Education: Johnstown Flood Museum

Johnstown Area Heritage Association
Primary source: Report

Sheltering and Rebuilding

Rev. Dr. David Beale

Our experience during the dreadful night of the flood and in the succeeding week made us realize vividly that the three great wants of man are food, vesture and shelter. The vast majority of us were without food; were inadequately clothes and without homes. The remorseless torrent had swept away everything we had, and, worse than all, many on whom the survivors had depended for the supply of these prime necessities to human life and comfort were buried beneath the wrecks in the valley, or were expiring under the injuries they had received.

The supply of food came as quickly from the sympathizing country as transportation was effected. For the first few days, before a complete system of distribution could be adopted, we managed to supply the hunger of the women and children by the self-sacrifice and fasting of many of us who were strong. Clothing of various sorts was sent from cities and towns, which was gladly received, to take the place of the soaked and dilapidated garments with which we emerged from the waters and rescued from the debris. When, however, our anxiety concerning food and clothing was allayed, there loomed before us the awful fact that the vast majority of people were without homes, and for temporary shelter, even if that could be found, must depend on charity. …. Thus the problem of temporary shelter and future rebuilding became the most serious and difficult solution.

….The first temporary shelters were, of course, tents and hastily constructed shanties. In a few days the fields around the city presented the aspect of military camps. The tents were, however, inadequate and could not be the abode of women and children, as they were exposed to the hot sun and rains and the dreadful miasma and stench that pervaded the valley.

Now the great problem arose, when and how shall Johnstown be rebuild with suitable residence and business houses? In the retrospect we can see that the problem was made to seem more difficult than it really was. It was complicated by permitting hordes of strangers to come into the city, who either encumbered the situation by adding to the number to be fed and housed, or who engaged in labor that should have been exclusively given to the citizens. …The builders, masons, carpenters and laborers of the city should have been furnished with the material, means and implements to do the work of rebuilding; only outsiders should have been employed when there was a deficiency of local laborers. …But it is a fact that thousands of outsiders… benefited from the moneys that were contributed solely for the sufferers, or were paid from public funds which should have been used in the employment of the impoverished citizens.

The first formal official action for the erection of business structures was a telegram of General Hastings to Hoover, Hughes & Co., of Phillipsburg, P. …nearly a month elapsed before the rebuilding commenced, and then for business purposes. The people were yet without homes, living in tents and shanties, or still depending on the hospitality of neighbors on the hills.

…Previous to this, a number of the Hoover, Hughes & Co.’s houses had been erected and were occupied. This correspondent remarks: “There were scattered over the plain many newly-constructed board-houses, wearing no other color than that of natural wood. These were miserable little sieves, called Oklahomas, and the larger and better Hughes houses, which, though far from comfortable, must furnish shelter to thousands through the coming winter.”

The disposal of the Hughes houses was by the House Distributing Committee to those who made application and who were approved by the committee. On July 19th, 1889, the names were published to whom one hundred and four two-story houses were allotted to be erected. This, of course, meant that it would be some time in August before they were ready for occupancy.

The outside world can never know the experience of the people of the Conemaugh Valley during the summer and fall. The patient endurance of the life that this gentle, refined American community was forced to live; their heroic self-control, in view of the fact that the means of relief, which their sympathizing countrymen had not fully appreciated. This community of intelligent and upright Americans was crowded together for months in all kinds of shelter and uncomfortable ways….Many of these persons had lots where their vanished houses had stood, and four hundred dollars, within a few days after the flood, would have relieved their burdened hearts, and enabled them to provide comfortable shelter for their families as soon as the removal of the debris and obstruction would permit.

A scheme for housing the people was adopted by which persons could obtain what was known as an “Oklahoma” as a certain price for a large or a small structure. At first there was great clamor for the houses, and persons rushed to the committee to secure them. The wiser people abstained, and urged the committee, at least members of it, to abandon the system. A number of the houses arrived. After they were seen, the clamor for them ceased, and many who had obtained them regretted that the value of a flimsy building, unfitted for this climate, was to be deducted from the sum of their share of the fund for distribution. The demand ceased, and a few “Oklahomas” now stand as monuments of the folly of those who procured them.

