Friday, October 28, 2011

Friday Reading Assignment

It's non-fiction for this week's Friday reading assignment:  The Johnstown Flood by David McCullough.  Published in 1968, it is his first book and not as well known as his later, acclaimed biographies of Teddy Roosevelt, Harry Truman, and John Adams.  I am dying to read The Great Bridge, his history of the Brooklyn Bridge.

The Johnstown Flood of 1889 is one of the worst natural disasters in US History, and is unquestionably the worst flood in our history, with a death toll of 2,200 people.  Johnstown is a small industrial city in mountainous central Pennsylvania.  It sits in a valley, on the Little Conemaugh River.  At the time of the flood, there was a lake, about fourteen miles upstream. It was held together with an earthen dam and created for the use of an exclusive club that served rich industrial magnates of Pittsburgh.  Johnstown was already prone to flooding and the lake was its sword of Demosthenes.  Residents even made uneasy jokes about the dam failing. One day, during a long period of heavy rain, the dam did fail and the entire lake--it was large enough for sailing--drained away down the valley and obliterated Johnstown.

McCullough does an excellent job of describing this lake: at once a menace and a thing of beauty.  He writes about the rich, powerful men who founded the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club and built the lake and he writes about the people of Johnstown, including one who raised concerns about the dam long before it actually failed.  He describes the flood from the vantage point of the club--imagine where once there had been a lake, was suddenly a floor of mud with fish flopping about.  According to the New York Times article published at the time, the lake was eight miles long and three miles wide.  According to the wikepedia page, it took just forty minutes for all that water to drain away. There are numerous eyewitness accounts of all views of this disaster so McCullough was able to create a rich and fascinating description of the flood as it passed down the valley, carrying entire villages along with it and ultimately slamming into Johnstown. Also discussed are the societal issues relating to the disaster, specifically the class struggle between the industrial magnates and the ordinary people.  I may be remembering wrong, but I believe the Johnstown Flood was a pivotal event in making people start actively speaking against corporate giants and their abusive ways.  Read it and become angry.

I read this book years ago and to refresh my memory, I read on-line descriptions of the tragedy and literally had heart palpitations.  I've read other books about natural disasters, such as the Galveston hurricane, but The Johnstown Flood is the one that really left an impression on me.

This book is:  tragic, suspenseful.
Time it will take to read:  about a week.


  1. I remember reading a book about the flood when I was fairly young. There were many pictures. One of them I thought showed a baby doll in the debris.

    It was not a doll. That image has stuck with me for at least 25 years.

  2. Now I must read this. I am totally intrigued.

  3. I read this book years and years ago and you're right, McCullough's writing is quite evocative. He really captured the stress and drama as the flood unfolded.

  4. Sorry Dear, reading about a natural disaster and thousands of deaths doesn't fill me with anticipatory joy.

    Sex, food, Rock n' Roll, YES.

    Mass drowning, NO.

    BTW, What's Virginia like in the fall and winter?

  5. TSB, we did have our first "snow" on Friday night, but it was a tiny amount. Usually it's beautiful, cool, dry and sunny in the fall. Winters are mild: a few snowstorms and daytime temps in the 30s-40s (Farenheit.) Pretty wimpy compared to where I grew up where we could get 100 inches of snow in one week.