On the advent of Summer, June 1st, the country was horror-stricken by the announcement that a terrible calamity had overtaken the inhabitants of Johnstown, and the neighboring villages. Instantly the whole land was stirred by the startling news of this great disaster. Its appalling magnitude, its dreadful suddenness, its scenes of terror and agony, the fate of thousands swept to instant death by a flood as frightful as that of the cataract of Niagara, awakened the profoundest horror. No calamity in the history of modern times has so appalled the civilized world.
The following graphic pen-picture will give the reader an accurate idea of the picturesque scene of the disaster:
Away up in the misty crags of the Alleghanies some tiny rills trickle and gurgle from a cleft in the mossy rocks. The drippling waters, timid perhaps in the bleak and lonely fastness of the heights, hug and coddle one another until they flash into a limpid pool. A score of rivulets from all the mountain side babble hither over rocky beds to join their companions. Thence in rippling current they purl and tinkle down the gentle slopes, through bosky nooks sweet with the odors of fir tree and pine, over meads dappled with the scarlet snap-dragon and purple heath buds, now pausing for a moment to idle with a wood encircled lake, now tumbling in opalescent cascade over a mossy lurch, and then on again in cheerful, hurried course down the Appalachian valley.
None stays their way. Here and there perhaps some thrifty Pennsylvania Dutchman coaxes the saucy stream to turn his mill-wheel and every league or so it fumes and frets a bit against some rustic bridge. From these trifling tourneys though, it emerges only the more eager and impetuous in its path toward the towns below.
The Fatal River
Coming nearer, step by step, to the busy haunts of men, the dashing brook takes on a more ambitious air. Little by little it edges its narrow banks aside, drinks in the waters of tributaries, swells with the copious rainfall of the lower valley. From its ladder in the Alleghanies it catches a glimpse of the steeples of Johnstown, red with the glow of the setting sun. Again it spurts and spreads as if conscious of its new importance, and the once tiny rill expands into the dignity of a river, a veritable river, with a name of its own. Big with this sounding symbol of prowess it rushes on as if to sweep by the teeming town in a flood of majesty. To its vast surprise the way is barred. The hand of man has dared to check the will of one that up to now has known no curb save those the forest gods imposed. For an instant the waters, taken aback by this strange audacity, hold themselves in leash. Then, like erl-king in the German legends, they broaden out to engulf their opponent. In vain they surge with crescent surface against the barrier of stone. By day, by night, they beat and breast in angry impotence against the ponderous wall of masonry that man has reared, for pleasure and profit, to stem the mountain stream.
The Awful Rush of Waters
Suddenly, maddened by the stubborn hindrance, the river grows black and turgid. It rumbles and threatens as if confident of an access of strength that laughs at resistance. From far up the hillside comes a sound, at first soft and soothing as the fountains of Lindaraxa, then rolling onward it takes the voluminous quaver of a distant waterfall. Louder and louder, deeper and deeper, nearer and nearer comes an awful crashing and roaring, till its echoes rebound from the crags of the Alleghanies like peals of thunder and boom of cannon.
On, on, down the steep valley trumpets the torrent into the river at Jamestown. Joined to the waters from the cloud kissed summits of its source, the exultant Conemaugh, with a deafening din, dashes its way through the barricade of stone and starts like a demon on its path of destruction.
Into its maw it sucks a town. A town with all its hundreds of men and women and children, with its marts of business, its homes, its factories and houses of worship. Then, insatiate still, with a blast like the chaos of worlds dissolved, it rushes out to new desolation, until Nature herself, awe stricken at the sight of such ineffable woe, blinds her eyes to the uncanny scene of death, and drops the pall of night upon the earth.
Destruction Descended as a Bolt of Jove
A fair town in a western valley of Pennsylvania, happy in the arts of peace and prospering by its busy manufactures, suddenly swept out of existence by a gigantic flood and thousands of lives extinguished as by one fell stroke–such has been the fate of Johnstown.
Never before in this country has there happened a disaster of such appalling proportions. It is necessary to refer to those which have occurred in the valleys of the great European rivers, where there is a densely crowded population, to find a parallel.
The Horrors Unestimated
At first the horror was not all known. It could only be imperfectly surmised. Until a late hour on the following night there was no communication with the hapless city. All that was positively known of its fate was seen from afar. It was said that out of all the habitations, which had sheltered about twelve thousand people before this awful doom had befallen, only two were visible above the water. All the rest, if this be true, had been swallowed up or else shattered into pieces and hurled downward into the flood-vexed valley below.
