The excitement in Pittsburgh continued day after day. Johnstown seemed to be the only thing people were talking about, and the papers carried almost nothing but flood news, with stories running on and on, page after page, and in even greater detail than what was being published elsewhere. The two cities had always had ties, through the steel business and family connections. Now almost everyone in Johnstown, it appeared, had relatives in Pittsburgh.
Refugees from the disaster kept pouring into Union Station by the thousands. The sick and the injured had to be cared for. Children, hundreds of them, lost or orphaned, many wearing tags for identification, had to be fed and looked after. Homes had to be found for them and all the others. On Wednesday, the 5th, four trains full of survivors, most of them women and children, came in.
People had dropped everything to help. Ladies’ groups were sorting clothes and packing medical supplies in church basements all over town. The Masons, the Republican Club, factory workers were organizing, collecting, donating, and proudly announcing their accomplishments to the papers. The involvement grew so that the local merchants began complaining of a serious drop off in trade. “From a business point of view” things were the worst they had been for years, according to one report. Several firms canceled their regular newspaper advertisements in order to express their sympathies for the people of Johnstown, and Young’s picture store on Wood Street attracted considerable attention by displaying in its window a painting of South Fork dam done a few years earlier by a local artist.
Everybody, it seemed, had his own latest story from Johnstown. A husband had heard from another man at the mill, a brother had just come back from the railroad depot, a cousin who worked at the Mellon bank had overheard something, two sons from the big Italian family across the alley had actually been there with one of the Flinn gangs, and they all had stories to tell, inside information. The city was alive with the most hair-raising tales and rumors. And nowhere was there more talk, or were things in such turmoil, than at the Pennsylvania depot and yards, where tons of food and supplies were still piling up, and the crowds were so thick, any hour of the day, that you could barely make your way through.
The railroad itself had never known such times, not even during the worst of the war years. Every schedule had been canceled. All normal business had been stopped. Nothing went east but trains bound for Johnstown, and as it was, the traffic was almost more than could be handled. If there had been only the storm damage to contend with, troubles would have been bad enough; but train after train kept steaming in from across the country, men and supplies had to be kept moving, repair equipment had to be sent forward, and everything that went up had to come back by the same route.
Pitcairn, with full authorization from the main office in Philadelphia, did everything possible to speed things up. The Pennsylvania had already donated $5,000 to the relief fund, but that was of small consequence compared to what was accomplished to keep the line open. Pitcairn himself worked almost without letup. All available manpower east and west was rushed into the area, and the cost of everything was assumed by the line.
This was by far the biggest emergency the Pennsylvania had ever been called on to face, and all its extraordinary power, its al-most military-style discipline and organization, its vast resources in men and equipment, were brought to bear on the problem. The results, the swiftness and efficiency with which forces were marshaled, tangles unsnarled, damages repaired, help rushed through, were indeed remarkable and left a lasting impression on everyone involved. For all its highhanded ways, for all the evils people attributed to it, in a crisis the railroad had been worth more than any other organization, including the state, and they would remember that.
Still it would be two full weeks until the line from Harrisburg west would be opened and relief trains could start to Johnstown by way of Altoona. Until then Pittsburgh would remain the one channel through which everything had to pass.
The Allegheny River, with its endless freight of wreckage, also continued to be an immense fascination. Children were brought from miles away to watch the tawny water slip past the shores, so that one day they might be able to say they had seen something of the Johnstown Flood. The most disreputable-looking souvenirs, an old shoe, the side of a packing box with the lettering on it still visible, were fished out, dripping and slimy, to be carried proudly home.
There were accounts of the most unexpected finds, including live animals. But the best of them was the story of a blonde baby found at Verona, a tiny river town about ten miles up the Allegheny from Pittsburgh. According to the Pittsburgh Press, the baby was found floating along in its cradle, having traveled almost eighty miles from Johnstown without suffering even a bruise. Also, oddly enough, the baby was found by a John Fletcher who happened to own and operate a combination wax museum, candy stand, and gift shop at Verona.
Fletcher announced his amazing discovery and the fact that the baby had a small birthmark near its neck. Then he hired a pretty nineteen-year-old, dressed her in a gleaming white nurse’s uniform, and put her and the baby in the front window of his establishment. Within a few days several thousand people had trooped by to look at the Johnstown baby and, it is to be assumed, to make a few small purchases from the smiling Mr. Fletcher. Then, apparently, quite unexpectedly, the baby was no longer available for viewing. The mother, according to Fletcher, had lived through the flood and, having heard the story back in Johnstown, rushed to Verona, identified the birthmark, and went home with her baby.
But there was another subject that was stirring up far more talk in Pittsburgh. It was not until three or four days after the flood that the rest of the country began growing keenly interested in the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club, but in Pittsburgh, not surprisingly, the interest had been high since news of the disaster first came through Friday night. And for those who may have forgotten, or who never knew, the nature of the club’s membership, the Pittsburgh newspapers were quick to remind them.
In the beginning there had been some concern over those clubmen who had been at the dam when it failed. But when it became known that they were alive and unharmed, the emphasis immediately shifted to what exactly the other club members might do next.
On Saturday, at the mass meeting called by Pitcairn, Frick and Phipps had been named to serve on the executive board of the Relief Committee. That night, at the home of another member, Charles Clarke, a number of the clubmen met in private to agree on what their policy should be. At that point, like everyone else in Pittsburgh, they knew very little about what precisely had happened at the dam; but judging from the way things looked, the wisest policy for the moment seemed to be to say nothing, except that no immediate action was planned and that the club would make a donation to the people of Johnstown of 1,000 blankets.
But, unfortunately for the others, a few members decided to speak their minds all the same. One member, who asked that his name be withheld, told reporters that in the past he had heard questioning about the strength of the dam, but that he had never looked into the matter personally. Then he told a story of riding from the lake down to Johnstown a few years earlier with a driver who had said, “The time will come when more than you and I will talk about that embankment.” And he finished up by saying that there were some in Johnstown who used an Episcopal prayer, “Lord deliver us from mountain floods!”
Another member, James McGregor, who gave his name without any hesitation, said he refused to believe that there had been any trouble at South Fork. He was certain the whole thing was a mistake.
“I am going up there to fish the latter part of this month,” he said. “I am a member of the South Fork Fishing Club and I believe it is standing there the same as it ever was.
“As for the idea of the dam ever being condemned, it is nonsense. We have been putting in from twenty thousand to fifteen thousand dollars a year at South Fork. We have all been shaking hands with ourselves for some years on being pretty clever businessmen, and we should not be likely to drop that much money in a place that we thought unsafe. No sir, the dam is just as safe as it ever was, and any other reports are simply wild notions.”
His own notions, which appeared in the papers on the morning of Sunday, June 2, were so wild, and so very tactless in the face of what was by then known of the suffering at Johnstown, that the only possible excuse for making such a statement must have been that he actually believed every word of it.
