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A Walk Through the Valley of Death
Posted By Judy On In Pennsylvania | No Comments
In the following graphic narrative one of the eye-witnesses of the fearful ruin and slaughter represents himself as a guide, and if the reader will consider himself as the party whom the guide is conducting, a vivid impression of the scene of the great destruction may be obtained.
“Hello, where on earth did you come from? And what are you doing here, anyhow? Oh! you just dropped in to see the sights, eh? Well, there are plenty of them and you won’t see the like of them again if you live a century. What’s that? You have been wandering around and got tangled up in the ruins and don’t know where you are? Well, that’s not strange. I have been lost myself a dozen times. It’s a wonder you haven’t got roasted by some of those huge bonfires. But here, you come with me. Let me be your guide for the afternoon and I’ll put you in the way of seeing what is left of Johnstown.
“First, let’s climb up this bluff just before us and we shall have a first-rate view of things. Skip across this little temporary bridge over this babbling brook and now–climb! Whew! that takes your breath, doesn’t it? But it is worth the trouble. Now you see we are standing on an embankment perhaps thirty feet high. We are in the midst, too, of a lot of tents. It is here that the soldier boys are encamped. Off to one side you see the freight depot of the Pennsylvania Railroad and the tracks, you notice, run along on the top of this embankment. It is in that freight depot that Adjutant General Hastings has his headquarters. We will walk over there presently, but first let’s take a look at our surroundings.
“You notice, I suppose, that this flat spreading out before us at the bottom of the embankment is inclosed on all sides by mountains. They are shaped something like a triangle and we are standing at the base. Here, let me make a rough sketch of it on the back of this envelope. It will help us out a little. There! That figure 1 is the freight depot, near which we are standing. Towering up above us are houses and up there a canvas city for refugees. There is a temporary hospital there, too, and a graveyard, where many a poor victim of the flood lies. The background is a high hill. The people here call it Prospect Hill. The flood! Gracious! what a view the people up the hill must have had of it as it whirled, and eddied, and roared and rushed through the town, for this great flat before us was where the main portion of Johnstown stood.
“You notice that there are gaps in the mountain chains which form the sides of the triangle. Through the gap at our left comes the Conemaugh River, flowing from the mountain on its way westward. River, did I say? I don’t wonder you smile. It doesn’t look much like a river–that little bubbling stream. Can you imagine it swelling into a mighty sea, that puny thing, that is smiling in its glee over the awful havoc it has created? Now you are beginning to understand how it is that Johnstown proper lies within the forks of two streams. The Conemaugh runs by us at our feet to the right. See, there is a wrecked and overturned car down there. If thrown across the stream it would almost bridge it. That is Stony Creek on the other side of the flat, running down through that gap which forms the apex of the triangle. It skirts the mountains on the right and the two streams meet. You can’t see the meeting point from here, for our embankment curves, but they do meet around that curve, and then the united rivers flow under the now famous stone bridge, which was built to carry this railroad across the stream. Oh! yes, we will go down there, for that bridge formed the gorge which proved so destructive.
“I would like to take you away up to the dam if we had time and point out the destruction all along down the valley until the flood rushed through that gap to the left and then spread over Johnstown. But it is too late in the day for that, and the walk is a most tiresome one, so you will have to take my word for it. Of course, you have read that the dam was constructed in a most outrageous manner. Well, that is true. It is a wonder the valley wasn’t swept long ago. No, the loss of life wasn’t great in the upper part of the valley because the people took the warning which the Johnstonians refused and mostly escaped. The little town of South Fork was badly shattered and Mineral Point was swept away.
“But the real fury of the flood is seen in its marks on the soil. Gracious! how it leveled forests, swept away bowlders, cut out new channels and destroyed everything in its path. I cannot begin to give you even an idea of the wonderful power of that flood. At East Conemaugh not a vestige of the place was left. Where once stood a row of houses the river now runs, and the former river-bed is now filled with dirt and stones. It was in this vicinity, you know, where so many engines and cars were wrecked–smashed, twisted, broken and scattered along the valley for half a mile. It was here, too, where the passengers in the two trains met such a thrilling experience, and where so many of them were killed. The body of one of the passengers, Miss Bryan, of Germantown, was found away down here in Johnstown.