What has become of those twelve thousand inhabitants? Who can tell until after the waters have wholly subsided?
Of course it is possible that many of them escaped. Much hope is to be built upon the natural exaggeration of first reports from the sorely distressed surrounding region and the lack of actual knowledge, in the absence of direct communication. But what suspense must there be between now and the moment when direct communication shall be opened!
Heedless of Fate
The valley of the Conemaugh in which Johnstown stood lies between the steep walls of lofty hills. The gathering of the rain into torrents in that region is quick and precipitate. The river on one side roared out its warning, but the people would not take heed of the danger impending over them on the other side–the great South Fork dam, two and a half miles up the valley and looming one hundred feet in height from base to top. Behind it were piled the waters, a great, ponderous mass, like the treasured wrath of fate. Their surface was about three hundred feet above the deserted town.
If Noah’s neighbors thought it would be only a little shower the people of Johnstown were yet more foolish. The railroad officials had repeatedly told them that the dam threatened destruction. They still perversely lulled themselves into a false security. The blow came, when it did, like a flash. It was as if the heavens had fallen in liquid fury upon the earth. It was as if ocean itself had been precipitated into an abyss. The slow but inexorable march of the mightiest glacier of the Alps, though comparable, was not equal to this in force. The whole of a Pyramid, shot from a colossal catapult, would not have been the petty charge of a pea shooter to it. Imagine Niagara, or a greater even than Niagara, falling upon an ordinary collection of brick and wooden houses.
An Inconceivable Force
The South Fork Reservoir was the largest in the United States, and it contained millions of tons of water. When its fetters were loosened, crumbling before it like sand, a building or even a rock that stood in its path presented as much resistance as a card house. The dread execution was little more than the work of an instant.
The flood passed over the town as it would over a pile of shingles, covering over or carrying with it everything that stood in its way. It bounded down the valley, wreaking destruction and death on each hand and in its fore. Torrents that poured down out of the wilds of the mountains swelled its volume.
All along from the point of its release it bore débris and corpses as its hideous trophies. In a very brief time it displayed some of both, as if in hellish glee, to the horrified eyes of Pittsburg, seventy-eight miles west of the town of Johnstown that had been, having danced them along on its exultant billows or rolled them over and over in the depths of its dark current all the way through the Conemaugh, the Kiskiminitas and the Allegheny river.
It was like a fearful monster, gnashing its dripping jaws in the scared face of the multitude, in the flesh of its victims.
One eye-witness of the effects of the deluge declares that he saw five hundred dead bodies. Hundreds were counted by others. It will take many a day to make up the death roll. It will take many a day to make up the reckoning of the material loss.
If any pen could describe the scenes of terror, anguish and destruction which have taken place in Conemaugh Valley it could write an epic greater than the “Iliad.” The accounts that come tell of hairbreadth escapes, heartrending tragedies and deeds of heroism almost without number.
A Climax of Horror
As if to add a lurid touch of horror to the picture that might surpass all the rest a conflagration came to mock those who were in fear of drowning with a death yet more terrible. Where the ruins of Johnstown, composed mainly of timber, had been piled up forty feet high against a railroad bridge below the town a fire was started and raged with eager fury. It is said that scores of persons were burned alive, their piercing cries appealing for aid to hundreds of spectators who stood on the banks of the river, but could do nothing.
Western Pennsylvania is in mourning. Business in the cities is virtually suspended and all minds are bent upon this great horror, all hearts convulsed with the common sorrow.
Heartrending Scenes and Heroic Struggles for Life
Another eye-witness describes the calamity as follows: A flood of death swept down the Alleghany Mountains yesterday afternoon and last night. Almost the entire city of Johnstown is swimming about in the rushing, angry tide. Dead bodies are floating about in every direction, and almost every piece of movable timber is carrying from the doomed city a corpse of humanity, drifting with the raging waters. The disaster overtook Johnstown about six o’clock last evening.
As the train bearing the writer sped eastward, the reports at each stop grew more appalling. At Derry a group of railway officials were gathered who had come from Bolivar, the end of the passable portion of the road westward. They had seen but a small portion of the awful flood, but enough to allow them to imagine the rest. Down through the Packsaddle came the rushing waters. The wooded heights of the Alleghanies looked down in wonder at the scene of the most terrible destruction that ever struck the romantic valley of the Conemaugh.
