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One Week After the Great Disaster
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By slow degrees and painful labor the barren place where Johnstown stood begins again to look a little like the habitations of a civilized community. Daily a little is added to the cleared space once filled with the concrete rubbish of this town, daily the number of willing workers who are helping the town to rise again increases. To-day the great yellow plain which was filled with the best business blocks and residences before the flood is covered with tents for soldiers and laborers and gangs of men at work. The wrecks are being removed or burned up. Those houses which were left only partially destroyed are beginning to be repaired. Still, it will be months, very likely years, before the pathway of the flood ceases to be perfectly plain through the town. Its boundaries are as plainly marked now as if drawn on a map; where the flood went it left its ineffaceable track. Nearly one-half of the triangle in which Johnstown stood is plainly marked, one angle of the triangle pointing to the east and directly up the Conemaugh Valley, from which the flood descended. Its eastern side was formed by the line of the river. The second angle pointed toward the big stone arch bridge, which played such an important part in the tragedy. The western ran along the base of the mountain on the bank of Stony Creek, and the third angle was toward Stony Creek Valley.
Imagine that before the flood this triangle was thickly covered with houses. The lower or northern part was filled with solid business blocks, the upper or southern half with residences, for the most part built of wood. Picture this triangle as a mile and a half in its greatest length and three-quarters of a mile in its greatest breadth. This was the way Johnstown was ten days ago. Now imagine that in the lower half of this triangle, where the business blocks were, every object has been utterly swept away with the exception of perhaps seven scattered buildings. In their places is nothing but sand and heaps of débris. Imagine that in the upper portion of this triangle the pathway of destruction has been clearly cut. Along the pathway houses have been torn to pieces, turned upside down, laid upon their sides or twisted on their foundations. Put into the open space on the lower end of the triangle the tents and the fires of burning rubbish and you will have the picture of Johnstown to-day.
The people had been warned enough about the dangers of their location. They had been told again and again that the dam was unsafe, and whenever the freshets were out there were stories and rumors of its probable breaking. The freshets had been high for many days before that fatal Friday. All the creeks were over their banks and their waters were running on the streets. Cellars and pavements were flooded. Reports from the dam showed that it was holding back more water than at any other time in its history. A telegraph despatch early in the afternoon gave startling information about the cracks in the dam, but it was the old story of the wolf. They had heard it so often that they heard it this time and did not care.
The first warning that the people had of their coming doom was the roar of the advancing wave. It rushed out of the valley at four o’clock in the afternoon with incredible swiftness. Those who saw it and are still alive say that it seemed to be as high as an ordinary house. It carried in its front an immense amount of battered wreckage, and over it hung a cloud of what seemed to be fog, but was the dust from the buildings it had destroyed. Straight across the river it rushed upon the apex of the triangle. It struck the first houses and swept them away in fragments. The cries and shrieks of the frightened people began to be heard above the roar of the floods, and a few steps further the great wave struck some unusually solid structure. Its force right in the centre was already diminished. On these houses it split and the greater part of it went on diagonally across the triangle, deflecting somewhat toward the north and so on down to the stone arch bridge.
Wherever it went the houses tumbled down as if they were built of cards. It was not alone the great volume of water, but the immense revolving mass of lumber it carried, that gave it an additional and terrific force, and houses, five bridges, railroad trains, boilers and factories were whirling furiously about. What could stand against such an instrument of destruction as this? It swept the triangle as clean as a board. It tore up pavements. It dug out railroad tracks, and twisted them into strange and fantastic shapes. It carried with it thousands of human beings, crushing them against the fragments, and drove their bodies into the thick mass of mud and sand which it carried at the bottom. It went on and on straight as an arrow, and piled masses of all it had gathered against and over the solid arches of the stone bridge. The bridge sustained the shock. How it did it engineers who have seen the effects and the marvellous strength of the flood in other places wonder. An immense raft of houses and lumber and trees and rubbish of every kind, acres in extent, collected here.
In these houses were imprisoned people still alive, in numbers estimated at two or three thousand, tossed about in the whirling flood which was turned into strange eddies by the obstruction it had met. In some way not explained a fire broke out.
