New Tales of Horror

Map of Johnstown Flood
Map of Johnstown Flood

The accounts contained in the foregoing chapters bring this appalling story of death down to June 4th. We continue the narrative as given from day to day by eye-witnesses, as this is the only method by which a full and accurate description of Johnstown’s unspeakable horror can be obtained.

On the morning of June 5th one of the leading journals contained the following announcements, printed in large type, and preceding its vivid account of the terrible situation at Johnstown.

Death, ruin, plague! Threatened outbreak of disease in the fate stricken valley. Awful effluvia from corpses! Swift and decisive means must be taken to clear away the masses of putrefying matter that underlie the wreck of what was once a town. Proposed use of explosives. Crowds of refugees are already attacked by pneumonia and the germs of typhus pervade both air and water. Victims yet unnumbered. Dreadful discoveries hourly made! Heaps of the drowned, the mangled and the burned are found in pockets between rocks and under packed accumulations of sand! Pennsylvania regiments ordered to the scene to keep ward over an afflicted and heartbroken people. Blame where it belongs. The ears of the inhabitants were dulled to fear by warnings many times repeated–forty-two years ago the dam broke–vivid stories of witnesses of the great tragedy–the owners of the lake must bear a gigantic burden of remorse–sufferings of survivors!

These were the terrible headings in a single issue of a newspaper.

A registry of the living who were residents of Johnstown prior to the flood was begun to-day. Out of a total population of 39,400 the names of only 10,600 have been recorded. This may give an approximate idea of the number of those who lost their lives.

Gaunt Menace of Pestilence

The most important near fact of to-day is the increasing danger of pestilence.

As the work of disengaging the bodies of the dead progresses the horrible peril becomes more and more apparent. There is need of the speediest possible measures to offset the gravity of the sanitary situation.

From every part of the stricken valley the same cry of alarm arises, for at every point where the dead are being discovered, as the waters continue to abate, the same peril exists.

The use of explosives, especially dynamite, has been discussed. There is some opposition to it, but it may yet be resorted to. The great mass of ruins at the Pennsylvania Railroad bridge, which is still smoking and smouldering, is a ghastly mine of human flesh and bones in all sorts of hideous shapes, and unless desperate means are employed, cannot be cleared away in weeks to come.

Still, vigorous work in that direction is being performed, and explosives will be used in a limited degree to further it. This great work may be divided into two parts–the clearing away of the mass of débris lodged against the Pennsylvania Railroad bridge, and the examination and removal of the many wrecked buildings which mark the site of Johnstown.

Order Out of Chaos

Slowly something like order is beginning to appear in the chaos of destruction. Enough militia came to-day to put the town under strict martial law. Four hundred men of the Fourteenth regiment, of Pittsburgh, are here. There will be no more tramping over the ruins by ungoverned mobs. There will be no more fears of rioting.

The supplies of food are constantly growing. The much needed money is beginning to come in, though not at all needless relief committees are beginning to go out. Better quarters for the sufferers are being provided. Better arrangements for systematic relief are made. Something of the deep gloom has been dispelled, though Johnstown is still the saddest spot on earth.

The systematic attempt to clear up the ruins at the gorge and get out the bodies imprisoned there began to-day. The expectations of ghastly discoveries were more than realized. Scores of burned and mangled bodies were removed.

Freaks of the Torrent

The great waste where the city stood looked a little different to-day. Some attempt was made to clear up the rubbish, and fires were burning in a dozen places to get rid of it. Tents for the soldiers and some of the sufferers were put up in the smooth stretch of sand where a great, five story hardware store used to stand. The dead animals that were here and there in the débris were removed, to the benefit of the towns-people’s health.

Curious things come to light where the rubbish was cleared away. The solid cobblestone pavement had been scooped up by the force of the water and in some places swept so far away that there was not a sign of it. Behind a house that was resting on one corner was found a wickerwork baby carriage full of mud, but not injured or scratched in the least nor yet buried in the mud, but looking as if it had been rolled there and left. Very close to it was a piece of railroad iron that must have been carried half a mile, bent as it it were but common wire. Exactly on the site of a large grocery store was a box of soap and a bundle of clothespins, while of all the brick and stone, of which the store was built, and all the heavy furniture it contained there was not the slightest trace.

Many articles of wearing apparel were found here, but no bodies could be discovered in the whole stretch of the plain, from which it is inferred that most of the deaths occurred at the gorge or else the flood swept them far away.

Reminders of a Broken Home

One of the few buildings that are left in this part of town is the fine house of Mr. Geranheiser, of the Cambria Iron Company. It presents a queer spectacle–that is common here but has not often been seen before. The flood reached almost to the second floor and was strong enough to cut away about half the house, leaving the rest standing. The whole interior of the place can be seen just as the frightened inmates left it. The carpets are torn up from the first floor, but the pictures are still hanging on the walls and an open piano stands against the wall full of mud; a Brussels carpet being halfway out of the second story on the side where the wreck was and showing exactly how high the water came. There was a center table in the room and an open book on it. Chairs stood about the room and the pictures were on the walls, and half of the room was gone miles away.

Seven Acres of Wreckage

Just below the bare plain where the business block of Johnstown stood, and above the stone arch bridge on which the Pennsylvania Railroad crossed the river, are seven acres of the wreckage of the flood. The horrors that have been enacted in that spot, the horrors that are seen there every hour, who can attempt to describe? Under and amid that mass of conglomerate rubbish are the remains of at least one thousand persons who died the most frightful of deaths.

