Josh Philpot

Theology, the Church, and Music

Book Review: “The Johnstown Flood” by David McCullough

with 7 comments

510nve4ke9l_ss500_Perhaps no other author can lock me into a book so quickly than David McCullough. His moving biography of John Adams is a favorite of mine, as is the fast paced 1776, both of which I commend to anyone interested in the history of our nation. Of course, all of us know that a book should not be judged by its first few paragraphs, and to this I think McCullough would agree. I can think, however, of many books I’ve picked up recently where reading the first chapter is like walking through heavy mud. McCullough is not of this sort. As a historical novelist, he walks the reader into the story so that he may feel, taste, hear and see the world about which he reads. After trudging through three J-term courses this winter, I decided to read leisurely while waiting for my upcoming, and last, semester. I picked up McCullough’s first book, The Johnstown Flood, and instantly felt like a character in this incredible story.

Johnstown, Pennsylvania, located southeast of Pittsburgh, was a small but thriving factory town of about 30,000 citizens in 1889. The people were diverse, hardworking and content, typical of late 19th century American industrialism. Their town, however, sat at the fork of two rivers (the Stony Creek and Little Conemaugh) that overflow their banks every other spring when heavy rains drench the area. But since no one ever died there was never any attempt to control the waters up to that point, and the floods became commonplace. About 10-15 miles up the Little Conemaugh river was a resort for the Pittsburgh wealthy, which included a large lake upheld by a small, old dam built of stone. The dam contained a spillway which fed into the Little Conemaugh. Johnstown’s residents knew that if the dam were ever to break the flood waters would likely wipe out their town, yet they did nothing to secure the dam or assure that high water on the lake would not spill over. Numerous engineers and others suggested the dam be rebuilt or somehow stabilized, yet the Johnstown public repeatedly balked at the idea. After all, money was tight and resources costly. When the flood waters came year after year the dam continued to hold, which bolstered the confidence of Johnstown. But no one expected the the events of May 31st, for that flood wasn’t like any other. schultz

On May 30th a torrential downpour caused the lake at the dam to rise as much as one inch every ten minutes. Through the night the water at the crest of the dam rose from six feet to only two feet. The caretakers of the resort and dam knew that if the rain kept pouring Johnstown could be in for a natural disaster, so they wired to Johnstown hour after hour in an attempt to alert the citizens of a possible break at the dam. By morning of the 31st Johnstown was already partially flooded, about knee-high, which was a typical spring soaking. For them there was no reason to fear, so they went about their day as usual. After hearing the alerts about the dam, most chuckled at the prospect of a break. This concerned the caretakers of the resort, and a few even came down on horseback to alert the citizens themselves. However, only some in Johnstown fled to the hills, and most didn’t take notice. Most striking was the lack of attention given to the dam by Johnstown’s politicians, who likewise neglected to leave their own comfortable homes, let alone inform the public about an impending disaster. Yet about 2:50 P.M. the dam finally gave way and the waters rushed on, picking up trees, houses, debris, mud, rock and barbwire as it headed to Johnstown traveling 15 miles/hour. It was not a wave like those that crash into the Florida coast. Rather, it was a was a giant hill, 30-40 feet high of blackness, “a blur, an advance guard, as it were as mist, like dust that precedes a cavalry charge.” One onlooker described the wave as “a cloud of blackest smoke I ever saw.” Most impressionable was the terrible sound of the thing, and the ambivalence of those in Johnstown who neglected to leave the city. McCullough writes, “most of the people in Johnstown never saw the water coming; they only heard it; and those who lived to tell about it would for years after try to describe the sound of the thing as it rushed on them.”

