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The Johnstown Flood

4.10  ·  Rating details ·  16,884 ratings  ·  1,456 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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Lois Sort of: the man jumps onto the roof upon which an unrelated child is sailing; he throws the child to another house with more people, saving her life…moreSort of: the man jumps onto the roof upon which an unrelated child is sailing; he throws the child to another house with more people, saving her life while he continuing floating or sailing on a mattress, I think.(less)
Andrea text ends on 268. pages 269-302 are appendices

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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
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."

Exceptionally well written and researched exploration of the incredibly horrific Johnstown, Pennsylvania Flood, and the contributory causes, both natural and man derived, inadvertent and neglectful, which killed over 2,000 people, decimating entire families and wiping complete towns off the map. Da
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
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
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.

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 .
Dec 28, 2015 rated it it was amazing
Recommended to David by: Max
Shelves: audiobook, history
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
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
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
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
Jun 27, 2011 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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.
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
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
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
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
Ray Campbell
Oct 22, 2016 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: read-2016
David McCullough has a genius for telling stories that compel, fascinate and engage. There was a flood, the damn broke and a town was flooded. McCullough elevates this sequence of events into high drama few fictions would rival. I frequently explain to students that history isn't what happened, it's the art of interpreting what it means and how we can use it. In this tragedy, McCullough holds a mirror to the society of the time. From the corruption that resulted in a weakened dam endangering tho ...more
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
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......
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.
Mark Oppenlander
I've been meaning to read a David McCullough book for a while, and with no particular idea of where to start, I defaulted to The Johnstown Flood, his first book. Little did I know that mere weeks after I finished it, the US would be suffering through the impact of a major hurrican and a flood the size of the state of Michigan that would make the images in the book pale in comparison to those on the news.

Nonetheless, this is a compelling story for those who are interested in disaster narratives o
Leah K
Oct 01, 2015 rated it really liked it
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
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
Jan 17, 2010 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 18, 2015 rated it really liked it
Shelves: history, nonfiction
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
Re-read 2016 This is still one of the places on my list of travel destinations I must see. The disaster in Johnstown is a good example of what happens when corners are cut in the building process and when the extremely wealthy decide that it doesn't matter what happens to the lower classes. The flood started because of a dam at a club for the wealthy wasn't constructed properly and it ended with multiple deaths. No one really knows how many people actually died, for multiple reasons. One of the ...more
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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
“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.” 1 likes
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