Education: Johnstown Flood Museum

Johnstown Area Heritage Association
Primary source: Official Report

The Work of the State Board of Health

Benjamin Lee, A.M., M.D., Ph.D.

On the thirty-first day of May and the first day of June, one thousand eight hundred and eighty-nine, the State Board of Health of Pennsylvania was holding one of its Sanitary Conventions in the city of Pittsburgh…

The river had risen suddenly to an unusual height. The bridges and banks were covered with thousands, watching the immense masses of wreckage that swept down its seething surface; there were rumors that dead bodies had been taken out; a sense of intense uneasiness pervaded the air; railroad communication with the East was cut off; members feared that they would be subjected to serious delay and inconvenience in reaching their homes. There were vague reports of loss of life, but nothing definite could be ascertained.

The papers of the following morning, however,… left no room for doubt that a calamity of most appalling magnitude had visited the little mountain city of Johnstown, and that this calamity imposed a grave and urgent responsibility of the State Board of Health….

… It was evident that whatever suffering there might be at the scene of the disaster, the immediate obligation resting of the Board was to protect the water supply of the two great cities of Pittsburgh and Allegheny from the most horrible of pollutions – that resulting from the fact that hundreds of corpses and of carcasses were decomposing in the streams whence it was drawn.

Accordingly the first stop was made at Ninevah, about nine miles below Johnstown, where 162 dead bodies were found awaiting identification and transportation, and numerous more were being hourly brought in. Steps were taken to secure by telegraph the immediate and full co-operation of the authorities of all the counties bordering on the streams implicated, in the work of reclaiming the dead and of burning carcasses and debris.

Early the following morning the swollen Conemaugh was crossed in a skiff, and arrangements were made for facilitating the identification and early burial of twenty-five or thirty bodies which had been recovered on that side of the river. We returned by the first train that passed up in the morning and were carried to Morrellville, whence we walked to Johnstown.

[We] were ferried over the Conemaugh, and proceeded at once to the headquarters of the local committee…. We notified [Adjutant-General D. H. Hastings] that the Board would assume entire control of all sanitary operations, and requested that five thousand pounds of copperas [ferrous sulfate, a chemical used as a disinfectant] and two thousand five hundred pounds of chloride of lime [a type of bleach, also used as a disinfectant] should at be at once ordered from Pittsburgh.…

A survey of the situation showed that the Board was confronted by a task of gigantic dimensions. Johnstown proper was partly a lake, partly several small streams, partly a vast sandy plain, and partly clusters of more or less ruined houses. Around among, between, inside and on top of these houses, wherever the rushing torrent had been checked, were piled masses of wreckage; trunks of mighty trees, household furniture, houses whole and in fragments, bridges, locomotives and railroad cars, hundreds of tons of mud and gravel. Thickly strewn through it all were hundreds of corpses and carcasses. The only communication between this section and the Pennsylvania Railroad and the village of Peelorville on the north, and Kernville on the south, was across swollen torrents in skiffs, which required constant bailing to keep them above water.

From the stone bridge of the Pennsylvania Road, for a distance of half a mile, no river could be seen, simply a dense mass of drift from twenty to fifty feet deep, apparently inextricable, bound together with miles of wire, here blazing and there smoldering, and enveloping the bridge in a cloud of nauseating vapor and smoke, giving unmistakable evidence of the presence of burning flesh. Not a thoroughfare was passable for a team, and very few for a horse. Not only was the work immense, but the difficulties in the way of its accomplishment were such as can scarcely be comprehended by those who did not see them.

On the first day little could be done beyond a thorough survey of the town and study of the situation. Locomotion was difficult, the mud deep, the streets obstructed often to the roofs of houses, the rain incessant….

…The organization of the sanitary corps was at first almost entirely voluntary. A number of physicians who had hastened to the stricken town from all parts of Pennsylvania, and neighboring states to proffer their services to the sick and injured, finding that they were not needed in that capacity, offered them to the Board. They did yeomen’s service in the discovery of the dead, and in dragging out and burning dead animals….