The flood came upon Johnstown with great force, and McCullough describes the catastrophic event with precision and detail. In the end, 2,209 people lost their lives, many whose bodies were never found. Although thousands came to help the recovery and rescue effort, the clean-up would take months, even years. Many tried to sue the resort and caretakers of the dam for the loss of life, but the blame, writes McCullough, should be shifted. Indeed, the overarching theme of the book concerns the complacency of Johnstown’s own residents and leaders. In this light it is important to notice that the Johnstown flood is not simply a story about a natural disaster. It is a different subject than, say, the stories of the Chicago fire or the great San Francisco earthquake. It is more like hurricane Katrina. The theme of the Johnstown flood is that it is extremely risky, perhaps even perilous, to assume that because people are in positions of responsibility they are acting responsibly. The Johnstown flood, then, is a story of human irresponsibility, of shortsightedness of the clear “writing on the wall,” as it were. It is about man at his most thoughtless and naive.

Aside from the obvious downside of the flood itself, I loved this book. McCullough is a historical writer par excellence, and I highly recommended his works to anyone, young or old, for a satisfying and informing read.


Written by Josh Philpot

April 5, 2009 at 11:19 am

7 Responses

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  1. Josh – I haven’t read this one yet, but as you know “1776” and “John Adams” both are in my top 30 list (have you seen the John Adams miniseries yet?). However, I would highly recommend Stephen Ambrose’s “Band of Brothers”, “Citizen Soldiers”, and “Pegasus Bridge”. He also has books on Eisenhower, Lewis and Clark, and Custer and Crazy Horse which I would love to get my hands on. While these are obviously military in nature, they are ultimately windows into the culture and mindset that forged these men into heroes and weapons. More poignant is what happens with them in the aftermath, and reading the interviews with these men can give you a keen insight into how our culture has changed (and not necessarily for the better).

    Brother BILL

    April 8, 2009 at 2:18 am

  2. I loved the John Adams series, but I disagreed with Laura Linney’s interpretation of Abigail Adams. Overall, it was spectacular and I hope to own it someday. However, nothing beats the book. McCullough is an excellent writer of history.

    I’ll put the books you recommended on my Amazon wish list! I recently read a review of another book you may like, called “Hunting Eichmann” by Neal Bascomb. It’s about the Israeli Mossad (sp?) capturing one of Nazi Germany’s main administrators of the “final solution.” Check it out!

    Josh Philpot

    April 8, 2009 at 3:32 am

  3. Hate to confess my ignorance, but I did not even know Band of Brothers was a book. Is it for everyone (like gift for dad) as far as profanity, etc.?


    April 8, 2009 at 4:10 pm

  4. The book is narrative, and is based on interviews with the men of Easy Company. There is profanity-direct quotes, etc. With that being said, it is easily one of my favorite books. I would recommend reading it prior to gifting it to anyone, just to be safe.
    Josh – Stacy and I were talking about the Adams miniseries, and that was one of her biggest complaints as we watched it originally – She thought Laura Linney played her as much more “hard edged” than how the book (and John Adams’ letters) describe her.

    Brother BILL

    April 9, 2009 at 4:53 am

  5. 1776 and John Adams are 2 books I would love to read but I just can’t find the time to sit down and do it. I wonder if they can be found as an audio book? Our history is an interesting read in light of how some are trying to rewrite the characteristics of some of our forefathers. To try to dispel beliefs and even to some extent remove any spiritual references that may prove what these men used to determine their actions and attutudes.


    April 9, 2009 at 10:13 pm

  6. Both 1776 and John Adams can be purchased as an audio book. You can actually download them from itunes, or probably some other download site.

    We still must be careful not to spiritualize our founding fathers. Most of them were Deists, meaning they believed in religion through rationalism. Additionally, Deists usually hold to an ambiguous belief in a supreme being who created the world as a “first cause” and then left it be. Among those who have unashamedly held such views are Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin. George Washington is sometimes credited as being a Deist, but this is disputed from a few of his letters and writings. There is no indication that John Adams was a Deist or Christian. McCullough doesn’t seem to give much space in his book to Adams’ religion.

    Josh Philpot

    April 9, 2009 at 11:24 pm

  7. Yesterday i spent 300 dollars for platinium roulette system ,
    i hope that i will earn my first cash online


    January 7, 2015 at 5:22 am

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