This is the place where the fire broke out within twenty minutes after the flood. It has burned ever since. The stone arch bridge acted as a dam to the flood, and five towns were crushing each other against it. A thousand houses came down on the great wave of water, and were held there a solid mass in the jaws of a Cyclopean vise.

A kitchen stove upset. The mass took fire. A thousand people were imprisoned in these houses. A thousand more were on the roofs. For most of them there was no escape. The fire swept on from house to house. The prisoners saw it coming and shrieked and screamed with terror, and ran up and down their narrow quarters in an agony of fear.

Sights to Freeze Their Blood

Thousands of people stood upon the river bank and saw and heard it all and still were powerless to help. They saw people kneeling in the flames and praying. They saw families gathered together with their arms around each other and waiting for death. They saw people going mad and tearing their hair and laughing. They saw men plunge into the narrow crevices between the houses and seek death in the water rather than wait its coming in the flames. Some saw their friends and some their wives and children perishing before them, and some in the awful agony of the hour went mad themselves and ran shrieking to the hillsides, and stronger men laid down on the ground and wept.

All that night and all the next day, and far into the morning of Monday, these dreadful shrieks resounded from that place of doom. The fire burned on, aided by the fire underneath, added to by fresh fuel coming down the river. All that time the people stood helpless on the bank and heard those heartrending sounds. What could they do? They could not fight the fire. Every fire engine in the town lay in that mass of rubbish smashed to bits. For hours they had to wait until they could get telegraph word to surrounding towns, and hours more until the fire engines arrived at noon on Monday.

Wrecks of Five Iron Bridges

The shrieks ceased early in the morning. Men had began to search the ruins and had taken out the few that still lived. The fire engines began to play on the still smouldering fire. Other workmen began to remove the bodies. The fire had swept over the whole mass from shore to shore and burned it to the water. A great field of crushed and charred timbers was all that was left. The flood had gorged this in so tightly that it made a solid bridge above the water. A tremendous, irresistible force had ground and churned and macerated the débris until it was a confused, solid, almost welded, conglomerate, stretching from shore to shore, jammed high up against the stone bridge and extending up the river a quarter of a mile, perhaps half as wide. In this tangled heap and crush of matter were the twisted wrecks of five iron bridges, smashed locomotives, splintered dwellings and all their contents; human beings and domestic animals, hay and factory machinery; the rich contents of stores and brick walls ground to powder–all the products of human industry, all the elements of human interests, twisted, turned, broken in a mighty mill and all thrown together.

A Sickening Spectacle

I walked over this extraordinary mass this morning and saw the fragments of thousands of articles. In one place the roofs of forty frame houses were packed in together just as you would place forty bended cards one on top of another. The iron rods of a bridge were twisted into a perfect spiral six times around one of the girders. Just beneath it was a woman’s trunk, broken up and half filled with sand, with silk dresses and a veil streaming out of it. From under the trunk men were lifting the body of its owner, perhaps, so burned, so horribly mutilated, so torn from limb to limb, that even the workmen, who have seen so many of these frightful sights that they have begun to get used to them, turned away sick at heart.

I saw in one place a wrecked grocery store–bins of coffee and tea, flour, spices and nuts, parts of the counter and safe mingled together. Near it was the pantry of the house, still partly intact, the plates and saucers regularly piled up, a waiter and a teapot, but not a sign of the woodwork, not a recognizable outline of a house. In another place a halter, with a part of a horse’s head tied to a bit of a manger, and a mass of hay and straw about, but no other signs of the stable in which the horse was burned. Two cindered towels, a cake of soap in a dish, and a bit of carpet were taken to indicate the location of a hotel. I saw a child’s skull in a bed of ashes, but no sign of a body.

Recognized by Fragments

In another place was a human foot and crumbling indications of a boot, but no signs of a body. A hay rick, half ashes, stood near the center of the gorge. Workmen who dug about it to-day found a chicken coop, and in it two chickens, not only alive but clucking happily when they were released. A woman’s hat, half burned; a reticule, with a part of a hand still clinging to it; two shoes and part of a dress told the story of one unfortunate’s death. Close at hand a commercial traveler had perished. There was his broken valise, still full of samples, fragments of his shoes and some pieces of his clothing.

Scenes like these were occurring all over the charred field where men were working with pick and axe and lifting out the poor, shattered remains of human beings, nearly always past recognition or identification, except by guesswork, or the locality where they were found. Articles of domestic use scattered through the rubbish helped to tell who some of the bodies were. Part of a set of dinner plates told one man where in the intangible mass his house was. In one place was a photograph album with one picture recognizable. From this the body of a child near by was identified. A man who had spent a day and all night looking for the body of his wife, was directed to her remains by part of a trunk lid.

Dead Bodies Caressed

Poor old John Jordan, of Conemaugh! Many a tear ran over swarthy cheeks for him to-day. All his family, his wife and children, had been swept from his sight in the flood. He wandered over the gorge yesterday looking for them, and last night the police could not bring him away. At daylight he found his wife’s sewing machine and called the workmen to help him. First they found a little boy’s jacket that he recognized and then they came upon the rest of them all buried together, the mother’s burned arms still clinging to the little children. Then the white headed old man sat down in the ashes and caressed the dead bodies and talked to them just as if they were alive until some one came and led him quietly away. Without a protest he went to the shore and sat down on a rock and talked to himself, and then got up and disappeared on the hills.