The frame structures packed in closely together were like so much tinder wood. Those who had escaped drowning died in their prisons a more horrible death.
While this was going on that part of the divided stream which turned to the south continued on its way. At first its violence was undiminished, but as it went on the inclination of the land and the obstacles it met somewhat broke its force. It swept across the triangle, inclining toward the south, and was turned still further in that direction by the bed of Stony Creek, at the foot of the mountain which forms the western barrier of the basin in which Johnstown lies. Its course is plainly visible now, as it was two hours afterward. Where it started everything is cleared away.
A little further along the houses are still standing, but they are only masses of lumber and laths. Still further to the north they are overturned or lying upon their sides or corners, some curiously battered and as full of great holes as if they had been shot at with cannon. They are surrounded by driftwood and timbers, ground into splinters, railroad cars, ties and beams, all in a wild, untraceable jumble.
The wave reached to the north at least a distance of a mile from the point where it was divided. Then it swept backward. It carried with it many houses that had come from every part of the river.
Upon them and upon flooded roofs and doors and timbers were men, women and children crying, beseeching and praying for help. Those on the shore who were watching this never to be forgotten spectacle saw the sufferers in the river go sweeping by, saw them come down again and still were unable to give them the slightest assistance. The flood proceeded half a mile or more, and then was met and reinforced by a wave started backward from the eddy formed at the stone arch bridge. With redoubled force it turned once more to the south and then it went half a mile further, toppling over the houses, wrecking some and adding some to those which it had brought down from other places. For the second time it spent its force and turned back, swept to the south and to destruction those who had four times been within sight of safety. This time the whole mass of flooded wreckage was carried down to the stone arch bridge and added to the collection there and at last to the fire that was raging.
The blackened timber left from this fire, wedged in tightly above the bridge, is the only gorge at which workmen have labored all this week with dynamite and monstrous cranes. In it and below it are unnumbered hundreds of bodies. How many perished in that frightful fire will never be known. Only a small proportion of the bodies can ever be found. Some were burned so that nothing but a handful of ashes remained, and that was swept away long ago with the torrent. Some were buried deep in the sand, and some have been carried down and hidden in sand banks and slews. Many will be destroyed by dynamite, and some will have disappeared long before the great flood of rubbish can be removed. Of all the horrible features of this dreadful story none is more heartrending than the story of that fire. It began about five o’clock that afternoon and went on all night and all the next day, and smouldered until Monday noon. Its progress was retarded somewhat by the rain and by the soaking of the material in the water, but this was only an added horror, for it prolonged the anguish for those imprisoned in the great raft who plainly saw their approaching death.
Those who saw this sight from the shore cannot speak of it now and will hardly be able to speak of it as long as they live without tears. Imagination could not picture a situation more harrowing to human feeling than to stand there and watch that horrible scene without being able to rescue the prisoners or even alleviate their sufferings.
Just below the stone bridge are the great works of the Cambria Iron Company. They occupy the eastern bank of the stream for a distance of half a mile. The flood, tearing over the bridge, descended upon these works and tore the southernmost end of them to pieces. The rest of the buildings escaped, but none of the works were swept away in the torrent. An iron bridge used jointly by the public and by the iron company to transport its coal from the mines across the river was caught by the very front of the flood and tossed away as if built of toothpicks.
Looking from the stone arch bridge, the iron company’s buildings, the lower town school house, three of the buildings which divided the flood, a church, part of a brick residence and a little cluster of brick business houses, is all that can be seen above the yellow waste. Why these buildings are left it is impossible to say. The school house, except for most of the windows being battered in and the scars and dents driven into it from the passing wreckage, is almost uninjured, although it stands directly in the centre of the flood.
It is plain from the appearance of the buildings that the direction of the flood in many places was rotary, and the houses which still stand may have escaped between the eddies. No other explanation seems possible, for the force of the torrent was tremendous. It carried five locomotives, with their tenders, several miles, and piled them up against the stone bridge as easily as it carried a box of clothespins. At the head of the iron company’s works was a great pile of iron in pieces eight feet long and a foot and a half thick either way. The flood toppled these over. In the half charred raft above the bridge are found great boilers, masses of iron, twisted beams and girders from bridges, heavy safes, pieces of railroad track, a hundred car wheels, mixed with every conceivable object of household use–pianos, sofas, dressing cases, crockery, trunks and their contents.
