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The Johnstown Flood

4.11  ·  Rating details ·  19,321 ratings  ·  1,657 reviews
At the end of the last 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 above Johnstown, an old earth dam had been hastily rebuilt to create a lake for an exclusive summer resort patronized by the tycoons of that same industrial prospe ...more
Hardcover, 302 pages
Published January 1st 1990 by Peter Smith Publisher (first published January 1st 1968)
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Dan "The Great Bridge" is a good one. It centers on the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge, but it's largely the story of the two generations of the Roeb…more"The Great Bridge" is a good one. It centers on the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge, but it's largely the story of the two generations of the Roebling family — John Roebling (father), Washington Roebling (son) and Emily Warren Roebling (Washington's wife) — who designed, engineered and oversaw the building of the bridge. (less)
Meghan This edition of the book was written in 1968, but I understand what you're saying.…moreThis edition of the book was written in 1968, but I understand what you're saying.(less)

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Jason Koivu
May 12, 2009 rated it really liked it
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
Jan 24, 2017 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
What a magnificent story of impending doom, all that could be easily avoided were it not for human greed and lack of caring about the "working person" by 19th-century capitalists that built the dam and the mills as well as the managers than ran the town's industry as well as the town itself. An excellent museum of the flood is in Johnstown, too, with a chilling electronic diorama of the disaster as it unfolded. One of my best friends is now a sociologist teaching at UP-Johnstown, where his disse ...more
Blaine DeSantis
First book by a fine historical author. It is a good recounting of the famous Johnstown, PA flood in 1889. Way to many names and details and recounting of the same thing over and over again. A good book but not an easy book to read due to a laborious style. I have a lot of his books and can only hope that he gets better at a narrative story style. He does lay out the problem with the dam in Johnstown, as well as those probably responsible for the dam failure -the South Fork Fishing and Hunting C ...more
Sep 12, 2016 rated it really liked it
Please read the GR book description. I will not repeat what is there. It is to the point and absolutely correct concerning the book's content, the author's manner of writing and what future generations should take note of. Look at the last sentence one more time:

It (the flood) also offers a powerful historical lesson for our century and all times: the danger of assuming that because people are in positions of responsibility they are necessarily behaving responsibly.

In my view this sentence c
Sean Camoni
Jul 15, 2013 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
May 21, 2018 rated it it was amazing
WOW - what a book. I really liked it though it was extremely difficult to read.

The Johnstown Flood (locally, the Great Flood of 1889) occurred on May 31, 1889, after the catastrophic failure of the South Fork Dam on the Little Conemaugh River 14 miles (23 km) upstream of the town of Johnstown, Pennsylvania. The dam broke after several days of extremely heavy rainfall, releasing 14.55 million cubic meters of water. With a volumetric flow rate that temporarily equaled the average flow rate of the
Sep 16, 2018 rated it really liked it
It's David McCullough non-fiction, which in my experience is written well, inclusive to elemental tangents, and also tries to have chronological and historical record in as accurate a measure as it is possible. Amid witness research and dating too. He gives chapter and verse for events and actions in a way that doesn't settle himself and his own interpretations, opinions as central or a larger sideshow. Or any more than a vague side leaning to practical causes and their effects. That's 5 star.

Feb 18, 2009 rated it really liked it
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
J.M. Hushour
Apr 03, 2020 rated it it was amazing
"If I were the biggest liar on earth, I could not tell you half."

Timely reading, this masterful and pleasing account of an unavoidable disaster that cost thousands of lives. In 1889, not now, people.
McCullough is such a joy to read, jargon-free, free of tiring analysis, he simply and sympathetically presents things as they are, rare for historical works these days. Having grown up in western Pennsylvania, his first book must have been close to his heart. Myself, I'd always heard about the Flood,
Dec 28, 2015 rated it it was amazing
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
Jan 01, 2019 rated it really liked it
Great book from a great author, did not like the format (too formal ) but the story is very well documented and very well told . If you are into early American history or into natural disasters then this might be the book for you .
Jul 09, 2019 rated it it was amazing
The Johnstown Flood is an amazing read. David McCullough has done a masterful job of giving both a history lesson with a compelling story. The flood is simple on its surface, but happened during complicated times of the Gilded Age period. This speaks of both the power of the elite, but also of the common man learning to live with impending disaster; becoming used it and ultimately ignoring it.

