Modern history

“No pen can describe…”


Henry S. Brown of the Philadelphia Press had been sitting at his desk at eleven o’clock Friday night when the news first came in. At 11:25 he was on board a westbound train pulling out of the Broad Street Station, having taken no time to pack or, for that matter, to give much thought to just where it was he was going or what chance he had of getting there. At Harrisburg the train was delayed by floods along the Susquehanna, but Brown stayed on board when the conductor assured him everything would be cleared up in a few hours and that they would be moving on again. At dawn he was told things had changed rather drastically; nothing would be open west for two weeks.

Brown got hold of some maps and decided that if he could get a train to Chambersburg, fifty miles to the southwest, and could hire a team there, he might just be able to drive the rest of the way, which, according to the map, looked to be another hundred miles. He took the Cumberland Valley Railroad out of Harrisburg, but it was not until Sunday afternoon that he reached Chambersburg, located a double team, and started over the Tuscarora Mountain to McConnellsburg, twenty-two miles due west. Halfway over the mountain his wagon broke down, but he managed to borrow another from a farmer. At McConnellsburg he picked up another team and pushed on, along the Pennsylvania Pike (the old Forbes Road), heading for Juniata Crossing. From then on he splattered his way down washed-out roads, forded streams where bridges had been swept away, walked when he had to, crossed Sideling Hill in the dark, changed teams five more times, and never stopped to eat or rest. He reached Bedford about seven Monday morning and, finding no train there as he had expected, went whirling off once again, this time bound for Stoystown behind a pair of snow-white mules. Between Bedford and Stoystown, still traveling the state road, he managed to cross the Allegheny Mountain at a place where the elevation approaches 3,000 feet.

At Stoystown he would be able to pick up the B & O line from Somerset, but he arrived just in time to miss a relief train there; so rather than wait for another, he hired still one more team and headed on again, following the tortuous route of the raging Stony Creek down to Johnstown.

It was about seven thirty Monday night when he finally reached Johnstown, after having traveled the hundred miles from Chambersburg in about twenty-eight hours. No more than ten minutes later he was shaking hands with another correspondent by the name of F. Jennings Crute, also of the Press. Crute had left the Philadelphia office at the same time as Brown and had pulled into Johnstown only an hour before, having traveled about seven times as far as Brown. For instead of heading west on the Pennsylvania Friday night, Crute had made the whole trip by rail, first by heading east to New York, then going by way of Buffalo (on the Central) to Cleveland and Pittsburgh.

Brown and Crute went directly to work and, like the other reporters swarming over the place, were soon filing their stories from the brickworks above the stone bridge, which by now had become quite a center of operations. The Pittsburgh papers, theTimes, thePress, the Dispatch, the Commercial-Gazette, and the Leader, were all represented. (In an old photograph taken at the end of the stone bridge on Sunday, a group of twenty-one Pittsburgh correspondents pose proudly beneath derby hats, several with cigar in hand, their dark vests crossed by heavy watch chains.) They had taken over two floors of one building, as well as a woodshed. The newcomers squeezed in where best they could, everyone working under tremendous difficulties. Those who had been there for more than twenty-four hours were unshaven, red-eyed, and near collapse from lack of sleep. They were using barrelheads, coffin lids, and shovel bottoms for writing desks, and the words they wrote were put on the wire as fast as was humanly possible.

The place became known as the “Lime Kiln Club” and rapidly gave rise to that special kind of fellowship-through-duress, which so often happens in war. “The culinary department,” one of the group wrote later, “was taken charge of by Tom Keenan of thePress. With an old coffee-pot taken from the debris at the bridge, some canned corned beef, a few boxes of crackers, a few quarts of condensed milk and a bag of unground coffee, he was soon enabled to get up a meal for his starving comrades which was the envy of those in the neighborhood who, while hungry, did not belong to the band of scribes, whom they looked upon as a lot of luxurious revellers.”

By late Monday the force of telegraph operators had increased enough to set up night and day shifts. Food became more plentiful, and the presence of the new men did much to boost spirits. The New York Sun reporters had come by the same roundabout route as F. Jennings Crute, while their rivals from the Herald, World, Times, and Tribune had gone more or less the way of Henry Brown. The correspondent of the Chicago Inter-Ocean walked up from Sang Hollow, as did several others, and every one of them was brimful of tales of his experiences.

The early arrivals at last got some sleep that night, there at the brickworks, while the newcomers found what accommodations they could elsewhere around town. Eight of them, including the Philadelphia men, wound up on the narrow first floor of the signal tower across the river. About midnight they were awakened by a man at the door saying, “Isn’t this terrible. Look at them, human beings, drowned like rats in their hole.” At which point one of the corpses sat bolt upright and said, “Get the hell out of here and let us sleep!”

But for all the boon companionship and oft-told stories, the hardships endured by “the gentlemen of the press” were considerable. Vile-smelling smoke from the still smoldering bridge blew through the windows of the old building where they worked. The floor was shaky and full of holes, and to enter the place in the dark of night was, as one man said, “to place one’s life in jeopardy.” John Ritenour of the Pittsburgh Post fell twenty feet, wedging between timbers and so severely injuring himself that he had to be sent home. Sam Kerr of the Leader fell off the top of a house lodged in the drift and would have drowned if one of his colleagues had not been on hand to pull him out. Clarence Bixby of the Post fell from the railroad bridge while trying to get across at one in the morning and was badly banged up. And several weeks later, F. Jennings Crute, worn down by lack of sleep and exposure, caught a cold that turned to pneumonia. On December 3 he died.

The competition between papers was friendly but fierce, with every man scrambling for an advantage. One of them, a William Henry Smith of the Associated Press, had actually been on board a section of the ill-fated Day Express and wrote a long, florid description of the experience. (“It was a race for life. There was seen the black head of the flood, now the monster Destruction, whose crest was raised high in the air, and with this in view even the weak found wings for their feet.”) But for the rest it was a matter of finding out what was happening amid the chaos around them, and as of Monday night there was plenty happening.

The city itself was still the most overpowering spectacle. (“It is a scene that blanches the faces of strong men, and in its multiplying horror is almost beyond description,” wrote a reporter for the New York Daily Graphic.) The weather had turned dull and cold again, which was unpleasant but welcome news as far as the doctors and sanitation workers were concerned. This way the dead would not decay quite so fast.

Bonfires by the hundreds were blazing across the valley where the ungainly and by now putrid carcasses of drowned horses were being cremated. The stench everywhere was terrible, of burned plaster and sodden bedding, of oil-soaked muck, of water thick with every kind of filth, and, worst of all, of still unfound bodies. The correspondents wrote of negotiating the rope bridge over the Conemaugh (“A slide, a series of frightful tosses from side to side, a run, and you have crossed…”) and of the curious things to be found once in town (“In the midst of the wreck a clothing store dummy, with a hand in the position of beckoning to a person, stands erect and uninjured.”). They interviewed bystanders (“‘I have visited Johnstown a dozen times a year for a long time,’ said a businessman to-day, ‘and I know it thoroughly, but I haven’t the least idea now of what part of it this is. I can’t even tell the direction the streets used to run.’”); and they quoted General Hastings as saying that there were 8,000 people dead. (“Nobody thinks this too small,” the Sun reporter added. “Nobody who has been about here an hour would think anything too awful to be possible.”)