And to make matters worse, he was not alone. Young Louis Clarke next told a correspondent for the New York Herald that there was great doubt “among the engineers” who had examined the reservoir whether, after all, it had been that particular dam which broke. Just which engineers he was referring to is unclear, but he was interviewed along with another club member, James Reed, who said that in the past he himself had climbed all over the dam, studying it closely, and that “in the absence of any positive statement I will continue to doubt, as do many others familiar with the place, that it really let go.” Perhaps, he then suggested, it had been a dam at Lilly which broke.
Reed’s comments were of more than passing interest for he was the partner of Philander Knox in the prestigious Pittsburgh law firm of Knox & Reed. If there were to be lawsuits over the disaster, the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club would almost certainly be represented by Knox & Reed. And already the press was playing up the likelihood that such suits would follow. On June 2 the World published a statement attributed to a prominent lawyer practicing in Allegheny County, who preferred to remain anonymous:
“I predict there will be legal suits with possible criminal indictments as a result of this catastrophe. I am told that the South Fork Club has been repeatedly warned of the unsafety of its dam, and it comes from good authority…”
On another page the World published an interview with Jesse H. Lippincott of New York City, who was the son of a club member and who had spent several summers at the lake. The dam, he said, was built almost entirely of solid stone, but if it had indeed broken, the death toll would likely run to several thousand, and “Pittsburghers will…deprived of their most popular resort.”
Then, on Monday, the 3rd, reporters from Johnstown reached the dam and started sending a series of dispatches from South Fork which removed once and for all any fantasies about the dam still standing; and out of conversations with people in the neighborhood, they began building a history of the structure which did not bode well for the club members.
Feelings were running very strong against the club at South Fork. Monday after dark an angry crowd of men had gone up to the dam looking for any club members who might have been still hanging about. When they failed to find anyone, they broke into several of the cottages. Windows were smashed and a lot of furniture was destroyed. Then, apparently, they had gone over to the Unger farm to look up the Colonel. The reporters later called it a lynch mob and said they were bent on killing Unger. Whether or not it would have come to that, there is no way of knowing, for Unger by that time was on his way to Pittsburgh. There was a good deal of grumbling among the men as they milled about outside Unger’s house; threats were shouted; then the men went straggling off through the night, back down the hollow.
The clubmen who had been at the lake had gone off on horseback, heading for Altoona, almost immediately after the dam broke Friday afternoon, though one of them, it seems, stuck around long enough to settle his debts with some of the local people. He had no intention of ever coming back again, he told them, which they in turn repeated for the benefit of the newspapermen. They also emphasized that the Pittsburgh people had not made things any better for themselves by pulling out so rapidly at a time when, as anyone could see, there was such a crying need for able-bodied men in the valley. Had they stayed on to help, it was said, then people might have felt somewhat differently toward them. This way there was only contempt.
But it was when they began describing how the dam had been rebuilt by Ruff and his workers that their real bitterness came through, that all the old, deep-seated resentment against the rich, city men began surfacing. Farmers recalled how they had sold Ruff hay to patch the leaks. A South Fork coal operator who insisted that his name be withheld, but who was almost certainly George Stineman, South Fork’s leading citizen, told how, years earlier, he had gone to Johnstown on more than one occasion to complain about the dam’s structural weaknesses. Reporters heard that the dam had been “the bogie of the district” and how it had been the custom to frighten disobedient children by telling them that the dam would break. The clubmen were described as rude and imperious in their dealings with the citizens of the valley. Reporters were told of the times neighborhood children had been chased from the grounds; and much was made of the hated fish guards across the spillway. Old feuds, personal grudges, memories of insults long forgotten until then, were trotted out one after the other for the benefit of the press.
Someone even went so far as to claim that several of the Italian workmen employed by the club had been out on the dam at the time it failed and had been swept to their death, thus implying that the Pittsburgh men had heartlessly (or stupidly) ordered them out there while they themselves had hung back on the hillsides.
One local man by the name of Burnett, who conducted a reporter on an inspection of the dam, told the reporter that if people were to hear that he was from Pittsburgh, they might jump to the conclusion that he was connected with the club and pull him from the carriage and beat him to death. “That is the feeling that predominates here,” Burnett said, “and, we all believe, justly.”
The plain fact was that no one who was interviewed had anything good to say about the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club, its members, or its dam. And when a coroner’s jury from Greensburg, in Westmoreland County, showed up soon after the reporters, the local people willingly repeated the same things all over again.
The jurymen had come to investigate the cause of death of the 121 bodies that had been recovered at Nineveh, which was just across the line in Westmoreland County. They poked about the ruins of the dam, talked to people, made notes, and went home. The formal investigation, with witnesses testifying under oath, was to be held on Wednesday, the 5th.
In the meantime, Mr. H. W. Brinkerhoff of Engineering and Building Record, a professional journal published in New York, arrived in South Fork to take a look at the dam and was soon joined by A. M. Wellington and F. B. Burt, editors ofEngineering News.Most of the reporters remained cautious about passing judgment on the dam, waiting to see what the experts had to say. But on June 5 the headline on the front page of the New York Sun read:
CAUSE OF THE CALAMITY
The Pittsburgh Fishing Club
The Waste Gates Closed
When the Club Took
The indictment which followed, based on a Sun reporter’s “personal investigation,” could not have been much more bluntly worded.
…There was no massive masonry, nor any tremendous exhibition of engineering skill in designing the structure or putting it up. There was no masonry at all in fact, nor any engineering worthy of the name. The dam was simply a gigantic heap of earth dumped across the course of a mountain stream between two low hills….
In Johnstown on the same day, General Hastings told a World correspondent that in his view, “It was a piece of carelessness, I might say criminal negligence.” In Greensburg the Westmoreland coroner’s jury began listening to one witness after another testify to the shoddy way the dam had been rebuilt and the fear it had engendered, though two key witnesses had apparently had second thoughts about speaking their minds quite so publicly and refused to appear until forced to do so by the sheriff.
Two days later, on the 7th, a verdict was issued: “…death by violence due to the flood caused by the breaking of the dam of the South Fork Reservoir…” It seemed a comparatively mild statement, considering the talk there had been and coming as it did on the same day as Hastings’ pronouncement. But on the preceding day, another cornoner’s inquest, this one conducted by Cambria County, had rendered a decision that spelled out the cause of the disaster, and fixed the blame, in no uncertain terms.
The Cambria jurors had also visited the dam and listened to dozens of witnesses. But their inquest was held to determine the death of just one flood victim, a Mrs. Ellen Hite. Their verdict was “death by drowning” and that the drowning was “caused by the breaking of the South Fork dam.”