The following incident will indicate the difficulties under which work was accomplished during this early period of operations. The first disinfectant available was copperas. To use this in many places it was necessary to dissolve it in water, and to have vessels of some kind from which to sprinkle it. But not a utensil of any kind could be found. Accordingly, the Secretary, accompanied by Dr. Carrington with his squad of Pittsburgh disinfectors, clambered over the wreckage on Main Street, often up to the third story windows, and made a descent on wrecked stores here and there until they succeeded in finding a dozen tin coffee pots of different sizes and a wash boiler. Supplied with these, they returned in triumph, the names of the owners of the stores and of the articles taken from each having been carefully noted. The wash boiler was filled from one of the hydrants which were running freely all over the town, and placed upon a fire in which horses were burning. A solution was soon made and applied to their comrades, deeply buried in the debris, whose carcasses were an impediment to the progress of the work.

The condition of the rivers as a source of water-supply still caused the Board so much anxiety that, on the afternoon of the 6th of June, the Secretary, after a careful inspection of the drift at the stone bridge, which satisfied him of the impossibility of removing it by the means and force then available, and also of the absolute necessity of such removal from sanitary considerations, proceeded to Pittsburgh, and on the following day dispatched a gang of wreckers, consisting of two squads with a foreman over each and a superintendent, to proceed to the mouth of the Kiskiminitas, and carefully patrol both banks of that stream and of the Conemaugh up to Johnstown, removing and reclaiming all dead bodies and burning all dead animals and all drift heaps which could not be dragged apart….

…The entire region… was now divided into twelve districts, to each one of which an inspector was assigned. Each inspector was required to make a daily round of his territory and see that the different gangs of men, each under its foreman, were working faithfully and judiciously; to direct the immediate removal of all decaying animal and vegetable matter, to indicate where disinfectants were especially needed, and to instruct the people how to use them in cellars, yards and outhouses. At the end of each day a written report was made by each, including any new cases of sickness which might have been discovered. On these reports the work of the day following was laid out and instructions given before the men started for work. An accurate knowledge of the health of the entire valley was therefore always possessed by the Board.

…Deputy Medical Inspector Wagoner, whose district was the large and crowded portion of the town known as Kernville, thus reports: ‘Large quantities of disinfectants were taken away by the people and used, and still larger quantities were distributed by the office from house to house at regular intervals. During the entire time the office was open, one gang of laborers was employed in sprinkling disinfectants over the entire district,… so that they covered the entire district twice a week. A gang was also detailed to gather up and burn the bedding, garments and carpets which had been ruined by the water and were thickly scattered throughout the entire wreck. An immense quantity of this material was destroyed. Each day’s work averaged twelve wagon loads.’… These figures represent only what [disinfectants] have been accounted for and acknowledged:

  • 4,000 barrels quick-lime
  • 500 barrels chloride of lime
  • 1,700 bottles bromine
  • 110 barrels Bullen’s Disinfectant
  • 100 tons copperas
  • 100 gallons carbolic acid
  • 3 carboys muriatic acid
  • 40 gallons nitric acid
  • 180 barrels rosin
  • 200 barrels pine tar
  • 73 barrels pitch
  • 5 barrels liquid Phenyle
  • 15 barrels Sanitas
  • 3 barrels Phenique
  • 100 kegs Utopia
  • 10 carboys embalming fluid
  • 720 bottles sod. Hypochlorite
  • 700 bottles Platt’s chlorides
  • 116 pounds corrosive sublimate
  • 100 Werther’s Disinfectant
  • 50 bottles Pennsylvania R. R. Co.’s disinfectant
  • 100 bottles Purity
  • 100 bottles bromo-chloralum
  • A cargo of Quibells Brothers’ Disinfectant, valued at five-hundred pounds sterling ($2,500).

