Sunday, July 15, 2007

19th Century Republican Neglect of Capital Projects

Review of “The Johnstown Flood” by David McCullough

In ten minutes time, a flood hit the Johnstown area in 1889, killing over 2,000 people, making it the most devastating flood in our history. This is an excellent book of the history, not only the flood itself, but of the events leading to this tragedy, and how Johnstown rebounded.

The water that would ultimately create the flood was from a reservoir the state legislature funded in 1836 to support a canal system idea that ultimately was abandoned. Thus, the dam no longer had its original purpose soon after it was built.

The dam fell to neglect. The dam would found to be defective and did break on a few occasions. Yet, there was little water collected behind the dam on those occasions and any damage was minor. The state legislature faced financial difficulties and approved only intermittent construction on the bridge through 1850. The Pennsylvania Railroad purchased the dam at a discounted price for its right of way. This new owner neglected the bridge.

A group of wealthy people from the Pittsburgh formed the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club and bought the dam to turn the dam’s lake into a recreational area. Members of this club included Andrew Carnegie and Henry Clay Fricke. The club began renovating the dam, yet a huge rain destroyed all the previous repairs.

Lumbering operations had removed much timber that would have retained much water from a flood. The water behind the dam pushed the dam away in one big motion. The riverbed was mostly rock. The first large community hit was Woodvale, who lost 314 of its approximate 1,000 population in five minutes. When the flood hit Johnstown, the flood reached at least 34 feet in height (and some estimates are that it may have reached as high as 44 feet).

The book aptly describes of the aftermath of the flood. The press stirred paranoia that ethnic groups were looting the bodies. This later proved to be false. Yet they did not stop mob beatings of members of the accused group. The South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club was found responsible for the not properly repairing the dam in court, yet the club never paid any damages. Daniel Hastings, who achieved acclaim for his efforts in helping Johnstown rebound, would later be elected Governor. Three babies were born in Johnstown on the day of the flood, and they were given the names Flood Rhodes, Flood Raymond, and Moses Williams.

This is an excellent history of a horrible Pennsylvania disaster. It is written clearly and thoroughly describes the events of that time. This is a fantastic book for people interested in how people handle disasters, how such a flood could ever occur, and in Johnstown area history.


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