The water was rising when the men left at six o’clock at the rate of five feet an hour. Clinging to improvised rafts, constructed in the death battle from floating boards and timbers, were agonized men, women and children, their heartrending shrieks for help striking horror to the breasts of the onlookers. Their cries were of no avail. Carried along at railway speed on the breast of this rushing torrent, no human ingenuity could devise a means of rescue.
With pallid face and hair clinging wet and damp to her cheek, a mother was seen grasping a floating timber, while on her other arm she held her babe, already drowned. With a death-grip on a plank a strong man just giving up hope cast an imploring look to those on the bank, and an instant later he had sunk into the waves. Prayers to God and cries to those in safety rang above the roaring waves.
The special train pulled into Bolivar at half-past eleven last night, and the trainmen were there notified that further progress was impossible. The greatest excitement prevailed at this place, and parties of citizens are out all the time endeavoring to save the poor unfortunates that are being hurled to eternity on the rushing torrent.
Attempts at Rescue
The tidal wave struck Bolivar just after dark, and in five minutes the Conemaugh rose from six to forty feet and the waters spread out over the whole country. Soon houses began floating down, and clinging to the débris were men, women and children shrieking for aid. A large number of citizens at once gathered on the county bridge, and they were reinforced by a number from Garfield, a town on the opposite side of the river.
They brought a number of ropes and these were thrown over into the boiling waters as persons drifted by in efforts to save some poor beings. For half an hour all efforts were fruitless, until at last, when the rescuers were about giving up all hope, a little boy, astride a shingle roof, managed to catch hold of one of the ropes. He caught it under his left arm and was thrown violently against an abutment, but managed to keep hold, and was successfully pulled on to the bridge amid the cheers of the onlookers. His name was Hessler and his rescuer was a trainman named Carney. The lad was at once taken to the town of Garfield and was cared for. The boy was aged about sixteen. His story of the frightful calamity is as follows:
“With my father I was spending the day at my grandfather’s house in Cambria City. In the house at the time were Theodore, Edward and John Kintz, and John Kintz, Jr.; Miss Mary Kintz, Mrs. Mary Kintz, wife of John Kintz, Jr.; Miss Treacy Kintz, Mrs. Rica Smith, John Hirsch and four children, my father and myself. Shortly after five o’clock there was a noise of roaring waters and screams of people. We looked out the door and saw persons running. My father told us to never mind, as the waters would not rise further.
“But soon we saw houses being swept away, and then we ran up to the floor above. The house was three stories, and we were at last forced to the top one. In my fright I jumped on the bed. It was an old fashioned one, with heavy posts. The water kept rising and my bed was soon afloat. Gradually it was lifted up. The air in the room grew close and the house was moving. Still the bed kept rising and pressed the ceiling. At last the posts pushed against the plaster. It yielded and a section of the roof gave way. Then suddenly I found myself on the roof, and was being carried down stream.
“After a little this roof began to part, and I was afraid I was going to be drowned, but just then another house with a shingle roof floated by, and I managed to crawl on it, and floated down until nearly dead with cold, when I was saved. After I was freed from the house I did not see my father. My grandfather was on a tree, but he must have been drowned, as the waters were rising fast. John Kintz, Jr., was also on a tree. Miss Mary Kintz and Mrs. Mary Kintz I saw drown. Miss Smith was also drowned. John Hirsch was in a tree, but the four children were drowned. The scenes were terrible. Live bodies and corpses were floating down with me and away from me. I would see persons, hear them shriek, and then they would disappear. All along the line were people who were trying to save us, but they could do nothing, and only a few were caught.”
This boy’s story is but one incident, and shows what happened to one family. No one knows what has happened to the hundreds who were in the path of the rushing water. It is impossible to get anything in the way of news save meagre details.
An eye-witness at Bolivar Block Station tells a story of unparalleled heroism that occurred at the lower bridge which crosses the Conemaugh at this point. A. Young, with two women was seen coming down the river on a part of the floor. At the upper bridge a rope was thrown down to them. This they all failed to catch. Between the two bridges he was noticed to point towards the elder woman, who, it is supposed, was his mother. He was then seen to instruct the women how to catch the rope that was lowered from the other bridge. Down came the raft with a rush. The brave man stood with his arms around the two women.
As they swept under the bridge he seized the rope. He was jerked violently away from the two women, who failed to get a hold on the rope. Seeing that they would not be rescued, he dropped the rope and fell back on the raft, which floated on down the river. The current washed their frail craft in toward the bank. The young man was enabled to seize hold of a branch of a tree. He aided the two women to get up into the tree.