Sunday night four enormous relief trains had rolled in below the bridge. Monday Billy Flinn brought in 280 teams of horses and 1,300 men. (“Very few Americans among them,” wrote one reporter.) Mrs. Lew Wallace, wife of the war hero and novelist, was reported missing from the Day Express. (She had actually taken another train and was safe in Altoona.) John Fulton and Colonel John Linton were both mistakenly reported dead (Fulton was reported “positively drowned”), and James McMillan, vice-president of Cambria Iron, was asked when work would start on rebuilding the mills, to which he answered, “Immediately.” There was talk of dynamiting the wreckage at the stone bridge, and there was a strong plea from the doctors and the sanitation officials from Pittsburgh to let it burn. The smell of burning flesh among the wreckage was something awful (“People in New York who remember the smell of the ruins of the Belt Line stables, after their destruction by fire…know what the odor is.”), but fire would cut the odds against a typhus outbreak, and throughout the valley and on downriver, clear to Pittsburgh, typhus had become an overriding concern.

In Pittsburgh the papers urged everyone to boil his water. From Nineveh, where nearly a hundred bodies had been recovered, Dr. Benjamin Lee, head of the Pennsylvania Board of Health, sent a message to the sheriffs of the four counties between Johnstown and Pittsburgh:

The State Board of Health hereby directs and empowers you to immediately summon a posse to patrol the Conemaugh river, tear down the drift heaps and remove the dead bodies, both human beings and domestic animals. This is absolutely necessary to protect your county from pestilence.

The wreckage at the bridge was described in detail, with some saying it covered thirty acres, others claiming it was more like sixty. (It was about halfway in between.) “I stood on the stone bridge at 6 o’clock,” wrote a Sun reporter Monday, “and looked into the seething mass of ruin below me. At one place the blackened body of a babe was seen; in another 14 skulls could be counted…At this time the smoke was still rising to the height of 50 feet…” On Wednesday, June 5, a little boy named Eddie Schoefler would be found still alive amid the wreckage. It would be one of the momentous events of the week.

Then, from Sunday on, there had been increased tension over the Hungarians, which was something quite colorful indeed to write about. Thanks to Chal Dick and, by now, many others, tales of “foul deeds” perpetrated by the “fiendish Huns” were rampant, and only a few reporters bothered to try to check them out. Story after story went on the wire describing how “ghouls, more like wild beasts” were slicing off fingers for gold wedding bands, and how angry Johnstown vigilantes were hunting them down. One account described how a woman’s body had been decapitated in order to steal her necklace. The Post told how gangs of Hungarians tried to raid unguarded freight cars for food and clothes. Another report said that a Hungarian had been caught in the act of blowing up a safe in the First National Bank. The Daily Graphic described how a crowd cornered a Hungarian at his “fiendish work” and strung him up on a lamppost.

This sample of the over-all tone and content of the reports was written late Sunday:

Last night a party of thirteen Hungarians were noticed stealthily picking their way along the banks of the Conemaugh toward Sang Hollow. Suspicious of their purpose, several farmers armed themselves and started in pursuit. Soon their most horrible fears were realized. The Hungarians were out for plunder. They came upon the dead and mangled body of a woman, lying upon the shore, upon whose person there were a number of trinkets of jewelry and two diamond rings. In their eagerness to secure the plunder, the Hungarians got into a squabble, during which one of the number severed the finger upon which were the rings, and started on a run with his fearful prize. The revolting nature of the deed so wrought upon the pursuing farmers, who by this time were close at hand, that they gave immediate chase. Some of the Hungarians showed fight, but, being outnumbered, were compelled to flee for their lives. Nine of the brutes escaped, but four were literally driven into the surging river and to their death. The thief who took the rings was among the number of the involuntary suicides.

The “thugs and thieves in unclean hordes,” as one writer described them, were nearly always Hungarians, though there was at least one report of two Negroes being shot at by Pittsburgh police when seen robbing a dead body, and there were a few references to “the worthless Poles.”

Such accounts were given a great deal of space by all but a few of the big eastern papers and were featured prominently in the headlines. (“FIENDS IN HUMAN FORM” ran the New York Herald headline on Monday. “DRUNKEN HUNGARIANS, DANCING, SINGING, CURSING AND FIGHTING AMID THE RUINS.”) Lurid illustrations were published, drawn by artists who had only the reporters’ stories to go by. One scene showed two bodies dangling from a telephone pole near the riverbank, while in the foreground a “wild-eyed” Hungarian, who looks much like a touring company Fagin, is held at bay, knee-deep in water, by a stalwart gentleman with a horse pistol who could very well be Robert E. Lee.

They were stories which had great appeal to anyone ready to believe in the darker side of humanity and particularly that segment of humanity which spoke with a thick accent, smelled of garlic, and worked cheap. The only trouble was that there was scarcely any truth to the stories, as several correspondents had already begun to suspect. At four Monday afternoon Alfred Reed of the World cabled his editors:


The next day an angry General Hastings issued a statement that reports of lynchings and rioting were “utterly devoid of truth,” sharply criticized the newspapers for publishing them, and suggested that the reporters stick to the facts.

Several characters had indeed been caught trying to pilfer the dead and had received some rather rough treatment, including, it appears, enough mock preparations for a lynching to put a terrific scare into one of them; and it is quite possible that a few fingers may have been mutilated by thieves trying to wrench off gold wedding bands. But there were certainly no diamond rings stolen (one survivor doubted that there were more than one or two diamond rings in all Johnstown at that time), no bank safes were blown, and, as David Beale wrote later, no fingers were cut off by human ghouls. Furthermore, the Hungarians themselves apparently had almost nothing to do with what foul doings there were. “There was little stealing done by the Hungarians,” Beale wrote, “and most accounts of outrages attributed to these people were apocryphal; and I am glad to say that all statements of shooting and hanging them were without foundation.” And to emphasize the validity of this last statement, he said his source was Chal Dick himself.

Dick, it seems, had gone slightly out of his head immediately after the disaster and had been suffering from vivid and vicious delusions. His wife and children had been killed and he simply went berserk for about a day or so. By the time he snapped out of it, the damage had been done, and from then on the stories were spread, according to the best evidence, largely by outsiders who had come into the valley.

For though there may have been relatively little resentment in Johnstown against the Hungarians (or the other Southern European peoples called Hungarians), in Pittsburgh feelings were different. The steel bosses, like Henry Clay Frick, had been bringing them in by the thousands to work in Braddock and Homestead. They were single men mostly, willing to work for the lowest wages, and under the worst conditions, just to save enough to go back home and buy a small farm on the Danube. They got the toughest jobs, worked hard, and were generally hated by the Irish, the German, and American workers. Years later, John Fitch, the historian, interviewed an old Scotch-Irish furnace boss in Pittsburgh about the “hunkies.”

“They don’t seem like men to me hardly,” he said. “They can’t talk United States. You tell them something and they just look and say, ‘Me no fustay, me no fustay,’ that’s all you can get out of ’em.” When wages were going down, when men were let go at the mills, when the unions suffered setbacks, somehow the Hungarians seemed at the root of things.

The few Hungarians there were in Johnstown (perhaps 500 of them were living in the valley at the time of the flood) were subjected to days of abuse. Speaking little English, fearful and suspicious even under normal circumstances, they now became so terrified of the angry crowds that hung outside their homes that they dared not go out even to collect their share of the relief provisions. Their children were starving; the men grew desperate. At one point about twenty of them were encouraged to come out to help dig graves in the cemetery above Minersville. After working all day, on their way back home in the dark, they were set upon by a gang armed with clubs and were badly beaten.