But then the following statement was added:
“We further find, from the testimony and what we saw on the ground that there was not sufficient water weir, nor was the dam constructed sufficiently strong nor of the proper material to withstand the overflow; and hence we find the owners of said dam were culpable in not making it as secure as it should have been, especially in view of the fact that a population of many thousands were in the valley below; and we hold that the owners are responsible for the fearful loss of life and property resulting from the breaking of the dam.”
Now the story broke wide open. “THE CLUB IS GUILTY” ran the World’s headline on June 7. “Neglect Caused the Break…Shall the Officers of the Fishing Club Answer for the Terrible Results.”
The Cincinnati Enquirer said that in Johnstown, as more facts became known, the excitement was reaching a “fever heat” and that “it would not do for any of the club members to visit the Conemaugh Valley just now.” The Chicago Herald said there was “no question whatever” as to the fact that criminal negligence was involved.
Although it would be another week before the engineering journals would publish their reports on the dam, the gist of their editors’ conclusions had by now leaked to the press. On Sunday, the 9th, The New York Times headline ran:
An Engineering Crime
The Dam of Inferior Construction
According to the Experts
Actually, the engineering journals never worded it quite that way. The full report which appeared in the issue of Engineering News dated June 15 said that the original dam had been “thoroughly well built,” but that contrary to a number of previously published descriptions, it had not been constructed with a solid masonry core. (From this some newspapers would conclude that the “death-dealer” was nothing but a “mud-pile.”) The repairs made by Benjamin Ruff, however, had been carried out “with slight care,” according to the report. Most important of all, there had been “no careful ramming in watered layers, as in the first dam.” But Ruff’s work was not the real issue, according to the editors. “Negligence in the mere execution of the earthwork, however, if it existed, is of minor importance, since there is no doubt that it was not a primary cause of the disaster; at worst, it merely aggravated it.”
The primary causes, it was then stated, were the lowering of the crest, the central sag in the crest, the fact that there were no outlet pipes at the base, and the obstruction of the spillway. The details of these matters were carefully described, and it was speculated that the disaster might have been averted that Friday afternoon if the bridge over the spillway and the fish guards had been cut away in time, or if some “man of great resolution, self-confidence, and self-sacrifice” had (as John Parke had contemplated) cut the dam at one end, where the original and more firmly built surface would have held up better against the enormous force of erosion.
But the point the editors of the report seemed most determined to hammer home was that there was no truth to any claims being made that the dam had been rebuilt by qualified engineers.
“In fact, our information is positive, direct, and unimpeachable that at no time during the process of rebuilding the dam was ANY ENGINEER WHATEVER, young or old, good or bad, known or unknown, engaged or consulted as to the work,—a fact which will be hailed by engineers everywhere with great satisfaction, as relieving them as a body from a heavy burden of suspicion and reproach.”
Moreover, contrary to some statements made in Pittsburgh since the disaster, they had found no evidence that the dam had ever been “inspected” periodically, occasionally, or even once, by anyone “who, by any stretch of charity, could be regarded as an expert.”
In other words, the job had been botched by amateurs. That they had been very rich and powerful amateurs was not considered relevant by the engineering journals, but so far as the newspapers were concerned that was to be the very heart of the matter. It was great wealth which now stood condemned, not technology.
The club had been condemned by the coroners’ juries, General Hastings, and by the engineering experts. The newspapers made no effort to investigate the dam themselves, and only one or two made any effort to present the facts about the dam or to explain even in passing why it had failed. Nor did the editorial writers make an effort to remain even moderately objective until more information became available. The club was guilty, criminally guilty several papers were saying, and that was that. Unlike the Hungarian stories, this one, it seemed, would hold up. It was based on about as solid information as could be hoped for, and in terms of its emotional content, it was perhaps even stronger. Now across the country there arose a great howl of righteous indignation.
For everyone who had been asking how such a calamity could possibly happen in the United States of America, there now appeared to be an answer, and it struck at the core of something which had been eating at people for some time, something most of them had as yet no name for, but something deeply disturbing.
For despite the progress being made everywhere, despite the growing prosperity and the prospect of an even more abundant future, there were in 1889 strong feelings that perhaps not all was right with the Republic. And if the poor Hungarians of Johnstown were signs of a time to come when a “hunky” could get a job quicker than a “real American,” then the gentlemen of the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club were signs of something else that was perhaps even worse. Was it not the likes of them that were bringing in the hunkies, buying legislatures, cutting wages, and getting a great deal richer than was right or good for any mortal man in a free, democratic country? Old-timers said that with every gain they made people were losing something. If that was so, people were beginning to think a little more about just what it was they might be losing, and to whom. And the more they thought about it, and especially the workingmen, the less they liked it.
It would be another three years before this kind of feeling would burst out in the terrible violence of the Homestead steel strike in Pittsburgh and Henry Clay Frick would nearly die of a bullet in his neck. And it would be another several years after that before public indignation over the power of the trusts, the giant corporations, and the men who ran them would erupt into public outrage. But the feeling was there in 1889, and it ran a great deal deeper than most people would have supposed. Certainly the language used by the press reflected a level of scorn and bitterness that would have been unthinkable a decade earlier.
The South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club was now described as “the most exclusive resort in America,” and its members were referred to as millionaries, aristocrats, or nabobs. According to the Cincinnati Enquirer not even vast wealth was enough to gain admission, unless it was hereditary. “Millionaries who did not satisfy every member of the club might cry in vain for admission,” the Enquirer wrote. “No amount of money could secure permission to stop overnight at the club’s hotel…” The paper said that no one could visit the club without a permit, and called it “holy ground consecrated to pleasure by capital,” but added that no one would want to go there now, “except to gaze a moment at the Desolate Monument to the Selfishness of Man…” J. J. McLaurin, the Harrisburg newspaperman, who was otherwise relatively reliable in his reporting on the disaster, wrote: “The club was excessively aristocratic, and so exclusive that Tuxedo itself might pronounce the Lorillard ideal a failure. The wealthy members never deigned to recognize the existence of the common clay of the neighborhood, farther than to warn intruders to keep off the premises.”
Like dozens of others, McLaurin was also infuriated over the idea that the lake had served as a summer resort. He wrote that “50,000 lives in Pennsylvania were jeopardized for eight years that a club of rich pleasure-seekers might fish and sail and revel in luxurious ease during the heated term.”
For an age which by no means looked upon pleasure as something to be expected in life, let alone life’s chief objective, the very fact that the lake had been put there solely for pleasure seemed almost more than anyone could take; and in several editorials the writers seemed to imply that if the lake had served some other purpose, some practical purpose, then the tragedy would not have been quite so distressing.
“It is an aggravation of the calamity to reflect that the reservoir which gave way served no useful purpose, but merely ministered to the amusement of a gentleman’s club composed of millionaires,” wrote a small-town newspaper in New England. “The dam served no useful end, beyond the pleasure of a few rich men,” said the Daily Graphic in New York. And the Chicago Herald published a cartoon showing what were supposedly seven clubmen done up in loud-checked coats and diamond stickpins, tossing down champagne on the clubhouse porch, while in the valley below them Johnstown is being wiped out.