He held on with his hands and rested his feet on a pile of driftwood. A piece of floating débris struck the drift, sweeping it away. The man hung with his body immersed in the water. A pile of drift soon collected and he was enabled to get another insecure footing. Up the river there was a sudden crash, and a section of the bridge was swept away and floated down the stream, striking the tree and washing it away. All three were thrown into the water and were drowned before the eyes of the horrified spectators just opposite the town of Bolivar.
Early in the evening a woman with her two children was seen to pass under the bridge at Bolivar clinging to the roof of a coal house. A rope was lowered to her, but she shook her head and refused to desert the children. It was rumored that all three were saved at Cokeville, a few miles below Bolivar. A later report from Lockport says that the residents succeeded in rescuing five people from the flood, two women and three men. One man succeeded in getting out of the water unaided. They were taken care of by the people of the town.
A Child’s Faith
A little girl passed under the bridge just before dark. She was kneeling on a part of a floor and had her hands clasped as if in prayer. Every effort was made to save her, but they all proved futile. A railroader who was standing by remarked that the piteous appearance of the little waif brought tears to his eyes. All night long the crowd stood about the ruins of the bridge which had been swept away at Bolivar. The water rushed past with a roar, carrying with it parts of houses, furniture and trees. The flood had evidently spent its force up the valley. No more living persons were being carried past. Watchers with lanterns remained along the banks until daybreak, when the first view of the awful devastation of the flood was witnessed.
Along the bank lay remnants of what had once been dwelling houses and stores; here and there was an uprooted tree. Piles of drift lay about, in some of which bodies of the victims of the flood will be found. Rescuing parties are being formed in all towns along the railroad. Houses have been thrown open to refugees, and every possible means is being used to protect the homeless.
Wrecking Trains to the Rescue
The wrecking trains of the Pennsylvania Railroad are slowly making their way east to the unfortunate city. No effort was being made to repair the wrecks, and the crews of the trains were organized into rescuing parties, and an effort will be made to send out a mail train this morning. The chances are that they will go no further east than Florence. There is absolutely no news from Johnstown. The little city is entirely cut off from communication with the outside world. The damage done is inestimable. No one can tell its extent.
The little telegraph stations along the road are filled with anxious groups of men who have friends and relatives in Johnstown. The smallest item of news is eagerly seized upon and circulated. If favorable they have a moment of relief, if not their faces become more gloomy. Harry Fisher, a young telegraph operator who was at Bolivar when the first rush began, says:–“We knew nothing of the disaster until we noticed the river slowly rising and then more rapidly. News then reached us from Johnstown that the dam at South Fork had burst. Within three hours the water in the river rose at least twenty feet. Shortly before six o’clock ruins of houses, beds, household utensils, barrels and kegs came floating past the bridges. At eight o’clock the water was within six feet of the road-bed of the bridge. The wreckage floated past without stopping for at least two hours. Then it began to lessen, and night coming suddenly upon us we could see no more. The wreckage was floating by for a long time before the first living persons passed. Fifteen people that I saw were carried down by the river. One of these, a boy, was saved, and three of them were drowned just directly below the town. It was an awful sight and one that I will not soon forget.”
Hundreds of animals lost their lives. The bodies of horses, dogs and chickens floated past. The little boy who was rescued at Bolivar had two dogs as companions during his fearful ride. The dogs were drowned just before reaching the bridge. One old mule swam past. Its shoulders were torn, but it was alive when swept past the town.
Saved from a Watery Grave to Perish by Flames
After a long, weary ride of eight or nine miles over the worst of country roads New Florence, fourteen miles from Johnstown, was reached. The road bed between this place and Bolivar was washed out in many places. The trackmen and the wreck crews were all night in the most dangerous portions of the road.
The last man from Johnstown brought the information that scarcely a house remained in the city. The upper portion above the railroad bridge had been completely submerged. The water dammed up against the viaduct, the wreckage and débris finishing the work that the torrent had failed to accomplish. The bridge at Johnstown proved too stanch for the fury of the water. It is a heavy piece of masonry, and was used as a viaduct by the old Pennsylvania Canal. Some of the top stones were displaced.
The story reached here a short time ago that a family consisting of father and mother and nine children were washed away in a creek at Lockport. The mother managed to reach the shore, but the husband and children were carried out into the Conemaugh to drown. The woman is crazed over the terrible event.
A Night of Horror
After night settled down upon the mountains the horror of the scenes was enhanced. Above the roar of the water could be heard the piteous appeals from the unfortunate as they were carried by. To add also to the terror of the night, a brilliant illumination lit up the sky. This illumination could be plainly seen from this place.