But by midweek the Hungarian scare was over. There were still rumors, but papers like the Philadelphia Press were saying, “There is not an inch of truth in them,” and nearly everyone in Johnstown knew that that was so. While in Chicago the Heraldwrote that the “Magyars” there were “justly indignant” over the stories, and tried to resolve the whole unfortunate business by adding, “The wretches who now prey upon the dead at Johnstown and refuse to aid in the work of rescue, are undoubtedly Bulgarians, Wallachs, Moldavians, and Tartars, classes degraded in all their manners as is the North American Indian….”

Sometime Monday Colonel Unger came into town from South Fork, accompanied by the Shea brothers, John Parke, and one or two other employees of the fishing and hunting club. Understandably, the press was most interested in talking to them.

Unger gave the Pittsburgh Post a brief rundown on what had happened at the dam Friday morning and how he and his men had tried to prevent the disaster. He estimated that the loss to the club was about $150,000 and said that the club members who had been at the lake were all safe and that they had gone off to Altoona.

Parke seemed more interested in getting word to his people in Philadelphia that he was alive and in good health, but was quoted by the New York Sun, “No blame can be attached to anyone for this greatest of horrors. It was a calamity that could not be avoided.” He said the fault was “storm after storm” and that “by twelve o’clock everybody in the Conemaugh region did know or should have known of their danger.”

But an employee by the name of Herbert Webber, who must have been interviewed separately, launched into a long description of the dam the morning before it failed. He told the reporters that at around eleven he had been attending to a camp a mile back from the dam when he noticed that the surface of the lake seemed to be lowering. He could not quite believe what he saw, he said, so he went down and made a mark on the shore, and sure enough he found his suspicions were well founded. For days before, he went on, he had seen water shooting out between the rocks on the front of the dam, so that the face “resembled a large watering pot.” The force of the water was so great “that one of these jets squirted full thirty feet horizontally from the stone wall.” When he ran up to the dam that morning, he declared, he saw the water of the lake “welling out from beneath the foundation stones.”

The story was preposterous, of course, and had no connection with what actually happened, but the reporters had no way of knowing that. The watering-can image made splendid copy, so out it went, along with everything else.

But by this time at least one enterprising reporter had already made his way to the club. In Pittsburgh that Monday the headline across the front of the Post read: “TO THE DAM AT LAST.” The story had been sent out at nine the night before and said, as Unger had, that the Pittsburgh people were safe and, as Parke had, that warnings had been sent down the valley before the break. In another two days more reporters would show up at South Fork. They would begin looking over the construction of the dam itself and start questioning the local people about the club. South Fork would shortly become the center of a stormy series of events, but for now Johnstown remained the major focus of attention.

One survivor after another was interviewed and dozens of frightful personal experiences were penciled into reporters’ notebooks. The heroism of Bill Heppenstall (Hepenthal several papers spelled it), the adventures of Gertrude Quinn, and John Hess’s ride into East Conemaugh were described at length.

Numerous stories were collected of ironic or incredible things that happened. All of Johnstown’s three or four blind people had survived the flood. Frank Benford’s dun-colored mare was found in an alley next to where the Hulbert House had been, up to her belly in debris, alive, but blinded in both eyes. Old Mrs. Levergood, widow of Jacob Levergood, whose father had owned the town way back in the early days, was found dead, all the way up at Sandy Vale, still seated in her rocking chair.

Then there was the story about the engineer at the Cambria works who early in the afternoon of that fateful Friday had started a letter to an old college friend, “Thank God, I am through with a day such as I hope never to pass again.” A “gay girl” of the town was said to have jumped from a hotel window during the very worst of the flood in a fatal effort to save a drowning child. There was a Newfoundland dog that supposedly hauled a Woodvale woman to safety and then swam back to save a drowning baby. And another dog, a water spaniel named Romeo, was said to have towed his mistress, Mrs. Charles Kress, to the windows of Alma Hall. And just above the hideous pileup at the stone bridge, on a billboard at the depot, there was a large poster, undamaged by the flood, which several reporters made a point of mentioning. Put there a few days before the flood to announce the arrival of Augustin Daly’s A Night Off, its very large headline read, “Intensely Funny.”

Among the best pieces describing the human condition in Johnstown during these days were several by a late-arriving cub reporter for the Philadelphia Press whose name was Richard Harding Davis. The son of two prominent Philadelphia literary figures, he was strikingly handsome, twenty-five, elegant, aloof, and loving every minute of his first real assignment. At Lehigh he had been the most popular figure on campus, despite what one of his classmates described as his “strict adherence to everything English in the way of dress and manner.” His first job had been on the Philadelphia Record where he sported a long, yellow ulster, carried a cane, and was rather hard for the old newspapermen to swallow. As it was, he only lasted three months. He was caught one day by the city editor writing up an assignment with his kid gloves on and was promptly fired on the spot.

But with the Press he had fared better. He had sold a few short stories, interviewed Walt Whitman, and sent some samples of his work off to Robert Louis Stevenson with a request for advice. Stevenson advised writing “with considerate slowness and on the most ambitious models.” The slowness Davis would never quite master, nor would he try really; and the only ambitious model he ever seems to have set his sights on was his own very clear picture of himself as the world’s most dashing and celebrated foreign correspondent.

At the time the Johnstown story broke, Davis had been on vacation. It took several days for him to persuade the paper to send him, and when he finally arrived, he got off to a characteristic start. “A Philadelphia reporter was sent here to finish up the disaster, but the disaster is likely to finish him,” wrote The New York Times man. On alighting from his train, Davis “paralysed Newspaper row” by asking for the nearest restaurant. When it was explained that everyone had to forage on the country, Davis wanted to know where he could hire a horse and buggy, which set off another round of laughter. “But,” concluded the Times man, “he capped the climax by asking where he could buy a white shirt. A boiled shirt here is as rare as mince pie in Africa.”

Boiled shirt or no, he went to work, concentrating on human-interest stories. He wrote of walking over thousands of spilled cigars and of a pretty, young relief worker named Miss Hinkley of Philadelphia who was

…sitting busily writing at a table beside an open window which looked out on the yard of the morgue, and in which forty odd coffins filled with the dead were being examined by the living. Miss Hinkley’s hair was as carefully arranged and her tailor-made gown as neat and fresh as if she had stepped that moment from the Quaker City’s Rittenhouse Square. Reporters became painfully conscious of clothes that have been slept in for seven nights, and chins that had forgotten razors.

He wrote about a fist fight down in Cambria City between a local deputy sheriff and a drunken National Guard lieutenant named Jackson, who was put under arrest and sent back to Pittsburgh after several bystanders, including Davis, stepped in to break things up. He described the offers coming in from people all over the country who wished to adopt a Johnstown orphan, and told the story of a man named John McKee, whose body had been found inside a cell of the town jail. McKee had been locked up for twenty-four hours for overcelebrating on Memorial Day.

And along with the reporters, working their way among the ruins, came the photographers, lugging their ponderous, fragile equipment. They made pictures of men standing on freight cars in the midst of Main Street, of wagons loaded down with coffins, and of the great barren mud flat where Woodvale had been. The monstrous debris that clogged the city was pictured from virtually every angle, and at least one photographer decided to improve slightly on his composition by having a man lie down and play dead in the foreground. The picture later became one of the most popular stereoptican views of the disaster. But by the time the photographers were about, any body so exposed would have been long since found and removed; moreover, the shirt on the man’s back looks a bit too neat and clean and the things around him are a little too nicely arranged.