Like several other papers, the Herald likened the clubmen to the Romans. “These wealthy sportsmen, these pleasure-seekers, sat in a secure place, in the amphitheater, like the noble Roman spectators when they gave the signal when the wild beasts were to be admitted into the arena to rend the bodies of the human victims. The Pittsburgh pagans did not give the signal, but they were just as guilty in the fact that they were told that the massacre was about to occur and made no effort to stop it…”
The effort alluded to here was the failure to remove the fish guards, which, very quickly, had come to symbolize everything repellent about the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club. “…To preserve game for some Pittsburgh swells the lives of fifteen thousand were sacrificed,” wrote the Herald. “…The ghosts of Johnstown are the ghosts of American labor that is dead.” And a man by the name of Isaac Reed wrote a widely quoted poem which opened with the lines:
Many thousand human lives—
Butchered husbands, slaughtered wives,
Mangled daughters, bleeding sons,
Hosts of martyred little ones,
(Worse than Herod’s awful crime)
Sent to heaven before their time;
Lovers burnt and sweethearts drowned,
Darlings lost but never found!
All the horrors that hell could wish,
Such was the price that was paid for—fish!
Interestingly, for all the abuse that was flung at the Pittsburgh people, very few newspapers ever went so far as to mention any specific names of members, and those that did mentioned only a half dozen or so. The Philadelphia Press, for all its superb coverage of what was going on in Johnstown, said hardly a word about the club or its members, and perhaps, as was hinted by another paper, because one club member, Calvin Wells, was a major stockholder in the Press.
As might be expected, the Pittsburgh papers were extremely cautious about printing anything untoward about the club, or, in some cases, were outright sympathetic toward the renowned members. The Pittsburgh Press, for example, took the position that too much scorn was being heaped on the club, since the dam had been built a long time back and the disaster, therefore, could as easily have happened at some earlier time. The Post-Gazette also felt the clubmen were being unfairly chastised. And Connelly and Jenks, authors of the so-called Official History of the flood, which was being written in Pittsburgh about that time, went out of their way to counteract popular images of opulent splendor at the lake. It was no center of pagan pleasure seeking or vulgar display, they wrote, but a place where the members of the club with their families and friends could “rough it” throughout the summer months. It was, they said, a comfortable, homelike place and as different from the “ordinary fashionable summer resort” as could be imagined. As for stories of any highhanded ways with the local people, well, “The place was exclusive only in the sense that a private house or garden is of that character. There was no lofty disregard of other people’s rights, nor any desire on the part of the members to set themselves above those around them. The club was a happy family party, and nothing more.”
Forest and Stream, a national fishing and hunting magazine, took strong objection to the “paragraphs hot with indignation” that were being published. Such stuff was easy to write, said the magazine’s editors, who rose to the defense of the club largely on the grounds that its members were sportsmen who appreciated the beauties of the natural world and so, therefore, were essentially good men. Also, in the opinion of the editors, it was nonsense to condemn the clubmen because their lake was meant for pleasure. “To maintain a dam to form a lake for pleasure purposes is,” they argued, “an enterprise no less legitimate than to build a dam for running a mill wheel.” If the warnings about the stability of the dam had gone unheeded, perhaps that had been because the members were so preoccupied with the joys of life in the out of doors. And, concluded Forest and Stream there ought to be some compassion for the members, who in their hearts must surely be suffering terribly.
There were many, too, who looked upon the disaster as a time of the apocalypse. Countless sermons on “The Meaning of the Johnstown Flood” were delivered in every part of the land for many Sundays running. One Pittsburgh preacher compared the “wolf cry” about the dam breaking to those in his congregation who tired of hearing him on the admonitions of the Lord. Another said that the lesson was to be ever prepared to meet thy Maker.
In New York the illustrious Reverend T. DeWitt Talmage, using the 93rd Psalm as his text (“The floods have lifted up, O Lord, the floods have lifted up their voice;…”), told an audience of some 5,000 that what the voice of the flood had to say was that nature was merciless and that any sort of religious attitude toward nature meant emptiness. “There are those who tell us they want only the religion of sunshine, art, blue sky and beautiful grass,” said Talmage. “The book of nature must be their book. Let me ask such persons what they make out of the floods in Pennsylvania.”
Not a few ministers chose to talk about the spirit of sympathy that was sweeping the country. The New York Witness, a religious newspaper, went so far as to say there was a “loving purpose of God hidden in the Flood,” which turned a great many stomachs in Johnstown.
But the theme that set the most heads nodding in agreement was the old, old theme of punishment from on high. The story of Noah was read from thousands of pulpits. (“And God looked upon the earth, and, behold, it was corrupt;…And God said unto Noah, The end of all flesh is come before me;…”) This was The Great American Flood; it had been a sign unto all men, the preachers said, and woe unto the land if it were not heeded. The steel town had been a sin town and so the Lord had destroyed it; for surely only a vile and wicked place would have been visited by so hideous a calamity.
It was a line of reasoning which many people were quick to accept, for at least it made some sense of the disaster. But it was a line of reasoning which met with much amusement in Johnstown, where, as anyone who knew his way about could readily see, Lizzie Thompson’s house and several rival establishments on Green Hill had not only survived the disaster, but were going stronger than ever before. “If punishment was God’s purpose,” said one survivor, “He sure had bad aim.”
There really was never much mystery in anyone’s mind in Johnstown about the cause of the flood. George Swank spoke for just about everyone when he wrote, “We think we know what struck us, and it was not the hand of Providence. Our misery is the work of man.”
The Tribune had started publishing again on the 15th. Swank referred to the Pittsburgh men as “the dudes” and said that they wanted “an exclusive resort where, in all their spotlessness and glory, they might idle away the summer days.” The people of Johnstown, he said, had never had a chance. “A rat caught in a trap and placed in a bucket would not be more helpless than we were.”
Dozens of Johnstown people spoke out against the dam, telling the out-of-town newspapermen what an awful menace it had been and describing the dread shadow of fear it had cast over their lives, and nearly every last one of them refused to give his name. The one outstanding exception was Cyrus Elder, Johnstown’s only member of the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club, who said that he had never considered the dam structurally faulty and, contrary to what John Fulton was saying, that he knew of no serious concern about the dam among the Cambria Iron people.
