It was nearly morning when the strange quiet began. Until then there had been almost no letup from the hideous sounds from below. Few people had been able to sleep, and several of the war veterans were saying it was the worst night they had ever been through.
But in the last chill hour before light, the valley seemed to hang suspended in an unearthly stillness, almost as unnerving in its way as everything else that had happened. And it was then, for the first time, that people began to realize that all those harsh, incessant noises which had been such a part of their lives—mill whistles screeching, wagons clattering over cobblestones, coal trains rumbling past day and night—had stopped, absolutely, every one of them.
About five the first dim shapes began emerging from the darkness. But even by six very little stood out in detail. There were no shadows, no clear edges to anything. Some survivors, years later, would swear it had been a bright, warm morning, with a spotless blue sky, which, after the night they had been through, it may well have seemed. But the fact is that though the rain had at last stopped, the weather on that morning of June 1 was nearly as foul as it had been the morning before. The valley looked smothered in a smoky gray film. The hills appeared to be made of some kind of soft, gray-green stuff and were just barely distinguishable from a damp, low sky that was the color of pewter. Odd patches of the valley were completely lost in low-hanging ribbons of mist, and the over-all visibility was reduced to perhaps a mile at best.
Still the view that morning would be etched sharply in the memories of everyone who took it in. Along the Frankstown Road on Green Hill some 3,000 people had gathered. On the rim of Prospect Hill and on the slopes above Kernville, Woodvale, and Cambria City the crowds were nearly as big. Chilled to the bone, hungry, many of them badly injured, hundreds without shoes or only partly clothed against the biting air, they huddled under dripping trees or stood along narrow footpaths ankle-deep in mud, straining their eyes to see and trying hard to understand.
Spread out below them was a vast sea of muck and rubble and filthy water. Nearly all of Johnstown had been destroyed. That it was even the same place was very difficult to comprehend.
There were still a few buildings standing where they had been. The Methodist Church and the B & O station, the schoolhouse on Adams Street, Alma Hall, and the Union Street School could be seen plain enough, right where they were meant to be. The Iron Company’s red-brick offices were still standing, as was Wood, Morrell & Company next door. But everywhere else there seemed nothing but bewildering desolation. The only immediately familiar parts of the landscape were the two rivers churning toward the stone bridge, both still swollen and full of debris.
From Woodvale to the bridge ran an unbroken swath of destruction that was a quarter of a mile wide in places and a good two miles long. From Locust Street over to the Little Conemaugh was open space now, an empty tract of mud, rock, and scattered wreckage, where before saloons, stores, hotels, and houses had been as thick as it had been possible to build them. Washington Street was gone except for the B & O station. Along Main, where a cluster of buildings and gutted houses still stood like a small, ravaged island, the wreckage was piled as high as the roofs of the houses.
At the eastern end of town all that remained between Jackson and Clinton was a piece of St. John’s Convent. At the corner of Jackson and Locust the blackened rafters of St. John’s Church were still smoking, and where the Quinn house had stood, fifty feet away, there was now only a jumble of rubbish.
Across the Stony Creek, Kernville had been swept clean for blocks. Virtually everything was gone, as though that whole section had been hosed down to the raw earth. The entire western end of town, near the Point, was now a broad, flooded wasteland. Every bridge was gone except the stone bridge and against it now lay a good part of what had been Johnstown in a gigantic blazing heap.
Below the stone bridge the ironworks, though still standing, looked all askew, with stacks toppled over and one of the biggest buildings caved in at the end as though it had been tramped on by an immense heel. Cambria City had been ravaged past recognition. At least two-thirds of the houses had been wiped out, and down the entire length of its main street a tremendous pile of mud and rock had been dumped.
With the light the first small groups of people who had survived the night down in the drowned city could be seen making their way across the debris, most of them heading for Green Hill, where dry ground could be reached without having to cross a river. From Alma Hall and the Union Street School they came in steady little batches, moving up and down over the incredible flotsam. Then, at the same time from Frankstown Road and other near hills, men started moving down into town. And as they came closer, the dim sweep of destruction began to take on a different look. Slowly things came into ever sharper focus.
The Morrell house could be seen with part of its side sheared off. Dr. Lowman’s house stood alone on the park, the only big house still there, but its two-story front porch had been squashed and every window punched in. Colonel Linton’s place on lower Main looked as though it had been blasted in two by dynamite, and the black span of an iron bridge was resting where the yard had been. Beyond, houses were dumped every which way, crushed, broken, split clean in half, or lying belly up in the mire, with their floor beams showing like the ribs of butchered animals.
Telephone poles, giant chunks of machinery, trees with all their bark shredded off, dead horses and pieces of dead horses, and countless human corpses were strewn everywhere. “Hands of the dead stuck out of the ruins. Dead everywhere you went, their arms stretched above their heads almost without exception—the last instinct of expiring humanity grasping at a straw,” wrote George Gibbs, one of the reporters from the Tribune.
