Education: Johnstown Flood Museum

Johnstown Area Heritage Association
Primary sources/ Newspapers

Our Calamity

Johnstown Weekly Tribune

Editor George Swank, June 14, 1889


Johnstown Sitting on its Ruins and Mourning its Dead

Mills, Buildings, and Homes Gone and 5000 people

No workshops, nor Business Houses, and Only Here and There a Hearthstone.

Whole Families Swept Away, and All that Remain in Deep Bereavement.
The Heaps of Wreckage Still Filled with Victims, and Hearts Still Bleeding.
Tens of millions of Financial Loss, and only the Future to Restore it.
Misery, Poverty, and Death, our Portion, but Friends are Helpful.

The Ruined City Now under State Control, with a Ray of Hope Ahead.

How the Reservoir Came, and the Town Went and the Wretched Story Since.

Modern History's Saddest Page Turned and Creased.

…It came like a thief, and was upon us before we were aware. Already when it reached us it had numbered its victims by the hundreds. Mineral Point and East Conemaugh were gone, a passenger train was engulfed. Woodvale was swept away. Conemaugh Borough was shaved off as if the sharp surface of an avalanche; in a moment Johnstown was tumbling all over itself; houses at one end nodded to houses at the other end and went like a swift, deceitful friend to meet, embrace, and crush them. Then on sped the wreck in a whirl, the angry water baffled for a moment, running up the hill with the town and the helpless multitude on its back, the flood shaking with rage, and dropping here and there a portion of its burden-crushing, grinding, pulverizing all. Then back with the great frame buildings, floating along like ocean steamers, upper decks crowded, hands clinging to every support that could be reached, and so on down to the great stone bridge, where the houses, piled mountain high, took fire, and burned with all the fury of hell you read about -- cremation alive in your own home, perhaps a mile from its foundation; dear ones slowly consumed before your eyes, and the same fate your own a moment later.

…So the night passed. Hour by hour the water receded. Little by little the streets came into sight. Day dawned, and it was not all a dream. People were stirring. Men who were first to leave the wreck on which they had passed the weary hours were showing everywhere. Rafts were out. Hearts beat again. Hope rose with the sun. The birds sang their most cheerful songs. A flag or two, still at half mast, as on Memorial Day, fluttered in the breeze, and we knew the country would hear our cry.


…Then came the real awakening [Saturday morning]. We must learn the truth the shortest and quickest way. We must find our friends or their bodies. We must live, so out poured the saved. But soon they realized their helplessness. People went miles over debris, at the risk of life and limb, to find no sign of their homes. Where houses had stood was bare ground, or perhaps the wreck of a house that the day before had stood miles away. The Cambria Mills were wrecked, -- not hopelessly, but badly wrecked. The Gautier and Woodvale mills were gone, and so was every business house in town, -- or, if the building remained, the merchant moved among us, a tramp like the rest.

Freight cars, carried long distances, stood in the streets. At one place was a locomotive that had ridden on the bosom of the flood like a toy. Here was a big hotel, filled with people, when the water came, nothing left of it -- even the cellar to be dug over again. Strong brick blocks mowed down like our colored farmer used to cut the grass in the Park.

Hands of the dead stuck out of the ruins. Dead everywhere you went, their arms stretched above their heads almost without exception -- that last instinct of humanity grasping at a straw. Whole families swept away -- here and there, three generations. Whole families saved -- the mockery of fate.

Where to go, what to do, no one could tell. The survivors were moving, but they knew not whither. Over and under the wrecks they went, in and out of the ruins, -- hoping, dreading to find a friend. The bridges were gone and the rivers divided us. In parts of town there was still a waste of waters. Food there was none except upon the hills, and even the prudent housewives had depended upon Saturday's marketing for their supplies, and their charitable hearts were sore because they could not feed the hungry.

The Pennsylvania Railroad was blocked both ways…; the B.&O. to the south was stuck, and we might as well for the first few hopeless, helpless hours have been in the Alps, with glaciers all about us, and crevasses and death.

...Saturday was a terrible day nevertheless. Not a living man, woman, or child, but was bereft of relatives or dear friends. Bodies were recovered rapidly. Here a banker or a merchant, by his side a tailor or perhaps a despised Hun. Here in the filth all that was left of a refined sweet woman; there and all about her the bodies of strangers dead. Here and there wherever the wreckage landed, a fond mother with her dead babe tight clasped in the arms of death. The leveler's work was thorough.

So the day wore through and night came again. Headquarters for relief had been established, a general morgue opened, and at the most accessible points up and down the valley dead-houses were located. There were also hospitals, to which many sick and wounded were removed, and every moment saw stretchers moving along.

With the night came total darkness.  The electric-light house was wrecked and the gashouse demolished. Only in the hill houses was there even oil, and here and there on the hill would a faucet tap water. These houses were open to all comers, friends, and strangers alike, and they were all crowded. But they could accommodate only a fraction of the sufferers and many spent the night on the mountain or straggled out to peaceful and comfortable country homes, where every comfort was afforded them.


…[On Sunday] the work was taken up where it left off the night before. Hundreds of bodies had been found, still others were recovered as the day passed. Interments of victims who had been identified had begun to be made, without preacher or priest. Friends not infrequently had to dig the graves for their lost. Many bodies were temporarily buried near where they were recovered. The "funerals" consisted of sometimes half a dozen coffined bodies -- relatives who had been found near together -- and perhaps a solitary mourner walking in the mud behind.


…Monday found us still in better shape. Hope for the old town's future began to mount. Those of us where were left would come out all right if only we would stick together and not lose heart. The mills were not ruined, and if they were, they would be rebuilt. We had go back to earth and had the earth to walk on, and we would try to walk erect and to go forward in the path of duty. We would dismiss our troubles, for were we not in a common boat, and was not each man's story the story of his neighbor? Courage! And all would yet be well.

So with cheer and helpfulness for one another, and strengthened and consoled by the knowledge that the whole country was at our back with sympathetic and willing hands, the days passed.

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