The Johnstown Flood does a remarkable job of explaining the paradox of the locals knowing the dam was n
Sep 18, 2020 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Not every environmental catastrophe is the complete fault of nature. The greedy hand of mankind is usually involved as it was in the Great Johnstown Flood of 1889.

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 South Fork Dam in Pennsylvania was originally part of the cross-state canal system, which was so vital to commerce in the early 19th c
May 18, 2016 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
At the confluence of Stonycreek and the Little Conemaugh rivers sits Johnstown, Pennsylvania. In the 1880s it was a thriving mining town, with over 30,000 residence.

The year 1889 was unnaturally rainy, not just in Pennsylvania but in much of the United States. On May 30th the dam above Johnstown broke, unleashing a force that would destroy the Conemaugh Valley and almost wipe out Johnstown. This was the worst natural disaster in American history up until that time, and it would be the first dis
Sep 06, 2013 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: american-history
A riveting telling of history. Once it gets going you can’t stop. You are there, reliving one of the greatest disasters of the 19th century. David McCullough expertly paints a picture of America entering the industrial age with its mix of ethnic backgrounds, emerging culture, farmers, shopkeepers, laborers and powerful elite. His vivid recounting of the flood and its impact is enthralling and heart-rending. Very highly recommended.
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...... ...more
Sep 26, 2017 rated it it was ok
The super-rich show typical hubris, not allowing any payment for damages they caused.
Joseph Sciuto
May 18, 2020 rated it it was amazing
David McCullough is one of my favorite historians, and along with another dozen historians over the last forty years, they have literally corrected the "history" of the United States and the world and have made almost everything I learned back in school during the seventies and eighties absolute.

"The Johnstown Flood" is the first major book published by Mr. McCullough fifty years ago. It is the last of two books by this great author that I had not read... Mainly because the subject matter of whi
A.J. Howard
Jun 20, 2011 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
Mar 10, 2016 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 b
Mar 12, 2008 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
Barb Middleton
Feb 15, 2016 rated it it was amazing
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.
Feb 02, 2020 rated it it was amazing
When I read a book like this, it's human nature to think what I'd do...and then I realize in a flood like this, it doesn't really matter. One out of nine Johnstown residents died when a earthen dam collasped in May 1889. Even if you were able to get on a rooftop, you might float to a stopping point where fire might break out or be smothered under debris after the crash.

I lived in the area and worked for the Ebensburg paper (the county seat of Johnstown, and had hoped to be in the 1850s). I don't
Laura Jean
Feb 23, 2017 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I can see why the author's won two non-fiction Pulitzers. This is a solid story of the failure of the South Fork Dam and the resulting flooding of South Fork, Mineral Point, East Conemaugh, Woodvale, and Johnstown. Mr. McCullough explained very well, the main 4 faults of the dam as well as the subsequent storm and resulting flood succinctly, accurately and with compassion. He also has a fine sense of humor that is revealed appropriately when recounting the witty and wry comments of survivors. I ...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
May 08, 2017 rated it liked it
I have no idea how McCullough was able to find so much information about this incident and weave it into such an enthralling narrative, but this book is rich in detail and anecdotes that bring excitement to a depressing topic.

It is in part an age-old story of wealthy elites having little to no regard for the consequences of their extravagances. A dam was installed to create a lake that was eventually owned and maintained by the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club whose members were mostly extre
Apr 30, 2011 rated it really liked it
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
Jun 12, 2015 rated it really liked it
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.
Sallie Dunn

I would describe this first ever book by the famous historian, David McCullough as intense. It’s starts out slow - by the time it actually starts raining you know everything there is to know about the topography of Johnstown, it’s leading citizens as well as the store owners, pastors, farmers and many of the people who lived there. You know the history of the South Fork Dam Hunting and Fishing Club and the Pittsburgh coal, steel and railroad barons who were the members there, who used i
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David McCullough is a Yale-educated, two-time recipient of both the Pulitzer Prize (Truman; John Adams) and the National Book Award (The Path Between the Seas; Mornings on Horseback). His many other highly-acclaimed works of historical non-fiction include The Greater Journey, 1776, Brave Companions, The Great Bridge, The Wright Brothers, and The Johnstown Flood. He has been honored with the Nation ...more

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“the Reverend Chapman wrote later. “I think none was afraid to meet God, but we all felt willing to put it off until a more propitious time . . .” 3 likes
“All of Johnstown’s three or four blind people had survived the flood.” 2 likes
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