And now, too, all the litter of thousands of lives could be seen in sharp detail. Shattered tables and chairs, tools, toys, account books, broken dishes, chamber pots and bicycle wheels, nail kegs, bedquilts, millions of planks and shingles were thrown up in grotesque heaps ten, twenty, thirty feet high, or lay gently shifting back and forth in huge pools of water that covered much of the valley floor like a brown soup.
“It were vain to undertake to tell the world how or what we felt, when shoeless, hatless, and many of us almost naked, some bruised and broken, we stood there and looked upon that scene of death and desolation,” David Beale wrote.
The flood and the night that had followed, for all their terror and destruction and suffering, had had a certain terrible majesty. Many people had thought it was Judgment Day, God’s time of anger come at last, the Day of Reckoning. They thought that the whole world was being destroyed and not just Johnstown. It had been the “horrible tempest,” with flood and fire “come as a destruction from the Almighty.” It had been awful, but it had been God Awful.
This that lay before them now in the dismal cold was just ugly and sordid and heartbreaking; and already it was beginning to smell.
Rescue parties got to work bringing the marooned down from rooftops and went searching among the wreckage for signs of life. Men scrambled over piles of debris to get to the upstairs windows of buildings that looked as though they might fall in at any minute. They crawled across slippery, cockeyed roofs to squeeze through attic windows or groped their way down dripping back hallways where the mud was over their boot tops. It was treacherous work and slow going. Walls were still falling in and fires were breaking out.
At the stone bridge, gangs of men and boys, many of whom had been there through the night, were still working to free people trapped alive within the burning pile. Young Victor Heiser, who had succeeded in reaching solid ground after his night in a Kerville attic, had made his way down the west bank of the Stony Creek as far as the bridge, where, as he wrote later, “I joined the rescue squads, and we struggled for hours trying to release them from this funeral pyre, but our efforts were tragically hampered by the lack of axes and other tools. We could not save them all. It was horrible to watch helplessly while people, many of whom I actually knew, were being devoured in the holocaust.”
Across the whole of the valley the dead were being found in increasing numbers. And as the morning passed, more and more people came down from the hillsides to look at the bodies, to search for missing husbands and children, or just to get their bearings, if possible. They slogged through the mud, asking after a six-year-old boy “about so high,” or a wife or a father. They picked their way through mountains of rubbish, trying to find a recognizable landmark to tell them where their house or store had been, or even a suggestion of the street where they had lived. Or they stood silently staring about, a numb, blank look on their faces. Over and over, later, when the day had passed, people would talk about how expressionless everyone had looked and how there had been so few people crying.
There was some shouting back and forth among the men. People who had been separated during the night would suddenly find one another. “What strange meetings there were,” wrote one man. “People who had hardly known each other before the flood embraced one another, while those who found relations rushed into each other’s arms and cried for very gladness that they were alive. All ordinary rules of decorum and differences of religion, politics and position were forgotten.”
Lone stragglers went poking about looking for only they knew what, many of them strangely clad in whatever odd bits of clothing they had been able to lay hands on. One man, hatless and with a woman’s red shawl across his shoulders, came limping along in his stocking feet, using a piece of lath for a cane. He was looking for his wife, Mrs. Brinker, who, as he would soon discover, had survived the night inside the Methodist parsonage and who had long since given him up for dead.
People recovered some pathetic belonging or other and carried it carefully back to high ground or began building little personal piles of salvage. There was no order to what went on, no organization, and not much sense. Most people were unable even to look after themselves; they were stunned, confused, trying, as much as anything, to grasp what had happened and what was left of their lives. Where they went from there was something they were not yet ready to think about. Many of them struck off into the country, with no special destination. They just kept walking for hours, looking for food or a dry place to lie down for the night, or, very often, just trying to put as many miles as possible between themselves and the devastated city. They were afraid of the place and wanted no more part of it.
The problems to be faced immediately were enormous and critical. People were ravenously hungry, most everyone having gone twenty-four hours or more without anything to eat, and now there was virtually no food anywhere. The few provisions uncovered among the ruins were nearly all unfit for eating, and what little else people had was given to the injured and to the children. Moreover, there was no water that anyone felt was safe to drink. Thousands were homeless, hundreds were severely injured. Mrs. John Geis, for example, little Gertrude Quinn’s grandmother, had had her scalp torn off from her forehead back to the nape of her neck. Hundreds of others were dazed by lack of sleep or in a state of shock. Dozens of people, as a result of exposure, were already in the early stages of pneumonia. There was almost no dry clothing to be had and no medicines.