Having lost his wife and one daughter, his home and just about everything he owned but the clothes on his back, Elder had as much cause as anyone to lash out at the club, and certainly not to do so was to go against the temper of the entire town. But he stuck to his position. He admitted that Johnstown people had long been edgy about the dam and said, “Therefore, if anybody be to blame I suppose we ourselves are among them, for we have indeed been very careless in this most important matter and most of us have paid the penalty of our neglect.” It was a brave and most unpopular thing to be saying in Johnstown. The statement was picked up immediately by the newspapers. But his line of reasoning was never given any serious consideration by the popular press, thoughEngineering and Building Record registered surprise that the men responsible for Johnstown’s welfare, not to mention the officials of the Pennsylvania Railroad, with all that they had at stake, had not made sure that the lake over their heads was carefully built in the first place and properly maintained thereafter.
The railroad, for its part, remained quiet about any involvement it might have had in the dam’s past, taking the position, no doubt, that its actions in bringing relief to Johnstown would speak a great deal louder and more favorably than any words—which indeed they did. And once the engineering journals had established that the so-called engineers from the railroad who, according to statements made by Pitcairn, had kept a watch on the dam were in no way qualified to make any sort of intelligent judgment, then there was really very little more that the railroad could say.
But if the club’s guilt had been established as far as the newspapers were concerned, there still remained the matter of paying the penalty, and that such a penalty should be paid seemed self-evident.
One newspaper after another said that the club should have to make amends for what had happened. Not a little facetiously, The New York Times wrote, “Justice is inevitable even though the horror is attributable to men of wealth and station, and the majority of the victims the most downtrodden workers in any industry in the country.”
Even the Boston Post, which except for the Pittsburgh papers was about as conciliatory toward the club as any paper, said that the members had better be prepared to pay up. The Post, quite generously, stressed that the members must have acted as most men would have under the circumstances, “trusting, perhaps not unjustifiably, to others” with no thought of imperiling the lives of anyone. “Even if all that is reported as to the construction of the dam proves true, there is the possibility that personally the owners were not guilty of the reckless parsimony attributed to them.” Still, added the Post, “If they were unable or failed to cope with forces of nature which they called into action, the responsibility is theirs, and as they have sown so must they reap, even if the harvest is the whirlwind.”
And behind every editorial was the suggestion of what the Sun said outright: “If they [the club members] should be held liable in civil suits for damages it is probable that many, if not all of them, will be financially ruined.”
The Pittsburgh men had by now given some $6,000 to the relief fund, in addition to the 1,000 blankets, but that did not seem to help their cause much. “As they are almost all millionaires,” wrote the New York Daily Graphic, “the sum is not staggering, but shows that, while they were negligent, they are not heartless…. Yet they should do more than they have for the sufferers. It was through their indifference that this great disaster was precipitated upon the residents of the peaceful valley. Remorse, if nothing else, should lead them to alleviate to the fullest extent of their wealth the suffering they have caused.”
Very shortly thereafter several club members did, in fact, give generously; but, needless to say, it was far from the “fullest extent of their wealth.”
Henry Clay Frick, through H. C. Frick Coke Company, gave $5,000. The Mellon family, through T. Mellon & Sons, gave $1,000. The Carnegie Company gave $10,000. There were several gifts of $1,000, $500, and $100. There was also one member who gave $15, and there were about thirty of them who never gave anything.
The members did suggest that the clubhouse could be used as a home for Johnstown orphans, but the offer was turned down with the excuse that the location was too inconvenient. There was also one member, S. S. Marvin, who actually went to Johnstown to see what he could do to help, and contrary to the many warnings published, he suffered no injuries, or even insults, from the people in the valley. Marvin had been appointed to one of the committees organized by the governor. He was in the baking business in Pittsburgh and had already contributed great quantities of bread. At Johnstown he looked about with absolute dismay and said, “Johnstown is a funeral,” an expression the newsmen were quick to pick up.
As for the other members, they grew increasingly cautious about saying anything. Phipps, Mellon, and Knox said nothing at all. Unger, who was staying with his daughter in Pittsburgh, tried hard to play down the importance of the fish guards, saying that they were only a few feet high. He also reminded the reporters that the dam had been originally built by the state, thus implying that the matter of responsibility, if pursued, might become a very complicated piece of business.
Frick refused to see anyone from the press. Except for Carngie, Frick was, of course, the best-known and most powerful of the members, and unlike Carnegie, Frick had already had his name published in the papers as one of the members. Moreover, he was, after Ruff, the ranking stockholder in the original organization and one of the few founding members still in the organization. In other words, he was one of the few people who had been involved in the club at the time Ruff made his renovation of the dam. So anything he might have to say would be of great interest, and possibly of great importance to how things might go for the club in the courts.
But Frick was not talking, and it was probably not so much that he was fearful of saying anything at that particular time as it was that he simply did not talk to the press ever, at any time. It was his standing policy. He was a highly uncommunicative sort anyway and, by nature, abhorred all forms of notoriety. He had no trust in newspapers, no liking for reporters, and talking to them, he was convinced, was bad for business. Only once in his life did he break his rule and speak freely to a reporter, but it was with the understanding that he could edit the copy, which he did, reducing a full column to exactly ten lines.
In the weeks following the disaster Frick made no public statements, nor did he ever in later years.
Carnegie, on the other hand, had much to say, but never anything to suggest that he had had any connection with the club, and almost no one was ever the wiser, since it would not be for another year or more, when the story had been largely forgotten, that a complete membership list was divulged. Carnegie was in Paris attending the World’s Fair at the time the disaster occurred. When a meeting of Americans had been called at the United States Legation, by the American Minister to France, Whitelaw Reid, it had been Carnegie who put forth the resolutions quickly adopted by the assembly. The people of Johnstown were to receive “profound and heartfelt sympathy” from their brethren across the Atlantic; they were also to be congratulated for their “numerous acts of noble heroism” and especially were they to be admired for the way they had “preserved order during chaos” through their own local self-government. How much Carnegie then contributed to the 40,000-odd francs that were pledged is not known.
But as for the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club and any thoughts or feelings he may have had concerning its part in what had happened, Carnegie made no mention of that, and there would be none forthcoming. Carnegie wound up his affairs in Paris shortly thereafter, then left for his castle in Scotland, stopping off long enough in London to visit with the American Minister there, Robert Lincoln, the son of Abraham Lincoln.
Reporters in Pittsburgh, meanwhile, had been looking into the financial status of the South Fork sportsmen’s association and had found, much to their dismay, that, for all the colossal wealth of the men who belonged to it, the club itself was capitalized for a mere $35,000 and there was a $20,000 mortgage still outstanding on the clubhouse. Since any future lawsuits would most likely be brought against the club, and not individual members, the chances for anyone collecting very much appeared to have diminished drastically. And just to be sure that no one missed this particular point, on June 12 James Reed once again granted the press an interview. Reed was a tall, sharp-faced man, quiet-spoken and scholarly looking. His practice included several of Pittsburgh’s biggest concerns, as well as the Carnegie interests. His professional prestige was very high. What he had to say, therefore, was carefully taken down and later read with special interest.
