The Johnstown Flood
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The Johnstown Flood

4.07 of 5 stars 4.07  ·  rating details  ·  7,816 ratings  ·  682 reviews
The stunning story of one of America’s great disasters, a preventable tragedy of Gilded Age America, brilliantly told by master historian David McCullough.

At the end of the nineteenth century, Johnstown, Pennsylvania, was a booming coal-and-steel town filled with hardworking families striving for a piece of the nation’s burgeoning industrial prosperity....more
Audio CD, 302 pages
Published May 1st 2005 by Simon & Schuster Audio (first published January 1st 1968)
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Jason Koivu
"The Johnstown Flood (or Great Flood of 1889 as it became known locally) occurred on May 31, 1889. It was the result of the catastrophic failure of the South Fork Dam situated on the Little Conemaugh River 14 miles (23 km) upstream of the town of Johnstown, Pennsylvania, USA, made worse by several days of extremely heavy rainfall. The dam's failure unleashed a torrent of 20 million tons of water (4.8 billion U.S. gallons; 18.2 million cubic meters; 18.2 billion litres) from the reservoir known a...more
Ross
Feb 18, 2009 Ross rated it 4 of 5 stars  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: fans of the railroad age
I picked up this, the first of McCullough's three "civil engineering" micro-histories, to scratch my itch of a notion that the flood was a seminal event in US history.

Turns out that notion was only half right. The Johnstown Flood was a seminal event. The cataract was terrible and awesome and one of a kind. But the story has mostly faded from history. Unlike other national disasters (eg, the attacks on Pearl Harbor and 9/11), this one didn't blossom into a nation-rallying justification for kicki...more
Sean Camoni
This book should be read by every American. Every human. I don't really say that often, but this book is incredibly important. McCullough is an absolute treasure. He tells this story with such detail and authenticity, and yet makes it compelling, harrowing even, and utterly human. He is objective and fair, and thorough without slipping into tedium. The parallels to the Katrina disaster are haunting, beyond just the natural disaster and flooding elements. The socio-economic disparities that marke...more
Brooks
Excellent history of the flood of May 31, 1889. A dam supporting a lake for summer retreat for Pittsburgh’s finest (Frick, Phillips, Carnegie, Mellon) burst. The engineering is interesting. The dam was earthen, which is still very common. However, an earthen dam needs to be higher in the center (if a dam overflows, it should be at the edges), a spill way over rock (earth erodes under fast water), and a discharge system to maintain water level. In this case, the original Dam was properly built to...more
Wesley
This was a very interesting read. I had to do it for school and a huge part of a class's grade came from it. I was so-so on this. As I get older my appreciation for history is 10 times what it once was. This is a perfect example. I think this should be a mandatory read for people in high school or college. Not so much from the flood aspect but from the point of view that making things right and having integrity and not letting the rich chose what's safe or "not". Johnstown could have been known...more
Shelli
I am reading this book as Memphis is on the local news about flooding...interesting timing. But most of all, I am reminded about a great flood in my childhood which occurred in 1972 in Rapid City, SD, near my hometown. That year 238 people died in a flash flood, reminiscent of this one, although no dam was the culprit for that flood. The Johnstown Flood was over 10 times as bad. Why didn't I learn of it in US History class? This was excellent research. It was interesting to learn about all the d...more
A.J. Howard
On May 31, 1889, the city of Johnstown, Pennsylvania was all but obliterated by one of the most devastating floods in American history. There were over 2,000 fatalities. Just over one in every people who lived in the city or the surrounding area died. At the time, it was the worst natural disaster in American history, but the circumstances surrounding the disaster illuminate the particular nature of American class and culture.

I can't go any further without noting the particular situation I found...more
Bobbi
If you're ready for a book that reads like an action-packed thriller, this one's for you. In 1889 an earthen dam holding back a large lake, burst and flooded Johnstown, PA and other small towns in the valley below. The lake was made for a fishing club where wealthy people, including Andrew Carnegie, who came from nearby Pittsburgh for a quiet time in their "cottages" , three story structures oozing with money. The inhabitants of the small towns in the valley below had occasionally worried about...more
John Frazier
It was after seeing something about this 1889 disaster on television that I decided I needed to know more about The Johnstown Flood, and David McCullough's chronicle couldn't have been more engaging or enjoyable.