People had no money, except what change they may have had in their pockets at the time the water struck, and even if they did, there were no stores left at which to buy anything. There was no gas or electric light. Fires were burning in a dozen different places, and no one knew when a gas main might explode. Every telegraph and telephone line to the outside world was down. Bridges were gone, roads impassable. The railroad had been destroyed. And with the dead lying about everywhere, plus hundreds of carcasses of drowned horses, cows, pigs, dogs, cats, birds, rats, the threat of a violent epidemic was very serious indeed.
But by noon things had begun to happen, if only in a small way. Rafts had been built to cross the rivers and to get over to those buildings still surrounded by water. People on the hillsides whose houses had escaped harm and farmers from miles out in the country began coming into town bringing food, water, and clothing. At the corner of Adams and Main milk was passed out in big tinfuls. Unclaimed children were looked after. A rope bridge had been strung across the Little Conemaugh near the depot, and, most important of all as it would turn out, up at the Haws Cement Works, on the hill at the western end of the stone bridge, several bedraggled-looking newspaper correspondents had established headquarters in a coal shed and were in the process of rigging their own wire down the river to Sang Hollow.
The men had reached Johnstown about seven in the morning, and like everyone else were cold, dirty, hollow-eyed from no sleep. There remains some question as to which of them arrived first, but William Connelly, who was the Associated Press correspondent in western Pennsylvania, Harry Orr, a telegraph operator for the A.P., and Claude Wetmore, a free-lance reporter working for the New York World, are generally given the credit. Others kept straggling in from New Florence through the rest of the day. But until nightfall the major stories were still being filed out of the little railroad crossing on the other side of Laurel Hill.
New Florence, Pa. June 1 bodies have been found on the shore near this town, two being on a tree where the tide had carried them. The country people are coming into the news centers in large numbers, telling stories of disaster along the river banks in sequestered places…The body of another woman has just been discovered in the river here. Only her foot was above the water. A rope was fastened about it and tied to a tree…R. B. Rogers, Justice of the Peace at Nineveh, has wired the Coroner at Greensburg that 100 bodies have been found at that place, and he asks what to do with them.
That afternoon, at three, a meeting was called in Johnstown to decide what ought to be done there. Every able-bodied man who could be rounded up crowded into the Adams Street schoolhouse. The first step, it was quickly agreed, was to elect a “dictator.” John Fulton was the obvious choice, but he was nowhere to be found, so it was assumed he was dead, which he was not. He had left town some days earlier and was at that moment, like hundreds of others, trying desperately to get to Johnstown.
The second choice was Arthur J. Moxham, a remarkable young Welshman who had moved to Johnstown a few years before to start a new business making steel rails for trolley-car lines. In the short time he had been there Moxham had about convinced everyone that he was the best newcomer to arrive in the valley since D. J. Morrell. His business had prospered rapidly, and it was earlier that spring that he had opened a sprawling new complex of mills up the Stony Creek beside the new town he had developed. He named the business the Johnson Steel Street Rail Company, after his lively young partner, Tom L. Johnson, who, in turn, had named the town Moxham. They paid their men regularly each week, in cash, and did not maintain a company store—all of which had had a marked impact on the town’s economic well-being and a good deal to do with their own popularity.
Both men were energetic, able executives. Both were already wealthy, and both, interestingly enough, were devout followers of the great economic reformer of the time, Henry George, and were equally well known in Johnstown for their impassioned oratory on George’s single-tax scheme.
Moxham was a fortunate choice. He took charge immediately and organized citizens’ committees to look after the most pressing and obvious problems. Morgues were to be established under the direction of the Reverends Beale and Chapman. Charles Zimmerman and Tom Johnson were put in charge of removing dead animals and wreckage. (That anyone could have even considered cleaning up the mess at that point is extraordinary, but apparently the work began right away, against all odds, against all reason. Trying to bail the rivers dry with buckets would have seemed not much more futile.)
Dr. Lowman and Dr. Matthews were responsible for establishing temporary hospitals. Captain Hart was to organize a police force. There was a committee for supplies and one for finance, to which George Swank and Cyrus Elder were assigned.
Captain Hart deputized some seventy-five men, most of whom were employees of the Johnson Company sent down from Moxham. They cut tin stars from tomato cans found in the wreckage, threw a cordon around the First National and Dibert banks, and, according to a report made days later, recovered some $6,000 in cash from trunks, valises, and bureau drawers lying about.
As dusk gathered, the search for the living as well as the dead went on in earnest. There seemed to be no one who was not missing some member of his family. James Quinn had already found little Gertrude, but he was still looking for his son Vincent, his sister-in-law and her infant son, and Libby Hipp, the nursegirl, though he had little hope of finding any of them except his son. That Gertrude was alive seemed almost beyond belief.