Upturned houses, gangs of laborers carrying shovels and axes and threading their way through huge dunes of rubbish, like a drab, derby-hatted army moving through the remains of a fallen city, the jerry-built shelters on the hillsides, farm women in poke bonnets working at the commissaries, they all made splendid subjects. But the most popular subject by far was a house owned by John Schultz which had stood on Union Street but was now stranded at the east end of Main. It had been pitched up on its side, and through an upstairs window a gigantic tree had been driven, its roots jutting thirty feet into the air. The building looked as though it had been skewered by some terrible oak-flinging god. One by one men and boys would crawl out on the tree to sit for a portrait, their faces registering no emotion, their feet dangling in light that had little more color than it would have in the final printed photograph. Six people had been in the house when the water struck, and they had all come out alive.

At one point it was estimated that there were no less than 200 amateur photographers about town, enough in any case that they had become a serious nuisance. So the word went around that if you were an able-bodied man but had no official business in town, then you had to work if you wanted to stay on. It was, as one observer said, a policy which had a “most salutary effect.”

Harper’s Weekly, Frank Leslie’s, and some of the other picture magazines had sent artists to cover the story. There were two or three writers gathering material for quick books. And in New York the World even managed to get Walt Whitman, who had celebrated his seventieth birthday on the day of the flood, to write a poem which was promptly printed on page one.

A voice from Death, solemn and strange, in all his sweep and power,

With sudden, indescribable blow—towns drown’d—humanity by thousands slain,

The vaunted work of thrift, goods, dwellings, forge, street, iron bridge.

Dash’d pell-mell by the blow—yet usher’d life continuing on,…

And in the Denver, Boston, and Brooklyn papers, long excerpts were published from a novel called Put Yourself in His Place, which had been written by a well-known English author named Charles Reade nearly twenty years before. Its closing chapters described the bursting of a reservoir and a dreadful flood which were surprisingly similar to what had happened at Johnstown.

Reade had based his book on the failure of the Dale Dyke at Sheffield, England, which had taken 238 lives in 1864; but for the millions of Americans who now read the excerpts, the “Hillsborough” of his story, with its steel mills and coal mines “fringed by fair woods,” and its reservoir in the mountains to the east, seemed so like Johnstown as to be uncanny. The story told of people dreaming of floods, of workmen who had long “misliked” the foundation of the dam. When the break came, it was only after a storm had raised the level of the lake so far that it started flowing over the center of the dam. Then down the valley came “an avalanche of water, whirling great trees up by the roots, and sweeping huge rocks away, and driving them, like corks, for miles.”

Meanwhile, the headlines blared away, day after day. “Agony”…“WOE!”…“PESTILENCE!”…and by midweek, “DEATH GROWS—A GIANT! One Pervading Presence Throughout the Conemaugh Valley, FIFTEEN THOUSAND CORPSES, A Tale of Grief That Can Only Be Told in Bitter Tears, Another Day of Utter Despair.”

The phrase “no pen can describe…” kept cropping up again and again, but the pens kept right on describing. The story took up the entire front page of both The New York Times and the World for five straight days. The Boston Post carried little else on its front page for twelve days running. It was called “The Great Calamity,” “The Nation’s Greatest Calamity,” “The Historic Catastrophe.” Frank Leslie’s said outright, “It is the most extraordinary calamity of the age.” Great battles had destroyed more life, said one writer after another, but no battle left such a ghastly trail of horror and devastation. That such a thing had happened in the United States of America in the year 1889 seemed almost more than the editorial writers could accept. Several papers, including Frank Leslie’s, allowed that similar slaughter might occur in India or China or other remote lands “where human life is cheap,” but how in the world had it ever happened here?

All over the country newspapers published column after column of names of the dead. An extraordinary amount of space was given over to telling of the “Slaughter of the Innocents.” The bodies of women and children found among the wreckage or in the deep, flood-dumped silt downstream were described in grim detail. Every reporter at Johnstown it seems saw at least one dead mother still clutching her dead child, and much was made of the fact that more women died in the disaster than men. (Of the bodies finally recovered 923 were men, 1,219 women.)

Victorian sentimentality had a heyday. The most pathetic-looking “Johnstown orphans” imaginable were drawn by New York artists and published beside long accounts of lost children. There were stories published of families tenderly bidding each other a final good-by just as the flood was about to pounce on them and of people tucking farewell notes into bottles before they slipped beneath the water for the last time.

One publisher, Kurz & Allison of Chicago, eventually got out a color lithograph which became one of the popular works of art of the age. In the upper right-hand corner a dam bursts almost directly on top of a Johnstown where all the women and children are bare-foot and many are in their night clothes at four in the afternoon. The women are fainting, falling, down on their knees praying, while the men, most of whom are amply clothed and shod, dash about trying bravely to contend with the rush of fire and water.

The newspapers, too, went very heavy on the horrors to be seen among the ruins of Johnstown, sometimes stretching the art nearly to the breaking point. This memorable sample, written at Johnstown on Wednesday, June 5, appeared the following day in the Philadelphia Press:

…One of the most ghastly and nauseous sights to those unaccustomed to scenes of death is the lunching arrangement for the undertakers. These men are working so hard that they have no time for meals, and huge boilers of steaming coffee, loaves of bread, dried beef and preserves are carried into the charnel house and placed at the disposal of the workers. Along comes one weary toiler, his sleeves rolled up, and apron in front and perspiring profusely despite the cold, damp weather. He has just finished washing a clammy corpse, has daubed it with cold water, manipulated it about on the boards and in the interval before the body of another poor wretch is brought in, gets a cup of coffee and a sandwich. With dripping hands he eats his lunch with relish, setting his cup occasionally beside the hideous face of a decomposing corpse and totally oblivious to his horrible surroundings.

Whatever the reporters may have lacked in the way of facts, they made up for in imagination. Distortions, wild exaggerations, and outright nonsense were published in just about every major paper in the country. One reporter described buzzards (“incited by their disgusting instinct”) circling over the stone bridge; another claimed the rivers were literally dammed with dead bodies. There were tales of wild dogs ravaging the graves of flood victims and devouring corpses by the dozens. Indianapolis readers were told that “each blackened beam hides a skull.”

There seems little doubt that there was plenty of drinking going on, but one writer for the New York World had men staggering about with whole pailfuls of whiskey. (“Barrels of the stuff are constantly located among the drifts, and men are scrambling over each other and fighting like wild beasts in their mad search for it.”) A large family was pictured sailing by during the height of the flood singing “Nearer, My God, to Thee” in harmony. And of those stories emphasizing the pitiful fate of the innocent, perhaps the most imaginative was one filed from New Florence. A bride from Johnstown (she was supposedly married just before the flood) was quoted: “Today they took five little children out of the water, who had been playing ‘Ring around a rosy.’ Their hands were clasped in a clasp which even death did not loosen, and their faces were still smiling.”

But the most splendid story of the lot was one about a man named Daniel Peyton, the so-called “Paul Revere of the Flood,” who was said to have galloped down the valley on a big bay warning everyone to run for the hills. Peyton (in some versions he is Periton) seems to have evolved out of young John Baker of South Fork and John Parke, Jr. He can also be traced to Charles Reade’s Put Yourself in His Place, where a rider sped through the night warning isolated farm families that the water was on the way. In most versions of the Peyton story, including the best-known of several epic poems, The Man Who Rode to Conemaugh, by John Eliot Bowen, which was published first in Harper’s Weekly, the hero gallops the length of the valley just ahead of the onrushing wave. (The fact that there was no valley road on which to make such a ride never seemed to bother any of the authors very much.) Pale, his eyes aflame, he cries out “Run for your lives to the hills!”—then dashes on.