Yet in all that mass it is impossible to find any trace of that pile of bricks built into the business houses of the town; nor yet upon the banks, nor in the heaps of sand which, when the flood went down, were left here and there, is there any trace of the material of the building except the lumber. In the opinion of experts, all this stuff must have been ground into powder and swept down the river. Johnstown will never resume its former importance. A curse will hang over this beautiful valley as long as this generation lasts. The sanitary experts who have examined the place say that in all probability it will be plague ridden for years and years.
The massive stone bridge of the Pennsylvania Railroad, opposite the Cambria Iron Works, marks the point of demarcation between the borough of Johnstown and that of Cambria City. The changes in the situation which have occurred since the eventful Friday have not been numerous. The wreckage impacted beneath the arches has been removed from three of them, leaving four, which are closed by masses of timber and drift material. I climbed over the débris in the famous cul-de-sac and reached the second from the Johnstown side after half an hour’s labor. The appearance was singular. Beneath the conglomeration of timber which filled the cavity of the arch to a distance of twenty-five feet from the top the waters of the Conemaugh flowed swiftly.
There was a network of telegraph wires, iron rods and metal work of Pullman cars stretched across from stone work to stone work on either side. The gridiron, as it were, penetrated far down into the water, and it had proved sufficiently strong to resist the onward rush of the lighter flotsam which swept before the onrolling wave. Lodged in this strange pile was the body of a horse. Deep among the meshes a terrible spectacle presented itself. There were the bodies of three people–a woman, a child and a laborer with hobnailed shoes. They were beyond the reach of the workers who are clearing the wreck near to the bridge and the latter will be unable to reach the corpses until a considerable amount of blasting with dynamite has been done. There was a faint odor of decomposition and another day will cause the vicinity of the viaduct to suggest a charnel house to the olfactory senses. There are many other bodies, no doubt, beneath the débris and prevented from floating down the stream by the ruins.
Conemaugh City was connected with the Cambria Iron Works, on the opposite side of the Conemaugh, by a temporary suspension bridge of steel wire. The bridge was originally for two railways–a narrow and a broad gauge–and a footway. It was swept away before the reservoir burst, according to all accounts. Cambria City, or rather a fringe of houses along the higher ground of the bank, the remaining portion of a once prosperous town, is absolutely paralyzed by the stunning blow which has befallen it. There are but few people at work among the débris. The clean sweep of the flood left little wreckage behind. A few sad-faced women wandered about and poked in the sand and among the broken stone which now covers the location of their former homes. The men who were saved have returned to their work at the Cambria mills, and the survivors among their families are stowed in the houses which remain intact. There must have been at least one thousand lives lost from Cambria City.
There has been no attempt to replace the bridge at “Ten Acre,” as the point below Cambria City is called. The banks of the Conemaugh remain covered with débris. In many places the masses are piled twenty-five feet high. The people are clearing their land by burning the unwonted accumulations. Only an occasional body is found. Most of the 200 corpses which have been buried at Nineveh were found in the bushes which fringe the river. All the way to Freeport the accumulation of débris may be seen.
There is to-day no lack of supplies, save at Cambria City, which has been overlooked and neglected, but where the destitution is great. The people there are in great want of food. Bread has given out, and ham is about the only food to be obtained. In only one of the wrecked houses left untouched by the flood I found from twenty to twenty-five refugees. The commissary at the Pennsylvania Railroad depot is heaped so high with stores that distribution goes on with difficulty. The Grubbtown commissary is in the same condition. The Red Cross people got fairly to work in their supply tent to-day, and during the morning alone distributed five hundred packages of clothing. Their hospital on the hill, back of Kernville, is in excellent order, and the patients quartered in the village houses are comfortably situated. There have been no deaths at the Cambria hospital. The doctors there have cared for 500 cases indoors and out. Even Grandma Teeter is doing well. She was taken out of the wreck at the bridge on Saturday with her right arm crushed. It had to be amputated, and the old woman–she is eighty-three years of age–stood the operation finely.