“It took but a few minutes for the flood to rush down upon Woodvale and sweep it out of existence, and then it made a mad break through that gap over there on the extreme left. The houses which you see on the hillside over there–figure 6–belong to Conemaugh borough, a different place from East Conemaugh, you understand. The borough also extended down over the flat. By the way, there is something very funny about all these separate boroughs. Most all of them are naturally parts of Johnstown–such as Conemaugh, Kernville, Cambria City, Prospect and the like, but there have been so many petty jealousies that they have refused to unite. But that is neither here nor there now, for in the common calamity they are one.
“Now you would have thought that the people on the Johnstown flat would have got out of the way when warned of danger, wouldn’t you? But they simply laughed. You must remember that a good portion of the place was flooded long before the dam broke. The rise of the two rivers did that. The water ran from two to five or six feet high in some of the houses. But, bless you, that was nothing. The place had been flooded so many times and escaped that everybody actually howled down all suggestions of danger. Telegrams had been coming into town all the afternoon and they were received by Miss Ogle, the brave lady operator, who stuck to her post to the last, but they might as well never have been sent for all the good they did.
“Well, now with Johnstown spread out before you you can readily understand what happened when the flood burst through the gap. There was no time to run then. No time to pray, even. You notice the river makes a sharp curve, and naturally enough the impetus of the water spread it over a wide territory. The Conemaugh houses on the flat went down like so many pasteboard houses. A portion of the flood followed the stream and the other portion went tearing along the line of the hills which form the left side of the triangle.
“Now look away over to the left and then away over to the hills on the right, and what do you see? That distance is how great? Two miles, do you say? Yes, fully that and probably more. Well, now for two or three squares inland from this stream at our feet there is nothing but a barren waste of sand–looks like a desert, doesn’t it? Can you imagine that all that immense strip was covered with stores, business houses and dwellings? Where are they now? Why, just look at that circular hole just beneath us on the other side of the stream. That was the gas works once. The great iron receiver, or whatever you call it, went rolling, dashing, crashing away before the flood, and not a vestige of it has been found yet. Can you ask, then, what became of the houses? Simply wiped out of existence.
“There! I put down the figure 2 on the map. It is a brick building, as you see, but there is a big hole knocked in it. That is the B. and O. depot. Figure 3–Two more brick buildings with one end completely gone. These are the Cambria Iron Company’s offices and the company’s stores. What else can you see? Just around the curve where I mark down figure 4 is another brick building–the Millvale school-house. It is out of range from this point, but you shall see it by and by. These buildings are actually the only ones left standing in all that desert of sand, a covering four or five feet deep left by the flood and hiding whatever is underneath as effectually as the ashes of Mt. Vesuvius blotted out Pompeii. There may be a thousand bodies under that sand for all that anybody knows. Just ahead of us in the great area roughly shown by this figure 5 lie the tents of the workmen engaged in putting Johnstown in order. Now, if you draw a line from the Conemaugh hills right down back of the B. and O. depot through the camp of the workmen, and thence to Stony Creek, the only buildings you will find standing between us and that imaginary line are these I have already marked with figures as 2, 3 and 4 on the map. Did you ever see anything so destructive in your life?
“You say you see a good many buildings in what appears to be the centre of the town. So you do, but just wait until you stroll among them. There are many there, it is true, but after all, how many are good for anything? Oh! the water has been doing a tremendous amount of damage. Why, over there, up to the very foot of the hills–I will mark the spot No. 7–behind the buildings which you see, it has simply torn things up by the roots. That is the Fourth Ward, and the ruins are full of the dead, and the Fourth Ward Morgue has had more bodies in it than any of the others.
“You remember that I told you that one current swept over that way. It caught up houses and they began to drift all over the place, crashing into each other and grinding people between the timbers. All this time the houses down here by the Conemaugh had been floating toward the bridge. Logs, boards, lumber and houses from the banks of Stony Creek had been coming down, too, and thus formed that tremendous jam above the stone bridge, which actually turned the current of the creek back upon itself. Some of the houses from the centre of the city and from the Fourth ward got into Stony Creek and actually went up the stream. Others floated all over town in circles and finally, having reached the Conemaugh, got caught in the jam at last and were destroyed by the fire which broke out there. After a time, too, the pressure at the bridge became so tremendous that the river burst a new channel for itself and then many houses came down again.