The capital stock of the club would be the extent of the liability, he declared, if, that is, there were any liability, and in his opinion there was not. “I have tried,” he said, “to divest myself of my identity with the South Fork Fishing Club to see if there could possibly be any grounds for a suit against the company or individual stockholders, and I am free to say I have been unable to find any. If a person was to come to me as an attorney and want me to bring suit against the company for damages resulting from the flood, I could not do so, because there are no grounds for such a suit.”
Then, in conclusion he said, “As one of the stockholders I most certainly regret the sad occurrence, and I know the rest do; but I cannot see how the organization can be held legally responsible for the breaking of that dam.”
But if he could not, there were others who could. At the end of July the first case brought against the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club was filed at the Allegheny Court House in Pittsburgh, where the club had been originally incorporated. Mrs. Nancy Little and her eight children were suing the club for $50,-000 for the loss of her husband, John Little, a woodenware salesman from Sewickley, Pennsylvania, who had been killed at the Hulbert House. The attorneys for the defense were, as had been expected, Knox & Reed, who filed a voluntary plea of not guilty. Then the case was put off for several months.
Early in August a group of Johnstown businessmen organized to sue the club. They raised some $1,300 to help meet expenses and hired John Linton and Horace Rose to start preparing their case.
Later on, James and Ann Jenkins, backed by some businessmen of Youngstown, Ohio, brought suit for $25,000 for the loss of Mrs. Jenkins’ father, mother, and brother, who had been drowned at Johnstown.
There were also suits against the Pennsylvania Railroad, the most important of which was one filed in September by a Mr. Farney S. Tarbell of Pittsburgh. Tarbell accused the railroad of negligence in the death of his wife and three children, who had been passengers on the Day Express. There were suits for lost luggage, and a Philadelphia company sued for the loss of ten barrels of whiskey, which had been looted from a freight car. This last case was won by the Philadelphia company when a conductor admitted that he had looked the other way when the whiskey was being taken. It was, as things turned out, the only case won by any of those who brought suit against either the club or the railroad.
Not a nickel was ever collected through damage suits from the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club or from any of its members. The Nancy Little case dragged on for several years, with the clubmen claiming that the disaster had been a “visitation of providence.” The jury, it seems, agreed.
There is no account of how things went in court, as it was not the practice to record the proceedings of damage suits. Nor is there any record of the Jenkins case, though there, too, the clubmen were declared not guilty.
In the Tarbell case the judge acquitted the railroad, also designating the disaster a “providential visitation.” And in Johnstown, after nearly two years of preparation, Colonel Linton and Horace Rose urged their clients to give up their suit, saying that it would almost certainly fail. The club had no assets, they argued, and there was no chance of winning unless individual negligence could be proved and that would be next to impossible since Ruff was dead. So Linton and Rose were paid $1,000 for their services and the suit was dropped.
Perhaps the most frustrating attempt to recover some retribution was carried on by Jacob Strayer, the Johnstown lumber dealer, who set out to sue the club for $80,000. The case sat for years, in one county court after another, as the club kept seeking a change of venue due to local feelings. Then after waiting something like five years without hearing anything, Strayer discovered that his lawyer, unbeknownst to him, had settled out of court (taking $500) and had died shortly after that. Strayer next went bankrupt; the club was long since insolvent; and nothing more happened.
Had the Little case or the Jenkins case been tried in Johnstown instead of Pittsburgh, it is possible that the decisions would have gone the other way, though in Johnstown there would have been small chance of finding twelve men to serve on a jury who would have been able to profess no bias against the club. In the judgment of lawyers who have examined the facts of the disaster in recent years, it also seems likely that had the damage cases been conducted according to today’s standards the club and several of its members would have lost. It is even conceivable that some of those immense Pittsburgh fortunes would have been reduced to almost nothing. What the repercussions of that might have been is interesting to speculate. Possibly it would have delayed, perhaps even altered significantly, the nation’s industrial growth.
In trying to evaluate why the cases went as they did, it is, of course, important to keep in mind the tremendous power of the people who were being sued. Their influence and prestige were such that few would have ever dared challenge them on anything. “It is almost impossible to imagine how those people were feared,” Victor Heiser would say many years later. They were the ruling class. It was that simple. The papers could rail away to their heart’s delight (while seldom ever mentioning any names), but to actually strike out at the likes of the clubmen, even within the confines of the courts, was something else again. Practically speaking, the odds against winning against them were enormous, even had the cases been open and shut, which they were not.
For to prove that any living member of the club had been personally negligent would have been extremely difficult. And in all fairness, it is quite likely, as the Boston Post suggested, that the clubmen themselves knew no more about the structural character of the dam than did anyone in Johnstown. Like nearly every leading citizen of Johnstown, with the exceptions of Morrell and Fulton, they made the mistake of assuming that the men who had rebuilt the dam had known what they were doing.
They had been told that the dam was properly engineered and properly maintained, and so, as long as everything went all right, they had no cause to think otherwise.
In addition, there is no doubt that the storm which brought on the failure of the dam was without precedent; or at least that during the relatively short period of time in which there had been some semblance of civilization in the area (which was less than a hundred years), no one had recorded a heavier downpour. So for such skillful lawyers as Knox and Reed to have argued that the whole dreadful occurrence was an act of God would have been very easy, and judging by the outcome, they made their point with great effect.
Certainly in the eyewitness testimony collected by the Pennsylvania Railroad in preparation for the suits it might have to face, repeated emphasis was placed on proving that no one had ever seen such a storm; and therefore if the “reasonable precautions” taken by railroad employees such as yardmaster Walkinshaw had turned out badly, it was only because the storm itself was so very unnatural. (It is also interesting to note that Pitcairn, in defense of Ruff’s abilities, agreed openly that Ruff had no engineering training; Ruff was a lot better than any engineer, Pitcairn said.)
Still the heart of the matter remained the dam itself, and judging from occasional comments that appeared in the papers, it seems that the club’s defense was based on the proposition that the dam would have broken anyway—even if it had had no structural flaws.
Apparently that was a convincing argument, despite the fact that several small dams which had been built near Johnstown to supply the city’s drinking water had not failed as a result of the storm; and these, significantly enough, had been built under the personal supervision of Daniel J. Morrell.
The water in Lake Conemaugh, the attorneys for the defense must have claimed, was coming up so fast on the afternoon of the 31st, and would have continued to come up so fast, even had the dam held past 3:10, that eventually it would have started over the top, and once that happened, sooner or later, the best of earth dams would have failed. Even had there been no sag at the center, even if the spillway had been working to full capacity, the volume of water rushing into the lake was greater than what could get out, and so, they held, the end result would have been the same, except that it would have come later, and perhaps at night when the consequences would have been far more disastrous. It was a specious line of defense, for several reasons.