He and his other daughters had been luckier than most and had spent the night in a house on Green Hill. At daybreak he had been outside washing his face in a basin when his sister, Barbara Foster, came running up shouting that she had found Gertrude. She had seen her on the porch of the Metz house, still speechless with fright, still unidentified, and almost unrecognizable with her blonde hair tangled and matted with mud, her dark eyes quick with terror. Quinn at first found it impossible to accept what he heard, but started off at a run, the lather still on his face, and the other little girls running behind.
“When he came near the house,” Gertrude wrote later, “I saw him and recognized him at once. I fairly flew down the steps. Just as he put his foot on the first step, I landed on his knee and put both my arms around his neck while he embraced me.”
Quinn gathered up the child. They both began crying. A small crowd had assembled by now, on the porch and on the street below, and the scene caused several people to break down for perhaps the first time. Then there was a lot of handshaking and Quinn set off with his children to find his son.
Victor Heiser had spent most of the day searching for his mother and father, hoping against hope that somehow they had come through it all alive and in one piece. His own survival seemed such a miracle to him that he could not help feeling there was a chance they might be somewhere in the oncoming darkness looking for him.
At the bridge late in the afternoon an old man and his daughter were rescued from a house wedged among the burning wreckage. The old man made quite a reputation for himself when, on being helped down into a rowboat, he asked his rescuers, “Which one of you gentlemen would be good enough to give me a chew of tobacco?” And on the hillside a few hundred yards away two young ladies who had been stripped naked by the flood were found cowering in the bushes, where they had been hiding through the long day, too ashamed to venture out before dark.
Cyrus Elder’s wife and daughter were missing. Horace Rose did not learn until late in the afternoon that the two sons, Winter and Percy, from whom he had been separated during the flood were still alive, and that he was the only member of his large family who had even been injured.
His neighbor John Dibert had already been identified among the dead, as had Mrs. Fronheiser, whom Rose had last seen in her window next door. The bodies of Samuel Eldridge, one of the best-known policemen in town, and Elizabeth Bryan of Philadelphia, who had been on the Day Express, had also been found. But of the other dead found only a small number had as yet been identified for sure.
At the Adams Street schoolhouse and a saloon in Morrellville, where the first two emergency morgues had been opened, the bodies were piling up faster than they could be properly handled. They came in on planks, doors, anything that would serve as a stretcher, and with no wagons or horses as yet on hand, the work of carrying them through the mud and water was terribly difficult.
Each body was cleaned up as much as was possible, and any valuables found were put aside for safekeeping. Those in charge tried hard to maintain order, but people kept pushing in and out to look, and the confusion was terrific.
“We had no record books,” David Beale wrote, “not even paper, on which to make our records, and had to use with great economy that which we gathered amid the debris or happened to have in our pockets.”
One way or other the bodies were numbered and identified, whenever that was possible. Many were in ghastly condition, stripped of their clothes, badly cut, limbs torn off, battered, bloated, some already turning black. Others looked as though they had suffered hardly at all and, except for their wet, filthy clothes, appeared very much at peace.
A Harrisburg newspaperman named J. J. MacLaurin, who had been near Johnstown at the time the flood struck, described a visit to the Adams Street School early Saturday afternoon, where he counted fifty-three bodies stretched on boards along the tops of the desks. “Next to the entrance lay, in her damp clothing, the waiter-girl who had served my last dinner at the Hulbert House, with another of the dining room girls by her side.”
How many dead there were in all no one had any way of knowing, since there was, as yet, almost no communication between various parts of town. But wild estimates were everywhere by nightfall, and with more bodies being discovered wherever the wreckage had been pulled apart, it was generally agreed that the final count would run far into the thousands. Some were saying it would be as much as 10,000 by the time the losses were added up from South Fork to Johnstown, and few people found that at all hard to believe. What may have happened on down the river at Nineveh or New Florence or Bolivar was anyone’s guess.
Within another day the Pennsylvania station and the Presbyterian Church, a soap factory, a house in Kernville, the Millville School, and the Catholic Church in Cambria City would be converted into emergency morgues. But it would be a week before things got down to a system at these places, and not for months would there be a realistic count of the dead. Actually, there never would be an exact, final count, though it is certain that well over 2,000 people were killed, and 2,209 is generally accepted as the official total.
Hundreds of people who were lost would never be found. One out of every three bodies that was found would never be identified beyond what was put down in the morgue records. With all the anguish and turmoil of the first few days, such entries were at best a line or two.
A female. “FL.F.” on envelope.
A man about fifty years of age. Short hair, smooth face.
Female. Light hair. About fifteen years.
Later, more care would be taken to be as explicit as possible.
Female. Age forty-five. Height 5 feet 6 inches. Weight 100. White. Very long black hair, mixed with grey. White handkerchief with red border. Black striped waist. Black dress. Plain gold ring on third finger of left hand. Red flannel underwear. Black stockings. Five pennies in purse. Bunch of keys.