“But I am anticipating. Let us walk down to the bridge–it is not far–for the bridge is the key to the situation. We must pass the freight depot, for we follow the track. You see it is a busy place. You know we have had a change of administration here, and Adjutant General Hastings is in command. We are all heartily glad of it, too, for the worst kind of red tapeism prevailed under the Pittsburgh regime.
“And then the deputies–a lot of brutes appointed by the Sheriff. What an ignorant set they were. Most of them couldn’t even read. They were the only toughs in town. They had captured all the tomato cans left over from the great flood which the Bible tells about and had cut out tin stars to decorate themselves with. Anybody who could find a piece of tin could be a deputy. And how they did bulldoze.
“But all this is changed now. The deputies–we called them the tin policemen–have been bounced and the place is now guarded by the soldiers. Business has taken the place of red tape, and General Hastings has turned the freight depot into offices for his various departments, for a system has been established which will reach all the victims, bury all the dead, discover all the living and clean up the town. There is now a central bureau, into which reports are turned, and the old haphazard way of doing things has been swept as clean as the sand before us. There is General Hastings’ horse standing at the steps, for the general is in the saddle most of the time, here, there, everywhere, directing and ordering.
“Dinner! hello, dinner is ready. Now you will see how the officers at headquarters live. You see, the table has been spread on the platform facing the railroad tracks. Ah! there is Hastings himself–white slouch hat, white shirt, blue flannel trousers, and boots. He looks every inch a soldier, doesn’t he? There! he is beckoning to us. What do you suppose he wants. Oh! he wants us to dine with him. Shall we? It will be plain fare, but as good as can be found. A dudish society reporter from Philadelphia dropped into town the other morning. He met a brother reporter from the same paper.
“‘Oh!’ he groaned. ‘Where can I find a restaurant?’
“‘Restaurant!’ shrieked the other. ‘Where do you think we are? Restaurant! You come with me and I’ll try to steal you a ham sandwich, and you’ll be mighty lucky to get that.’
“‘Oh! but I am so hungry. Can you direct me to the nearest hack stand?’
“The brother reporter turned and fled in dismay, and the society man hasn’t been seen around here since. But it illustrates the time the boys have been having getting anything to eat. So we had better accept the general’s invitation. What have we here? Oh! this is fine. You don’t mind tin plates and spoons and coffee cups, of course, especially as we have ham and potatoes, bread and coffee for dinner. That’s a right good meal; but I tell you I have eaten enough ham to last me for a year, and when I get out of Johnstown and get back to Philadelphia I am going to make a break for the Bellevue and eat. And there won’t be any ham in that dinner, you can bet.
“Now, have you had enough? Then we will continue our walk along the tracks to the bridge. First we pass the Pennsylvania Railroad passenger station. What a busy place it is! The tracks are filled with freight cars packed with supplies, and the platform is filled with men and women ready to take them. In this station a temporary morgue was established. It has been moved now to the school-house, No. 4, you know, on the map. Now, as we round the curve you see it. That is the famous building that saved so many lives–the only one left in the great barren waste of sand. You know the water formed an eddy about it, and thus, as house after house floated and circled about it men and women would clutch the roof and climb upon it. The water reached half way to the ceiling on the second floor on a dead level.
“Now you can see where the two rivers come together. What a jam that was. It extended from the fork down to the bridge–No. 10. When the flames began to demolish it the pile towered far above the bridge. Now it is level with the water, but so thickly is it packed that the river runs beneath it. Let us stand here on the railroad embankment at the approach to the bridge, and watch the workmen. You notice how high the approaches are on either side, and you can readily understand how these high banks caught the drift. The stone arches of the bridge are low, you perceive. When the flood was at its height houses were actually swept over the bridge. From the débris left in the river and on the sides you can imagine what an immense dam it was that was formed, and just how it happened that the rivers turned back on themselves. I met a woman up Stony Creek early this morning. She was laughing over the adventure she and her children had. They floated down the creek to the bridge and then floated back again, and were finally rescued in boats. I asked her how she could joke about it.
“‘Oh!’ she said, ‘I am never bothered about anything. I was as cool then as I am now, and rather enjoyed it.’