Letter from housing contractor Hoover, Hughes & Co.

Johnstown, PA., December 16th, 1889.

Rev. David F. Beale, Johnstown, Pa.

Dear Sir: - As per your request we herewith submit a short history of our work done at Johnstown and in the Conemaugh Valley, brought about through the great destruction of property on the afternoon of May 31st. Prior to our coming to Johnstown for the commencement of our work very little had been done in the line of building, except the erection of commissaries and camps for flood sufferers and to quarter the large body of men engaged in clearing up the debris.

In answer to a telegram received from Gen. Hastings, our Mr. Hughes arrived at Johnstown on Wednesday morning at 3 A.M., and was obliged to pass the balance of the night at the Pennsylvania freight depot. Early next morning he presented himself to Gen. Hastings, who, as agent for the Flood Relief Commission, appointed him Master Carpenter for that Commission. He was informed that it had been decided to erect temporary store-rooms to enable the business men flooded out to resume business. These buildings were decided to erect on the Public Park ground. Our Mr. Hughes at once submitted several plans, and on the afternoon of the same day, at request of Gen. Hastings, a special meeting of Council was held, granting the use of the Public Park grounds for the temporary store-room buildings for eighteen months, and also adopted one of the several plans submitted by Mr. Hughes. Governor James A. Beaver arrived from Cresson that same evening and accepted our proposal to erect fifty 20x40 feet store-rooms with offices above, to be completed in two weeks; also arranged with us to erect three hundred and ten Chicago ready-made houses as fast as they arrived. On July 3rd a contract was made with the Flood Relief Commission for the erection of two hundred four-roomed houses constructed after a plan made and submitted by our Mr. Hughes. A further contract was made on August 3rd for one hundred additional, with an option for one hundred more if needed. The latter were ordered August 15th, making a total of four hundred dour-roomed houses known as the “Hughes” house, which name they are liable to retain in the Conemaugh Valley for years to come.

As soon as the contract for he temporary store-rooms was accepted, our Mr. Hughes telegraphed to our main office at Phillipsburg, Pa., for the material, and by Monday, June 24th, we had a number of cars on hand, and on that same day the erection of the temporary store-buildings was commenced. Between June 24th and September 7th we erected all the Chicago houses, our of the four hundred ordered. We had sufficient force to complete the entire contract by that time, but the Flood Commission desired to hold back a number of houses to provide for cases which had been overlooked. During that time we employed an average of four hundred and fifty men, and twenty-five double teams, and handled over four hundred carloads of lumber and building material, which, taking into consideration the many difficulties which had to be surmounted, such as the almost impassable condition of the streets, freight blockades, and the larger portion of the houses erected on hillside and hilltops scattered eat and west from Johnstown, from South Fork to Merrillville, eleven miles apart, and north and south, a distance of five miles apart, makes us feel rather proud of our record. By a special order of the P. R. R. C., our cars loaded with lumber at our mills were hurried through on fast freight time. At this point they were put at once into the Cambria Iron Company’s yard, their engine promptly shifting them to our side-track, by which means we were enabled to get our material quickly, and put the work through with dispatch. Up to present date we have done the following:

The Flood Commission work, number of Chicago houses erected, three hundred and ten (one hundred and three section houses 16x24 and two hundred and seven 10x20 portable, known as Oklahoma); Hughes houses, four hundred; temporary store-rooms, fifty-five; Red Cross Hotel at Johnstown, headquarters for State Board of Health, and a large amount of special work ordered by the Commission. For private individuals and firms we have done the following: seven Hughes houses, a large brick addition to Cambria Iron Company’s Club House, addition to Wood Morrell & Co., Limited, store-room (now in the course of erection), several of the large buildings at Gautier’s Works, one brick stable, three small frame stables, one large livery stable, two school buildings (one at Woodvale and the other in Cambria City), station for P. R. R. At East Conemaugh, double dwelling for P. R. R. At Johnstown, twelve dwelling and additions to same, repaired brick residence of Mr. Trochneiser, and large amounts of small work too numerous to mention.

 Very Truly,

  Hoover, Hughes & Co

From Through the Johnstown Flood, Rev. David Beale, pages 318-325

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