To Blow Up the Gorge

Was this the only such scene the day saw? There were scores like it. People worked in ruins all day to find their relatives and then went home with horrible uncertainty. People found what they were looking for and fainted at the sight. People looked and cried aloud and came and stood on the banks all day, afraid to look and still afraid to go away. The burned bodies are not the only ones in the gorge. Under the timbers and held down in the water there must be hundreds that escaped the fire, but were drowned. To get at these the gorge is to be blown up with dynamite. The sanitary reasons for such a step are becoming hourly more apparent. It is the belief of the physicians that a pestilence will be added to the other horrors of the place if such a thing is not done. All day the bodies have been brought to shore. Those that were not recognized were carried on stretchers to the Morgue. One hundred and twenty of the identified bodies were carried over the bridge in one procession.

Relief work for the suffering goes on at the headquarters of the Relief Committee on that little, muddy, rubbish-filled street which escaped destruction at the edge of the flood.

The building is a wretched shanty, once a Hungarian boarding-house, and a long line of miserable women stretches out in front of it all day waiting for relief. They are the unfortunate who have lost everything in the flood.

Quarters for five thousand of these people are provided in tents on the hillside. For provisions they are dependent on the charity of the country. Bread and meat are served out to them on the committee’s order.

They are the most mournful and pitiable sight. There was not one in the line who had not lost some one dear to her. Most of them were the wives of merchants or laborers who went down in the disaster. They were the sole survivors of their families. Very few had any more clothes than they wore when their houses were washed away. They stood there for hours in the rain yesterday without any protection, soaked with the drizzle, squalid and utterly forlorn–a sight to move a heart of stone.

Silent Sufferers

They did not talk to one another as women generally do even when they are not acquainted. They got no words of sympathy from any one, and they gave none. Not a word was spoken along the whole line. They simply stood and waited. In truth there is nothing about the survivors of the disaster that strikes one so forcibly as their evident inability to comprehend their misfortune and the absence of sympathetic expressions among them. It is not because they are naturally stolid, but the whole thing is so vast and bears upon them so heavily they cannot grasp it.

People in California know much more about the disaster than any resident of Johnstown knows; more information about it can be gotten from towns-people forty miles away than from those who saw it. The people here are not at all lacking in sympathy or kindliness of heart, but what words of sympathy would have any meaning in such a tremendous catastrophe? Every person of Johnstown has lost a relative or a friend, and so has every other resident he meets. They seem to see instinctively that condolence would be meaningless.

Famine Happily Averted

On the west side of the lower town one or two little streets are left from the flood. They are crowded all the time with the survivors. As I have gone among them I have heard nothing but such conversations as this, which is literally reproduced:–

“Hello, Will! Where’s Jim?”

“He’s lost.”

“Is that so! Goodby.”

Another was:–

“Good morning, Mr. Holden; did you save Mrs. Holden?”

“No; she went with the house. You lost your two boys, didn’t you?”

“Yes. Good morning.”

Two women met on the narrow rope bridge which spans the creek. As they passed one said:–

“How about Aunt Mary?”

“Oh, she’s lost; so is Cousin Hattie.”

It gives an outside listener a strange sensation to hear people talk thus with about as little emotion as they would talk about the weather. But the people of Johnstown had so much to do with death that they think about nothing else. I will undertake to say that half the people have not the slightest idea what day of the week or month this is.

A Rope Bridge of Sighs

To get from one part of the town to another it is necessary to cross the river or creek which is now flowing over the sites of business blocks. Of course every vestige of a bridge was swept far away, and to take their places two ropes have been hung from high timbers built upon the sandy island that was the city’s site. On these ropes narrow boards are tied. The whole structure is not more than four feet wide, and it hangs trembling over the water in a way that makes nervous people shudder. Over this frail thing hundreds of people crowd every hour, and why there has not been another disaster is something no one can understand.

The river is rising steadily, and all the afternoon the middle of the bridge sagged down into the water, but the people kept on struggling across. Many of them carried coffins containing bodies from the Morgue. There are no express wagons, no hearses–scarcely any vehicles of any kind in the town–and all the coffins have to be carried on the shoulders of the men.

Coffins are a dreadfully common sight. It is impossible to move a dozen steps in any direction without meeting one or very likely a procession of of them. One hundred of them were piled up in front of the Morgue this morning. Twice as many more were on the platform of the Pennsylvania station. Carloads of coffins were being unloaded from freight cars below town and carried along the roads. Almost every house has a coffin in it. Every boat that crosses the river carries one, and rows of them stood by the bank to receive the bodies.

Merely a Mud Plain

There is a narrow fringe of houses on each side of the empty plain, which escaped because they were built on higher ground. Fine brick blocks and paved streets filled the business part of the town, which was about a mile long and half a mile wide. Where these blocks stood mud is in some places six feet deep. Over and through it all is scattered an extraordinary collection of rubbish–boilers, car wheels, fragments of locomotives, household furniture, dead animals, clothing, sewing machines, goods from stores, safes, passenger and street cars, some half buried in the sand, some all exposed, helter-skelter.