First of all, there is no way of ascertaining for certain whether the inflow of water was such that it would have caused the lake to spill over the breast of the dam for an extended period of time had the dam been higher at the center, instead of lower, and had there been no obstructions in the spillway. There is also no way of telling whether there was a drop off in the volume of water pouring into the lake in the hours following the break. In other words, would there have been enough water rushing off the mountain to keep the lake at a level higher than the breast of the dam (a properly engineered dam, that is) for many hours? It seems unlikely. Moreover, it was clear from the engineering studies made, and from photographs taken of the dam after the break, that it was that part of the dam which had been repaired by Ruff and his crew which went out on the afternoon of the 31st.
But even if it were assumed, for the sake of argument, that the Ruff repairs were as solid as the original dam, that the spillway obstructions did not greatly diminish its capacity, and that there was no sag at the center to reduce even further the spillway’s usefulness, there still remains one very obvious and irrefutable flaw in the dam and in any argument in its defense.
Because there were no longer discharge pipes at the base of the dam, the owners never at any time had any control over the level of the lake. If the water began to rise over a period of days or weeks to a point where it was becoming dangerously high, there was simply nothing that could be done about it. If, on the other hand, the pipes had still been there, as they were up until they were removed by Congressman Reilly, or if new pipes had been installed by Ruff, then through that abnormally wet spring of 1889 the men in charge of the dam, Unger, John Parke, and others, could have kept the lake at a safe level of say at least ten to twelve feet below the crest of the dam.
So while there is no question that an “act of God” (the storm of the night of May 30-31) brought on the disaster, there is also no question that it was, in the last analysis, mortal man who was truly to blame. And if the men of the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club, as well as the men of responsibility in Johnstown, had in retrospect looked dispassionately to themselves, and not to their stars, to find the fault, they would have seen that they had been party to two crucial mistakes.
In the first place, they had tampered drastically with the natural order of things and had done so badly. They had ravaged much of the mountain country’s protective timber, which caused dangerous flash runoff following mountain storms; they obstructed and diminished the capacity of the rivers; and they had bungled the repair and maintenance of the dam. Perhaps worst of all they had failed—out of indifference mostly—to comprehend the possible consequences of what they were doing, and particularly what those consequences might be should nature happen to behave in anything but the normal fashion, which, of course, was exactly what was to be expected of nature. As one New England newspaper wrote: “The lesson of the Conemaugh Valley flood is that the catastrophes of Nature have to be regarded in the structures of man as well as its ordinary laws.”
The dam was the most dramatic violation of the natural order, and so as far as a few rather hysterical editorial writers were concerned, the lesson of the flood was that dams in general were bad news. The writers took up the old line that if God had meant for there to be such things as dams, He would have built them Himself.
The point, of course, was not that dams, or any of man’s efforts to alter or improve the world about him, were mistakes in themselves. The point was that if man, for any reason, drastically alters the natural order, setting in motion whole series of chain reactions, then he had better know what he is doing. In the case of the South Fork dam, the men in charge of rebuilding it, those who were supposed to be experts in such matters, had not been expert—either in their understanding of what they did or, equally important, in their understanding of the possible consequences of what they did.
What is more, the members of the club and most of Johnstown went along on the assumption that the people who were responsible for their safety were behaving responsibly. And this was the second great mistake.
The club people took it for granted that the men who rebuilt the dam—the men reputed to be expert in such matters—handled the job properly. They apparently never questioned the professed wisdom of the experts, nor bothered to look critically at what the experts were doing. It was a human enough error, even though anyone with a minimum of horse sense could, if he had taken a moment to think about it, have realized that an earth dam without any means for controlling the level of the water it contained was not a very good idea. The responsibility was in the hands of someone else, in short, and since that someone else appeared to be ever so much better qualified to make the necessary decisions and pass judgment, then why should not things be left to him?
In Johnstown most men’s thoughts ran along the same general line, except that it was the clubmen who were looked upon as the responsible parties. And just as the clubmen were willing to accept on faith the word of those charged with the job of rebuilding the dam, so too were most Johnstown people willing to assume that the clubmen were dutifully looking to their responsibilities. If the dam was in the hands of such men as could build the mightiest industries on earth, who could so successfully and swiftly change the whole character of a city or even a country, then why should any man worry very much? Surely, those great and powerful men there on the mountain knew their business and were in control.
In the North American Review, in August 1889, in an article titled “The Lesson of Conemaugh,” the director of the U. S. Geological Survey, Major John Wesley Powell, wrote that the dam had not been “properly related to the natural conditions” and concluded: “Modern industries are handling the forces of nature on a stupendous scale…. Woe to the people who trust these powers to the hands of fools.”
It was, however, understandably difficult for the people of Johnstown ever to feel, like Cyrus Elder, that they too had been even partly to blame. Practically everyone felt that he had foreseen the coming catastrophe, and if he had not, like John Fulton, actually put anything down on paper, he, nonetheless, had been equally aware of the troubles with the South Fork dam and every bit as dubious about its future. That the members of the club were never required to pay for their mistakes infuriated nearly everyone in Johnstown and left a feeling of bitter resentment that would last for generations.
As for the club people, their summers at South Fork were over. The cottages sat high and dry along the vast mud flat which had been Lake Conemaugh and where, here and there, like the remains of some prehistoric age, stood the stumps of great trees that had been taken down more than fifty years earlier just before the dam had been built. By July grass had sprung up along South Fork Creek where it worked its way through the center of the old lake bed, and deer left tracks where they came down to drink.
For some time several cottages were occupied by Johnstown people. James McMillan, the plumber, and six or seven other men moved their families into the biggest of the houses, apparently with the consent of the owners, and, according to a notice in theTribune at the end of July, the accommodations were as elegant as ever. But the owners themselves never came back, except for one, Colonel Unger, who not only returned, but lived out the rest of his life on the farm just above the remains of the dam. All the other property was broken up and sold off at a sheriff’s auction.
In Johnstown the Cambria works had started up again by mid July. It would be a long time before the furnaces were working to capacity, but nearly the full pay roll was being met and slowly things began to return to normal. Estimates were made on the total property damage (about $17 million). The banks opened. The Quicksteps were playing again. By August the Saturday night band concerts had been revived and a piano tuner had come to town. There was ice cream for sale; Haviland china was back on the shelves of those few stores that had been spared. A camera club was started, and the plumbers and steam fitters organized a union.
In September Mr. and Mrs. Andrew Carnegie came to town to see the flood damage, and before he left Carnegie had agreed to build a new library where the old one had been. In late fall the schools reopened.
New houses and shops were going up all over town. People who had fled the valley began coming back again. The Quinns were back by October, astonished to find how much had been accomplished and how bad the place still smelled. There was plenty of work still to be done, of course, and plenty of jobs, and it would stay that way for a long time. Just getting the place back to where it had been before would take five years or more.