A message received from Sang Hollow stated that this light came from a hundred burning wrecks of houses that were piled upon the Johnstown Bridge. A supervisor from up the road brought the information that the wreckage at Johnstown was piled up forty feet above the bridge.
The startling news came in that more than a thousand lives had been lost. This cannot be substantiated. By actual count one hundred and ten people had been seen floating past Sang Hollow before dark. Forty-seven were counted passing New Florence and the number had diminished to eight at Bolivar. The darkness coming on stopped any further count, and it was only by the agonizing cries that rang out above the waters that it was known that a human being was being carried to death.
An Irresistible Torrent
The scenes along the river were wild in the extreme. Although the water was subsiding, still as it dashed against the rocks that filled the narrow channel of the Conemaugh its spray was carried high up on the shore. The towns all along the line of the railroad from Johnstown west had received visitations. Many of the houses in New Florence were partially under water. At Bolivar the whole lower part of the town was submerged.
The ride over the mountain road gave one a good idea of the cause of this disaster. Every creek was a rushing river and every rivulet a raging torrent. The ground was water soaked, and when the immense mountain district that drains into the Conemaugh above South Fork is taken into consideration the terrible volume of water that must have accumulated can be realized. Gathering, as it did, within a few minutes, it came against the breast of the South Fork dam with irresistible force. The frightened inhabitants along the Conemaugh describe the flood as something awful. The first rise came almost without warning, and the torrent came roaring down the mountain passes in one huge wave, several feet in height. After the first swell the water continued to rise at a fearful rate.
Daylight Brings No Relief
The gray morning light does not seem to show either hope or mitigation of the awful fears of the night. It has been a hard night to everybody. The overworked newspaper men, who have been without rest and food since yesterday afternoon, and the operators who have handled the messages are already preparing for the work of the day. There has been a long wrangle over the possession of a special train for the press between rival newspaper men, and it has delayed the work of others who are anxious to get further east.
Even here, so far from the washed-out towns, seven bodies have been found. Two were in a tree, a man and a woman, where the flood had carried them. The country people are coming into the town in large numbers telling stories of disaster along the river banks in sequestered places.
John McCarthey, a carpenter, who lives in Johnstown, reached here about four o’clock. He left Johnstown at half-past four yesterday afternoon and says the scene then was indescribable. The people had been warned early in the morning to move to the highlands, but they did not heed the warning, although it was repeated a number of times up to one o’clock, when the water poured into Cinder street several feet deep. Then the houses began rocking to and fro, and finally the force of the current carried buildings across streets and vacant lots and dashed them against each other, breaking them into fragments. These buildings were full of the people who had laughed at the cry of danger. McCarthey says that in some cases he counted as many as fifteen persons clinging to buildings. McCarthey’s wife was with him. She had three sisters, who lived near her. They saw the house in which these girls lived carried away, and then they could endure the situation no longer and hurried away. The husband feared his wife would go crazy. They went inland along country roads until they reached here.
It is said to be next to impossible to get to Johnstown proper to-day in any manner except by rowboat. The roads are cut up so that even the countrymen refuse to travel over them in their roughest vehicles. The only hope is to get within about three miles by a special train or by hand car.
The Dead Cast Up
Nine dead bodies have been picked up within the limits of this borough since daylight. None of them has yet been recognized. Five are women. One woman, probably twenty-five years old, had clasped in her arms a babe about six months old. The body of a young man was discovered in the branches of a huge tree which had been carried down the stream. All the orchard crops and shrubbery along the banks of the river have been destroyed.
The body of another woman has just been discovered in the river here. Her foot was seen above the surface of the water and a rope was fastened about it.
A Roof as a Raft
John Weber and his wife, an old couple, Michael Metzgar and John Forney were rescued near here early this morning. They had been carried from their home in Cambria City on the roof of the house. There were seven others on the roof when it was carried off, all of whom were drowned. They were unknown to Weber, having drifted on to the roof from floating débris. Weber and wife were thoroughly drenched and were almost helpless from exposure. They were unable to walk when taken off the roof at this place. They are now at the hotel here.
Hundreds of people from Johnstown and up river towns are hurrying here in search of friends and relatives who were swept away in last night’s flood. The most intense excitement prevails. The street corners are crowded with pale and anxious people who tell of the calamity with bated breath. Squire Bennett has charge of the dead bodies, and he is having them properly cared for. They are being prepared for burial, but will be held here for identification.