It is simply impossible to realize the tremendous force exercised by the flood, though the imagination is assisted by the presence of heavy iron beams twisted and bent, railroad locomotives swept miles away, rails torn up, the rocks and banks slashed away, and brick walls carried away, leaving no traces of their foundations. The few stone houses that resisted the shock were completely stripped of all their contents and filled four feet deep with sand and powdered débris.

A Glimpse from a Window

As I write this, seated within a curious circular affair, which was once a mould for sewer pipe, are two operators busy with clicking instruments. The floor is a foot deep with clay. There are no doors. There are no windows which boast of glass or covering of any kind. The lookout embraces the bulk of the devastated districts. Just below the windows are the steep river banks, covered with a miscellaneous mass thrown up by the flood. The big stone bridge is crowded with freight cars loaded with material for repairing the structure and with people who are eager to see something horrible.

That Funeral Pyre

The further half of the bridge which was swept away has been replaced by a trembling wooden affair, wide enough only for two persons to walk abreast. To the left of the bridge and across the river are the great brick mills of the Cambria Iron and Steel Company, crushed and torn out of a semblance to workshops. Just in front of the office is what has been called the “funeral pyre,” and which threatens to become a veritable breeding spot of pestilence.

Just before me a group of red-capped firemen are directing a stream of water upon such portions of the mass as can be reached from the shore.

Where Death Was Busiest

Over to the right, at the edge of a muddy lagoon which marks the limit of the levelling rush of the mad torrent, there are dozens and dozens of buildings leaning against each other in the oddest sort of jumble. The spectacle would be ludicrous if it were not so awfully suggestive of the tragic fate of the inmates. Behind this border land are the regions where death was wofully busy. In some streets a mile from any railroad track locomotives and cars are scattered among the smouldering ruins. In the river the rescuers are busy, and so are the Hungarians and native born thieves.

Men take queer souvenirs away sometimes. One came up the bank a short time ago with a skull and two leg bones, all blackened and burned by the fire.

There is, of course, no business done, and those who have been spared have little to do save watch for a new phase of the greatest tragedy of the kind in modern history. On Prospect Hill is a town of tents where the homeless are housed and fed, and where also a formidable city of the dead has been just prepared. Such are some of the scenes visible from the window.

The Skeleton of Its Former Self

The water has receded in the night almost as rapidly as it came, and behind it remains the sorriest sight imaginable. The dove that has come has no green leaf of promise, for its wings are draped with the hue of mourning and desolation. There now lies the great skeleton of dead Johnstown. The great ribs of rocky sand stretch across the chest scarred and covered with abrasions. Acres of mud, acres of wreckage, acres of unsteady, tottering buildings, acres of unknown dead, of ghastly objects which have been eagerly sought for since Friday; acres of smoky, streaming ruin, of sorrow for somebody, lie out there in the sunshine.

Like Unto Arcadia After the Fire

The awful desolation of the scene has been described often enough already to render a repetition of the attempt here unnecessary. These descriptions have been as truthful and graphic as it is possible for man to make them; but none have been adequate–none could be. Where once stood solid unbroken blocks for squares and squares, with basements and subcellars, there is now a level plain as free from obstruction or excavation as the fair fields of Arcadia after they had been swept by the British flames. The major and prettier portion of the beautiful city has literally been blotted from the face of the earth.

Disease Succeeds to Calamity

Up the ragged surface of Prospect Hill, whither hundreds of terrified people fled for safety Friday night, I scrambled this afternoon. I came upon a pneumonia scourge which bids fair to do for a number of the escaped victims what the flood could not. Death has pursued them to their highest places, and terror will not die. Every little house on the hill–and there are a hundred or two of them–had thrown its doors open to receive the bruised, half-clad fugitives on the dark day of the deluge, and every one was now a crude hospital. Half the women who had scaled the height were so overcome with fright that they have been bedridden ever since. There had been pneumonia on the hill, but only a few cases. To-day, however, several fresh cases developed among the the flood fugitives, and a local physician said the prospects for a scourge are all too promising. The enfeebled condition of the patients, the unhealthy atmosphere pervading the valley and the necessarily close quarters in which the people are crowded render the spread of the disease almost certain.

The Military Called Out

At the request of the Sheriff, Adjutant General Hastings called out the Fourteenth regiment of Pittsburgh, who are to be stationed at Johnstown proper, to guard the buildings and against emergencies. Other reasons are known to exist for this precaution. Bodies were recovered to-day that have been robbed by the ghouls. It is known that one lady had several hundred dollars in her possession just before the disaster, but when the body was recovered there was not a cent in her pocket.

The Hungarians attacked a supply wagon between Morrellville and Cambria City to-day. The drivers of the wagon repulsed them, but they again returned. A second fight ensued, but after lively scrambling the Hungarians were again driven away. After that drivers and guards of supply wagons were permitted to go armed.

General Hastings was seen later in the day, and when asked what caused him to order the militia said: “There is no need of troops to quell another disturbance, but now there are at least two thousand men at work in Johnstown clearing up the débris, and I think that it will not hurt to have the Fourteenth regiment here, as they can guard the banks and all valuables. The Sheriff consulted me in the matter. He stated that his men were about worn out, and he thought that we had better have some soldiers. So I ordered them.”

