The Johnstown Flood by David McCullough

They claim when doing your genealogy you should do your best to learn about the history of the area, and that was one of my primary reasons to read “The Johnstown Flood” by David McCullough, his very first book.

Mr. McCullough was able to provide a good amount of history of Cambria County as he began his book by giving background of the area, which fittingly for me was 1850. Andrew and Susanna Blair are living in Cambria County in the 1850 Census with their 2 oldest children (at least known anyhow) Sarah and William. Though they have moved to Bedford County and have most likely passed by the Johnstown Flood of 1889, I learned that the city where my Grandmother (Anna Maria Morgart) grew up, Saint Michael, is located where the South Fork Hunting and Fishing Club once stood.

What I Learned

Cambria County in Pennsylvania was created from “Mother Bedford” in 1804 that was a simple trading center until the 1830’s when the canal came to be. By 1835, Johnstown had a “drugstore, newspaper, Presbyterian church, and a distillery”. By 1840 the population was 3,000. By 1850 the Pennsylvania Railroad and the Cambria Iron Works had been established and “everything changed”.

According to the book –
“By the start of the 1880’s Johnstown and its neighboring boroughs had a total population of about 15,000. Within the next nine years the population doubled. On the afternoon of May 31, 1889, there were nearly 30,000 people living in the valley”.

The South Fork Hunting & Fishing Club

The South Fork Hunting & Fishing Club was a “resort” built near Lake Conemaugh (or the South Fork Dam) that had 50 extremely wealthy members (the likes of Andrew Carnegie, Henry Clay Frick, Philander C. Knox, and Andrew Mellon, to name a few). The Club was an escape for these men of industry, a place for them to get away and fish, hunt, sail (one of the chapters was called “Sailboats on the Mountain” because Lake Conemaugh, aka the South Fork Dam, was so big they could sail in it).

The Club was chartered on 15 November 1879 in the Court of Common Pleas in Allegheny County, with everyone ignoring the provision that the law stated that they needed to register in the county where business was to take place (which in this case is Cambria County).

The Flood

2,209 people lost their lives over something that could have been avoided. For years people wondered when South Fork Dam was going to break. It wasn’t an if, it was a when. And even just hours before the dam did overflow and “break” someone could have made it so that much less damage could have occurred.

But what if it didn’t overflow? Or break? That is why John Parke, Jr. did not cut a hole in another area of the spillway so the water could have flowed out more safely. It was too bold of a decision, because if the worst case scenario didn’t happen, it would have been the end of Lake Conemaugh, and it was just too risky to go ahead and do.

On 30 May 1889 unprecedented heavy rains began in the area around 11pm, coming from Kansas and Nebraska where they began two days before, washing out roads and flattening farms across the way as tornado-like winds killed several people. But it was an odd storm, where 5 inches rained down at the South Fork Hunting & Fishing Club, only 1.5 inches was recorded for the same period of time at Pittsburgh, just 65 miles away.

But the rain continued to come and despite warnings of what was happening, they were ignored or unable to go through and the worst case scenario happened: 20 million tons of water began hurling down upon the city of Johnstown when the dam failed.

Histed, E. W., photographer. (ca. 1889) View of the broken dam looking from bed of lake, Johnstown Flood, May 31st . Pennsylvania Johnstown, ca. 1889. [Photograph] Retrieved from the Library of Congress,
Histed, E. W., photographer. (ca. 1889) Bed of lake looking from top of broken dam, Johnstown flood, May 31st. Pennsylvania Johnstown, ca. 1889. [Photograph] Retrieved from the Library of Congress,


(ca. 1889) The Johnstown flood, looking west on Main Street. , ca. 1889. [Photograph] Retrieved from the Library of Congress,

The Johnstown Flood was the first disaster for Clara Barton and the very new American Red Cross.

(1889) Clara Barton’s headquarters, Johnstown, Pa. flood. , 1889. [Photograph] Retrieved from the Library of Congress,

The book went into great detail about what happened. Mr. McCullough did his due diligence and did an incredible amount of research on the topic, interviewing many who had witnessed the horror of that day.