“But she wasn’t very cool. She was bordering on the hysterical. She and her children are now living with friends, for their house was completely wrecked.
“A good many people had experiences similar to hers before the river broke through the railroad embankment just above the bridge here and swept tracks and everything else down upon the Cambria Iron Works. There they are, just behind us. I will mark them on the map–No. 11. Then the flow rushed through Cambria City, just below. That place is in a horrible condition–houses wrecked and streets full of débris. But there is no necessity of going there. You can see all the horrors you want right here.
“Look across the bridge, up the hill a little way. Do you see that old, tumble-down coal shed? It is where the Western Union established its office, and in that neighborhood most of the reporters have been living–sleeping in brick-kilns, hay lofts, tents, anywhere in fact. What a nice time they have had of it. They have suffered as much as the flood victims.
“Phew! What a stench. It comes from the débris in the river. It is full of the dead bodies of horses, dogs; yes, and of human beings. We hear stories occasionally of women being taken from that mass alive. They are false, of course, but there was one instance that is authentic. A woman was found one week after the flood still breathing. She had been caught in some miraculous way. She was taken to Pittsburgh, where she died. I was kicking about over the débris a day or two ago, and heard a cat mewing under the débris somewhere. I know half a dozen people who have rescued kittens and are caring for them tenderly. A flood cat will command a premium before long, I have no doubt.
“Ha! What’s that? Yes, it is a body. The sight is so common now that people pay no attention to it. We have been living in the midst of so much death, of so many scenes of a similar character, that I suppose the sensibilities have become hardened to them. There, they are placing the body on a window shutter and are carrying it up to the school-house. It will be laid on a board placed over the tops of the children’s desks. You will notice coffins piled up all about the school-house. Of course, the body is awfully disfigured and cannot be identified. The clothing will be described and the body hurried away to its nameless grave.
“Have you enough? Then let us walk back toward headquarters and go down upon the flat into the centre of the town. What is that you have there? A piece of a Bible? Yes, you will find lots of leaves lying around. There is a story–I don’t know how true it is–that many people have thrown their Bibles away since the flood, declaring that their belief, after the horrors they have witnessed, is at an end. I can hardly credit this. But there is one curious thing that is certain, and everybody has noticed it. Books and Bibles have been found in the rubbish all over the town, and in a great many instances they are open at some passage calling attention to flood and disaster. I have found these myself a dozen times. It is a remarkable coincidence, to say the least.
“Some people may find a warning in all this. I don’t pretend to say, but as we walk along here let me tell you of a conversation I had with a man who was worth nearly $20,000 before the flood. He has lost every cent, and is glad enough to get his daily meals from the supplies sent here.
“‘I don’t know what to think of Johnstown,’ he said. ‘We have been called a wicked place. Perhaps all this is a judgment. Just when we have been most prosperous some calamity has come upon us. We were never more prosperous than when this flood overwhelmed us.’
“Well here we are back at General Hastings’ headquarters. Now we will go down the embankment, cross the river and plunge ahead into town.
“Over this loose sand we will trudge and strike in by the Baltimore and Ohio depot. Now we are in the camp of the workingmen. Here are the stalls for the horses, too. The men, you see, live in tents. There are not as many of them as there will be; probably not over fifteen hundred to-day, but there will be twice that to-morrow, and five thousand men will be employed here steadily for a long time to come. Now let us jump right into Main street. It is the worst one in town. Just see! There is the post-office, looking as if it never would be able to pull itself out of the wreck. Across the street is the bank, with the soldiers guarding it. There, just ahead, you see a tall brick building lifting its head out of the midst of a pile of ruins. There is where many people were saved. The current carried scores of men, women and children past it, and those who had strength deserted their rafts and wrecks of houses and crawled into its windows.
“Now our progress is blocked. That immense pile of wreckage is by no means as high as it was; but you don’t want to crawl over it yet. Phew! Let’s get out of this. How those piles of rubbish do smell. You know the Board of Health says there is nothing the matter with Johnstown, but if the Board of Health would only take the trouble to nose about a bit it might learn a thing or two. You notice there have been grocery stores and markets around here, and you notice, too, the pile of decaying vegetable matter from them. These are worse than the dead bodies.