Miss Hinckley, of Philadelphia, is busy in Kernville making known the plans of the Children’s Aid Society. She does an immense amount of running about and visiting houses. Many children made orphans by the flood are now being cared for. There are a hundred or more of them; just how many no one knows.
“I have great difficulty,” said Miss Hinckley to me to-day, “to persuade the people who have taken children to care for that our society can be trusted to take charge of what will surely be a burden to them. All my work now is to inspire confidence. We have received hundreds of letters from people anxious to adopt children. They are ready now in the first flush of sympathy, but I am afraid that they will not be willing to take the children when we are ready to place them.”
The ruins still shelter a ghastly load of dead. Every hour at least one new body is uncovered and borne on a rough stretcher to some one of the many morgues. The sight loses none of its sadness and pathos by its commonness; only the horror is gone, giving place to apathy and stupor. Stalwart men, in mud-stained, working clothes, bring up the body, the face covered with a cloth. The crowds part and gaze at the burned corpse as it passes. At the morgue it is examined for identification, washed and prepared for burial. Not more than half of these recovered now are identified.
The vast majority fill nameless but numbered graves, and the descriptions are much too indefinite to hope for identification after burial. What can you expect from a description like this, picked out at random: “Woman, five feet four inches tall, long hair?” The body of Eugene Hannon, twenty-two, found yesterday near the First Presbyterian Church, was identified to-day by his father. He was a member of the League of American Wheelmen, and his bicycle was found within a few yards of his body. The father will lay the wrecked bicycle on the coffin of his son.
Just now a woman, still young and poorly dressed, went by the shed where I am writing, sobbing most pitifully. She lost her husband and children in the flood and is on the verge of insanity.
The day opened with heavy rain and an early morning thunder storm. The hillside streams were filled to the banks and everything was dripping. The air was chilly and damp, and daylight was slow in coming to this valley of desolation and death. At an early hour the valley, where so many have gone to rest, presented a most dismal scene. It looked, indeed, like the valley of the dead. Nothing was moving, and all remained within the meagre shelter offered them till the day had fairly begun. As the day advanced, the tented hills began to show signs of life, smoke arose from many a camp fire, and on every eminence surrounding this valley of desolation could be seen the guards moving among the tented villages.
The weather was most unpleasant for any one to be outdoors, but it apparently had no effect on the people here, for as soon as the early breakfast was over the thousands of workmen could be seen going to their work, and soon the whole valley that in the early morning hours was asleep was a teeming throng of life and activity. While the rain was far from pleasant to the workers and many helpers, it was certainly providential that the cool weather is continuing in order to prevent the much-dreaded decomposition of the hundreds of human bodies yet unrecovered and the thousands of animals that perished in the flood. The air this morning, while tainted to some extent with the fumes arising from the decaying bodies, was not near so bad as it would have been had the morning been hot and sultry.
By seven o’clock the whole valley was full of people and the scene was a most animated one. The various sections of the flooded territory were full of men busy in searching for the dead, removing and burning the débris. At eight o’clock this morning five bodies had been taken from the mass at the stone bridge. A large force of men have been working all day on this part of the wreck, but so great is the quantity of wreckage to be gone over and removed that while much work is done very slow progress is being made. The continued falling of the river renders the removal of the débris every day more arduous, and where a few days ago the timbers when loosened would float away, now they have to be moved by hand, making the work very slow.
A most welcome arrival this morning was Dr. B. Bullen of disinfectant fame. He brought with him fifty barrels more of his disinfectant. The doctor will take charge of the disinfecting of the dangerous sections of the flooded district and notably at the stone bridge. Twenty-five barrels have already been used with most favorable results. Dr. Bullen was a former resident of Johnstown and lost thirty relatives in the flood, among them three brothers-in-law, three uncles and two aunts.
The Cambria Iron Company’s Works presented a busy scene to-day. At least nine hundred men are at work, and most rapid progress is being made in clearing away the wreck. It is said that the works will start up in about three weeks.
There is little change in the situation. Every one is working with the one end in view, to clear away the wreckage and give the people of Johnstown a chance to rebuild. The laborers working at the Cambria Iron Works and on the Pennsylvania Railroad seem to be making rapid progress. This is no doubt for the reason that these men are more used to this kind of work. About ten o’clock the rain was over and the sun came out with its fierce June heat.
