Johnstown had been built on a floodplain at the fork of the Little Conemaugh River and Stony Creek. Because the growing city had increased the runoff from the surrounding hills by stripping them for wood, and had narrowed the river banks to gain building space, the heavy annual rains had caused increased flooding in recent years.

Furthermore, 14 miles up the Little Conemaugh, three-mile-long Lake Conemaugh was held on the side of a mountain–450 feet higher than Johnstown–by the old South Fork Dam. It had been poorly maintained, and every spring there was talk that the dam might not hold. But it always had, and the supposed threat became something of a standing joke around town.

But at 4:07 on the chilly, wet afternoon of May 31, 1889, the inhabitants heard a low rumble that grew to a "roar like thunder." Some knew immediately what had happened: after a night of heavy rains, South Fork Dam had finally broken, sending 20 million tons of water crashing down the narrow valley. Most never saw anything until the 36-foot wall of water, already boiling with huge chunks of debris, rolled over them at 40 miles per hour, consuming everything in its path. Those who did see it said it "snapped off trees like pipe stems," "crushed houses like eggshells," and "threw around locomotives like so much chaff." A violent wind preceded it, blowing down small buildings. Making the wave even more terrifying was the black pall of smoke and steam that hung over it–the "death mist" remembered by survivors.

Thousands of people desperately tried to escape the wave, but they were slowed as in a nightmare by the 2 to 7 feet of water already covering parts of town (this flooding was typical in seasons of heavy rain, and it had been raining heavily that spring). One observer from a hill above the town said the streets "grew black with people running for their lives." Some remembered reaching the hills and pulling themselves out of the flood path seconds before it overtook them. Those caught by the wave found themselves swept up in a torrent of oily, yellow-brown water, surrounded by tons of grinding debris, which crushed some, provided rafts for others. Many became helplessly entangled in miles of barbed wire from a destroyed wire works. People indoors when the wave struck raced upstairs seconds ahead of the rising water, which reached the third story in many buildings. Some never had a chance, as homes were immediately crushed or ripped from foundations and added to the churning rubble, ending up hundreds of yards away. Everywhere people were hanging from rafters or clinging to rooftops and railcars being swept downstream, frantically trying to keep their balance as their rafts pitched in the flood.

It was over in 10 minutes, but for some the worst was still to come. Thousands of people, huddled in attics or on the roofs of buildings that had withstood the initial wave, were still threatened by the 20-foot current tearing at the buildings and jamming tons of debris against them. In the growing darkness, they watched other buildings being pulled down, not knowing if theirs would last the night. But the most harrowing experience for hundreds came at the old stone railroad bridge below the junction of the rivers. There, thousands of tons of debris scraped from the valley along with a good part of Johnstown, piled up against the arches. The 45-acre mass held buildings, machinery, hundreds of freight cars, 50 miles of track, bridge sections, boilers, telephone poles, trees, animals, and 500 to 600 humans. The oil-soaked jam was immovable, held against the bridge by the powerful current and bound tightly by the barbed wire.

Those who were able began scrambling over the heap toward shore. But many were trapped in the wreckage, some still hopelessly hung up in the barbed wire, unable to move. Then the oil caught fire. As rescuers worked in the dark to free people, the flames spread over the whole mass, burning with "all the fury of hell," according to a Johnstown newspaper account. Eighty people died at the bridge, some still in their own homes.

The next morning survivors were unsettled by the eerie silence hanging over the city. During the night the waters had receded, revealing vast heaps of mud and rubble filling streets–where there were still streets–up to the third story. Entire blocks of buildings had been razed. Hundreds, alive and dead, were buried beneath the ravaged city. Many bodies were never identified, and hundreds of the missing were never found. As everyone had dreaded, disease followed in the wake of the flood, and typhoid added 40 more lives to the 2,209 that had already died. Emergency morgues and hospitals were set up, and commissaries distributed food and clothing. The nation responded to the disaster with a spontaneous outpouring of time, money, food, and clothing. Contributions from the United States and abroad totaled over $3,700,000. The flood also provided the newly formed American Red Cross under the leadership of Clara Barton with its first test. Barton and her staff of 50 doctors and nurses arrived in Johnstown five days after the flood. After surveying the scene, she set up hospital tents and built six Red Cross "hotels" for the homeless. Barton and her crew remained in Johnstown until October, when the city was finally able to begin rebuilding itself.

Questions for Reading 1

1. Why was the location of Johnstown a "problem"?

2. What posed an additional danger to the city?

3. Describe the flood that devastated Johnstown.

4. The flood lasted only 10 minutes, but the destruction and fear continued through the night. Describe those events.

5. What did the survivors find when dawn broke the following morning?

Reading 1 was compiled from the National Park Service visitor's guide for the Johnstown Flood National Memorial.

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