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The Johnstown Flood

4.10  ·  Rating Details  ·  11,921 Ratings  ·  1,025 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. In the mountains ab
ebook, 274 pages
Published May 31st 2007 by Simon & Schuster (first published January 1st 1968)
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Lisa Basgall The last 50 pages or so are photos and maps - interesting but not text

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Jason Koivu
Mar 28, 2016 Jason Koivu rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: history
"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
Sean Camoni
Jul 20, 2013 Sean Camoni rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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
Feb 18, 2009 Ross rated it really liked it  ·  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
Dec 28, 2015 David rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Recommended to David by: Max
Shelves: history, audiobook
There is something about this book that completely captivated me. Perhaps it was my morbid curiosity, about the details of how the South Fork dam was improperly maintained, how it broke, and the ensuing rush of a wall of water down the valley. Although Johnstown was completely demolished, there were enough survivors to help recreate much of the chronology of events. There are plenty of stories from individuals about life and death decisions, sometimes successful rescues, and sometimes unsuccessf ...more
Mar 20, 2016 Darwin8u rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: 2016
"It had been the 'horrible tempest,' with flood and fire 'come as a destruction from the Almighty.' It had been awful, but it had been God awful."
― David McCullough, The Johnstown Flood


I was wrapping a couple of my first edition, eBay book purchases with mylar and discovered my first edition 'The Johnstown Flood' had a bit of water damage to the spine. I took this as a positive portent (ex dīrīs diluvium?) it was time to read it. One couldn't find a better divination that it is time to read a bo
Mar 12, 2008 Brooks rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
Sep 29, 2011 Wesley rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
May 19, 2011 Shelli rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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 wall of water, estimated by modern scientists to have been as high as 60 feet in some places, came crashing through a valley living in the shadow of a dam built to create a hobby-spot for the ultra-elite of the day- Carnegie, Mellon, and all the railroad and steel royalty of the time. By the time it reached Johnstown is had already wiped several towns off the face of the map, and could only be seen as a just wave of rubbish, many died before they even saw the water. In all, several thousand pe ...more
A.J. Howard
Jan 02, 2016 A.J. Howard rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
Colleen Morgan
Zzzzzz....Some background is necessary, but do we really need to know the entire history of the frigging dam? (including the names and physical descriptions of all the people who so much as *glanced* at tlhe damn dam) and the physical make up of its dirt? Maybe so. But I don't want to read it. ......zzzzzzz......
Jun 04, 2010 Bobbi rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: nonfiction
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
Terri Lynn
Jul 22, 2015 Terri Lynn rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: nonfiction, history
I love the way author David McCullough writes about history. He makes it an easy-to-read exciting story that makes me feel as if I am there and that is how I felt as I sat with my heart thumping reading the real experiences people had in the 1889 Johnstown Flood. Imagine the horror of having the warnings about the breaking of the dam during heavy rain and the rivers/lakes overflowing known but not getting to your ears until the rushing waters packed with trees, train cars and houses come crashin ...more
Barb Middleton
Feb 15, 2016 Barb Middleton rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: historical, adult
Incredible historical detail. I listened to the audio book and had to really concentrate at times to not lose track of all the characters. David McCullough builds up to the flood so the reader has a thorough understanding of the economy, geography, transportation, and sociocultural make-up of Johnstown in 1889, before getting swept into the actual flood disaster. It made me think of our experiences with 1997 Red River flood and Hurricane Katrina.
Jun 27, 2011 Hadrian rated it really liked it
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.
May 25, 2016 Jimmy rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: history
Could be subtitled Everything You Wanted to Know About the Johnstown Flood but Were Afraid to Ask.

Audiotape read by actor Edward Herrmann.

Here are some of my takeaways:

1. David McCullough deserves all of the praise heaped upon him. He is truly a great nonfiction writer for our time.

2. One of the one-star reviews complained about the boring opening. I'm guessing that person never finished the book. Looking into the details of what happened beforehand is necessary to understand how it happened
Leah K
Oct 07, 2015 Leah K rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
The Johnstown Flood: The Incredible Story Behind One of the Most Devastating Disasters America Has Ever Known by David McCullough

302 pages

I love David McCullough. He is a great historian and his books reach to all kinds of people (not just a big history geek like myself). He has had quite a career, writing history books for nearly 50 years. Johnstown Flood is his first book, published in 1968. This fascinated me because I have read mostly his recent work so reading his start and the changes thr
Aug 12, 2015 Sue rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I have lived for years within an easy drive of Johnstown, PA, and I’ve long been aware of the big flood that everyone in the area associates with that unfortunate town – one of the great disasters in the history of the US. I also knew about the wealthy Pittsburghers who were members of the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club, which failed to properly maintain the lake and dam that burst to cause the flood.