A number of charges of dynamite were fired during the day, and each time with good effect. The channels through to the bridge are almost clear of débris, and each charge of dynamite has loosened large quantities of the wreckage.
This is the eighth day since the demon of destruction swept down the valley of the Conemaugh, but the desolation that marks its angry flight is still visible in all its intensity and horror. The days that have been spent by weary toilers whose efforts were steeled by grief have done little to repair the devastation wrought in one short hour by the potent fury of the elements. To the watchers on the mountain side all seems yet chaos and confusion. The thousand fires that spot the valley show that the torch is being used to complete the work of annihilation where repair is impossible and the smoke curls upward. It reminds one of the peace offerings of ancient Babylon.
The corps of government engineers that arrived last night has already demonstrated the valuable assistance which it is capable of rendering in these times of emergency. With but a few hours rest, those men were up ere sunrise this morning, and by eight o’clock a pontoon bridge had been stretched across the river at Kernville. Acting in conjunction with the Pennsylvania military authorities they are pursuing their labors at various other points, and by sundown it is confidently expected that pontoon bridges will be erected at all places where the necessities of traffic demand. It is the fact, probably not generally known, that the great government of the United States owns only 500 feet of pontoon bridges, and that these are the same that were used by the federal forces in the civil war, twenty-five years ago. The bridges that are to be used at Johnstown were brought from West Point and Willet’s Point, where they have been for years used in the ordinary course of instruction in the military and engineer corps.
The following official announcements have been made:
A Masonic relief committee has been organized and solicits aid for distressed Freemasons and their families.
WILLIAM A. DONALDSON, Chairman.
OFFICE OF SUPREME COMMANDER, KNIGHTS OF THE MYSTIC CHAIN, WILMINGTON, DEL., June 8, 1889.–In view of the great calamity that has befallen our brothers at Johnstown, Pa., and vicinity, I, H.G. Rettes, Supreme Commander, request that wherever the Order of the Knights of the Mystic Chain exists there be liberal donations made for our afflicted brothers.
Affairs at the tremendous stone bridge wreckage pile seem to have resolved themselves into a state of almost hopelessness. It is amazing the routine into which everything has fallen in this particular place. Every morning at seven o’clock a score of Lilliputs come mechanically from huts and tents or the bare hillside, and wearily and weakly go to work clearing away this mass, and at the rate they are now proceeding it will actually be months before the débris is cleared away and the last body found. Fortunately the wind is blowing away from us or we would have olfactory evidence that what is not found is far worse than what has been exposed.
Then it may be good business and good policy to have these few workers fool around the edge of the wreckage for five or ten minutes adjusting a dynamite blast, then hastily scramble away and consume as much more time before a tremendous roar announces the ugly work is done, but the onlookers doubt it. Sometimes, when an extra large shot is used, the water, bits of wood and iron, and other shapes more fearfully suggestive, fly directly upward in a solid column at least three hundred feet high, only to fall back again in almost the same spot, to be tugged and pulled at or coaxed to float down an unwilling current that is falling so rapidly now that even this poor mode of egress will soon be shut entirely off.
The fact of the matter is simply this: They are not attempting to recover bodies at the bridge, but as one blast tears yards of stuff into flinders it is shoved indifferently into the water, be it human or brute, stone, wood or iron, to float down toward Pittsburgh or to sink to the bottom, may be a few yards from where it was pushed off from the main pile.
Up in the centre of the town the débris is piled even higher than at the stone bridge, but the work is going on fairly well. The men seem to be working more together and enter into the spirit of the thing. Besides this, horses and wagons can get at the wrecks, and it really looks as if this part of the ruins has been exaggerated, and some of the foremen there say that at the present rate of work going on through the town all the bodies that ever will be recovered will be found within the next ten days. As to the condition these bodies are in, that has become almost a matter of indifference, except as to the effect upon the health of the living.