The people, aroused by repeated outrages, are bitterly hounding the Hungarians, and a military force is essential to see that both sides preserve order.

Indignant Battery B

A number of the members of Battery B and the Washington infantry, who were ordered back from Johnstown, are very indignant at Adjutant General Hastings, who gave the order. They claim that General Hastings not only acted without a particle of judgment, but when they offered to act as picket, do police duty or anything else that might be required of them, they state that they were treated like dogs.

They also insist that their services are badly needed for the reason that the hills surrounding Johnstown are swarming with tramps, who are availing themselves of every opportunity to secure plunder from the numerous wrecks or dead bodies.

They told the General that they came more as private citizens than as soldiers, and were willing to do what they could. The General abruptly ordered them back to Pittsburgh. Lieutenant Gammel, who had charge of the men, said: “We would like to have stayed but we had to obey orders and we took the first train for home. Even the short time we were there the fifty-five men had pulled out thirty-five bodies.”

Members of the battery said: “This is a fine Governor we have, and as for Hastings, the least said about his actions the better.”

The Adjutant General’s order calling out the Fourteenth regiment and ordering them to this place is not looked upon as being altogether a wise move by many citizens.

Narrow Escape from Lynching

About eleven o’clock this morning, Captain W.R. Jones, of Braddock, and his men discovered a man struggling in the hands of an angry crowd on Main street. The crowd were belaboring the man with sticks and fists, and Captain Jones entered the house where the disturbance occurred, and the man shouted: “I have a right here, and am getting what belongs to my folks!”

The crowd then demanded that he show what he had in his possession. He reluctantly produced a handful of jewelry from his pocket, among which was a gold watch, which was no sooner shown than a gentleman who was standing nearby claimed it as his own, saying that the house where they were standing was the residence of his family. He then proceeded to identify clearly the property. The crowd, convinced of the thief’s guilt, wanted to lynch him, but after an exciting scene Captain Jones pacified them. The man was escorted out of town by officers, released and ordered not to return.

Johnstown Succored

There will be no more charity except for the helpless. The lengthening of the death roll has fearfully shortened the list to be provided for. There is now an abundance of food and clothing to satisfy the present necessities of all who are in need. Beginning to-morrow morning, June 5th, aid will not be extended to any who are able to work except in payment for work. All the destitute who are able and willing will be put to work clearing up the wreck in the river and the wastes where the streets stood. They will be paid $2.50 and $3.00 per day for ordinary laboring work, and thus obtain money with which to buy provisions, which will be sold to them at reduced prices.

Those who will not work will be driven off. The money collected will be paid out in wages, in defraying funeral expenses and in relieving those whose bread providers have been taken away.

Dainties Not Wanted

The supplies of food and clothing are far in excess of the demand to-day. The mistake of sending large quantities of dainties has been made by some of the relief committees. Bishop Phelan has been on the ground all day in company with a number of Catholic priests from Pittsburgh.

He has ordered provisions for all the sufferers who have taken shelter in the buildings over which he has placed the Little Sisters of the Poor. There are several hundred people now being cared for by the relief corps, and as the work of rescue goes on the number increases.

Bent on Charity

Mrs. Campbell, president of the Allegheny Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, arrived this morning, and with Miss Kate Foster, of Johnstown, organized a temporary home for destitute children on Bedford street. On the same train came a delegation from the Smithfield Methodist Episcopal Church. They began relieving the wants of the suffering Methodists.

Committees from the Masonic and Odd Fellows from Pittsburgh are looking after their brethren.

Mr. Moxham, the iron manufacturer, is Mayor pro. tem. of Johnstown to-day. He is probably the busiest man in the United States; although for days without sleep, he still sticks nobly to his task. Hundreds of others are like him. Men fall to the earth from sheer fatigue. There are many who have not closed an eye in sleep since they awoke on Friday morning; they are hollow-eyed and pitiful looking creatures. Many have lost near relatives and all friends.

Shylocks

Men and horses are what are most needed to-day. Some of the unfortunates who could not go to the relief trains endeavored to obtain flour from the wrecked stores in Johnstown. One dealer was charging $5 a sack for flour, and was getting it in one or two cases. Suddenly the crowd heard of the occurrence.

Several desperate men went to the store and doled the flour gratuitously to the homeless and stricken. Another dealer was selling flour at $1.50 a sack. He refused to give any away, but would sell it to any one who had the money. Otherwise he would not allow any one to go near it, guarding his store with a shotgun.

Masons on the Field

The special train of the Masonic Relief Association which left Pittsburgh at one o’clock yesterday afternoon on the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad did not reach here until just before midnight, at which time it was impossible to do anything. Under the circumstances, the party concluded to pass the night in the cars, making themselves as comfortable as possible with packing boxes for beds and candle boxes for pillows.

They spent the morning distributing the food and clothing among the Masonic sufferers. In addition to a large quantity of cooked food, sandwiches, etc., as well as flour and provisions of every description, the Relief Committee brought up 100 outfits of clothing for women and a similar number for girls, and a miscellaneous lot for men and boys. The women’s outfits are complete, and include underwear, stockings, shoes, dresses, wraps and hats. They are most acceptable in the present crisis, and much suffering has already been relieved by them.

The Knights of Pythias have received a large donation of money from Pittsburgh lodges.