So it took me a long time to get around to reading David McCullough’s book, because I figur
Tom Darrow
Apr 10, 2015 Tom Darrow rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
A couple of things that people need to remember when you read this... 1) It was originally published in 1968, so history, historiography and David McCullough have come a long way. 2) David McCullough, for all of his skill and accolades as a writer, isn't a trained historian (for good or ill), he's a journalist, and this book has many journalistic hallmarks.

The narrative style is very clear and well written, with lots of vivid imagery. For a reader who doesn't have any background knowledge in thi
Stephen Terrell
It is not an exaggeration to list The Johnstown Flood as the most significant American natural disaster of the 19th Century. Though an exact number is not known, 2209 is regarded as the most accepted death toll -- some 400 more fatalities than Hurricane Katrina. Only two hurricanes and the 1906 San Francisco earthquake registered more fatalities in U.S. history.

But was it really a natural disaster? The story of the Johnstown Flood reads like Hurricane Katrina more than a century later. Hundreds
John Frazier
Mar 08, 2013 John Frazier rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
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
Oct 13, 2009 Ginnie rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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.

Sep 06, 2013 Beth rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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
Nancy L.
Oct 24, 2015 Nancy L. rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: calamities
I believe this was McCullough's doctoral dissertation, published as his first book. Excellent and worth owning.

2015 update: I got my tattered copy of this book signed by McCullough after a lecture he did at my college reunion. When I said it was my favorite, he did not seem very pleased. I understand that he's gone on to bigger and better work since then, but I think this was my first taste of narrative history and I've loved it ever since.

I also told him I was disappointed not to have met him w
Nov 18, 2015 Kristel rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
The telling of the events of preventable disaster of the great flood that occurred May 31, 1889. The South Fork Dam fails after several days of rain. The dam was mostly earthen and created a reservoir called Lake Conemaugh. The Flood killed an estimated 2,209 people and caused much damage. Clara Barton led the American Red Cross and many other volunteers rose up to help the victims of this great disaster. The victims never achieved any legal rewards for their losses but it led to the American la ...more
Jun 09, 2008 Erin rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
This was an interesting historical read, especially because I have family in Johnstown and went to the flood museum as a child.

What I really find fascinating is how few of the general public know about the flood today. Reading this book informed me that the flood was not just national but was *international* news. Aide came in from France, Turkey, England, you name it and scale of the disaster was on par with Hurricane Katrina. How did it get so lost in our history?
Jun 12, 2015 Betsy rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This is a straightforward accounting of the tragedy of May 31, 1889, at Johnstown, PA. Having visited the site of the former dam, and the Flood Museum, I knew some of what was discussed, but still found the material to be of interest. So many lives and property were destroyed and yet no one seemed to pay the cost except for the victims themselves. Greed and indifference took their toll.
Don Sullivan
Mar 06, 2016 Don Sullivan rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This is the unfortunate tale of the tragic catastrophe of the failure of the dam in the Conemaugh valley in Pennsylvania east of Pittsburgh. It is a costly reminder of the lessons learned when people have a laissez faire attitude toward the world around them. It is a well written balanced account of the tragedy that claimed so many lives that could have easily been prevented had the owners of the dam engaged some awareness and conscience in the repair of the previously failed dam and awareness a ...more
Adrith Bicchieri
David McCullough's narrative of the events leading up to the destruction of the South Fork Dam and Jonestown, PA is compelling and masterful. The idea that this was his first book boggles my mind, because in usual McCullough fashion, halfway through the audiobook I had to borrow the ebook from the library because I ABSOLUTELY HAD TO FINISH THE BOOK right then and there. None of this "waiting for the next drive to work" business.

Mr. McCullough describes the people whose decisions formed the under
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David McCullough has been widely acclaimed as a “master of the art of narrative history,” “a matchless writer.” He is twice winner of the Pulitzer Prize, twice winner of the National Book Award, and has received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian award.

(update: His most recent book is The Wright Brothers, published on May 5th 2015 by Simon & Schuster.)

Mr. McCullou
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“All of Johnstown’s three or four blind people had survived the flood.” 0 likes
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