…The chloride of lime, quick-lime and copperas were strewn thickly over surfaces from which filth had been removed, in cellars and on the dumped filth. Carbolic acid was also used effectively over large surfaces and in closets. It may be safely said that disinfectant was never so thoroughly put to the test before, and that it came out of the test triumphantly.

Of the condition which confronted us Inspector Matthews says: ‘The homes that were not swept away were left in the most unsanitary condition imaginable. The flood water was heavily charged with every kind of filth, and whatever this water touched it contaminated. As a result, every house in the flooded district was filled, in most cases to the second floor, with most offensive matter. There was not a place which the flood touched where a man could lay his head with safety.

Inspector Wagoner, after describing the limits of his district says: ‘After the waters subsided, this extensive district was covered with a compact mass of debris, under which lay scores of dead in the slum and filth that fell from the burdened waters;’ and yet the same gentleman is able, in the latter part of his report to bear this gratifying testimony:

With the concentration of 2,500 people into 380 houses, all subjected to intense mental strain by reason of the calamity and the radical changes in their habits of life, it is very gratifying to know that during the continuance of the Board’s operations not a case of infectious disease developed in the district which could be attributed to bad sanitary conditions.’

During the first ten days following the flood, Johnstown was favored with low temperature clouded skies and frequent rain. These, while they produced much discomfort and gave rise to a certain amount of rheumatism and pneumonia, were of great advantage in delaying decomposition. As soon, however, as a hot sun developed the germs of putrefaction and the large force, employed by the Pittsburgh Relief Committee and subsequently by the State, began to uncover numerous houses, cellars and yards, reeking with filth and often containing dead bodies and carcasses even in parlors and bedrooms, the necessity for a rapid enlargement of the purely sanitary work became manifest, if pestilence was to be averted.…

…The first necessity of the people of Johnstown, like ship-wrecked sailors on a desert island, when they found themselves still living after the bewildering catastrophe, was food. This the volunteer relief committees, and notably that of Altoona, among the first in the field, generously supplied. The second was shelter. This want was attempted to be met by the Pittsburgh Relief Commission, who ordered ready-made houses from Chicago. The first specimens of these which arrived proved to by simply little shelters intended for the use of sportsmen during the summer, and, both on account of their diminutive size and their insufficient protection against inclement weather, the Secretary felt compelled to protest against their adoption as homes for families. A larger and more substantial pattern was soon followed, and, by placing a large and a small one together, a tolerably comfortable temporary dwelling was arranged. This, however, was evidently capable of accommodating only a very small family, and the Relief Commission therefore authorized the construction of a larger two-story house to accommodate households in which there were several children. Subsequently, Miss Clara Barton, the indefatigable head of the National Red Cross Association, proposed the erection of several large boarding-houses in which families and women might have privacy and protection.

But the proposal to erect dwellings of any kind at once brought the Board face to face with the question: ‘How far will it be safe for families to occupy houses placed upon this filth-saturated soil?’ At first the Secretary felt it his duty to taboo the entire flooded district of Johnstown proper, including a large portion of Kernville. Little by little the restricted regions were narrowed, but it was not until the middle of August that it was felt to be wise to allow habitations to be placed indiscriminately on former foundations or house-lots. This fact has been alluded to in order to correct an impression which seems to have prevailed that the people of Johnstown were themselves unnecessarily tardy and unenterprising in the matter of rebuilding. Another cause, and an entirely reasonable one, for a certain amount of hesitancy in erecting houses on the plateau between the rivers, has been the well-founded apprehension that the elevation of the river-beds by flood-deposits would render this district liable to be overflowed by every slight rise in the streams….

With the double purpose of giving the people information as to the precautions to be observed in order to preserve their health …, and of allaying the apprehensions … [about] disease, bulletins were frequently issued and circulars distributed….

…It is to be hoped, however, that the lesson taught by the prominent participation of the Board in the rescue and recovery of Johnstown will engrave itself deeply on …[future] minds.

From Through the Johnstown Flood, Rev. David Beale, pages 177-203

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