“Are there bodies under these ruins? Lots of them. There! what do you see this minute? Those workmen have discovered one in the ruins of the Merchants’ Hotel. Poor fellow. He was pinned by falling walls, probably. A man was found there the other day with his pockets full of money. He had tried to save his fortune and lost his life. Near by a man was found alive after an experience of a week in the débris. He called for water, but never drank it. His tongue was too stiff, and he had not strength to move a muscle. He died almost as soon as he was found.
“Well, did you ever see such a mass of wreckage? It doesn’t look as if there were twenty houses fit to live in all over this flat. But a good many will be patched up after a fashion, no doubt. And this is only one street out of several in the same condition.
“Hello! Those workmen are digging out of a cellar some barrels of whisky. That liquor will be guarded, for the old policemen and the ‘tin’ deputies have been having high old times with the liquor they have unearthed. There were formerly forty-five saloons in this town. Do you know how many there are left? Three. That’s all. One saloon-keeper found $1,700 in the ruins of his place.
“Gracious! There is a freight car. It was caught up half a mile or more away and dumped down in this street. And there is a piano sticking out. Hello! What have you found there? Oh, a looking glass. Yes, you find plenty of them in the rubbish almost as good as new. A friend of mine pulled out a glass pitcher and two goblets from that terrible mass at the bridge, and there wasn’t a crack upon them. Queer, isn’t it? But so it goes. Fragile things are not injured and stoves and iron are twisted and broken. The vagaries of this flood are many.
‘I Thought You Were Dead’
“Turn this corner. Now, will you look at that? There is a house with the back all knocked out. The furniture has disappeared, but on the wall you see a picture hanging, and as I am alive it is a picture of a flood. What did I tell you a little while ago? Here is a house with its walls nearly intact. Next it is nothing but a heap of rubbish. Here is nothing but a cellar full of débris. Next it is a wooden dwelling. A man sits on the piazza with his clothing hung about him for an airing. And so it goes right here in the neighborhood of the main street, but if we pull out a bit from this place we shall see that the damage is a great deal greater. Through this break you can see the Presbyterian church. It is about ruined, but it still stands. If you go up stairs, what do you think you will see in that cold, dark, damp room? Stretched upon the tops of the pews are long boards, and stretched upon the boards are corpses. They have been embalmed, and are awaiting identification. But we won’t go in there. All the morgues are alike, and we shall find another before long.
“Hark! There are two women greeting each other. Let’s hear what they say.
“‘Why, Eliza, I thought you were dead. How’s all the folks? Are they all saved?’
“‘Yes; they are all saved–all but sister and her little girl.’
“Well, that was cool, wasn’t it? But you hear that on every corner. As I told you, in the presence of so much death the sensibilities are blunted. People do not yet realize their great grief.
“There, we are safely by the main street with its dangers of pestilence, for you noticed that it was reeking with filth and bad smells, and safely by the falling walls, for the workmen are tearing down everything shaky. Look out, there, or you will get scorched by that huge bonfire. They are burning all over town. Everything that the men can lift is dragged to these fires and burned. This is the plan for clearing the town. You noticed it at the bridge and you notice it here. Men with axes and saws are cutting timbers too big to be moved, and men with ropes and horses and even stationary engines are pressed into service to tug at the ruins. Slowly the débris is yielding to the flames.
“Ha! now we are getting over by the hills into what is known as the Fourth Ward. Here it is on our map–No. 7. What a sight! Most of the bodies are taken from the ruins here. As far as you can see there is nothing but wreckage–yes, wreckage, from which the foulest odors are continually rising and in the midst of which countless big fires are burning. Are you not almost discouraged at the idea of clearing so many acres up? Well, it does look like an endless task.
“There, you see that brick building? It is called the Fourth Ward School House. Do you want to go in? Piled up at one side are coffins–little coffins, medium sized coffins, large coffins–coffins for children, women and men. Oh! what a gloomy, horrible place. Stretched on these boards in this dismal room–what do you see? Corpses dragged from the river and from the débris. See how distorted and swollen are the faces. They are beyond recognition. Some have great bruises. Some are covered with blood. Some are black. Turn your head away. Such a sight you never saw before and pray God that you may never see it again. Nearly 250 bodies have been handled in this school house. Outside once more for a breath of air! Oh! the delightful change. But you are not yet away from the horrors. There is a tent in the school yard. What do you see? More coffins. Yes, and each one has a victim. Each is ready for shipment or burial.