In the back of the book all 2,209 names of the people who are known to have perished in the flood are listed and where they are buried. Such a sad event that could have been so much less had people listened.


Book Review: A Race Against Time


Recently I was in the mood to read a book, but where my first choice is usually of the chick-lit variety, on this day I wanted to read something with substance.  Not finding anything on my Nook, I opted to go to the e-book choices at my local library to see what they had for me to be able to download on the spot (it was a Saturday night and the “real” library was closed).

The first book listed was “A Race Against Time: A Reporter Re-Opens the Unsolved Murder Cases of the Civil Rights Era” by Jerry Mitchell.  I instantly downloaded it.  This book blew me away.  So many stories that I remember learning in my high school history class that I thought were solved, weren’t.

This fact astounded me.

The Cases

There were basically 4-cases that were discussed throughout the book and finally brought to trial.  It began with the case of Michael “Mickey” Schwerner, Andrew Goodman and James Chaney.  They were murdered by the White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan for registering African-American’s to vote.  They were killed in Meridian, Mississippi during the Freedom Summer of 1964.  They were shot and thrown into a dam and buried 15 feet in the ground. In the mid-to-late 1980’s Jerry Mitchell, a writer for the Clarion-Ledger began writing about the wrongs done to these 3-men hoping to be able to bring their killers to justice. However, due to a lack of “hard” evidence, they were unable to take it to trial.  Eventually enough evidence is found to convict Edgar Ray Killen who planned and directed the murders of Schwerner, Goodman and Chaney.  Killen was found guilty in 2004 and he lived behind bars until he died in 2018.

Since initially the above murders are not able to be prosecuted, the book put it on the back burner and began focusing on the Medgar Evers trial.  Medgar Evers was a black man working for the NAACP, working tirelessly to get African-American’s registered to vote in the South in the 1960’s.  But on June 12, 1963 at about 12:30am, Byron De La Beckwith shot him in the back with a rifle.  De La Beckwith was tried twice, once in 1963 and again in 1964 and both ended in a hung jury.  But in 1994 the case was re-opened and ended in a guilty verdict.  He died in 2001 at the age of 80.

The third case that was brought was for Vernon Dahmer (pronounced DAY-mer) who was another NAACP leader who was killed by the White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan for registering African-Americans to vote (are you beginning to notice a trend?). His house was caught on fire and while he tried to keep the KKK at bay while his wife and children escaped the blaze, he was died of severe burns from the waist up.  His murder was signed off by the Imperial Wizard himself, Sam Bowers, and though 4-different trials ended in a mis-trial due to Sam Bowers invoking the 5th Amendment, in 1998 he was finally found guilty.  He was in jail until he died in 2006 at age 82.

The only Alabama case that was mentioned in the book was that of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church bombing of 1963 where 4-young-African American girls were killed whit 20 more wounded.  In 2002 Bobby Frank Cherry was finally convicted of setting the bomb.  He died in 2004.

Why I Was Mad

Why was I so livid when I discovered that these men were put to justice after 20-40 years?  Because I thought they had been punished for their crimes when it happened in the 1960’s.  I never dreamed that these people were allowed to roam free and have lives.  When I read about Medgar Evers death in my history book I had no inkling that his killer wouldn’t be brought to justice until I was a sophomore in college (to put this in a better perspective, a crime committed 10 years before I was born wasn’t prosecuted until I was 21 years old).

The sad part is that white supremacists still roam the earth today.  Just within the past 2 years we had a man walk into a black church and do the exact same thing.  Granted, he has been tried and found guilty, but that is the only difference.  You would think that after all this time that color would no longer be an issue to fill people with so much anger.  But it’s alive and well today.

I Highly Recommend It

If you like history you will appreciate this book.  It is very well written, I like a book that is able to describe the scene in detail so I feel like I am there.  I truly felt transported back to the 1960’s South as the relatives of these men told the stories of each of their lives.

Jerry Mitchell, the author, speaks to the widows of these men who just tried to give everyone the basic American right to vote.  Something to think about as we head into a presidential election year, appreciate your right.