Four boys have just come from the river bank above here. They say that on the opposite side a number of bodies can be seen lying in the mud. They found the body of a woman on this side badly bruised.
R.B. Rodgers, Justice of the Peace at Nineveh, has wired the Coroner at Greensburg that one hundred dead bodies have been found at that place, and he asks what is to be done with them. From this one can estimate that the loss of life will reach over one thousand.
A report has just been received that twenty persons are on an island near Nineveh and that men and women are on a partly submerged tree.
A report has just reached here that at least one hundred people were consumed in the flames at Johnstown last night, but it cannot be verified here. The air is filled with thrilling and most incredible stories, but none of them have as yet been confirmed. It is certain, however, that even the worst cannot be imagined.
Warnings Remembered Too Late
It is very evident that more lives have been lost because of foolish incredulity than from ignorance of the danger. For more than a year there have been fears of an accident of just such a character. The foundations of the dam were considered to be shaky early last spring and many increasing leakages were reported from time to time.
According to people who live in Johnstown and other towns on the line of the river, ample time was given to the Johnstown folks by the railroad officials and by other gentlemen of standing and reputation. In dozens, yes, hundreds of cases, this warning was utterly disregarded, and those who heeded it early in the day were looked upon as cowards, and many jeers were uttered by lips that now are cold among the rank grass beside the river.
There has grown up a bitter feeling among the surviving sufferers against those who owned the lake and dam, and damage suits will be plentiful by and by.
The dam in Stony Creek, above Johnstown, broke about noon yesterday and thousands of feet of lumber passed down the stream. It is impossible to tell what the loss of life will be, but at nine o’clock the Coroner of Westmoreland county sent a message out saying that 100 bodies had been recovered at Nineveh, halfway from here to Johnstown. Sober minded people do not hesitate to say that 1,200 is moderate.
Fire’s Awful Work
“How can anybody tell how many are dead?” said a railroad engineer this morning. “I have been at Long Hollow with my train since eleven o’clock yesterday, and I have seen fully five hundred persons lost in the flood.”
J.W. Esch, a brave railroad employee, saved sixteen lives at Nineveh.
The most awful culmination of the awful night was the roasting of a hundred or more persons in mid-flood. The ruins of houses, old buildings and other structures swept against the new railroad bridge at Johnstown, and from an overturned stove or some such cause the upper part of the wreckage caught fire.
There were crowds of men, women and children on the wreck, and their screams were soon heard. They were literally roasted on the flood. Soon after the fire burned itself out other persons were thrown against the mass. There were some fifty people in sight when the ruins suddenly broke up and were swept under the bridge into the darkness.
The latest news from Johnstown is that but two houses could be seen in the town. It is also said that only three houses remain in Cambria City.
The first authentic news was from W.N. Hays, of the Pennsylvania Railroad Company, who reached New Florence at nine o’clock. He says the valley towns are annihilated.
Destruction at Blairsville
The flood in the Conemaugh River at this point is the heaviest ever known here. At this hour the railroad bridge between here and Blairsville intersection has been swept away, and also the new bridge at Coketon, half a mile below. It is now feared that the iron bridge at the lower end of this town will go. A living woman and dead man, supposed to be her husband, were seen going under the railroad bridge. They were seen to come from under the bridge safely, but shortly disappeared and were seen no more.
A great many families lose their household goods. The river is running full of timber, houses, goods, etc. The loss will be heavy. The excitement here is very great. The river is still rising. There are some families below the town in the second story of their houses who cannot get out. It is feared that if the water goes much higher the loss of life will be very great. The railroad company had fourteen cars of coal on their bridge when it went down, and all were swept down the river.
The town bridge has just succumbed to the seething floods, whose roar can be heard a long distance. The water is still rising and it is thought that the West Pennsylvania Railroad will be without a single bridge. It is reported that a man went down with the Blairsville bridge while he was adjusting a headlight.
Havoc about Altoona
The highest and most destructive flood that has visited this place for fifty years occurred yesterday. It has been raining continuously for the past twenty-four hours. The Juniata river is ten feet above low water mark and is still rising. The lower streets of Gaysport bordering on the river bank are submerged, and the water is two feet deep on the first floors of the houses there. The water rose so rapidly that the people had to be removed from the houses in boats and wagons. Three railroad trestles and a number of bridges over the streams have been carried away, and railroad travel between this place and the surrounding towns has been interrupted.