“Let’s hurry along. Here on this corner is the temporary post-office. Over there is a supply station. There are eleven such departments now under the new management, and people are given not only provisions but clothing. You ought to see the women coming down from the hills in the morning for the supplies. Think of it! There are at least twenty thousand people in the flooded district to be fed for many weeks to come. You know there has been some comment because in the past all the money has not been used for food. I think it is a mistake. Where is charity to cease? In my opinion, the thing to do is to clean this town up, and give the business men and mills a chance to start up again. When this is done people can earn their own living, and charity ceases. I am backed up in this statement by Irwin Hurrell, who is a burgess of Johnstown, and knows everybody. Let me read you something from my note book that he said to me:
“‘The people up in the hills have never had a better time. They won’t work. They go around and get all the clothing they can and fill their houses with provisions.’
“The burgess speaks the exact truth. Some of these houses are packed with flour and potatoes. The Hungarians and colored men and the ‘tin’ deputies, now out of a job, have been the real thieves. They pulled trunks from the river, cut the locks and rifled them. There have been no professional thieves here. The thieves live here. Most of the respectable people were swept away by the flood, but nearly all the ‘toughs’ were left. Now if I had my way I would make the survivors work. Some one said the other day: ‘Why talk of sufferers? there are no sufferers. They are all dead.’ This is true in a great measure. It is not charity to keep in idleness people who have lost nothing and won’t work. I’d hunt them out and put them at it.
“Well, we will pass this supply depot, strike the Baltimore and Ohio track, and go up Stony Creek a bit. Notice the long lines of freight cars loaded with supplies. On our right runs the little river. On our left is Ward 7. I will note it as No. 8 on the map. You see there is a little stretch of plateau and then the ground rises rapidly. See what ravages the flood made on the plateau. The houses are wrecked and filled with mud. The local name of this place is Hornertown. One man here had $60,000 in his house. It was wrecked. He dug away at the ruins and found $20,000. If we followed the stream up a mile or so we would come to the Stonyvale Cemetery. It is covered with logs and wrecks of houses. It was in one of these houses that the body of a woman was found last Saturday. She was sitting at a table. The house had floated here on the back water from down the river.
“There, I guess we have walked far enough. Here are the tents of the Red Cross Society, and by the side of them are those of the United States engineers. The engineers have thrown a pontoon bridge over the river, you see, to a place called Kernville. Here you are, No. 9 on our little map. Let us cross. By George! there is an old man on the bridge I have seen before. He lost his wife and two children in the flood, but he isn’t crying for them. What bothers him most is the loss of a clock, but in the clock was $1,600.
“You see there is nothing new in Kernville. It is the same old story. Many lives have been lost here and the wreckage is something awful. The houses that remain are filled with mud and the ceilings still drip with water. People seem to have lost their senses. They are apparently paralyzed by their troubles. They sit around waiting for some one to come and clear the wreckage away.
“Well, it is a terrible sight and we will hurry through the place and cross to Johnstown flat, over another pontoon bridge further down. It brings us out, as you see, near the main street again. Hello! there is a man; there is his name on the sign–Kramer, isn’t it? who is getting his grocery store open, the first in town. He was flooded, but carried some of his goods to an upper floor and saved them. Lucky Kramer! Here is a man selling photographs on the porch of a doctor’s office. Dr. Brinkey. Oh, yes, he was drowned. His body was found last Monday.
“Well, we’ll hurry by and get up to headquarters once more. It is 6 o’clock. See, the workmen are knocking off and are going to the river to wash up. Now, out comes the baseball, for recreation always follows work here.
“Once more on the platform of the freight station. Dusk settles down over the valley. An engine near by begins to throb and electric lights spring up here and there. All over the town the flames of the great bonfires leap out of the gloom. From the camps of the workmen come ribald songs and jests, The presence of death has no effect on the living.
“The songs gradually die away and the singers drop off into a deep sleep. The town becomes as silent as the graveyards which have been filled with its victims. Not a sound is heard save the crackling of the flames and the challenges of the sentries to some belated newspaper man or straggler.
“And thus another day draws to a close in ill-fated Johnstown.”
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