The stunning story of one of America’s great disasters, a preventable tragedy of Gilded Age America, brilliantly told by master historian David McCullough.
At the end of the nineteenth 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.
There is not a spare word used in this brilliant and absorbing account of an American tragedy that resonates to this day – the breaking of a dam and a tidal wave of water destroying everything in its path, claiming over two thousand human lives of all ages and numerous animals – is still a legitimate concern in the 21st century.
We fear that the overpasses we drive under will collapse on top of us or that the bridges we drive over will fall out from under us. We go to sleep worrying that dams or levees will fail due to man-made or natural causes or both would lead up to such events. If we wait to take care of our infrastructure until it breaks, then we will continually repeat the Johnstown flood on grand and small scales.
The fear and uncertainty that is palpable throughout the pages of McCullough’s book isn’t just of those who survived the floods of May 31, 1889, but our own, as well. We are reminded every day that we are not in control of the environment around us, that we cannot bend it to our will, no matter what we do.
The lessons from the Johnstown tragedy are ones we still need to learn today – never underestimate the water level, don’t cut corners to accommodate your investors and always place human and animal welfare over the dollar.
My rating: 4 out of 5 stars
You can purchase David McCullough’s The Johnstown Flood by clicking on the title.