by David McCullough
Among the wealthy men from Pittsburgh who owned the South Fork Dam in southwest Pennsylvania, fourteen miles up the mountains from Johnstown, were Andrew Carnegie (steel), Henry Clay Frick (coke), Philander Knox (corporate law), Robert Pitcairn (railroads), and Andrew Mellon (banking). The dam held back the twenty million tons of water in Lake Conemaugh that the wealthy men from Pittsburgh also owned and used for boating, swimming, and fishing. They built their three-story cottages on the lake and a hunting and fishing lodge. They spent their summers there with their families. Access to the lake and environs was for members of the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club only.
"The Johnstown Flood" by David McCullough tells a story as old as money, as old as the haves and have nots. The people living and working in the valley below eventually and tragically paid for the presence of the wealthy playing around the lake on the mountain. The poorly maintained dam had been altered for the pleasure and convenience of the wealthy and not maintained for the safety of the poor below. The dam broke on May 31, 1889. As the twenty million tons of water headed down the mountain toward Johnstown, the rushing torrent picked up trees, animals, small towns, farms, fences, miles of barbed wire, and the earth itself. A wave grew to thirty feet in height and shattered the city of Johnstown, population thirty thousand, with a crash which echoed across the nation and around the world.
David McCullough analyzes the history of the dam, recreates Johnstown, the railroads, the factories, the people. The story of Johnstown is a riveting tale that most Americans have forgotten but would be wise to remember.