The Heroes and Villains of the Johnstown Flood, America’s Astonishing Gilded Age Disaster
By Al Roker
Morrow. 320 pp. $28.99
Reviewed by Chris Patsilelis
Suddenly, there was an awful sound, rising to a deafening roar. The dam vanished, and 20 million tons of water headed toward Johnstown at a Niagara-like velocity.
So began the devastating Great Johnstown Flood at 3:10 p.m. on May 31, 1889. Roaring down the narrow Little Conemaugh River in Western Pennsylvania’s Allegheny Mountains, it leveled several small towns on its 14-mile path of destruction. Gaining speed, the towering wave was transformed into a gigantic wall of roiling debris made of whole forests, entire trees, boulders, steel rails, houses, and the bodies of animals and people. Some 2,209 people lost their lives that day in the deadliest flood in U.S. history.
Al Roker, meteorologist on NBC’s Today show and author of The Storm of the Century (2015), vividly details the history and personal dramas of the Johnstown Flood in his simply written new work, Ruthless Tide. He also delves deeply into the Gilded Age world of wealth and privilege and the forces that created the disaster. In fact, as the subtitle suggests, that Gilded Age, and the immense wealth for which it stood, was one of the primary forces.
Roker tells us much about the beginnings of iron and steel manufacturing in Western Pennsylvania, “the foundries and steel mills … going almost all the time, their fires sending up a perpetual haze of stink and emitting a steady pound and roar.” This was the grimy factory environment of Johnstown. But people didn’t mind, Roker points out. They appreciated the work and the wages.
Of course, the major beneficiaries of this industry were captains of business such as steel and railroad magnate Andrew Carnegie and coke baron Henry Clay Frick. The author relates how, in 1879, these masters of the universe, mostly Pittsburgh millionaires but well-heeled others, too, looked on the Allegheny mountaintops as an ideal setting for their South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club. It would be above Lake Conemaugh, created in the 1840s by a dam that, by 1879, had fallen into sad disrepair.
Wishing to save money and unconcerned about the safety of the people living in the valley below, the magnates quickly hired a disreputable engineer, Benjamin Ruff, who made some dangerously inadequate alterations to the dam. For their sport fishing, they promptly stocked their lake with 1,000 black bass (at $1 per fish) brought in from Lake Erie in a special tank car. By 1881, club members were sailing on the lake.
Weatherman Roker relates how, as of May 1889, the state of Pennsylvania began getting so much rain that it was on track for “a rainfall record for the entire century.” In fact, “three storms were coming together as one system.”
Never adequately repaired and now under tremendous pressure, the dam gave way in that explosive, devastating 14-mile rush to Johnstown. Using survivor accounts, Roker tells us heartrending stories, such as that of 16-year-old Victor Heiser, who, after seeing his parents disappear as his house was crushed, jumped onto a house roof as it floated by. Then he had to hop onto yet another roof to avoid instant death.
We see the terrified 6-year-old Gertie Quinn, who rides out the flood for miles clutching a muddy mattress. “People went flowing past the little girl, living and dead,” Roker writes. Staring, dead animals, too. We also witness the horror of men and women hugging each other and hear their “futile screams” as they are swept toward a burning bridge in a “great sea of fire.”
Roker gives due credit to the work of historians David McCullough, Michael R. McCough, and others. He focuses in large part on the pitiful human drama of the Johnstown catastrophe. This book is a moral tale, a story, as the subtitle again tells us, of heroes and villains, and although the weather does play a role, Roker clearly holds the wealthy, irresponsible members of the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club responsible for the disaster. Ruthless Tide is an exciting, accessible read.
Chris Patsilelis lives and writes in Meriden, Conn.