1889 - May 31 - Johnstown Flood; 2,209 die in Penn
South Fork Dam burst, town of Johnstown destroyed, over 2000 deaths
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The Johnstown disaster occurred, the worst flood tragedy in U.S. history. Heavy rains collapsed the South Fork Dam sending a thirty foot wall of water rushing down the already flooded Conemaugh Valley. The wall of water, traveling as fast as twenty-two feet per second, swept away all structures, objects and people. 2100 persons perished in the flood. (WeatherForYou.com)
TEN THOUSAND DEAD.
THE JOHNSTOWN DISASTER THE GREATEST ON RECORD.
ALMOST BEYOND BELIEF.
OVER A THOUSAND BODIES RECOVERED AT JOHNSTOWN.
A THOUSAND MORE BURNED IN THE DEBRIS.
Vivid Description of the Scenes of Desolation and Death - First Accounts Not Exaggerated, the Difficulty Being to Tell the Whole of the Truth - Hungarians Caught Robbing Bodies and Two are Hanged - Another Shot and Several Driven Into the River and Drowned. Order Restored and Food and Other Necessaries Being Given Out.
Sang Hollow, Pa., June 3 - The first accounts sent out of the Johnstown disaster are far below the wildest estimates placed upon the extent of the calamity, and instead of 2,000 or 3,000 it is probable that the death list will reach 8,000 or 10,000. It is now known that two passengers trains, two sections of the day express on the Pennsylvania railroad, have been thrown into the maddened torrent and the passengers drowned. The trains were held at Johnstown from Friday at 11 a.m., and were lying on a siding between Johnstown and Conemaugh stations.
The awful torrent came down the narrow defile between the mountains, a distance of nine miles, and with a fall of 300 feet in that distance, sweeping away the villages of South Fork, Mineral Point, Woodvale and Conemaugh, leaving but one building standing, a wooden mill, where but an hour before had stood hundreds, and dashing on with the roar of a cataract and the speed of the wind upon the fair city at the foot of the hills.
The plane in which sat Johnstown, sits in the mountains like a jewel in the queen's diadem. The great Gautier Steel works sat in this plain, and the city below it, the railroad tracks bounding it at the base of the mountains on the north. Here is where the trains were standing when the tide of water like a catapult came down on them with such resistless force that the heavy trains, locomotives, Pullmans and all were overturned and swept down the torrent, and were lodged against the great viaduct along with forty-one locomotives from the Johnstown roundhouse, the heavy machinery and ponderous frame work of the Gautier mill, the accumulated debris of more than a thousand houses, furniture, bridges, lumber, drift and human beings.
The low arches of the stone viaduct choked up immediately, and the water backed over the entire level of the valley, upon which the city stood, to the depth of what from the water works indicate about thirty-eight feet. In the great sea thus formed hundreds, perhaps thousands of people were struggling for life. The scene today is one of the most harrowing possible for the imagination of man to conceive.
The accumulated drift gorged up at the viaduct to a height of forty feet, and there took fire from the upsetting of stoves or lamps. Then were strong men made sick at the sight. As the flames crackled and roared among the dry tinder of the floating house human bodies were seen pinioned between the house roofs, locomotives, from beams, freight passenger, Pullman and baggage cars, heavy iron beams, the greedy flames licking with haste their diet of human flesh. The scene was horrible beyond description.
From infancy a few days old to the wated figures of age, were burned before the eyes of the beholders, and no rescue from such a fate was possible. Strong men turned away with agonized expressions and women shrieked at the horror of the scene. The dead have been computed at not less than 8,000, and the number may even exceed that estimate. This seems incredible, but until the waters will have abated and the work of removing the dead from this tremendous mass has been completed it will be impossible to tell how many lives have been lost.
There is no possibility of tolling just who has been last, as thousands are missing. The survivors, many of whom tell of the most thrilling escapes from collections of debris, house roofs, car doors and plants, seek the banks and gaze with stupor, born of paralyzation of their mental facilities from fright and horror they have been subjected to.
The number of people who are visible from the banks are so few in contrast with the population of the various little boroughs which constitute the city that the question, "Where are the people?" is asked on all sides.
The impression is gaining that the disclosures yet to come where the gorge collected and which is now burning over an area of several acres are yet more ghastly.
