- Historic Sites
Run For Your Lives!
In the hills above Johnstown the old South Fork dam had failed. Down the Little Conemaugh came the torrent, sweeping away everything in its path
June 1966 | Volume 17, Issue 4
The water had gone down a great deal since the night before. A big embankment along the Pennsylvania tracks near the bridge had given way, and the water had raced through down past the Cambria Works carrying a number of people to their death. There had been heavy damage below the bridge at the Cambria Works and at Cambria City, Morrellville, and Sang Hollow, but it was nothing compared to what had happened above.
Johnstown was a sea of muck and rubble and corpses. There were still several buildings standing where they had been. The Methodist Church was there and the B&O station; so were Alma Hall, the Presbyterian Church, and the big brick office of the Cambria Iron Company. But all around them the wreckage was stacked ten, twenty, thirty feet high. Houses were dumped over every which way, broken and scattered. Dead animals and pieces of dead animals were strewn everywhere. At the stone bridge a good part of what had been Johnstown lay in a burning heap. The flood and the night that had followed, for all their terror and death and destruction, had had a certain terrible majesty. Many people had thought it was Doomsday, Judgment Day, the Day of Reckoning come at last. It had been awful, but it had been God Awful. This that lay before them now was just ugly and sordid and heartbreaking; and already it was beginning to smell a little.
The survivors began coming back down into town almost immediately. They slogged through the mud and water looking for lost wives or fathers or infants. They picked among the wreckage and they began picking up the dead. Morgues were set up in the Presbyterian Church, in the Adam Street and Millvale schoolhouses. Bodies were numbered, and identified, if that was possible. Many of them were in ghastly condition, stripped of their clothes, limbs torn off, battered, bloated, some already turning black. About one out of three was never identified beyond an entry in the morgue log books.
… No. 173. Unknown. Male. About fifty. Large broad face. Dark hair. Full face. German look. Sandy mustache and goatee.
… No. 181. Unknown. Female. Age forty-five. Height 5 feet 6 inches. Weight 100. White. Very long black hair, mixed with gray. White handkerchief with red border. Black striped waist. Black dress. Plain gold ring on third finger of left hand. Red flannel underwear. Black stockings. Five pennies in purse. Bunch of keys.
… No. 182. Unknown. Male. Age five years. Sandy hair. Checkered waist. Ribbed knee pants. Red undershirt. Black stockings darned in both heels.
For the living the problems to be faced immediately were enormous and critical. There was virtually no food or medicine. Thousands were homeless; there was no gas, no electric light. Fires were burning everywhere, and no one knew when a gas main might explode. With the sun growing warmer every hour and the dead all over the place, the threat of an epidemic was increasing rapidly. Telephone and telegraph lines to the outside world were all down. Bridges were gone. The railroad was washed out, with more than ten miles of track destroyed.
But the first word of the disaster got to the newspapers in Pittsburgh and so to the outside world by way of the railroad and, ironically enough, by way of a member of the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club. Robert Pitcairn, superintendent of the Pennsylvania’s Pittsburgh Division, had been on a train that had been stopped below Johnstown on the afternoon of the flood. He had been on his way to Lilly, to see about the landslide there. When he saw the debris and corpses tearing by in the swollen Conemaugh, he sent a cable to the Pittsburgh Commercial-Gazette that Johnstown had been wiped out and that help should be organized immediately. A newspaper was the first to hear, and newspapermen from Pittsburgh and numerous other cities were the first of what would become an army of outsiders to head for Johnstown.
Within two hours of receiving Pitcairn’s message, the Commercial-Gazette had a special train headed for Johnstown. Other Pittsburgh papers were quick to do the same. The trains got no farther than Bolivar, a coal town on the Conemaugh seventeen miles west of Johnstown. But the reporters got off and began hiking along the flooded tracks. Most of them gave up and spent the night in the little railroad crossing of New Florence, where they could see a blood-red glow in the sky from the fire at the bridge fourteen miles away. But a few pushed on over the mountains to arrive in Johnstown about dawn the next morning.
Within two or three days the city was crawling with reporters, writers, artists, and photographers. This was the biggest story since the murder of Abraham Lincoln, and virtually every major newspaper and magazine in the East and Midwest was covering it. One of the contingent assigned by the Philadelphia Press was Richard Harding Davis. He was a cub reporter, twenty-five years old, strikingly handsome, and just as sure as he could be that he would one day be the world’s most famous newspaper correspondent. Davis was too late to file straight news stories, so he concentrated on human interest instead. He wrote of walking over thousands of spilled cigars, of a pretty relief worker with not a hair on her head astray, and of finding the body of the one man in Johnstown who had drowned in a jail cell. The man had been locked up for overcelebrating on Decoration Day.