Male. Age five years. Sandy hair. Checkered waist. Ribbed knee pants. Red undershirt. Black stockings darned in both heels.
Male. Age fifty. Weight 160. Height 5 feet 9 inches. Sandy hair. Plain ring on third finger of left hand (with initials inside “C.R. 1869.”) Pair blood stone cuff-buttons. Black alpaca coat. Navy blue vest and pants. Congress gaiters. Red stockings. Pocketbook. Knife and pencil. $13.30 in change. Open-faced silver watch. Heavy plaited chain and locket. Inside of locket a star with S.H., words trade-mark alone a star. Chain trinket with Washington head. Reverse the Lord’s prayer. Odd Fellow’s badge on pin.
In all, 663 bodies would be listed as unknown. A few were not identifiable because they had been decapitated. Close to a hundred had been burned beyond recognition, and some so badly that it was impossible even to tell what sex they had been. And many of the bodies found in late June or on into the summer and fall would be so decomposed as to be totally unrecognizable.
Part of the problem, too, was the fact that on the afternoon of May 31 Johnstown had had its usual share of strangers in town, nameless faces even when they had been alive, foreigners who had been living there only a short time, tramps, traveling men new to the territory, passengers on board any one of the several trains stalled along the line, countrypeople who had decided to stay over after Memorial Day. They made up a good part of the unknown dead, and doubtless many of them were among those who were never found at all.
Among the known dead were such very well-known figures as Dr. John Lee; Theodore Zimmerman, the lawyer; Squire Fisher, the Justice of the Peace, and his entire family; C. T. Schubert, editor of the German newspaper; and Ben Hoffman, the hackman, who, according to one account, “always got you to the depot in plenty of time” and whose voice was “as familiar as train whistle, iron works, or the clock bells.” (Hoffman had gone upstairs to take a nap shortly before the flood struck and was found with his socks in his pockets.)
The Reverend Alonzo Diller, the new rector of St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, was dead, along with his wife and child. George Wagoner, who was a dentist as well as a part-time preacher, and so one of the best-known men in town, was dead, as were his wife and three daughters. Emil Young, the jeweler, was dead; Sam Lenhart, the harness dealer, was dead; Henry Goldenberg, the clothier, Arthur Benshoff, the bookseller, Christian Kempel, the undertaker, were all dead. Mrs. Hirst, the librarian, lay crushed beneath a heap of bricks, slate, and books that stood where the public library had been.
Vincent Quinn was dead, as were Abbie Geis, her child, and Libby Hipp. Mrs. Cyrus Elder and her daughter Nan, Hettie Ogle and her daughter Minnie were dead, and their bodies would never be identified. George and Mathilde Heiser were dead.
Ninety-nine whole families had been wiped out. Three hundred and ninety-six children aged ten years or less had been killed. Ninety-eight children lost both parents. One hundred and twenty-four women were left widows; 198 men lost their wives.
One woman, Mrs. John Fenn, wife of the tinsmith on Locust Street, lost her husband and seven children. Christ Fitzharris, the saloonkeeper, his wife, father, and eight children were all drowned. Charles Murr and six of his children went down with his cigar store on Washington Street; only his wife and one child survived. In a house owned by John Ryan on Washington Street, twenty-one people drowned, including a man named Gottfried Hoffman, his wife and nine children.
At “Morgue A,” the Adams Street schoolhouse, 301 bodies would be recorded in the logbooks. At the Presbyterian Church, which was “Morgue B,” there would be 92; at “Morgue C,” in the Millville schoolhouse, the total would come to 551 by the time the last entry was made (“Unknown”) on December 3. And along with the prominent merchants and doctors, the lawyers and preachers, there were hundreds of people with names like Allison, Burns, Evans, Shumaker, Llewellyn, and Hesselbein, Berkebile, Mayhew, McHugh, Miller, Lambreski, Rosensteel, Brown, Smith, and Jones. They made up most of the lists, and in the town directory that was to have been published that June they were entered as schoolteacher, porter, or drayman, clerk, miner, molder, barber, sawyer, dressmaker, or domestic. Dozens of them were listed as steelworker, or simply as laborer, and quite often as widow.
In that part of the valley through which the flood had passed, the population on the afternoon of the 31st had been approximately 23,000 people, which means that the flood killed just about one person out of every ten. In Johnstown proper, it killed about one out of nine.
But there were no statistics for anyone to go on that Saturday night. It would be weeks before even a reasonably accurate estimate would be made on the death toll. The business of finding the dead just went very slowly. Young Vincent Quinn’s body, for example, was not uncovered until June 7, buried beneath the wreckage in Jacob Zimmerman’s yard. Victor Heiser’s mother was found about the same time, her clothing still much intact, her body scarcely marked in any way; but the search for George Heiser went on for weeks after, and his body never was identified for certain. Toward the end of June a body was found which Victor was told was his father, but it was by then in such dreadful condition that he was not permitted to look at it.
