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The Johnstown Flood [Paperback]

David McCullough
4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (312 customer reviews)

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Book Description

January 15, 1987
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 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 prosperity, among them Andrew Carnegie, Henry Clay Frick, and Andrew Mellon. Despite repeated warnings of possible danger, nothing was done about the dam. Then came May 31, 1889, when the dam burst, sending a wall of water thundering down the mountain, smashing through Johnstown, and killing more than 2,000 people. It was a tragedy that became a national scandal.

Graced by David McCullough’s remarkable gift for writing richly textured, sympathetic social history, The Johnstown Flood is an absorbing, classic portrait of life in nineteenth-century America, of overweening confidence, of energy, and of tragedy. It 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.

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

The history of civil engineering may sound boring, but in David McCullough's hands it is, well, riveting. His award-winning histories of the Brooklyn Bridge and the Panama Canal were preceded by this account of the disastrous dam failure that drowned Johnstown, Pennsylvania, in 1889. Written while the last survivors of the flood were still alive, McCullough's narrative weaves the stories of the town, the wealthy men who owned the dam, and the forces of nature into a seamless whole. His account is unforgettable: "The wave kept on coming straight toward him, heading for the very heart of the city. Stores, houses, trees, everything was going down in front of it, and the closer it came, the bigger it seemed to grow.... The height of the wall of water was at least thirty-six feet at the center.... The drowning and devastation of the city took just about ten minutes." A powerful, definitive book, and a tribute to the thousands who died in America's worst inland flood. --Mary Ellen Curtin

Review

The New Yorker A first rate example of the documentary method....Mr. McCullough is a good writer and painstaking reporter and he has re-created that now almost mythic cataclysm...with the thoroughness the subject demands.

The New York Times We have no better social historian.

Book World McCullough has resurrected the flood for a generation that may know it in name only. He proves the subject is still fresh and spectacular.

John Leonard The New York Times We have no better social historian.

Product Details

  • Paperback: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster; Reprint edition (January 15, 1987)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0671207148
  • ISBN-13: 978-0671207144
  • Product Dimensions: 9.1 x 6.4 x 0.7 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 13.6 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (312 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #24,153 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

