The New York Times has said that "We have no better social historian" when speaking about David McCullough. I have to agree. I enjoyed reading John Adams and Truman. If you have any ancestors in the American Revolution then 1776 is required reading for the genealogist. I was fishing around for a book to read a while back and decided, in the wake of the Gulf Oil Spill to read McCullough's, The Johnstown Flood. I highly recommend it.
I'm depressed, not by the loss of life in Johnstown, the actual number of which is not really known but stated to be 2,209, far more that the sinking of the Titanic and slightly less that the 9-11 attacks. No, I'm depressed by the fact that this story could be contemporary and we, as human beings, learn nothing. We have better toys, but essentially we are the same as in 1889.
The parallels between the Gulf oil spill and the Johnstown Flood are striking. The arrogance of the wealthy, the drive to make money, and the hubris in the face of nature. And back then, like today, they had a 24-hour news cycle to fill too, only with newspapers. Pittsburgh itself had four major daily papers with morning and evening editions. The New York World was selling 75,000 copies per day during the height of the reporting of this disaster.
And in the wake of the disaster, the anger of the survivors and the country first fell on (wait for it): immigrants! There were untrue stories that Hungarian workers were robbing the corpses and many were beaten for just being out and about. And of course, there were the religious zealots who said this was God's punishment for the sins of Johnstown. Naturally, the town's only brothel was on the hill at the outskirts and survived. One Johnstown resident noted that if God had been punishing Johnstown, he had bad aim.
After the disaster, the blame was firmly given to the owners of the dam, the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club, a resort whose members included Andrew Carnegie and Henry Clay Frick. But no one collected a dime in any of the civil suits lodged. Those people were still too powerful at that time and their lawyers argued convincingly that this was an act of God. That was true, insofar as the powerful rain storm was concerned, but man's foolishness in making the dam three feet shorter to accommodate wagons and not having a drainage system to keep the water level in check, went a long way to making sure the dam would break. And when it did, 20 million tons of water came down a valley so narrow it acted like a sluice and destroyed everything in its path for 13 miles.