Property of all kinds was carried off. The truck gardens and grain fields along the river were utterly destroyed, and the fences carried away. The iron furnaces and rolling mills at this place and Duncanville were compelled to shut down on account of the high water. Keene & Babcock lost 300,000 brick in the kiln ready to burn, G.W. Rhodes 350,000, and Joseph Hart 15,000. It is estimated that the flood has done over $50,000 damage in this vicinity. The fences of the Blair County Agricultural Society were destroyed.
Alarm at York
Last night was one of great alarm here. It rained steadily all day, some of the showers being severe. The great flood of 1884 is forcibly recalled. Many families are moving out. At half-past one A.M. a general alarm was sounded on the bells of the city.
The flood in the Susquehanna River here reached its greatest height about six o’clock this morning, when all bridges save one were under water. Business places and residences in the low section were flooded to a great extent, and the damage in this city alone amounts to $25,000 so far. The injury to the Spring Grove paper mills near this city is heavy. By noon the water had fallen sufficiently to restore travel over nearly all the bridges.
A number of bridges in the county have been swept away, and the loss in the county exclusive of the city is estimated at $100,000.
In attempting to catch some driftwood James McIlvaine lost his balance and fell into the raging current and was drowned.
Seven bodies have been taken from the water and débris on the river banks at New Florence. One body has also been taken from the river at this point, that of a young girl. None of them have been identified.
The whole face of the country between here and New Florence is under water, and houses, bridges and buildings fill the fields and even perch upon the hillside all the way to Johnstown. Great flocks of crows are already filling the valley, while buzzards are almost as frequently seen. The banks of the river are lined with people who are looking as well for booty as for bodies. Much valuable property was carried away in the houses as well as from houses not washed away.
The river has fallen again into its channel, and nothing in the stream itself except its red, angry color shows the wild horror of last night. It has fallen fully twenty feet since midnight, and by to-night it will have attained its normal depth.
At all points from Greensburg to Long Hollow, the limit of the present trouble, scores of people throng the stations begging and beseeching railroad men on the repair trains to take them aboard, as they are almost frenzied with anxiety and apprehension in regard to their friends who live at or near Johnstown. Strong men are as tearful as the women who join in the request.
Pitiable sights and scenes multiply more and more rapidly. The Conemaugh is one great valley of mourning. Those who have not lost friends have lost their house or their substance, and apparently the grief for the one is as poignant as for the other.
They Were Warned
The great volume of water struck Johnstown about half-past five in the afternoon. It did not find the people unprepared, as they had had notice from South Fork that the dam was threatening to go. Many, however, disregarded the notice and remained in their houses in the lower part of the city and were caught before they could get out.
Superintendent Pitcairn, of the Pennsylvania Railroad, who has spent the entire day in assisting not only those who were afflicted by the flood, but also in an attempt to reopen his road, went home this morning. Before he left he issued an order to all Pennsylvania Railroad employees to keep a sharp lookout for bodies, both in the river and in the bushes, and to return them to their friends.
Assistant Superintendent Trump is still on the ground near Lone Hollow directing the movements of gravel and construction trains, which are arriving as fast as they can be fitted up and started out. The roadbeds of both the Pennsylvania and the West Pennsylvania railroads are badly damaged, and it will cost the latter, especially from the Bolivar Junction to Saltsburg, many thousands of dollars to repair injuries to embankments alone.
In Pittsburg there was but one topic of conversation, and that was the Johnstown deluge. Crowds of eager watchers all day long besieged the newspaper bulletin boards and rendered streets impassable in their vicinity. Many of them had friends or relatives in the stricken district, and “Names!” “Names!” was their cry. But there were no names. The storm which had perhaps swept away their loved ones had also carried away all means of communication and their vigil was unrewarded. It is not yet known whether the telegraph operator at Johnstown is dead or alive. The nearest point to that city which can be reached to-night is New Florence, and the one wire there is used almost constantly by orders for coffins, embalming fluid and preparing special cars to carry the recovered dead to their homes.
Along the banks of the now turbulent Allegheny were placed watchers for dead bodies, and all wreckage was carefully scanned for the dead. The result of this vigilance was the recovery of one body, that of a woman floating down on a pile of débris. Seven other bodies were seen, but could not be reached owing to the swift moving wreckage by which they were surrounded.
A Heartrending Sight
A railroad conductor who arrived in the city this morning said:–“There is no telling how many lives are lost. We got as far as Bolivar, and I tell you it is a terrible sight. The body of a boy was picked up by some of us there, and there were eleven bodies recovered altogether. I do not think that anyone got into Johnstown, and it is my opinion that they will not get in very soon. No one who is not on the grounds has any idea of the damage done. It will be at least a week before the extent of this flood is known, and then I think many bodies will never be recovered.”
