The Johnstown Flood
Author: David McCullough
I didn’t entirely plan it like this, but I ended up reading this book in very close proximity to Isaac’s Storm, another book about a flood in late 19th century America. It’s hard not to compare the two books, and unfortunately this one didn’t quick capture my interest like Erik Larson’s book did.
The Johnston Flood took place in 1889 in Pennsylvania, killing about 2,000 people . It was the fault of both a heavy storm, but more directly a man made dam made of earth that was not maintained after being built. There was a bit of intrigue in this book in who was responsible for the dam, with most pointing to a Fish and Wildlife Club made up of many of the wealthiest people in the state in that era. When the water level in the lake rose, the dam (which was not tallest in the middle as it should have been and did not have any pipes for drainage) quickly eroded, wiping out the entire town.
The book also gets into the rebuild of the town afterward, which featured quite a lot of fundraising by others and one of the initial responses by the Red Cross to its first major disaster. The flood itself was basically one long day, with the bulk of the book discussing the birth of the community and the establishment of the dam and the aftermath and rebuilding of the community.
Compared to Isaac’s Storm, there was a human element missing from this book. Besides the man perspective character of Isaac, Larson also told several other affected individuals stories in greater depth than anything here in McCullough’s book. The actual flood described, taking place just eleven years later and killing three times as many people, and lasting longer was just more interesting on its own as well. Had I not read that book first, this would have probably been a four star book but alas, I can’t put that toothpaste back in the tube.