Spurring his horse, whose reeking side

Was flecked with foam as red as flame.

Wither he goes and whence he came

Nobody knows. They see his horse

Plunging on his frantic course,

Veins distended and nostrils wide,

Fired and frenzied at such a ride.

Nobody pays any attention to him. They decide he is a lunatic and jokingly dismiss the whole thing.

“He thinks he can scare us,” said one with a laugh,

“But Conemaugh folks don’t swallow no chaff;

’Taint nothing, I’ll bet, but the same old leak

In the dam above the South Fork Creek.”

In one version published as a Sunday-school lesson in 1891, the messenger goes into a saloon to spread the warning and winds up getting so drunk he can go no farther. But in either prose or poetry, in the end the flood finally catches up with poor Peyton, and nowhere is the moment more superbly described than in a book titled The Official History of the Johnstown Flood, which was put together that June by two Pittsburgh newspapermen named Frank Connelly and George C. Jenks. Peyton, in their “official” account, is about thirty years of age, and though he does not come clear from South Fork, but sticks only to the streets of Johnstown (Connelly and Jenks apparently felt they could not quite get away with the valley ride), his message and manner are essentially the same, and his end comes this way:

…At last he completed the circuit of the city and started in search of a place of safety for himself. To the hills he urged his noble steed. Tired out from its awful ride, the animal became slower and slower at every stride, while the water continued to come faster and faster in pursuit. Like an assassin upon the trail of his victim, it gained step by step upon the intrepid rider. But the hills are in sight. No, he is doomed, for at that moment a mighty wave, blacker and angrier than the rest, overtook horse and rider and drew both back into the outstretched arms of death.

As the Reverend David Beale wrote, “This fate was very necessary to the story, as it rendered an interview of the hero by another impossible.”

Though the story appeared in a dozen or more different versions and was accepted outright as fact, it was quickly discredited in Johnstown. For there seemed to be no one who actually saw this Daniel Peyton. Furthermore, as near as anyone knew, and according to every available record, there never was anyone by that name in South Fork, Johnstown, or any other place in the valley. Victor Heiser and some of his friends got so interested in the tale that they spent some time trying to track it down. If there were such a fellow, they wanted to meet him; and if he had been killed as people said he had, then they surely wanted to see him get the credit he had coming. But they never turned up anything, nor did anyone else.

Still, with all the stretching of facts, with all the fabrication and bunk being printed, no one seemed to mind very much. If the horror of what had happened was not described exactly according to facts, people knew that what had happened was still a great deal worse than any words could convey, however accurate. And if a few small fables had been called up for the occasion, well they were really no more extraordinary than a dozen other stories that were “the God’s truth.”

For the publishers it was one of the headiest weeks ever. Newspaper circulations broke all records. For days on end, one edition after another sold out almost as soon as it hit the streets. The New York Daily Graphic was selling an unheard of 75,000 copies a day. In Pittsburgh there seemed no letup to the clamor for more news. A new weekly picture newspaper called the Utica Saturday Globe, published in upstate New York but widely circulated, increased its circulation by better than 63,000 with its special addition on the disaster.

Songs were written, including one called “Her Last Message,” which was more or less based on Hettie Ogle, and another called “That Valley of Tears,” which was about a baby who was swept from the hearthside and drowned in its cradle. The last one, arranged for piano and orchestra, closed with the lines:

And there midst all that wreck, with cruel waters laved,

That babe within its cradle bed tho’ dead ’tis saved;

Saved from a life of toil and worldly care,

Oh! That we could in thy glorious prospects share.

Magazines such as Harper’s Weekly and Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper got out special editions filled with pages of pictures and maps. Books were dashed off in a few weeks and rushed to the printers. Before the year was out, in less than six months, a dozen books would be written and published, most of them little more than an assembly of newspaper accounts, full of repetition, contradictions, and abundant nonsense. Several became best-sellers. One, a rousing period piece called The Johnstown Horror, was on sale in Johnstown itself in less than a month after the tragedy.


For Johnstown the result of the journalists’ handling of the story was even more staggering. The enormous sympathy aroused by the newspaper accounts, the pictures, the songs and poems, brought on the greatest outpouring of popular charity the country had ever seen. (And this too, alas, the journalists felt obliged to immortalize: “As the bow of promise gilded the Oriental sky after the Noachian deluge, so the dark cloud enfolding the Conemaugh Valley had a ray of brightest sun light. A great, grand glorious tide of sympathy for the sufferers swept the land like a conflagration, warming men’s hearts to deeds of radiant luster.”)

On the Saturday following the calamity more than $100,000 had been raised in Pittsburgh. By the time they had finished, the people of Pittsburgh would give $560,000. New York City gave $516,000; Philadelphia, $600,000; Boston, $150,000. Nickels and dimes came in from school children and convicts. Churches sent $25, $50, $100. In Salt Lake City thousands of people turned out for a concert given in the huge Mormon Tabernacle, the proceeds of which were sent to Johnstown.

In New York’s Madison Square Garden, Jake Kilrain, who was to take on John L. Sullivan in another few weeks for the world championship, put on an exhibition fight with Charley Mitchell to raise money for Johnstown. (Sullivan was invited to attend the show but did not, and was soundly hissed when his telegram of apology was read by the manager.) At the Metropolitan Opera House, Edwin Booth played the third act of Othello and raised $2,500. In Washington, John Philip Sousa gave a band concert. In Paris, Buffalo Bill staged a special production of his Wild West Show, which was attended by the Prince of Wales. And in Altoona, on the night of Monday, June 3, there had been a benefit performance presented by the Night Off troupe.

Tiffany & Company sent $500. R. H. Macy & Company sent $1,000. Joseph Pulitzer sent $2,000; Jay Gould, $1,000; John Jacob Astor, $2,500. The New York Stock Exchange gave $20,000. An old Confederate soldier sent four $100 Confederate bills, and the citizens of Cupola, Colorado, sent a solid-silver brick.

There were donations from Nantucket ($1,136.93), Yazoo City, Mississippi ($350), and Tombstone, Arizona ($101). The first check to arrive was supposedly one for $100 from Senator Matthew S. Quay, leader of the Republican forces in Pennsylvania; and Simon Cameron, the state’s crusty, old Republican boss, who would be remembered as the man who defined an honest politician as one “who when he is bought stays bought,” sat down and wrote out what was said to be one of the last checks he ever signed, for $1,000.

The Hebrew Benevolent Society of Los Angeles contributed $1,000. The United States Brewers Association sent $10,000. The Pittsburgh Society of Spiritualists collected $100. Money poured in from every state and from fourteen countries overseas. The London Stock Exchange gave $5,000. The total donations from Germany came to $30,000. There was money from the Lord Mayor of Dublin, the Mayor of Belfast, and the Sultan of Turkey. Queen Victoria sent her condolences to President Harrison, and from Washington came more than $30,000, including a check from Harrison for $300. (The President had presided over a mass meeting at the Willard Hotel Tuesday afternoon, looking very small and gray as he sat in a big armchair in the center of the stage. He had made a brief appeal for help, during which, according to one account, his voice trembled, and nearly $10,000 had been raised.)

In all, the contributions from within the United States would come to $3,601,517.80. The sum from abroad was $141,300.98, making a total of $3,742,818.78. And this does not include the goods of every kind that rolled in by the trainload.

