Newspaper and Telephones
In the Tribune plant over the post-office on Franklin Street, Swank and his assistants had begun the last work on the Johnstown Weekly Tribune for May 31. Some of the force were engaged in collecting news of the rising flood; others were setting the last minute jottings into type. Before noon, the men realized that the weekly paper could not go to its subscribers even if printed. Then Swank began to organize the news of the flood carefully. The editor’s account of the day of the Great Flood appeared in the Johnstown Weekly Tribune for June 14, 1889, -- two weeks after the calamity had passed. The flood news of May 31 was rewritten into an intimate, somber, majestic article which Swank titled, “Before the Reservoir Came.” In this article, the Johnstown editor made the best of his opportunity and his ability. Observing a foremost American tragedy from his own front window, Swank revealed the skill of his pen with clear-cut, simple details which thousands of dead could have verified:
As we write at noon, Johnstown is again under water, and all about us the tide is rising. Wagons have for hours been passing along the streets carrying people from submerged points to places of safety, and boats, floating as jauntily as on the bosom of a river, have traversed the thoroughfares in the lower end of town, removing pent-up inmates from homes to which partial ruin has come thrice in as many years…The streets up and back as far as Jackson are running with the yellow devastating flood. A most exasperating state of affairs, and one for which there ought to be a remedy…
From 7 o’clock on the water rose. People who were glad they “didn’t live down town” began to wish they didn’t live in town at all. On the water crept, and on, up one street and out another, across the imaginary lines between the many boroughs, until at last there was “consolidation”, and the same wet blanket covered all. Eighteen inches an hour the Stony creek rose for a time, and the Conemaugh about as rapidly. The narrow banks were filled to overflowing and the town took what the channels could not carry…
Many of our citizens had not gone to their employment all, feeling the imminence of danger. But in the end all that they could do was to move things from the cellar, and then move things to the upper floors. Others who had left their homes were soon cut off from them by the water, and thus on both and all sides of the flood there were anxious hearts.
So the hours wore on, full only of excitement for some, but of hard fatiguing work and increasing distress for many others. Now would run over the town a rumor of a man drowned, of horses perishing, of daring rescuers or reckless adventurers nearly losing their lives, and the hello bell in the central office was hot with the impatient jingle of repeated calls. Johnstown, Cambria, the upper boroughs—wherever the telephone line runs—at the end of each wire was a worried listener or a man or woman excitedly asking somebody else how it fared with them. What a blessing the telephone was, and ho, if it could feel, it must have tingled with modest thoughts of its great usefulness…46
From this general description of the usual activities of a populace shut in by a rising flood, Swank then reported the details of news that had been sent to his office. The Poplar Street bridge fell from its abutments before noon. After mid-day the bridge from Millville to Cambria City fell into the Conemaugh. Henry Wilson Storey telephoned to Swank at 1:30 that he was standing in water “up to his middle” on the first floor of his home on Walnut Street. Shortly after two o’clock, a boat capsized at the entrance to public square. Cyrus Elder, one occupant, strode off in muddy water which reached to his waist. Looking down the street, Swank saw an employee of Moses’ tailor shop, “having read of the persons who undertook to sweep back the ocean with a broom, came out with a broom to sweep back the tide from his doorway, but like his predecessor, gave it up in disgust.” Dr. J. K. Lee telephoned Swank at 2:15 that he was standing in thirty-four inches of water. Daring young men were still forcing their horses through some of the submerged streets. At 2:45 Alf Heslop swam to the Tribune building to report that the current from the Stony creek was flowing through Franklin Street at six miles per hour. One man telephoned that for a while a cow had stood on a dislodged pier of the Poplar Street bridge until a mis-step had thrown her into the Stonycreek. Some one else reported that a dead horse had floated down the Stonycreek before noon. Swank thought of the safety of his newspaper carriers; thought about lights for the beleaguered city after darkness had set in; and prepared to spend the night in his quarters over the post-offices:
At 3 o’clock the town sat down with its hands in its pockets to make the best of a very dreary situation. All had got out of reach of the flood that could, and there was nothing to do but wait; an what impatient waiting it was anyone who has ever been penned in by a flood and has watched the water rising, and night coming on, can imagine…
At 3:15 the Central Telephone office called the Tribune up to say it had been informed by Agent Deckert, of the P.R.R. freight station, that the South Fork was getting worse all the time, and that the danger of its breaking was increasing momentarily. It is idle to speculate what would be the result if this tremendous body of water…should be thrown into the already submerged Valley of the Conemaugh.47
Excerpt from Nathan Daniel Shappee, History of Johnstown, Unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of Pittsburgh, 1940. Pages 202 –203.