But there were many who would leave Johnstown after the flood. For hundreds of people, like Victor Heiser, the disaster had deprived them of every meaningful connection with the place. Suddenly they were alone and there seemed no very strong reason for staying any longer, and particularly if they had ever had an ambition to see something of the world. Had his mother and father survived, Victor Heiser would have remained in Johnstown, probably, he would later speculate, to become a watchmaker. As it was, he left the valley within a year, and after working his way through medical school, spent most of his life as a public-health officer and physician, fighting disease around the world. He would also write a best-selling book on his experiences, An American Doctor’s Odyssey, and would be credited with saving perhaps two million lives.
There were others who could stay no longer because of the memory of what had happened. And David Beale was among those who left out of bitterness over an experience during the frantic days which had followed the disaster. In Beale’s case it had been a falling out with some of his congregation over the fact that he had turned the church into a morgue without authorization from the elders. There were plenty who rose to his defense, saying it had been the only intelligent and Christian thing to do under the circumstances and that somebody had to make the decision, but there were enough hard words exchanged to send Beale on his way to another charge in another town.
For years, too, there would be much speculation on how many of those people listed among the unfound dead were actually very much alive in some faraway place. It seemed reasonable enough to figure that some men, suddenly, in the first dim light of that terrible morning of June 1, had decided that here was an opportune time to quietly slip away to a new and better life. And if one of those names on the unknown list was somebody you had been close to, it was a whole lot pleasanter to think of him living on an apple farm in Oregon or tending bar in a San Francisco saloon than rotting away beneath six feet of river muck somewhere below Bolivar. Furthermore, such speculation seemed well justified when, eleven years later, in the summer of 1900, a man by the name of Leroy Temple showed up in town to confess that he had not died in the flood but had been living quite happily ever since in Beverly, Massachusetts. On the morning of June 1 he had crawled out of the wreckage at the bridge, looked around at what was left of Johnstown, then just turned on his heels and walked right out of the valley.
Stories of the flood would live on for years, and in time they would take on more the flavor of legends, passed along from generation to generation. Each family had its tales of where they had been when the wall of water came, where they ran to, who shouted what to whom, who picked up the baby, who went back for the horse, or how they had survived the night. Children who were only four or five years old at the time would live to be old men and women who would describe in the most remarkable detail how they had watched the flood strike the city (from a place where it would have been impossible to have seen the water) or how they had looked at their wrist watch at that exact moment (there were no wrist watches in 1889) and read (at age five!) that it was exactly such-and-such time. There would be stories of how grandfather tried to save an ax handle (“of all things!”) or how Uncle Otto had thrown away his Bible when he saw what had happened. There would also be a great amount of durable gossip and some rather bad feelings about “certain people” who had somehow gotten their hands on more than their share of the relief money and how “their families are rich to this day because of it.” And at least one Irish undertaker from Pittsburgh was said to have made “a positive fortune” out of the disaster.
There would also, one day, be signs posted in saloons from one end of the country to the other saying: PLEASE DON’T SPIT ON THE FLOOR, REMEMBER THE JOHNSTOWN FLOOD. At Coney Island and in Atlantic City re-creations of the great disaster would be major attractions for many seasons. And “Run for the hills, the dam has busted” would be a standard comedy line the country over for years.
In Johnstown three babies born on the fateful day would grow up with the names Moses Williams, Flood C. Raymond, and Flood S. Rhodes.
General Hastings would later be elected governor largely because of the name he had made for himself at Johnstown; and when William Flinn later became the Republican boss of Pittsburgh and a state senator, he made it a practice to remind election-year audiences of the job he had done at Johnstown.
Tom L. Johnson, who later gave up a lucrative business career to become the highly progressive (some said “socialistic”) mayor of Cleveland, would use the flood to make a case for his political philosophy. In his autobiography he would write at length about the disaster and its cause and how charity had vitiated local energies (he was still Moxham’s man in this regard). The flood, he would conclude, was caused “by Special Privilege,” and: “The need of charity is always the result of the evils produced by man’s greed.”
In after-dinner speeches at the Duquesne Club, Robert Pitcairn would recall the services rendered by the railroad and ask if a “heartless corporation” could have behaved so. Bill Jones never said much about what he did, though he was quoted as saying that perhaps Johnstown ought to rebuild on higher ground. When he returned to Pittsburgh from Johnstown, Jones had only two months to live. At the end of the summer he was killed when a furnace he was working on at the Braddock mill exploded.
The members of the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club remained silent. The matter of their part in the flood was simply not mentioned, and as the years passed less and less was heard of it. In another generation it would be just about forgotten in Pittsburgh.
The more or less agreed-to attitude of Johnstown’s business people was also that the flood should be forgotten as soon as possible. There was no sense dwelling on the thing. It was bad for the spirits, and it most certainly was harmful to business.
“It may be well to consider that the flood, with all its train of horrors, is behind us, and that we have hence forth to do with the future alone,” said George Swank in the Tribune on the morning of June 1, 1892. It was his conclusion to a long description of the ceremonies held the day before at Grandview Cemetery. The whole city had been shut down and close to 10,000 people had gone up to the new burying grounds.
Except for the plot for the flood dead, Grandview was still very sparsely occupied. It had been started by Cyrus Elder, John Fulton, and others only a few years before the flood and was laid out a good distance from town up on some of the highest land for miles around. The idea was that here the dead would be safe from spring floods. The view was very grand indeed, stretching off in every direction as far as the eye could carry; but the trees blocked a direct look back down into the great amphitheater among the hills where Johnstown lay, and so the city was wholly concealed, and except for the distant sound from the mills, it was almost as though there was nothing even like a city anywhere near.
On the afternoon of the 31st, with the new governor present, and with Johnstown’s first mayor, Horace Rose, officiating, a large granite monument was dedicated to the “Unknown Dead Who Perished in the Flood at Johnstown, May 31, 1889.”
Behind the monument, arranged very precisely row on row, were 777 small, white marble headstones.
The unknown plot had been purchased by the Relief Commission and the bodies moved there from Nineveh, Prospect Hill, and half a dozen other places during the early fall of 1889. It had taken the time since to raise money for the monument and the nameless headstones. Actually, there were not quite a full 777 bodies buried in the plot; someone had decided to set out a few extra stones just to make an even pattern. But the effect on the immense throng gathered in the warm afternoon sunshine was very great. Against the long sweep of grass and the darker green of the bordering trees, the people stood in their funeral best, clustered in a dark, tight mass, strangely motionless and silent beneath the veiled monument. A few steps beyond, the carriages for the dignitaries were drawn up.
There were several speeches, the longest and best of which was by the governor, Robert Pattison, who, in offering a lesson to be learned from the disaster, said, “We who have to do with the concentrated forces of nature, the powers of air, electricity, water, steam, by careful forethought must leave nothing undone for the preservation and protection of the lives of our brother men.”
Then the choir sang “God Moves in a Mysterious Way”; the monument was unveiled, and people started back along the winding road that led down into town.