From Saturday on the relief trains kept coming without letup. Lumber came in by the carload, and furniture, and barrels of quicklime, embalming fluid, pitch, pine tar, and resin. There was a carload of potatoes from Walla Walla. Minneapolis sent sixteen carloads of flour. Cincinnati sent 20,000 pounds of ham. Prisoners at the Western Penitentiary baked 1,000 loaves of bread. From Arbuckle’s in Pittsburgh came 30,000 pounds of coffee, and a New York butcher sent 150 pounds of bologna. Wheeling, West Virginia, sent a whole carload of nails.

By Friday, June 7, two hundred carloads of provisions had cleared Pittsburgh. At the Pennsylvania depot in Johnstown, and at the B & O depot, the platforms and yards were piled with cans of biscuits, boxes of candles, cheese, lamp chimneys and matches, huge cases of soap and canned goods, bacon by the barrelful, and hundreds of sacks of corn meal. People had donated cots, mattresses, hair combs, pipes, pillows, teakettles, tents, cookstoves, and more than 7,000 of shoes.

By Thursday, the 6th, the day the Cincinnati hams arrived, any fears there had been of serious food shortages were over. The problem now was distribution. Commissaries had been set up and were run with reasonable efficiency. Several women complained that the prettiest girls were getting more than their share, and often people came climbing back up the hillsides with empty baskets after waiting hours in line. But considering how many more there were to feed, things were exceptionally well organized. The Army had arrived the day before, which helped a lot. Hastings had held off calling in more troops but had decided late Tuesday to bring in the 14th Regiment from Pittsburgh (580 men), and now with their white tents pitched in rows where the park had been and on Prospect, the place began to look like a cross between a military encampment and a wide-open mining town. For along with the Army had come another Booth and Flinn gang of 1,100, and with the railroads bringing in their own crews, with more and more drifters arriving, by the end of the week there would be nearly 7,000 men at work in the valley. They too pitched tents or built rough shanties on the hillsides, upon which they hung names like “Lively Boys,” “Willing Workers,” and “The Ladies’ Pets.” They were making $2.00 a day, which was good money; and a man with a team could make $5.00, which was good enough to have attracted men all the way from Ohio and New York. And with the pay went “room and board.”

Enormous tents served as so-called dining halls, where several hundred men could be fed at a sitting. Coffee was ladled out of a bucket, bread was passed out in big dishpans, followed by more dishpans, each with a ten-pound slab of butter in it. When meals were ready, “the rush for the table cast the Oklahoma boom all in the shade,” wrote the Times.

The men worked hard and made notable progress. By sundown Thursday more had been accomplished than in all the days since the disaster. The air rang with shouts and the screech of nails yanked out by crowbars. Hundreds of bonfires crackled and sent up columns of black smoke where now barrels of resin were being dumped on to burn up dead animals and the worst of the debris. Teams were hitched to mud-bound machinery and dangerous-looking walls that came down with a crash. There were tools enough now for every man, and by midweek a shipment of dynamite along with an expert to handle it had arrived to break the jam at the stone bridge.

So far every attempt to pull loose the debris there had failed. Locomotives and a steam winch had been tried, and a gang of lumberjacks from Michigan had done their best but had made hardly a dent. The ugly mass had been driven against the bridge with such savage force, and was so tightly ensnared by miles of barbed wire, that nothing, it seemed, could break it loose. Then for several days the valley echoed with the roar of dynamite as slowly, one by one, great gaps were blasted through the entanglement, which, most people believed, still held many human corpses.

The expert in charge was a man named Kirk, who was known among the press as “The Prince of Dynamiters.” He was short, squat, about fifty years old, with a grizzly beard and a habit, when walking, of waving his hands about as if warning people back from his next explosion.

“He personally superintends the preparations of all blasts,” wrote the Times man on the scene, “and when ready emits a peculiar cry more like a wail than a warning. Then he surveys the atmosphere with the air of a Major General and yells, ‘Fire!’ The yell often terrifies the spectators more than the explosion itself.” But on Saturday Kirk managed to scare the daylights out of everybody, and with a good deal more than his yell.

Despite the inroads he was making, he was not at all satisfied with the time the job was taking, so he cut loose with a 450-pound charge, hoping to break the jam with one blow. Nine fifty-pound boxes of dynamite were planted at the base of the mass, each set about thirty feet apart. The whole valley and every building that was still standing trembled with the blast. Horses shied violently. Work stopped all over town. And within no time Kirk had been told in quite explicit language by what seemed like half the surviving population that he was to pull no such stunt again. But a gaping hole had been gouged out of the wreckage and at last daylight could be seen under the arches.

Some men became so exhausted from the work that they had to give up and go home. Everyone by this time had grown more or less accustomed to the grisly look of the place, the smell, and the constant presence of death; but the work itself was grueling, and no matter how much was accomplished, there seemed always an insurmountable lot still left to be done.

The wreckage spewed across the city was far greater in quantity than all that had stood there before the flood. The water had swept the valley above the city of virtually everything that man had built there over some eighty years and dumped it on Johnstown. Now every last bit of it had to be cleaned up, searched through, burned, or carted away. On top of that, sanitation problems were enormous. One gang of workers did nothing but sprinkle disinfectants over the entire district, and as George Swank later wrote, there was “a fortune for the man who concocts a disinfectant that won’t stink the nose off a person.” Four thousand barrels of quicklime would be used before the cleanup was finished.

Another gang was detailed to gather and burn bedding, clothes, and carpets which had been ruined by the water. The houses that had not been swept away were left, as Dr. Matthews said, in the most unsanitary condition imaginable. “The flood water,” he wrote, “was heavily charged with every kind of filth, and whatever this water touched it contaminated. As a result, every house in the flooded district was filled, in most cases to the second floor, with most offensive matter. There was not a place which the flood touched where a man could lay his head with safety.”

One of the biggest and most unpleasant jobs was digging out hundreds of cellars. Where houses had been swept from their foundations, it was often close to impossible to tell where they had been, the cellars having been so completely filled in by the flood. But every one of them had to be shoveled clean and their foul contents hauled out of the city.

The work camps themselves were another part of the problem, with their “open plumbing, openly arrived at,” as one doctor described it. Within the first week there were something like ninety-eight doctors at work, who, along with the Army, helped enforce basic sanitary practices. But what helped most of all was the weather. For ten days following the flood, temperatures stayed low, skies clouded, and there were frequent drenching rains. It was, wrote Dr. Lee, head of the sanitation board, a “great advantage in delaying decomposition.” It was also miserable weather to work in or to be camping in amid the reeking muck.

On Friday morning Captain Bill Jones was back home in Pittsburgh, close to a state of collapse after working four straight days with almost no sleep or rest. Jones had paid out of his own pocket for the supplies he had brought to Johnstown and the wages of the men he had taken with him. In an interview with the Pittsburgh Press he gave great credit to the leadership Moxham had shown and added that he had had a hundred or so Hungarians working for him and that they had “worked like heroes.”

General Hastings held up handsomely against the strain. He rode about town on a big horse, waving his floppy hat, and, in the main, did a good job. Director James Scott stayed on day after day, working with boundless energy. He wound up growing a full beard during his time in Johnstown and lost thirty pounds.

But perhaps the most resilient worker of them all, and certainly the one who stirred up the most talk, was a stiff-spined little spinster in a plain black dress and muddy boots who had brought the newly organized American Red Cross in from Washington. Miss Clara Barton and her delegation of fifty doctors and nurses had arrived on the B & O early Wednesday morning.