Assistant Superintendent Wilson, of the West Pennsylvania Railroad, received the following despatch from Nineveh to-day:–
“There appears to be a large number of people lodged in the trees and rubbish along the line. Many are alive. Rescuing parties should be advised at every station.”
Another telegram from Nineveh said that up to noon 175 bodies had been taken from the river at that point.
The stage of water in the Allegheny this afternoon became so alarming that residents living in the low-lying districts began to remove their household effects to a higher grade. The tracks of the Pittsburgh and Western Railroad are under water in several places, and great inconvenience is felt in moving trains.
It was stated at the office of the Pennsylvania Railroad early this morning that the deaths would run up into the thousands rather than hundreds, as was at first supposed. Despatches received state that the stream of human beings that was swept before the floods was pitiful to behold. Men, women and children were carried along frantically shrieking for help. Rescue was impossible.
Husbands were swept past their wives, and children were borne along at a terrible speed to certain death before the eyes of their terrorized and frantic parents. It was said at the depot that it was impossible to estimate the number whose lives were lost in the flood. It will simply be a matter of conjecture for several days as to who was lost and who escaped.
The people of Johnstown were warned of the possibility of the bursting of the dam during the morning, but very few if any of the inhabitants took the warning seriously. Shortly after noon it gave way about five miles above Johnstown, and sweeping everything before it burst upon the town with terrible force.
Everything was carried before it, and not an instant’s time was given to seek safety. Houses were demolished, swept from their foundations and carried in the flood to a culvert near the town. Here a mass of all manner of débris soon lodged, and by evening it had dammed the water back into the city over the tops of many of the still remaining chimneys.
The Dam Always a Menace
Assistant Superintendent Trump, of the Pennsylvania, is at Conemaugh, but the officials at the depot had not been able to receive a line from him until as late as half-past two o’clock this morning. It was said also that it will be impossible to get a train through either one way or the other for at least two or three days. This applies also to the mails, as there is absolutely no way of getting mails through.
“We were afraid of that lake,” said a gentleman who had lived in Johnstown for years, “we were afraid of that lake seven years ago. No one could see the immense height to which that artificial dam had been built without fearing the tremendous power of the water behind it. I doubt if there was a man or woman in Johnstown who at some time or other had not feared and spoken of the terrible disaster that has now come.
“People wondered and asked why the dam was not strengthened, as it certainly had become weak, but nothing was done, and by and by they talked less and less about it as nothing happened, though now and then some would shake their heads as though conscious that the fearful day would come some time when their worst fears would be transcended by the horror of the actual occurrence.
Converted Into a Lake
“Johnstown is in a hollow between two rivers, and that lake must have swept over the city at a depth of forty feet. It cannot be, it is impossible that such an awful thing could happen to a city of ten thousand inhabitants, and if it has, thousands have lost their lives, and men are to blame for it, for warnings have been uttered a thousand times and have received no attention.”
The body of a Welsh woman, sixty years of age, was taken from the river near the suspension bridge, at ten o’clock this morning. Four other bodies were seen, but owing to the mass of wreckage which is coming down they could not be recovered, and passed down the Ohio River.
A citizens’ meeting has been called to devise means to aid the sufferers. The Pennsylvania Railroad officials have already placed cars on Liberty street for the purpose of receiving provisions and clothing, and up to this hour many prominent merchants have made heavy donations.
Anxiety of the People
The difficulty of obtaining definite information added tremendously to the excitement and apprehension of the people in Pittsburgh who had relatives and friends at the scene of the disaster.
Members of the South Fork Club, and among them some of the most eminent men in the Pittsburgh financial and mercantile world, were in or near Johnstown, and several of them were accompanied by their wives and families. There happened to be also quite a number of residents of Johnstown in Pittsburgh, and when the news of the horror was confirmed and the railroads bulletined the fact that no trains would go east last night the scene at Union Depot was profoundly pathetic and exciting. But two trains were sent out by the Pennsylvania road from the Union station at Pittsburgh.
A despatch states that the Cambria Iron Company’s plant on the north side of the Conemaugh River at Johnstown is a complete wreck. Until this despatch was received it was not thought that this portion of the plant had been seriously injured. It was known that the portion of the plant located on the south bank of the river was washed away, and this was thought to be the extent of the damage to the property of that immense corporation. The plant is said to be valued at $5,000,000.