History Stories

Publish date:

David McCullough: This 19th-Century Disaster Made a Historian of Me

The 1889 deluge killed more than 2,200 people, destroyed more than 1,600 homes and swept debris and bodies hundreds of miles away. The man-made debacle still holds many lessons.
The Johnstown Flood

The people of Johnstown inspect the remaining walls of the town's Catholic church, after the flood of 1899. More than 2,000 people died in the disaster.

Half a century ago this year, Simon & Schuster published The Johnstown Flood my first effort as an author. When I think of the circumstances by which the book came to be so long back, I cannot help but feel more than ever a sense of genuine amazement.

The year was 1961. A set of old photographs lay spread out on a large table before me in the Prints and Photographs Division of the Library of Congress and I stopped to look. They were, I was told, taken by a photographer who managed to get over the mountains of western Pennsylvania down into what remained of Johnstown within a day or so after the terrible flood of 1889 hit that city. It was a disaster that killed more than 2,200 people, destroyed more than 1,600 homes and swept debris and bodies as far away as Cincinnati. Flood lines were found as high as 89 feet above river level. And the force of the water was so powerful it dragged along several 170,000-pound locomotives nearly 5,000 feet.

I was new to doing research at the Library, new to working with old photographs, but the devastation I saw on the table quite literally stopped me in my tracks.

I was 27 and just getting started in a new job in Washington, D.C. At that point I knew next to nothing about what had happened at Johnstown, even though I had grown up not far away in Pittsburgh. About all I knew was that at dinner my brothers and I loved to make lakes of gravy in the mashed potatoes, then break through the potatoes with our forks, and as the gravy flowed down among the peas, call out, “The Johnstown Flood!” So evidently we were aware that a dam had broken. But why or what the consequences were, we had no idea.

In one of the old photographs a two-story house has been thrown upside down and skewered by a large, uprooted tree. In another is what appears to be a dead body—but was almost certainly someone posed for effect—amidst wreckage as far as one can see.

The Johnstown Flood

A house ripped from its foundation by the Johnstown flood, with a tree trunk sticking out of a window. 

So many questions were running through my mind at the time and for days afterward that I took a book out of the public library on the subject to learn more about what happened and why, only to be disappointed. For one thing, the author did not seem to understand the geography of western Pennsylvania and that at least I did know. I found another book, but it was even less satisfactory, a pot-boiler written at the time of the flood and filled with a good deal of obvious nonsense.

I had thought about being a writer since grade school and worked hard at writing all through high school and my college years, imagining the day when I might become a playwright or novelist. But the prospect of writing history had not entered my mind.

As an English major at Yale I had been particularly taken by the plays and novels of the American master Thornton Wilder, a Yale graduate who lived near New Haven, and was a familiar figure on campus. When asked how he settled on subjects of his plays and novels, he said he would imagine a story he would love to see performed on stage or read in a book, and if, after checking around, he found no one had written what he was looking for, he would write it himself, so he could see it performed or read it.

So, at some point, I asked myself if the book I wished I could read about what happened at Johnstown did not exist, why not write it myself?

And though it would be a while before I could get started on my Johnstown project, the pull of the idea never lessened.

After a few years in Washington, I returned to New York to join the American Heritage Publishing Company as the editor of a large picture history of World War II, and it was then that I began working on the book.

There was such a lot I did not know about my subject, such a lot I had still to learn, not only about what happened and why and to whom, but how one went about historic research, how to make the best use of library and archival collections—and the vital importance of librarians in finding what one hopes to find. It was like working on a detective case or finding your way in a land where you have never set foot before. And green though I was to the process, I loved it all from the start.

Working one day at the New York Public Library, hoping to locate biographical material on some of the more notable figures in the rise of the Johnstown steel industry, I found myself getting nowhere. When I went up to the front desk to explain my problem to the librarian on duty, he asked, “Have you looked in the DAB?” “Oh, no, I hadn’t thought of that,” I said and went back to my work table, asking myself what in the world is the DAB? So, swallowing my pride, I returned to the front desk to confess my ignorance. “The Dictionary of American Biography,” he told me and pointed to a complete set of the 20-some volumes lining a shelf right beside where I was sitting.

During vacations from my job at American Heritage, I would go off to Johnstown to do research at the local library and in the local newspaper files, and to interview a number of survivors of the disaster who were still living in the area and who contributed much of value. Other survivors I tracked down elsewhere. There was Gertrude Quinn Slattery of Wilkes-Barre, for example, whose hair-raising experience as a 6-year-old in the flood was like no other: She clung to a soggy mattress alone, before being swept along in the debris with a Good Samaritan, who tossed her to safety. Another important source: Dr. Victor Heiser, a renowned New York physician who had been 16 in 1889 and remembered much about life in Johnstown at the time and much that happened during and after the disaster, and in remarkable detail. He lost his home and entire family in the flood.

The Johnstown Flood

A body found in the wreckage of the Johnstown flood.

Then there was Irving London, the owner of a Johnstown camera shop, who, because of his own fascination with the flood, had in his possession a highly revealing transcript of testimony taken by the Pennsylvania Railroad of its employees and their involvement in what happened. It would have been thrown away in the trash had he not intervened and saved it.

As I was well underway with the writing, some of my academic friends invariably would ask, “What’s your theme?” But I had none as yet and so to satisfy them I would make something up, while in truth I was concentrating getting things right about my subject and its cast of characters and telling their story. It was only when writing the final pages that the “theme” became quite clear to me—that it is extremely dangerous, very possibly even disastrous, to assume that because people are in positions of responsibility, they are therefore behaving responsibly. Much of the blame for the flood was ultimately placed on a prestigious fishing and hunting club upriver that catered to wealthy industrialists such as Henry Clay Frick and Andrew Carnegie; the club had made harmful modifications to the dam and spillway—in part, to maintain a plentiful fish stock.

As one comes to understand what happened, all that was ignored by so many before the dam at South Fork broke, one also comes to understand that the whole calamity and its horrific toll in human life need never have happened.

Today, the lessons to be learned from the Johnstown Flood are more relevant than ever. Indifference to or ignorance of the realities of nature, in combination with inexcusable irresponsibility, not only continue but on an ever-larger scale, as do the inevitable consequences we are left to face.

One of the most important of all the many lessons to be learned from history, is to learn from our mistakes.

David McCullough has twice received the Pulitzer Prize, for Truman and John Adams, and twice received the National Book Award, for The Path Between the Seas and Mornings on Horseback. His other acclaimed books include The Johnstown Flood, The Great Bridge, 1776 and The Wright Brothers. He is the recipient of numerous honors and awards, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian award. 

RELATED CONTENT