Clara was sixty-seven. She had been through the Civil War, the Franco-Prussian War, and several nervous breakdowns. For a while she had tried running a women’s prison in Massachusetts. But since 1881, when, after a long campaign, she had succeeded in establishing an American branch of the International Red Cross, little else had been of real interest to her. And though her position as president was only a part-time job, she had already been down the Ohio by river barge to help during the floods of 1884 and to Texas with food and supplies during the famine of 1887. She had taken her workers to Illinois after a tornado in ‘88, and later that same year to Florida during a yellow-fever epidemic.

But these had been minor challenges compared to Johnstown, which she realized the moment she saw the valley from her train window. When the news of the disaster had first reached Washington Friday night, she had postponed doing anything for twenty-four hours; the story seemed too frightful and improbable to be true. But once there she knew that her Red Cross had arrived at its first major disaster. The organization, she had long argued, was meant for just such emergencies, and now she intended to prove it.

She set up headquarters inside an abandoned railroad car and, using a packing box for a desk, began issuing orders. Hospital tents were to be opened immediately, construction was to start on temporary “hotels” for the homeless, and a house-to-house survey was to be conducted to see just how many people needed attention. Hastings, it appears, did not know quite what to make of all this, or of Clara. “I could not have puzzled General Hastings more if I had addressed him in Chinese,” she wrote later, adding that “the gallant soldier could not have been more courteous and kind.”

In her stocking feet Clara stood five feet tall. She had a prominent nose, bright, black eyes, and a resolute set to her mouth. She took what little sleep she needed on a hard, narrow cot and had no use for demon rum, bumbling male officials, or for that matter anyone who attempted to tell her how to run her business. “A keen, steadfast, powerful New England woman,” she was described as by one writer.

Within a very short time several large tents were serving as the cleanest, best-organized hospitals in town; six Red Cross hotels, two stories tall, with hot and cold running water, kitchens, and laundries, had been built with some of the fresh lumber on hand; and Clara herself was situated in her own command tent with the Red Cross banner flying overhead. When the survey was completed it was found that a large number of people with serious injuries had been too weak or broken in spirit to do anything to help themselves. Moreover, a surprising number of cases of prolonged shock were discovered, a phenomenon that would also be noted by a correspondent for the Medical News of Philadelphia. “A profound melancholia,” he called it, “associated with an almost absolute disregard of the future” and evidenced by “a peculiar intonation of words, the persons speaking mechanically.”

Clara and her people did their best to tend everyone they could. Clara herself worked almost round the clock, directing hundreds of volunteers, distributing nearly half a million dollars’ worth of blankets, clothing, food, and cash. She also spoke her mind once or twice to the head of the Philadelphia chapter of the Red Cross, with the result that within a few days neither group would have anything to do with the other.

There seems little doubt that except for Hastings she was the best-known, among the people of Johnstown, of all the outsiders on hand and certainly the one who would be remembered the longest. She stoutly proclaimed that the Red Cross was there to stay as long as there was work to do. “We are always the last to leave the field,” she said. She seemed to be everywhere at once, bouncing through the streets in a buckboard, scrutinizing the way things were being handled, whether she had anything to do with them or not. On one such ride she was accompanied by an Episcopal priest who was afraid she would be jolted to pieces and told her so. “Oh, this is nothing,” she shouted back, “so long as we have no bullets flying around us.”

Clara stayed for five months, never once leaving the scene even for a day. In October, when she did finally pack up and go, it was with all sorts of official blessings and thanks. She was presented with a diamond locket from the people of Johnstown; glowing editorials were written (“…too…too much cannot be said in praise of this lady…To her timely and heroic work, more than to that of any other human being, are the people of the Conemaugh Valley indebted…”); and back home in Washington a dinner was given in her honor at the Willard with the President and Mrs. Harrison in attendance. The Red Cross had clearly arrived.

There were others who would be remembered. A few smalltime crooks slipped in with the crowds. They queued up with the flood victims to collect whatever the Red Cross happened to be handing out at the moment or grabbed what they could from the debris. One or two suspicious-looking characters were nabbed before they had a chance to do much of anything and were swiftly hustled out of town. There were some, too, who simply hung around long enough to educate themselves on the place, then lit off to play on the sympathy of neighboring towns, describing the horrors of the devastation and their own heart-rending experiences in the flood at one back doorstep after another. One of them who went straight to Pittsburgh even managed to take the Relief Committee there for a good deal of cash before he was found out.

A handful of crackpots appeared on the scene, most of whom were of the religious-fanatic sort, and the most memorable of them was a gaunt prophet from Pittsburgh known as “Lewis, the Light,” who wore nothing but long, red underwear and passed out handbills that said, among other things:

Death is man’s last and only Enemy, Extinction of Death is his only hope. Your soul, your breath, ends by death. Whew! Whoop! We’re all in the soup. Who’s all right? Lewis, the Light.

Then there were the “harpies,” as some of the newspaper correspondents called them, who apparently came in from Pittsburgh. It was reported that a number of them had been seen at points along the line from Johnstown to Pittsburgh trying to recruit girls for “their nefarious calling” among the prettiest flood victims. Several who had tried to board the trains had been put off, but enough of them managed one way or other to reach Johnstown, so that within not too long a time Prospect Hill was making its own lively contribution to the mining-camp spirit of the place. Prospect “is overridden with bawdy houses and places for the illicit sale of liquor,” one police official said.

This in turn added fuel to the cause of the W.C.T.U. ladies who had arrived almost immediately after the disaster and stayed on as the valley filled up with more and more men and as the demand for strong drink grew apace. Through most of June, Hastings kept the lid on liquor sales; the only thing being served was lemonade, which was sold at little makeshift stands through town. When, in July, the liquor ban was lifted, the lemonade concessions went immediately out of business. Twenty-two celebrants were arrested the first day, and George Swank wrote in the Tribune that the lemonade had “made more sickness than all the beer and whiskey that could be drunk.”

And, of course, there were the sight-seers. They had been coming almost from the first morning after the disaster. They came into South Fork by special trains from Altoona. They arrived in Johnstown on excursion trains that chugged in along the B & O weekend mornings. On Sunday, June 23, several hundred arrived, turned out in holiday attire and carrying picnic baskets. It seemed incredible; but there they were. The wreckage at the stone bridge seemed to fascinate them the most. But they strolled about everywhere, got in the way, set up their lunch parties inside abandoned houses, laughed, took pictures, asked a lot of silly questions, and infuriated nearly everyone except a few enterprising local men who set up booths and began selling official Johnstown Flood relics: broken china, piano keys, beer bottles, horseshoes, buttons, even bits of brick or wood shingles.

Hastings and the other officials kept asking the railroads to stop selling tickets to anyone who had no rightful business in Johnstown; before the month was out the railroads had agreed to comply as best they could and the number of visitors dropped off sharply.

Actually there would have been many more sight-seers than there were had there not been such widespread fear of disease; and though the cooperation of the railroads helped considerably to diminish the problem, the real turn came when it became known that typhoid fever had actually broken out in the valley.

The first clear-cut case was identified on Monday, June 10. More cases were found in the next several days, but the news was kept quiet. Within a week, however, the disease had spread swiftly and so had the rumors. By July 25 there would be 215 cases of typhoid within the flooded area and 246 beyond.