Appeal to President Harrison

Adjutant General Hastings yesterday afternoon telegraphed to President Harrison requesting that government pontoons be furnished to enable a safe passageway to be made across the field of charred ruins above Johnstown Bridge for the purpose of prosecuting search for the dead. Late last night an answer was received from the President stating that the pontoons would be at once forwarded by the Secretary of War.

A despatch of sympathy has been received by Adjutant General Hastings from the Mayor of Kansas City, who states that the little giant of the West will do her duty in this time of need.

Fraternities Uniting

The various fraternities, whose work has been referred to in various despatches, have established headquarters and called meetings of surviving local members. These meetings are held in Alma Hall, belonging to the Odd Fellows, which, owing to its solid construction, withstood the pressure of the flood. From the headquarters at Alma Hall most of the committees representing the various secret societies are distributing relief.

The first hopeful view of the situation taken by the Odd Fellows’ Committee has been clouded by the dismal result of further investigations. At last night’s meeting at the old school-house on Prospect Hill definite tidings were received from but thirty members out of a total of 501.

Cambria Lodge, with a membership of eighty-five, mostly Germans, seems to have been entirely wiped out, not a single survivor having yet reported.

Call for Workers

Last night Robert Bridgard, a letter carrier of Johnstown, marched at the head of three hundred men to the corner of Morrell avenue and Columbia street, where he mounted a wagon and made a speech on the needs of the hour. Chiefest of these, he considered, was good workmen to clear away the débris and extract the bodies from the wreckage.

He closed with a bitter attack on the lazy Huns and Poles, who refused to aid in the work of relief and yet are begging and even stealing the provisions that are sent here to feed the sufferers. The crowd numbered nearly one thousand, and greeted Bridgard’s words with cheers.

Another resident of the city then mounted a barrel and made a ringing speech condemning the slothful foreigners, who have proven themselves a menace to the valley and its inhabitants. The feelings of the crowd were aroused to such an alarming extent that it was feared it would culminate in an attack on the worthless Poles and Hungarians.

The following resolution was adopted with a wild shout of approval, and the meeting adjourned:–

“”Resolved”, That we, the citizens of Johnstown, in public meeting assembled, do most earnestly beg the Relief Corps of the Johnstown sufferers to furnish no further provisions to the Hungarians and Poles of this city and vicinity except in payment of services rendered by them for the relief of their unfortunate neighbors.

“”Resolved”, Further, that in case of their refusal to render such service they be driven from the doors of the relief trains and warned to vacate the premises.”

Hospitals and Morgues

Those who doubt that many thousands lost their lives in this disaster have not visited the morgues. There are three of these dreadful places crowded so full of the unidentified dead that there is scarcely room to move between the bodies. To the largest morgue, which I visited this morning, one hundred and sixty bodies have been brought for identification. When it is remembered that most of the bodies were swept below the limits of Johnstown, that many more found here have been identified at once by their friends and that it is certain that many bodies were consumed entirely in the fire at the gorge, the fact gives some idea of the extent of the calamity.

The largest morgue is at the Fourth ward school-house, a two-story brick building which stands just at the edge of the high mark of the flood. The bodies were laid across the school children’s desks until they got to be so numerous that there was not room for them, excepting on the floor. Soldiers with crossed bayonets keep out the crowd of curious people who have morbid appetites to gratify. None of these people are of Johnstown. People of Johnstown do not have time to come to look for friends, and they give the morgue a wide berth. Those who do come have that dazed, miserable look that has fallen to all the residents of the unhappy town. They walk through slowly and look at the bodies and go away looking no sadder nor any less perplexed than when they came in. One of the doctors in charge at the morgue told me that many of these people had come in and looked at the bodies of their own fathers and brothers and gone away without recognizing them, though not at all disfigured.

“That’s Jim.”

In some instances it had been necessary for other persons, who knew the people, to point out the dead to the living and assure them positively of the identification before they could be aroused. I saw a railroad laborer who had come in to look for a friend. He walked up and down the aisles like a man in a trance. He looked at the bodies, and took no apparent interest in any of them. At last he stopped before one of them which he had passed twice before, muttered, “That’s Jim,” and went out just as he had come in. Two other identifications I saw during the hour I was there were just like this. There was no shedding of tears nor other showing of emotion. They gazed upon the features of their dead as if they were totally unable to comprehend it all, and reported their identification to the attendants and watched the body as it was put into a coffin and went away. Many came to look for their loved ones, but I did not see one show more grief or realization of the dreadful character of their errand than this. Arrangements with the morgues are complete and efficient. The bodies are properly prepared and embalmed and a description of the clothing is placed upon each.

Hospital Arrangements

The same praise cannot be given the hospital arrangements. The only hospital is a small wooden church, in which apartments have been roughly improvised, with blankets for partitions. Only twenty patients can be cared for here, and the list of wounded is more than two hundred. The rest have been taken to the private houses that were not overcrowded with the homeless survivors, to farmers in the country and to outlying towns. Two have died. It did not occur to any one until lately to get any nurses from other places to take care of the patients, and even now most of the nurses are Johnstown people who have lost relatives and have their own cares. These persons sought out the hospital and volunteered for the work.

A Procession of Coffins

A sight most painful to behold was presented to view about noon to-day, when a procession of fifty unidentified coffined bodies started up the hill above the railroad to be buried in the improvised cemetery there. Not a relation, not a mourner was present. In fact, it is doubtful if these dead have any surviving relatives.

