- 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 first stories to come out of Johnstown were full of horror and staggering statistics, and they sold a staggering number of newspapers. On Saturday and Sunday the reports were somewhat vague about how many people had been killed, with estimates ranging from 1,500 to 6,000. But by Monday the New York World claimed 10,000 people were dead in “the Valley of Death.” On Tuesday the headlines had the count up to 15,000. The stories that went with the headlines were long and richly detailed. Whatever the reporters lacked in facts, they made up for in imagination. One account had vultures circling over the stone bridge. Another described how the river was dammed with bodies. The agonies suffered by women and children were described in thousands and thousands of words and in lurid drawings, one of which later became an enormously popular color engraving (see pages 4-5). The innocence of Johnstown and the good people who lived there was heavily emphasized. (Later, from the pulpits, the reverse idea would be hammered away at: the steel town was a sin town and that was why the Lord had destroyed it.)
Victorian sentimentality had a heyday, and so did the publishers. One Pittsburgh newspaper was selling its flood editions so fast that it had to reduce its page size to keep from running out of paper. In New York the Daily Graphic sold 75,000 extra copies per day. Magazines got out special editions. Books were dashed off in a few weeks and rushed to the printers.
But the real importance of the journalists’ handling of the story was the fantastic effect it had on the relief of the stricken city. The sympathy aroused by the newspaper accounts brought on a rush of popular charity greater than the country had ever seen.
The first organized relief began less than twenty-four hours after the disaster, when a mass meeting was called at the old city hall in Pittsburgh. Robert Pitcairn got up and talked about what he had seen; a committee was named to collect clothes and supplies; and then there was a call for contributions. At the front of the hall two men using both hands took in $48,116.70 in less than an hour. “There was no speech making,” a reporter later wrote, “no oratory but the golden eloquence of cash.”
In one week $ 600,000 was collected in New York. Boston gave $94,000, Kansas City $12,000. Nickels and dimes came in from school children and convicts. Churches sent $25, $50, $100. Jay Gould sent $1,000; John Jacob Astor, $2,500. The New York Stock Exchange gave $20,000. Tiffany’s gave $500; Macy’s, $1,000. Money came from the Sultan of Turkey, the Lord Mayor of Dublin, and Cupola, Colorado. The Pennsylvania Railroad gave $30,000. In all, over $3,000,000 was donated, and this does not include the goods of every kind that came in by the trainload.
The relief trains began arriving Saturday night. One from Pittsburgh carried nothing but coffins and fiftyfive undertakers. Lumber came in by the carload, and flour, furniture, barrels of quicklime and embalming fluid, crates of bread, beans, cheese, candles, coffee, tea kettles, shoes, blankets, mattresses, and soap. Wheeling, West Virginia, sent a whole carload of nails.
The state militia moved in on Sunday morning, pitched their tents, and took over the running of the city. Their commander was Daniel Hartman Hastings, a placid-faced minor power in Pennsylvania politics who had received his only military experience during the railroad riots in Altoona in 1877. He rode about on a big horse waving his floppy hat and, in the main, did a good job. Looting and pilfering the pockets of the dead were kept to a minimum, despite the newspaper stories about “fiendish Hungarians” who were supposedly everywhere amid the chaos slicing off fingers for gold wedding bands and being hunted down and lynched by angry Johnstown vigilantes. There were no lynchings; the only fatality was a suicide among the soldiers: a moody farm boy with a wife and two children back home became so depressed by what he saw that he went into his tent and shot himself.
The cleanup was taken on by everyone able to lend a hand and by a construction crew of 6,000 men that came in from Pittsburgh. A dynamite expert named Kirk was also brought in to see what he could do with the jam at the bridge, which covered almost sixty acres. All attempts to pull loose the debris had failed. Locomotives and a steam winch had been tried, and a gang of lumberjacks from Michigan had done their best but had made no progress. Then for several days the valley shook with the roar of Kirk’s dynamite as great gaps were blasted through the entanglement of houses and barbed wire and charred corpses.
Another work crew from Pittsburgh was brought in by one of the most illustrious characters of the time, Captain Bill Jones, the tough, headstrong boss of Carnegie’s gigantic Edgar Thompson Works in Braddock, and quite possibly the greatest steelmaker of all time. Jones had learned the business in Johnstown, working for Daniel J. Morrell at the Cambria Works. Now he was back in town with three carloads of supplies and 300 of his men; he paid all his expenses himself.