An eye-witness writes as follows:
The scene is one that cannot be described in outline–it must be told in detail to become intelligible. Never before in this country, at least, was there a disaster so stupendous, so overwhelming, so terrible in its fierce and unheralded onset and so sorrowful in its death-dealing work. I traversed the Mill River Valley the day after the bursting of the Mill River dam. I went over Wallingford, in Connecticut, a few hours after that terrible cyclone had swept through the beautiful New England village. I stood on the broken walls of the Brooklyn Theatre and looked down upon hecatombs of dead sacrificed in that holocaust to Momus. Each of these was in itself a terrible calamity, but here is not only what was most terrible in all these, but every horrifying feature of the Mill River flood, the Wallingford cyclone and the Brooklyn Theatre fire is here magnified tenfold, nay, a hundred fold. And what is even more terrible than the scenes of devastation, the piles of dead that have been unearthed from the ruins and the mangled human bodies that still remain buried in the débris, is the simple but startling fact that this disaster ought not to have happened.
The flood was not due to the rains. This calamity is not the work of the unprovoked fury of the angry elements. This fair town and the populous valley above it, all the varied industries of this thriving city, all these precious lives are a sacrifice to the selfishness of a few men whose purses were bigger than their hearts. There would have been no flood if these rich men had not built an artificial pond in which to catch fish.
The now famous dam was only a mud bank. For years it was a constant menace to Johnstown and the Conemaugh Valley. It has long been only a question of time when the calamity that has befallen these people should befall them. It came at last because the arrogance of the purse and the pleasure-seeking selfishness of wealth were blind to the safety of a populous community.
The cause of the Johnstown disaster was wholly due to the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club. This club was specially chartered by the Legislature, and notwithstanding there was some opposition at the time, it was accorded the privilege of making an artificial lake and fish pond by means of an embankment. The site chosen was the old dam on South Fork Creek, about two miles above the village of South Fork, on the Conemaugh River. This dam was built by the Pennsylvania Canal in 1830 as a feeder to the canal below Johnstown. When the canal was finally abandoned, after passing into the hands of the Pennsylvania Railroad Company, the dam was sold to a private buyer for the very reasonable sum of $700. By him it was afterwards conveyed to the Fishing and Hunting Club for $1,400. This was about twenty years ago. The club spent $22,000 in rebuilding the dam and erected a beautiful club house on the west bank of the artificial lake. Beside the club house there are from twelve to fifteen cottages, the summer residences of members of the club, all built since the acquisition of the property twenty years ago. Ten of these cottages are visible from the embankment where the break occurred. It was a beautiful spot before the disaster, but this artificial lake in its placid beauty was a menace to the lives and property of the people in the Conemaugh Valley from its completion to its destruction.
The South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club was a very aristocratic and exclusive organization. Not even Tuxedo puts on more airs. It was composed of about seventy members, a baker’s dozen of them Pittsburgh millionaires.
These wealthy gentlemen and their associates never so much as recognized the existence of the common clay of South Fork, except to warn all intruders to keep off the land and water of the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club. Their placards still stare sight-seers in the face. One of these reads:
ALL TRESPASSERS FOUND HUNTING OR FISHING ON THESE GROUNDS WILL BE PROSECUTED TO THE FULL EXTENT OF THE LAW.
Another is as follows:
NO FISHING OR HUNTING ON THESE PREMISES, UNDER PENALTY OF THE LAW, $100. SOUTH FORK HUNTING AND FISHING CLUB.
Strenuously as the club insisted upon exacting the full penalties and extent of the law for encroachments upon its privileges, it was quite heedless of the rights of others. There probably never was in the world a case of such blind fatuity as that of the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club in building and maintaining its dam. From the first it must have been known to every member of the club, as it certainly was to every resident of the South Fork and Conemaugh Valleys, that if the water ever began to run over the breast of the dam the dam itself would give way. The dam was only a clay embankment. There was no masonry whatever–at least there is none visible in the break. The bottom was of brushwood and earth–some people in the South Fork valley say hay and sand. In consequence, the people below the dam who knew how it was built have always regarded it as a menace to their safety. Indeed, one man employed in its construction was discharged by the club or its contractor for protesting against the dam as insecure. His crime consisted in declaring that an embankment made in that way could not resist the force of an overflow. He was telling the simple truth, which was clear to every one except men disposed to take chances.
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