David McCullough has twice received the Pulitzer Prize, for Truman and John Adams, and twice received the National Book Award, for The Path Between the Seas and Mornings on Horseback; His other widely praised books are 1776, Brave Companions, The Great Bridge, and The Johnstown Flood. He has been honored with the National Book Foundation Distinguished Contribution to American Letters Award, the National Humanities Medal, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
104 of 104 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Wonderful Book! April 22, 2004
By Polly
Format:Paperback
I was born in Johnstown and lived in Western PA until I graduated from college. I then moved to Washington, DC. About 4 years later, a coworked told me that he always wanted to visit Johnstown. At the time I couldn't understand why, so I asked. He went on to explain how he was reading "The Johnstown Flood" by David McCullough in Iowa in 1977 when he heard a radio announcement about the 1977 Johnstown Flood. I lived through the 1977 flood, and knew about the 1939 Johnstown Flood that my father lived through, but I knew little about the 1889 Flood. I bought this book the day after this friend recommended it and read it straight through cover to cover - I couldn't put it down. That weekend, I drove back to Johnstown and visited the Flood Memorial and the Flood Museum. I couldn't hold back the tears at these sites.
This book completely changed my opinion of the Johnstown area and its history. I can't believe how many natives of Johnstown have never read this book. I have recommended this book to many people and not one has ever told me he or she didn't sink themselves into the book and become part of the story.
I now work in Johnstown again. Every workday I drive by the stone bridge that was described so prominently in the book. In my mind I can picture the victims and the debris piled up against the structure. Sometimes I can even hear the water, the flames, and the cries for help. This book is that well written!
If you're from Johnstown and you haven't read this book . . . Shame on you! If you're not from Johnstown, still read this book. Then . . . come to Johnstown and see for yourself what David McCullough brought to life through his writing!
This is definitely a book you'll never forget.
Don't stop here. Read David McCullough's other books.
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247 of 261 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Outstanding Account March 5, 2001
Format:Paperback
After recently reading "In Sunlight, In a Beautiful Garden," a fictionalized account of the events leading up to the Johnstown flood, I decided to learn more about the flood. Not only did the novelist list McCullough's book as a source, but it was recommended to me by a friend who reads a lot of American history. This author does an outstanding job in writing the history of the worst flood in a non-coastal area of the U.S.--this book is a real page-turner!
McCullough relates the history of the South Fork property on which the dam and lake were located, including the purchase of this property by rich men from Pittsburgh, among them Carnegie, Frick, Mellon, and Horne. They formed the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club, a mountain resort, and built a clubhouse for use by members. Sixteen members also built large "cottages" around the 350-acre lake that had been formed by the earthen dam which was first built between 1840 and 1850. When these men bought the property in 1879, the dam had been totally neglected so "repairs" were made. Unfortunately, no engineer had anything to do with these repairs, which consisted mostly of throwing junk, branches, rocks, and hay against the dam. During this time, the outlet pipes at the bottom of the dam were removed and sold as scrap. Other ingredients in this recipe for disaster were the pipes that were put in near the dam to prevent fish from leaving the lake. These would also, it was found later, allow debris to build up and cause water to spill over the dam more easily.
The inevitable occurred in 1889, on Memorial Day, when a huge storm caused the lake to rise above the dam. With no outlet pipes to lower the level of the water, the water poured over the top, at the center.
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63 of 64 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Hair-raising Disaster embedded in social history August 13, 2000
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
David McCullough firmly embeds his devastating account of the Johnstown Flood in the social history of late 19th century America. The pre-flood history of the small Pennsylvania mountain villages brought to mind a combination of "The Music Man" and the "dark, satanic mills" of the Industrial Revolution (steel, in this case). Throw in a mixture of class war and the prejudice of the 'native' Americans versus the recently arrived Eastern European immigrants, and the book tells a good story even without the advent of the flood.
However, the Johnstown flood is the heart of McCullough's story and he does a very good job in building up to the book's compelling climax. When the dam above Johnstown finally gives way, you will already be on the edge of your reading chair. As usual, in a story about a disaster, there are incredibly brave people and also incredibly foolish ones. I wish McCullough had told us a bit more about the post-flood lives of some of his heroes and heroines, but that is the only real fault I can find with his story. A book like this always makes me wonder how I would have reacted in the midst of the chaos, flood, and fire that was Johnstown on May 31, 1889.
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24 of 25 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Fascinating November 16, 1999
By A Customer
Format:Paperback
Even though I lived in Southwestern PA for most of my life, I knew very little about the Johnstown flood until my sister made a comment once about the Johnstown Flood Museum, and one day this book just jumped out at me at the library. I found it difficult to put down. Some may think it "drags" in parts, but this was part of the tapestry woven to give realism to the actual people caught up in the disaster. I had heard of vague references to this event, but until I read this book I had no idea of the full scale of what happened, and the unbelievable circumstances which led up to it. Even more appalling was that folks who belonged to the "elite" club, whose selfishness and greed gave rise to the shoddily built dam, (such as Carnegie, Mellon, and the like) gave very little money to the relief effort, and no one from South Fork would acknowledge any responsibility for the dreadful event. Through this book, McCullough puts personality to the names and faces of the victims, and the full terror of the actual flood wave coming toward the town reads better than any suspense novel, as it is all true. I urge anyone who ever finds themselves in the Johnstown area to check out the actual Flood Museum, it is a memorable experience.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars Five Stars
Great historical read!
Published 1 day ago by Christine M Tudan
4.0 out of 5 stars This looks like the first
This was very interesting. A detailed account of a preventable tragedy, although keeping track of all the individuals involved was a bit taxing. Maybe due to my age! Read more
Published 2 days ago by Judith C. Clark
5.0 out of 5 stars Five Stars
David McCullough is an American Treasure !!
Published 6 days ago by Fred D. Sullivan
4.0 out of 5 stars Four Stars
Every book he writes is great.
Published 7 days ago by shopper
4.0 out of 5 stars Great Read!
Great, exciting read. McCullough is a wonderful writer and brilliant historian. Definitely recommend.
Published 9 days ago by Levi
5.0 out of 5 stars Denial of an impending tragedy
Excellent history of a horrific calamity. There are Lessons for today in denial of risks and responsibilities of managing technologies, particularly those that pretend to contain... Read more
Published 9 days ago by Walter Lee Campbell
5.0 out of 5 stars Five Stars
Very revealling history of industrial development and the drive of the major contributors. David McCullough is tops.
Published 10 days ago by Len Porcelli
5.0 out of 5 stars What caused the Johnstown flood and how it created som much damage and...
It was a superb discussion of what caused the flood and how the consequences played out. I recommend it highly.
Published 12 days ago by Biff's Canyon
3.0 out of 5 stars Three Stars
Despite the subject matter, a bit of a yawner
Published 17 days ago by D. K. Milroy
4.0 out of 5 stars Wonderful historic review of an event I had not known ...
Wonderful historic review of an event I had not known about prior to reading the book. The descriptions made me feel like I was there observing the flood and its devastating... Read more
Published 18 days ago by CT Long
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