The doctors and sanitation crews, already dog-tired, flew into a frenzy of activity, working night and day to stop the thing and to keep the valley from panicking. Considering what might have happened under the circumstances, they did a spectacular job. But before the summer ended, forty people would die of typhoid; and like those who died of injuries or exposure in the first days after the disaster, they would not be included in the official figure given for the flood’s victims.

Interestingly enough, along with the typhoid, there ran a long spell of unusually good health in Johnstown. There were fewer colds, fewer cases of measles, and fewer people complaining of “spring disorders” than there would have been under normal conditions. Those who managed to stay healthy through the first frightful days immediately following the disaster, stayed very healthy from then on. The regulations and precautions enforced by the sanitation people undoubtedly had a great deal to do with this, but so, most everyone would later agree, did the fact that there was by the end of the first week something almost like a spirit of exhilaration in the air. There was so much happening all around. Every day there was some kind of excitement. Those who had survived, despite how much they may have suffered, began to discover new energy in themselves. They were alive, and bad as things were that was still a lot better than being dead. And there was now so very much to be done.

There were exceptions, to be sure. Dr. Swan, for example, was so broken in spirit by what he had been through that he would never be able to practice medicine again. And the only fatality among the polyglot army of people brought in to help was a suicide among General Hasting’s troops. Sunday afternoon a moody farm boy with a wife and two children back home became so depressed by what he had seen that he went into his tent and shot himself through the head.

But for nearly everyone else the almost absurd idea that they were going to pick up and start over again, to rebuild everything, began working like a tonic. They started pulling together what was left of their old lives and got to work on the new.

Most of them had precious little left of the old. Dr. Matthews, who had opened a new practice in Johnstown just a few months before the flood, found not a shred of all that he had owned except for one shaving mug. Of George and Mathilde Heiser’s earthly possessions, the only thing recovered was a big wardrobe which young Victor retrieved from the wreckage on Main Street. When he pried open the door, he found his father’s old Civil War uniform inside, and in one pocket a single penny. It represented his entire inheritance.

Men like Horace Rose and John Fulton had lost their homes and virtually everything else they owned. James Quinn and his brother-in-law were able to recover scarcely a single board from their dry-goods store. The only possessions recovered from the Quinn home were some books, a photograph album, and some silverware, which were found scattered a mile or more from where the house had stood.

Quinn, like hundreds of others, had sent his children off to Pittsburgh to live with relatives, while he stayed on to do what he could to help. But there were a few days before they left which the children would remember always. For nearly every child who survived, the week after the flood was a time of high adventure. The dynamite blasting at the bridge, the commissaries with their wondrous stacks of goods, the mobs of strangers tramping through the streets, the Iron Company’s little wood-burning switching engines with their bell-shaped stacks shunting back and forth moving supplies, the nuns, the soldiers, the Pittsburgh firemen in their long rubber coats, were all something to see.

Gangs of small boys made great sport of sneaking past the sentries posted about town, or crawling among the rows of tents. Little prefabricated houses, called “Oklahomas,” were being put up everywhere, and often, if he acted sensible enough, a boy could get a chance to help out. And every child, it seemed, took up relic hunting. “Every yard would yield something if one had the energy to dig,” Gertrude Quinn wrote later. Gold and jewelry were supposedly being found all over town. One story had it that a crockery jar full of $6,500 worth of gold had been found in the mud where old William Macpherson had had his grocery store. Gertrude Quinn’s sister Marie found a two-and-a-half-dollar goldpiece. And it was no trick at all to find half dimes or three-cent pieces or even a shirt stud with what looked like a diamond in it.

On Sunday, the 9th, the sun broke through for the first time since the flood. The spring green of the hills gleamed in bright morning sunlight, and overhead there were only a few small, soft clouds, and all the rest of the sky was a clean blue. Work went on the same as any other day. The air, already warmer than it had been for weeks, rang with the sound of picks and axes, hundreds of hammers, and, strangely it seemed at first, church bells.

On the embankment near the depot, just back from where Hastings had his headquarters, the chaplain of the 14th Regiment, H. L. Chapman, and David Beale began conducting the first services since the flood.

There were no more than thirty people gathered at first, but as time passed the crowd grew. Soldiers hanging about nearby drifted over. People came from the depot and over from the center of town. Beale stood on a packing box and told a story about over-hearing a newcomer in the valley ask a small boy how bad things were in Johnstown, to which the boy was said to have replied, “If I was the biggest liar on the face of the earth I could not tell you half.”

The rest of the service went as might be expected until John Fulton got up and started saying things that soon had the crowd stirring.

He said the Cambria shops would be rebuilt. “Amen!” answered several voices. “Johnstown is going to be rebuilt,” he said. “Thank God!” someone answered again.

He said he could not speak for the Gautier works, but he was sure, nonetheless, that they, too, would be rebuilt, and bigger than ever. The Cambria men would be taken care of, he told them, and if you still have your family left, he said, then “God bless your soul, man, you’re rich.” His sermon was simple: “Get to work, clean up your department, set your lathes going again. The furnaces are all right, the steel works are all right. Get to work, I say. That’s the way to look at this sort of thing…Think how much worse it could have been. Give thanks for that great stone bridge that saved hundreds of lives. Give thanks that it did not come in the night. Trust in God. Johnstown had its day of woe and ruin. It will have its day of renewed prosperity. Labor, energy, and capital, by God’s grace, shall make the city more thriving than ever in the past.”

“Amen!” again from the crowd.

That Johnstown should be rebuilt was by now taken as a matter of course. That it should be rebuilt right where it was before was also something everybody took for granted. No matter how dreadfully the valley had been ravaged, it was still their home. In fact, there is no record of anyone ever seriously considering the idea of not rebuilding in that particular place. The only question now was how long was it going to take to get things rolling once more.

The scene on the hillside would be remembered for years. Fulton, tall and spare, with his iron-gray beard and dark brow, certainly looked and sounded like a man of God; but he was also, as everyone knew, the voice of the Cambria Iron Company speaking, and as sincere as he may have been in asking them to trust in the Lord, his audience had had somewhat more experience putting its trust in the Cambria Iron Company. And either way, any man who could speak for both God and the Iron Company was someone to listen to closely.

The idea that the stone bridge had actually saved lives was a new one to most people, but the more they thought about it, the more they accepted it. The fire at the bridge seemed to epitomize the worst of the flood’s horrors, but the fact was the death toll would have been far greater, perhaps even twice as great, had the bridge collapsed. The whole town would have been plunged down the valley to almost total destruction.

But it was when Fulton began talking of still another matter that a tense stillness came over the crowd and his every word could be heard over the sounds from the city below.

“I hold in my possession today,” he said, “and I thank God that I do, my own report made years ago, in which I told these people, who, for purposes for which I will not mention, desired to seclude themselves in the mountains, that their dam was dangerous. I told them that the dam would break sometime and cause just such a disaster as this.”

Then he changed to another subject. But he had said enough. In just two sentences he had hit on something that had been smoldering in people’s minds for days. There had been plenty of talk about what had happened at South Fork and about the club. People were bitter, and with their renewed energy had come anger, deep and highly inflammable, and perhaps even contributing to that energy.

It was not that Fulton had been the first to raise the question of the dam and who was to blame for the flood; what was important was that he, John Fulton, had said what he had. The issue was now right out in the open, full-scale and officially. Moreover, there was no longer any question about which side the Iron Company might be on; and, perhaps most significant of all, if things came to a showdown, which everyone felt sure they would, Fulton, it would appear, held a piece of paper of considerable importance.

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