Having taken classes about Pennsylvania history in high school and being familiar with this horrible flood, I was very happy with this book. The author, David McCullough, does a masterful job setting the scene, the politics surrounding the dam and the subsequent failure of that dam. Johnstown was a typical American town for that day and time. People worked hard and earned little. The environment was polluted to some extent, but no one considered it a major issue. Nearly everyone considered the dam a threat, but only a few moved to improve the conditions.
Huge disparities existed between the rich, the middle class and the poor. These disparities were more than money, but in perceptions of those above and below one’s “station. ” This left a situation where in essence the threat was perceived, but all involved seemed to look to the other group, or believe, the dam was safe. Then the dam broke on May 31, 1889. Partly because of torrential rains, partly because of incompetent maintenance at the dam and removal/blockage of drains in the dam, and certainly because of complacency of the people downstream from the dam and the threat it was to them, disastrous results followed.
The author describes the process of trying to save the dam, when and how it broke, the path and destruction of the flood and, most importantly, the effect on the people downstream. The final segment describes the cleanup of the damages. The caring for the survivors, the burying of the dead, the removal of all that was Johnstown – homes, shops, churches is described, especially the stone bridge which stopped much of the broken town in the river’s bed. A discussion Wolford 2 of fault, which is never determined, ends the book. In today’s world the fault would be different, but in that time justice was served.
When it comes to placing blame and actually calling out who did wrong, in my opinion, fingers need to be pointed at the elite members of society that were part of the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club. In the immediate aftermath of the tragedy, the club contributed 1,000 blankets to the relief effort. A few of the club members, most notably Robert Pitcairn, served on relief committees. About half of the club members also contributed to the disaster relief effort, including Andrew Carnegie, whose company contributed $10,000. Later, he would rebuild Johnstown’s library – that library building today houses the Johnstown Flood Museum.
However, no club member ever expressed a sense of personal responsibility for the disaster. The club had very few assets aside from the clubhouse, but a few lawsuits were brought against the club anyway. Legal action against individual club members was difficult if not impossible, as it would have been necessary to prove personal negligence – and the power and influence of the club members is hard to overestimate. In the end, no lawsuit against the club was successful. The Johnstown Flood resulted in the first expression of outrage at power of the great trusts and giant corporations that had formed in the post-Civil War period.
This antagonism was to break out into violence during the 1892 Homestead steel strike in Pittsburgh. The Club’s great wealth rather than the dam’s engineering came to be condemned. The Johnstown Flood became emblematic of what many Americans thought was going wrong with America. In simple terms, many saw the Club members as “robber barons” who had gotten away with murder. Looking at what is known today about the club and the conditions of the dam, I can’t say that the members of the club caused the disaster, but they sure could have prevented it from happening.
By taking certain precautions, such as getting rid of drainage pipes, putting up fish screens across the spillway, and lowering the levels of the dam so more carriages could pass over it, they made the Wolford 3 already poor conditions of the dam even worse. Members of Johnstown proper automatically sought answers and looked to members of the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club for them. The town’s citizens were the ones who had lost their families, their homes, and most of their possessions. The club’s members, however, were in Pittsburgh, for the most part, and did not have to deal with the tragedy like Johnstown residents had to.
When people are placed in a tragic situation, they often feel the need to blame someone. In this case, I can completely understand why fingers were pointed at the club. These members didn’t take care of the dam the way they needed to; instead, they made unnecessary modifications in order to better their fishing. I wouldn’t go as far as to call the members “murderers” like many residents of the surrounding areas did, but I definitely believe that if anyone was to blame, it was them because of their lack of initiative and irresponsibility.
Johnstown illustrates some of the common patterns of typically American catastrophes. A basic neglect, a preference for laissez-faire and an absence of regulation and regulatory power means everybody and nobody is in charge. Critical voices do not find listeners, neither in government nor by the dam’s owners. Much of the work is outsourced, delegated until nobody feels responsible to check the quality and assume responsibility for the work. When the disaster finally happens, there are no plans nor precautions.
The victims, thus, are the poor and the weak. On the positive side, there is a tremendous outburst of human interest, help and contributions, which diminishes as soon as media attention moves on. The corporate owned media is unwilling to call out the real bad guys. The judicial system is unable and unwilling to punish them. Politicians want their contributions, so the guilty robber barons ride into the sunset, free and unpunished, leaving the public to clear up the mess.