In the late 1800s, Johnstown was a prospering coal and steel town in Pennsylvania, on the banks of the Conemaugh River. Rain and snowfall from the Allegheny Mountains above the town fed the river as it twisted and snaked past tiny villages on its way to Johnstown. High up in the mountains was an exclusive summer resort with an old dirt dam. Over the years, various people had examined the dam wall and expressed the opinion that it was not in good condition and needed work, to which the resort paid no attention.
Then came the day – May 31, 1889 – when the dam broke. It had been raining non-stop, and the water in the dam overflowed. The spillways were not sufficient, and water surged over the top of the dam wall. The wall soon fell apart, causing 14.55 million cubic meters to plunge down the mountain and follow the path of Conemaugh River. It destroyed tiny villages along the way, picking up houses and trees as it rushed toward Johnstown.
More than 2,200 people were killed in the flood, and there was about $17 million dollars worth of damages and losses. In today’s dollars, it would total about $484 million dollars. It became the most sensational news in the nation. New reporters, charitable organizations and gawkers descended on the ruins of the town. The people who had survived the flood had incredible stories to tell. It is their testimony that formed the basis for this book.
Excerpt from chapter 5: “Run For Your Lives:!”
“The water struck Johnstown harder than anything it had encountered in its fourteen-mile course from the dam. The drowning and devastation of the city took just about ten minutes.
“For most people they were desperate minutes of snatching at children, running upstairs as houses began to split apart, clinging to rafters, window ledges, anything. But there were hundreds on the hillsides, on rooftops, or in windows of tall buildings downtown, who watched in dumb horror. They saw the eastern end of Washington Street disappear in an instant. From there, without any clear parting, the wave divided into three main thrusts, one striking across the eastern end of town behind the Methodist Church, one driving straight through the center, and the other sticking more or less to the channel of the Little Conemaugh.
“East of the park, streets became rivers of rubbish churning headlong for the Stony Creek. On Main and Locust, big brick buildings collapsed like cardboard. Wood-frame stores and apartment houses jumped from their foundations and went swirling away.”