The different graveyards are now so crowded that it will take several days to bury all the bodies that have been deposited in them. This was the day appointed by the Citizens’ Committee for burying all the unidentified dead that have been laying in the different morgues since Sunday morning, and about three hundred bodies were taken to the cemeteries to-day.

It was not an unusual sight to see two or three coffins going along, one after another. It is impossible to secure wagons or conveyances of any kind, consequently all funeral processions are on foot.

Several yellow flags were noticed sticking up from the black wreckage above the stone bridge. This was a new plan adopted by the sanitary corps to indicate at what points bodies had been located. As it grows dark the flags are still up, and another day will dawn upon the imprisoned remains. People who had lost friends, and supposed they had drifted into this fatal place, peered down into the charred mass in a vain endeavor to recognize beloved features.

Unrecognizable Victims of Fire

There are now nearly two thousand men employed in different parts of the valley clearing up the ruins and prosecuting diligent search for the undiscovered dead, and bodies are discovered with undiminished frequency. It becomes hourly more and more apparent that not a single vestige will ever be recognized of hundreds that were roasted in the flames above the bridge.

A party of searchers have just unearthed a charred and unsightly mass from the smouldering débris. The leader of the gang pronounced the remains to be a blackened leg, and it required the authoritative verdict of a physician to demonstrate that the ghastly discovery was the charred remains of a human being. Only the trunk remained, and that was roasted beyond all semblance to flesh. Five minutes’ search revealed fragments of a skull that at once disintegrated of its own weight when exposed to air, no single piece being larger than a half dollar, and the whole resembling the remnants of shattered charcoal.

Within the last hour a half dozen discoveries in no way less horrifying than this ghastly find have been made by searchers as they rake with sticks and hooks in the smouldering ruins. So difficult is it at times to determine whether the remains are those of human beings that it is apparent that hundreds must be burned to ashes. The number that have found a last resting place beneath these ruins can at the best never be more than approximated.

A Vast Charnel House

Every moment now the body of some poor victim is taken from the débris, and the town, or rather the remnants of it, is one vast charnel house. The scenes at the extemporized morgue are beyond powers of description in their ghastliness, while the moans and groans of the suffering survivors, tossing in agony, with bruised and mangled bodies, or screaming in a delirium of fever as they issue from the numerous temporary hospitals, make even the stoutest hearted quail with terror. Nearly two thousand bodies have already been recovered, and as the work of examining the wreckage progresses the conviction grows that the magnitude of the calamity has not yet been approximated.

The Pile of Débris Still Burning

The débris wedged against the big Pennsylvania Railroad stone bridge is still burning, and the efforts of the firemen to quench or stay the progress of the flames are as futile as were those of Gulliver’s Lilliputian firemen. The mass, which unquestionably forms a funeral pyre for thousands of victims who lie buried beneath it, is likely to burn for weeks to come. The flames are not active, but burn away in a sullen, determined fashion.

There are twenty-six firemen here now–all level-headed fellows–who keep their unwieldy and almost exhausted forces under masterful control.

Although they were scattered all over the waste places to-day, the heavy work was done in the Point district, where a couple hundred mansions lie in solid heaps of brick, stone and timbers.

One Corpse Every Five Minutes

Here the labors of the searchers were rewarded by the discovery of a corpse about every five minutes. As a general thing the bodies were mangled and unrecognizable unless by marks or letters on their persons. In every case decomposition has set in and the work of the searchers is becoming one that will test their stomachs as well as their hearts. Wherever one turns Pittsburghers of prominence are encountered. They are busy, determined men, rendering valuable service.

Chief Evans, of the Pittsburgh Fire Department, was hustling around with a force of twenty-four more firemen, just brought up to relieve those who have been working so heroically since Saturday. Morris M. Mead, superintendent of the Bureau of Electricity, headed a force of sixteen sanitary inspectors from Pittsburgh, who are doing great work among the dead.

How Bodies are Treated

There are six improvised morgues now in Johnstown. They are in churches and school-houses, the largest one being in the Fourth Ward school-house, where planks have been laid over the tops of desks, on which the remains are placed. A corpse is dug from the bank. It is covered with mud. It is taken to the anteroom of the school, where it is placed under a hydrant and the muck and slime washed off. With the slash of a knife the clothes are ripped open and an attendant searches the pockets for valuables or papers that would lead to identification. Four men lift the corpse on a rude table, and there it is thoroughly washed and an embalming fluid injected in the arm. With other grim bodies the corpse lies in a larger room until it is identified or becomes offensive. In the latter case it is hurried to the large grave, a grave that will hereafter have a monument over it bearing the inscription “Unknown Dead.”

The number of the latter is growing hourly, because pestilence stalks in Johnstown, and the bloated, disfigured masses of flesh cannot be held much longer.

Levelled by Death

Bodies of stalwart workmen lie beside the remains of refined ladies, many of whom are still decked with costly earrings and have jewels glittering on the fingers. Rich and poor throng these quarters and gaze with awe-struck faces at the masses of mutilations in the hope of recognizing a missing one, so as to accord the body a decent burial.