In July there would be many days when ten to fifteen corpses would be uncovered. About thirty bodies would be found in August, including that of little Bessie Fronheiser; and so it would go on through the fall. In fact, for years to come bodies would keep turning up in and near the city. Two bodies would be found west of New Florence as late as 1906.
But by dark that Saturday only a small part of the dead had been accounted for, perhaps no more than 300 or 400, and only a very few had been buried. Most of the living found shelter well back from the city, on Prospect Hill or Green Hill, or on up the Stony Creek, where against the dark mountains tiny windows glowed like strings of orange lanterns. Or they walked to little towns like Brownstown, which was set in a high valley above Cambria City. Victor Heiser spent the next several nights there, along with more than 1,000 other refugees from the flood who were all housed, one way or other, by Brownstown’s fifty-three resident families.
Houses, barns, stables, schools, churches, every remaining upright structure for miles around was put into service. Crude tents were fashioned from blankets and bedspreads. Lean-tos were built of planks and doors dragged from the wreckage.
One man later described smelling the odor of ham frying as he walked along the front street on Prospect Hill, and how he was invited into a small house “filled with a strangely composed company.” There were two or three women who had been just recently rescued, and who were “pitiably pale, and with eyes ghastly at the flood horror.” There was the hostess, who carried an infant on one hip, “a divine, a physician, a lawyer, two or three merchants,” and several others. The dining room was too small to hold everyone, so they ate in shifts, waiting their turn out on the front porch. Below them, almost at their feet it seemed, lay the devastated valley.
The cold was nearly as cruel as it had been the night before. Pitch-blackness closed down over the mountainsides that crowded so close; but across the valley floor bonfires blazed, torches moved among the dark ruins, and the rivers and big pools of dead water were lighted by the fire that raged on at the stone bridge.
And with the deep night, for nearly everyone, came dreadful fear. There was the rational and quite justifiable fear of typhoid fever and of famine. It was entirely possible that a worse catastrophe than the flood itself could sweep the valley in a matter of days if help did not get through.
There were also rumors of thieves prowling through the night and of gangs of toughs who had come into the valley looking for trouble. Great quantities of whiskey were supposedly being found among the ruins, and drunken brawls were breaking out. People were warned to be on the lookout, that there would be looting and rape before the night was over; and men who had not slept since Thursday night took turns standing guard through the night, watching over their families or what little they may have had left of any earthly value.
Perhaps worst of all, however, was the wholly irrational fear of the very night itself and the nameless horrors it concealed. The valley was full of unburied dead; they were down there among the cold, vile remains of the city, waiting in the dark, and no one could get that idea out of his head for very long. If there were such a thing as ghosts, the night was full of them.
But despite it all, the hunger, the grief, the despair and fear, people gradually did what they had to; they slept. They put everything else out of their minds, for the moment, because they had to; and they slept.
Sunday the weather eased off. It was still cold, but the sky had cleared some, and for the first time in days it looked as though there would be no rain.
Sunday they began taking bodies across the Little Conemaugh in skiffs and carrying them to a plot on Prospect Hill where shallow graves were dug in the gravelly soil and the bodies buried without ceremony. (George Spangler, who had been night watchman at the First National Bank, wrote in his diary, “bisey holing the dead this day I hold 62 to the semitre.”) Sunday a post office was set up at the corner of Adams and Main, and a clearinghouse where everyone who was still alive was meant to come in and register his name and tell what he knew about the rest of his family. Sunday the first patients were cared for in a temporary hospital on Bedford Street. And on Sunday the first relief trains got through.
A train from Somerset came in on the B & O tracks about daybreak. The other train, from Pittsburgh, had arrived at Sang Hollow about ten thirty Saturday night but had been unable to get any closer. From Sang Hollow to Johnstown there was practically nothing left of the old line. There were at least ten miles along the Pennsylvania where it was impossible to tell even where the tracks had been, and several of those ten miles could be accounted for between Sang Hollow and Johnstown.
The lonely little Sang Hollow depot had become the scene of great activity Saturday night, from about eleven on. Several boxcars had been unloaded and volunteers organized to start moving things upriver by hand. “The men carried the provisions on their backs,” one participant wrote, “over landslides and the trackless roadbeds to points where handcars passed. All night long a procession of lights was moving to and fro from Sang Hollow to the stone bridge.”
By morning nearly two carloads of supplies had been deposited at the western end of the bridge and work had begun on a rope bridge to get them over the Conemaugh. But more remarkable still was the fact that early Sunday, perhaps as early as eight in the morning, the Pittsburgh train itself came steaming up the valley clear to the stone bridge. So swiftly had the railroad swung back into action during the night that by dawn enough new track had been put down from Sang Hollow to start the train cautiously on its way. And as it crept through the ruins of Morrellville and Cambria City, men standing in the open doors of the boxcars passed out bundles of bread, cheese, and crackers to the ragged crowds that lined the tracks.