To set the scene, a group of rich industrialists and businessmen, including Andrew Carnegie and Andrew Mellon, buy and develop the area surrounding and including Lake Conemaugh, a manmade lake created by damming the Southfork River, about 15 miles up the canyon from Johnstown, Pennsylvan...more
Kristine Buchholtz
Imagine a busy Memorial Day Weekend in the late 1800's in a booming industrial town. Relentless rain is inundating the festivities and rivers are steadily rising, slowly drenching everything in sight. Overall, the locals and visitors are in good spirits, making the best out of a bad situation with good humor and determination. Looming 14 miles away from this bustling coal-and-steel town, a reservoir holding 20 million gallons of water is reaching its breaking point. Just as darkness falls, the d...more
Ginnie
In reading the first fifty pages or so of this book, I thought I found the McCullough weak link. Boy, I couldn't have been more wrong.

The book started slow, for me, but in retrospect it put me into the mindset of the people in the area of Johnstown: taking normal days and events and thinking they were uneventful. And then the author started to build the flood and unleashed it. Wow! My heart was pounding as I turned the pages (not fast enough) to follow the sequence of disaster and tragedy.

Quite...more
Beth
This is one of the best books I ever read. Living in southwestern Pennsylvania, I was always aware of the Johnstown Flood but I had no idea of the socio-economic issues behind this tragedy. Author David McCullough brings the story to life, introducing us to individuals and families living in the area and the unbelievable horrific happenings in Johnstown and the surrounding farms and communities as the flood makes its way through the valley. I could picture what was actually happening from his de...more
Hadrian
McCullough's specialty is narrative history, and this book does not disappoint. His descriptions of the life of the town, and its sudden and violent death are vivid and astonishing in equal measure. The technical aspects of the disaster are not glossed over, neither, and the irresponsibility of some is a warning which has become forgotten, and only too many parallels can be made to other disasters in recent memory.
Stephanie
The Johnstown Flood by David McCullough expertly recounts the failure of the South Fork Dam on May 31, 1889. When the earthen dam gave way after multiple days of heavy rain, the contents of Lake Conemaugh rushed down upon the town of Johnstown, Pennsylvania. Over two thousand people lost their lives, and millions of dollars worth of property damage occurred in just a few hours.

Moving chronologically through the days before and after May 31, 1889, McCullough examines the causes and effects of the...more
Lucky
This is the fourth book I've read by this author, and I've enjoyed them all. The particular book was fascinating, especially in light of the recent disaster in Haiti and even Katrina (which was really similar in a lot of ways). Basically, there was this billionaires' boy's club that dammed a river at that top of the mountain for fishing and sailing, and though they were some of the wealthiest people in the world ( Carnegie, Rockefeller,etc...), the dam was poorly and cheaply constructed. So one...more
LemonLinda
McCullough always does a great job of making his subject matter come to life. And he does such in-depth research completing his stories from every angle and with all details possible. In fact, in this book the details in the beginning were almost too much for me. It was quite technical about the dam, its construction and renovations, etc. The beginning also included what for me was much more interesting information about the land features and the businesses of the area as well as the people who...more
Michelle
Growing up in western PA, the Johnstown flood was just something we seemed to know about, but I don't remember learning about it in any great detail. McCullough's books is a comprehensive, thoughtful examination of the events of the days leading up to and immediately after the flood. As I was reading, scenes of the 2004 tsunami in Indonesia and Hurricane Katrina kept flashing in my mind. And I thought of those, but then tried to think about what the situations would be like with no helicopters t...more
J
The people of Johnstown, Pennsylvania talked about the possibility of the dam above their town breaking for years, but it was easy to discount the thing that never happened. Until the storm of the century dumped record levels of rain, and the earthen dam gave way just after Memorial Day, 1889. The resulting devastation and loss of life was historic, and McCullough meticulously chronicles the entire event. From the wealthy club owners who didn't properly maintain the dam but who were never held r...more
Tamhack
I always like David McCullough's presentation of historical events. He did another excellent job on this event also.

This book tells what lead up to the flood on May 31, 1889 in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, a coal and steel town, and the aftermath.