From Death’s Gaping Jaws

We give here the awful narrative of George Irwin’s experience. Irwin is a resident of Hillside, Westmoreland county, and was discovered in a dying condition in a clump of bushes just above the tracks of the Pennsylvania Railroad, about a mile below Johnstown. When stretched upon two railroad ties near the track his tongue protruded from his mouth and he gasped as if death was at hand. With the assistance of brandy and other stimulants he was in a degree revived. He then told the following story:

“I was visiting friends in Johnstown on Friday when the flood came up. We were submerged without a moment’s warning. I was taken from the window of the house in which I was then a prisoner by Mr. Hay, the druggist at Johnstown, but lost my footing and was not rescued. I clung to a saw log until I struck the works of the Cambria Iron Company, when I caught on the roof of the building. I remained there for nearly an hour, when I was knocked again from my position by a piece of a raft. I floated on top of this until I got down here and I stuck in an apple tree.

Preferred Death to Such Sights

“I saw and heard a number of other unfortunate victims when swept by me appealing for some one to save them. One woman and two children were floating along in apparent safety; then they struck the corner of a building and all went down together.

“I would rather have died than have been compelled to witness that sight.

“I have not had a bit to eat since Friday night, but I don’t feel hungry. I am afraid my stomach is gone and I am about done for.”

He was taken to a hospital by several soldiers and railroad men who rescued him.

A Young Lady’s Experiences

Miss Sue Caddick, of Indiana, who was stopping at the Brunswick Hotel, on Washington street, and was rescued late Friday evening, returned home to-day. She said she had a premonition of danger all day and had tried to get Mrs. Murphy to take her children and leave the house, but the lady had laughed at her fears and partially dissipated them.

Miss Caddick was standing at the head of the second flight of stairs when the flood burst upon the house. She screamed to the Murphys–father, mother and seven children–to save themselves. She ran up stairs and got into a higher room, in which the little children, the oldest of whom was fourteen years, also ran. The mother and father were caught and whirled into the flood and drowned in an instant.

The waters came up and the children clung to the young lady, who saw that she must save herself, and she was compelled to push the little ones aside and cling to pieces of the building, which by this time had collapsed and was disintegrating. All of the children were drowned save the oldest boy, who caught a tree and was taken out almost unhurt near Blairsville. Miss Caddick clung to her fraction of the building, which was pushed into the water out of the swirl, and in an hour she was taken out safe. She said her agony in having to cut away from the children was greater than her fear after she got into the water.

An Old Lady’s Great Peril

Mrs. Ramsey, mother of William Ramsey and aunt of Lawyer Cassidy, of Pittsburgh, was alone in her house when the flood came. She ran to the third story, and although the house was twisted off its foundation, it remained intact, and the old lady was rescued after being tossed about for twenty-four hours.

James Hines, Jr., of Indiana, one of the survivors, to-day said that he and twelve of the other guests took refuge on the top of the Merchants’ Hotel. They were swept off and were carried a mile down the stream, then thrown on the shore. One of the party, James Ziegler, he said, was drowned while trying to get to the top of the building.

One hundred and seventy-five of the corpses brought to Nineveh by the flood were buried this afternoon and to-night on the crest of a hill behind the town. Three trenches were dug two hundred feet long, seven feet wide and four feet deep. The coffins were packed in very much as grocers’ boxes are stored in a warehouse. Of the two hundred bodies picked up in the fields after the waters subsided 117 were unidentified and were buried marked “Unknown.” Twenty-five were shipped to relatives at outside points. In many cases friends of those who were recognized were unable to do anything to prevent their consignment to the trenches. Altogether twenty-seven were identified to-day. The bodies as fast as they were found were taken to the storehouse of Theodore F. Nimawaker, the station agent here, and laid out on boards. It was impossible on account of their condition to keep them any longer. The County Commissioners bought an acre of ground for $100, out of which they made a cemetery.

By Locomotive Headlights

It was sad to see the coffins going up the steep hill on farm wagons, two or three on each wagon. No tender mourners followed the mud-covered hearses. Enough laborers sat on each load to handle it when it reached its destination. The Commissioners of Cumberland county have certainly behaved very handsomely. The coffins ordered were of the best. Some economical citizens suggested that they buy an acre of marsh land by the river, which could be had for a few dollars, but they declared that the remains should be placed in dry ground. The lifeless clay reposes now far out of the reach of the deadly waters which go suddenly down the Conemaugh Valley. It is a pretty spot, this cemetery, and one that a poet would choose for a resting place. Mountains well wooded are on every hand; no black factory smoke defaces the sky line.

Two locomotive headlights shed their rays over the cemetery to-night and gave enough light for the men to work by. They rapidly shoveled in the dirt. No priests were there to consecrate the ground or say a prayer over the cold limbs of the unknown. Upon the coffins I noticed such inscriptions as these: “No. 61, unknown girl, aged eight years, supposed to be Sarah Windser.” “No. 72, unknown man, black hair, aged about thirty-five years, smooth face.” Some of the bodies were more specifically described as “fat,” “lean,” and to one I saw the term “lusty” applied.



MLA Source Citation:

Walker, James Herbert. The Johnstown Horror! or Valley of Death: being A Complete and Thrilling Account of the Awful Floods and Their Appalling Ruin. H. J. Smith & Co. 1889. AccessGenealogy.com. Web. 3 September 2014. http://www.accessgenealogy.com/pennsylvania/new-tales-of-horror.htm - Last updated on Jul 9th, 2013


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