The supplies had left Pittsburgh about four Saturday afternoon. Pittsburgh had been in a frenzy since early that morning. The Allegheny River had risen sharply during the night, and the riverbanks and bridges were lined with people watching the wreckage sweep past. Already there were rumors that dead bodies had been fished out. “A sense of intense uneasiness pervaded the air,” one man wrote.
There were still precious few facts to go on, but the papers were getting out a new edition every hour, and the news kept growing more and more alarming. Outside the newspaper offices, traffic was snarled by the crowds that pressed in to read the latest bulletins and kept calling for names.
At one o’clock a mass meeting was held at Pittsburgh’s Old City Hall, at which Robert Pitcairn stood up and spoke briefly about what he had seen. “Gentlemen,” he said in closing, “it is not tomorrow you want to act, but today; thousands of lives were lost in a moment, and the living need immediate help.” Then there was a call for contributions. At the front of the hall two men using both hands took in $48,116.70 in fifty minutes. “There was no speech making,” a reporter wrote, “no oratory but the eloquence of cash.”
Wagons were sent through the city to collect food and clothing. Union Station looked like wartime, swarming with people and with train after train being loaded in the yards. The first train went out with twenty cars full. On board were some eighty volunteers of the “Pittsburgh Relief Committee,” a dozen reporters, perhaps thirty police, and, according to one account, Mr. Durbin Home, a member of the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club, who was on his way to find out what had happened to several friends and relatives who had not been heard from since they left for the lake on Memorial Day.
When the rope bridge was finally finished Sunday morning at Johnstown, the men started over with their heavy loads, swaying precariously above the raging river. They came across one at a time and very slowly. And for the next several days, until the stone bridge was open again, they would keep on coming almost without stop.
Later on Sunday several good-sized boats would be hauled up the valley by train and put into service crossing the river, taking men and supplies over and bringing refugees back. On Sunday the boats ferried some 3,000 passengers, coming and going. Monday, they carried 7,000, along with supplies and dead bodies.
Wagons loaded down with salt pork, bedding, goods of every kind, rolled down flood-gullied roads from Ebensburg and Loretto, splashing up showers of gummy mud the color of a new baseball glove. Doctors and work crews started off from Altoona, where it was reported 5,000 people were milling about the railroad station. In dozens of little towns along the Pennsylvania toward Pittsburgh, and back along the B & O toward Somerset, church bells were ringing and hundreds of people were coming in from the country with their donations; and all day, one after another, relief trains kept streaming through, many of them with “For the Johnstown Sufferers” scrawled in big letters on the boxcars. One train in by the Somerset line carried a whole shipment of tents sent by the governor of Ohio. Another Pittsburgh train, eleven cars long, carried nothing but coffins.
Some of the offerings that were mounting up in Johnstown created more than a little amusement. In their eagerness to help, some people had not bothered to think much about what would be needed. One nicely tied bundle opened Sunday afternoon contained a ball of carpet rags, a paper of tacks, two bags of salt, one baby’s shoe, and two darned stockings of different colors. A box of homemade liniment, with” warm before using” written on the side, was tossed out of one car. There was a package of worn-out schoolbooks, a Bible with several pages marked, some fancy needlework, even bits of bric-a-brac.
But almost everything else that came in, however shabby or trivial seeming, was immediately grabbed up and put to good use. A blue dress coat with bright brass buttons that looked every bit of seventy years old was presented to an equally ancient-looking Grubbtown man who wore it away with much pride. Children went shuffling off in shoes several sizes too big for them. Women gladly put on men’s coats and hats.
And as much as there was coming in, it was nowhere near enough. There were perhaps 27,000 people in the valley who had to be taken care of, who had to be supplied with every kind of basic necessity; and added to them were all those others streaming in to help.
By nightfall Sunday well over 1,000 people were in from out of town. Something like fifty undertakers had arrived from Pittsburgh. The railroad was bringing work crews in by the trainful. A Pittsburgh fire department had arrived and, remarkably enough, by midnight had just about extinguished the fire at the stone bridge. There was also present a rather stout Republican politician by the name of Daniel Hartman Hastings, the Adjutant General of the state, who, after looking the situation over since morning, had decided it was time the military took over.
A lawyer by profession, the general’s only military experience had been at Altoona during the strike of ’77. Saturday morning he had hitched up his team and driven nonstop from his home in Bellefonte, seventy miles to the northeast, arriving at Prospect Hill after dark. He had slept that night in the company of several tramps on the floor of the signal tower at the Pennsylvania station and managed to cross over to Johnstown first thing the next morning. He talked to Moxham and his committeemen about calling out the National Guard but was advised strenuously against it. Moxham thought it was important that the people handle their problems themselves; it would do more than anything else, he said, to help them get over their anxieties.
