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The Johnstown Flood by David McCullough
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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 support a trans-Pennsylvania canal in the early 1800s. However, that went into disrepair after the railroads started and the canal was abandoned. Then in the 1870s, Ruff sets up the South Fork fishing club and buys the property including dam from the Pennsylvania railroad and re-builds the dam sloppily. The Dam fails ten years later. The flood kills 2300 people (about 1 in 10 in the valley). The Dam broke at 3:10 and it took an hour to travel the 15 miles to Johnstown. Everyone in Johnstown had been saying the dam would break some spring and disregarded the few initial warnings. Johnstown was already flooded due to large spring rains, but up to 1-2 feet in the center of town. In the tight areas of the Valley, the wall of water was 70’ high. It would bounce off hillsides and come back to destroy small villages missed. There was a large railroad viaduct, then held for 10 minutes fill the valley behind it to the same level of water as what had been in the original lake prior to failing which strengthened the water as it collapsed all at once. The greatest calamity happened at a bridge in the lower part of town. The bridge held, but then had 45 acres of debris held up. This caught fire with hundreds of people still strapped. Many were rescued but many survived the flood only to be burned to death. While the members of the club were vilified in the press (not the individual members as the list was not know until a year later), none was held financial responsible or criminally negligent.
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Reading Progress

Started Reading
January 1, 2007 – Finished Reading
March 12, 2008 – Shelved

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