Like today, many bad events happen because people do not step up and become accountable for their actions.
It was reported:
"We do not consider there is much cause alarm, as even in the event of the dyke breaking there is plenty of room for water to spread...more
Jgrace
The Johnstown Flood – D. McCullough
Audio version performed by Edward Herrmann
3.5 stars (round to 4)

It was a Memorial Day weekend in Johnstown, Pennsylvania. It was 1889. David McCullough tells the story of the catastrophic disaster with an admirable balance of dry facts and human interest. As he traces the geological, meteorological and industrial history of Johnstown, he also paints a very human picture of its inhabitants. His account of the disaster intersperses with amazing survival stories...more
Karen
This book is like a documentary of the Johnstown flood; David McCullough is such a marvelous writer. Johnstown, Pennsylvania was a thriving small city (approx. pop: 10,000+), at the base of a valley in which two streams flowed. The local ironworks/steel company employed most men. It's the industrial revolution era. It's May 31, 1889. 3:00 pm in the afternoon, everyone going about their lives.

Background: About 100 very wealthy elite (Andrew Carnegie; Frick, etc.) from Pittsburgh bought the land u...more
Elizabeth
David McCullough is the master of dramatic history story-telling, and this book is no exception. I have read -- and loved -- The Path Between the Seas (about the building of the Panama Canal), but I was unaware of this one until I happened on a grouping of his books recently.

I've always had a morbid fascination for this kind of story, and certainly the Johnstown Flood was still evoking whispers of horror when I was a child in the 1950s -- still does, I guess. Having lived through and witnessed...more
Gary Schantz
I read this book for its historical content. I know that the author is been revered as a great historian who voice overs are heard in a few Ken Burns documentaries. However, I found that there is such thing as too much narration. I bet I read about at least 5 men who wore mutton-chops...some grey, some overgrown but all basically mutton-chops. Who cares? I was reading this book to learn how this flood occurred and its impact on the people.

If some of the narration was edited out (like edited for...more
Shakespearesgirl
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
Rick Boyer
Excellent book by David McCullough, about an event that is largely forgotten today but which, at the time, was as large a catastrophe as the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center. The book is well organized and clearly written, with many firsthand accounts and reminiscences. McCullough combines an examination of engineering, meteorology, the railway, the steel industry, labor, and the lifestyle of the rich and powerful into a truly compelling account. Very sobering indeed is the list of names o...more
Robert Glustrom
More than I ever wanted to know about Johnstown and its residents. Where the book shines is the interplay between the wealthy dam owners and the common folk down the mountain. Set in the late 1800's, the book shows the power of money and status along with the lack of concern for others. The narrative of the flood and it's destruction is very well told and chilling but the level of detail outside of the actual catastrophe is a little overwhelming. A nice snapshot of America at that time including...more
Helen
A comprehensive depiction of the Johnstown Flood,including the history of the dam and the sporting club who was responsible for its upkeep. I felt the writing was a bit stiff in places, especially where the author is discrediting the stories told in the newspapers of the time. I wish there had been more about the people directly affected, how their lives were changed, what they did in the aftermath and the history of their lives and their town before the flood. McCullough seems to want to stick...more
Julie
This book is out of my usually genre and although it was interesting to learn about a historical event it won't be a book I read again thus the 3 stars. I'm glad I read the book as a ton of my relatives live around the area, and it does give me a different perspective of some of the well known persons of the time such as Carnegie. It's funny that back in 1889 we in the US were having some of the same discussions about "the rich" and "the working class" as well as immigration. Back then it was th...more
Ann Johnson
I had to slough through the first 50 pages, but after that, it was riveting. Also, in hindsight you realize that it's set the stage really well, and describes very useful information about all the people involved, so that you actually care about what happens to them and what their reactions are when everything hits the fan.

Even though the book is about a horrible natural disaster, there are some scenes that are so absurd, they're really funny. My favorite: "He saw the whole Mussante family sail...more
Bill Krieger
David McCullough is one of my absolute favorite writers. Shit, I don't even really like the historical fiction genre, but McCullough is that good, that compelling. His prose is silky smooth, and it doesn't disappoint here.

So, this is a worthy read, but there is one problem: the subject matter isn't really enough to fill the pages. A dam burst flooding away Johnstown, PA, and it was an epic catastrophe. Johnstown was nearly wiped off the map and an astonishing 2,209 people were killed. There is a...more
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David Gaub McCullough is an American author, narrator, historian, and lecturer. He is a two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award and a recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the United States' highest civilian award.

Born and raised in Pittsburgh, McCullough earned a degree in English literature from Yale University. His first book was The Johnstown Flood (1968); a...more
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