Later in the day, when a company of troops arrived from Pittsburgh, sent by the Pittsburgh Chamber of Commerce, Hastings told them to go back to where they had come from. They had received no proper orders to turn out, he said, and had no business being there. He gave the officer in charge a vigorous dressing down, and back they went.
But by nightfall another meeting was held with the local officials and it was agreed to draw up a formal request to the governor for troops. For by now it was clear to just about everyone that the job of running things had gone beyond what the Moxham “dictatorship” could cope with. In another two days Moxham would resign his authority altogether, and James B. Scott, head of the Pittsburgh Relief Committee, would take over as the civilian head.
Rumors of looting and drunken fist fights were now even more exaggerated than they had been the previous night, but now they were not totally unfounded. The Reverend Beale and others later testified to witnessing attempted thefts. On Prospect Hill there seemed to be an inexhaustible supply of whiskey. One husky farm boy who had come down from Ebensburg with a load of provisions stayed long enough to get so drunk that he toppled off the hillside, rolled head over heels down the embankment, and fell into the Little Conemaugh, nearly drowning in minutes. “God only saved him,” his father said later, “and for something better we hope.”
Captain Hart’s police seemed unable to keep order, and if things were not troublesome enough as they were, one of his lieutenants, a much-respected local lawyer and sportsman named Chal Dick, went riding about on horseback brandishing a Winchester rifle and telling lurid stories about the Hungarians he had seen robbing the dead and how he had already shot a couple of them. The stories spread like wildfire, and with them went more fear and suspicion of any man who spoke with an accent or even looked slightly foreign. People talked of how Paris had been looted by the Germans during the Franco-Prussian War, or harked back to tales of violence and evil doings in the old country at the time of the plagues.
And to make matters still worse, it was well known that even more people were on their way. Word was Sunday night that Booth and Flinn, the big Pittsburgh construction company, was sending 1,000 men the next day, and everyone had heard about the kind of riffraff Billy Flinn was known for hiring. He would pack them into freight cars like cattle and then turn them loose into Johnstown. Every last one of them would have to be fed and sheltered, and where was it all to come from? And who was there to police the place?
But what was not known, even as Hastings sent out his message to the governor, was just how many others were heading for the devastated city. For along with the Flinn crew there were thousands more coming—charity workers, doctors, preachers, men looking for work, smalltime crooks and pickpockets, drifters, farm hands, ladies of the W.C.T.U., former Johnstown people heading back to look for relatives, railroad officials, prostitutes, sight-seers.
From Pittsburgh Captain Bill Jones was on his way with three carloads of supplies and a small army of 300 men from the Edgar Thomson works, a number of whom had been with him in the old days at the Cambria mills. In Philadelphia pretty society girls were packing medical supplies and making ready to start off with relief units organized by half a dozen churches. Mr. H. C. Tarr of the Utopia Embalming Fluid Company of Brooklyn had already struck out for Johnstown and would wind up traveling nearly 200 miles by horseback before he got there. In Washington, Miss Clara Barton and her newly organized American Red Cross had boarded a special B & O train.
For, already, the Johnstown Flood had become the biggest news story since the murder of Abraham Lincoln. On Saturday night, quite late, the reporters camped inside the brickworks had finally gotten a line clear to Pittsburgh, and the words had been pouring out ever since. (“The awful catastrophe at Johnstown is by all odds the most stupendous fatality ever known in the history of this country….”)
The news had an effect that is difficult to imagine; by Sunday it was spread across the front page of virtually every paper in the country. On Saturday the papers had hedged on how many had been killed. The New York World had reported 1,500 lives lost; theTimes had been even more cautious, saying only that hundreds were dead. But on Sunday the World headlines ran halfway down the page, and though they still had no firsthand facts to go on, the editors had decided to pull out all stops:
Johnstown Blotted Out by the Flood
HALF ITS PEOPLE KILLED
Two Thousand Burned to Death in the Wreck
ALL APPROACHES CUT OFF
In Pittsburgh the Post-Gazette was selling its editions so fast that it had to reduce its page size temporarily in order not to run out of paper. Everywhere people were talking of little else and wanted to know more, much more; they wanted facts, names, details, pictures. And so along with all the others heading for Johnstown there came more reporters (perhaps a hundred or more), telegraph operators, editors, authors, artists, photographers.
The great rush to Johnstown, which had begun in Pittsburgh Friday night, was now under way full force. They came, thousands of them, from every station in life and from as far away as California, heading for a place very few of them had ever heard of two days earlier, driven by the most disparate motives imaginable.