The awfulness of the scenes defies language to depict as it does the imagination to conceive of. Without seeing the sad havoc created no idea can be given either of the area or the extent of the damage.
It is impossible to narrate the many pathetic incidents that occurred on all sides.
At Morrell forty-five bodies were laid out waiting to be identified. Eight of them were children, one that of a child which a physician said had been born while the mother was fighting for her life in the raging flood.
At Nineveh, nine miles down the stream, 106 bodies, mostly women and children, were laid out in a saw mill, and additions were being made by wagon loads at a time which were being picked up on the meadows, over which the great tide had surged with the fury of a demon.
Many were found with their hands yet clinging tenaciously to branches of trees amid shrubs. In one case a young couple were found locked in each other's arms. In another case a mother was found with a child clasped in each arm and held closely to her bosom.
THROUGH TO JOHNSTOWN.
Efforts To Reach The Unfortunate City Finally Successful.
Pittsburg, June 2. - The first force of rescuers and press representatives, who have been making every effort for several days to gain an entrance into the valley in which was located the city of Johnstown, accomplished their purpose just as the light of Sunday morning's sun broke over the mountain tops surrounding the place of desolation. The news received in this city confirms in almost every detail all of the gravest fears, statements and conjectures that have been entertained. All reports received agree that the city is literally a ruin, the description of which is simply impossible.
From Johnstown to Mineral Point tower the Pennsylvania road bed has been completely swept away. For a distance of one fourth mile the road in uninjured, them comes another complete wreck to a point above South Fork.
Twenty-seven Pennsylvania railroad locomotives and an unknown number of both freight cars and passenger coaches are lying in the river bed under the debris at Johnstown, at the stone bridge.
The towns of Woodville and Conemaugh borough, above Johnstown, are swept as clearly off the face of the earth as if they had never had an existence.
Of Woodville's population of 1,500 souls barely half a dozen have been accounted for.
The work of exhuming the dead at Johnstown has only begun, but already more than one hundred bodies have been carried out of the ruins.
Eleven car loads of finished coffins and thirty undertakers arrived during the day, and the work of interment will rapidly progress under the direction of a specially organized force of men.
Ninevah will hereafter been known as the city of the dead. At this point the Conemaugh has given up a large portion of its dead. When the waters receded from the fields and bottom lands over which it had flowed, stiff staring and naked, bruised and mangled bodies of men, women and children from the aged to the infant lying in the soft mud, was a most horrible scene, making heartsick those who witnessed it.
Nunomacher's planing mill was used as a temporary morgue, and it was there that the bloodstained, swollen and disfigured remains of whites and negroes were first placed for protection and identification, if such thing were possible. Some of the faces were wreathed in dimpled smiles, upon others death stamped looks of agony and horror, that spoke the inexpressible language of the would while struggling with death. Most of the bodies recovered at this place were Catholics, and around their necks hung emblems of their religion. The attire and features of a majority showed them to be of the lowly class, yet there were many bearing evidence of culture, refinement and prosperity.
Directly across the river in Indiana county there are 315 bodies reported lying in the open air unattended to. The officials of Indiana county sent word that they would attend to the recovery of these bodies during the day. The probabilities are that a large majority of the victims will never be identified and will fill nameless graves.
During the day several persons succeeded in making a tour of what is left of Johnstown. On the upper floor of the club house, the best preserved building standing, five bodies are lying, unidentified, one of them, a woman of fine appearance. Here and there bodies can be seen sticking in the ruins.
There is no doubt but what, wild as the estimates of the loss of life and damage to property have been, it is even larger than there is yet any idea of. More than 2,000 residences lie in the confused mass of burning debris lodged above the stone bridge at the lower end of the town. The ruins are reeking with the smell of decaying and burning bodies. Six blackened skulls, from which the flesh has been burned, can be seen protruding from the wreckage just above the east end of the bridge. They are close together.
Conductor S. E. BELL, who was in charge of the day express, on Friday has turned up and confirmed the reported destruction of his train by the avalanche of water. He says there is no doubt that a number of persons were carried down to their death when the train was washed from the track. Some, however, heeded the warning in time to escape to the mountain side.
MR. LON T. DALLMYER, a passenger on the express, said that Secretary HALFORD'S wife and daughter were both with him and escaped to the mountain-side in safety.
The Western Union Telegraph company succeeded in opening a temporary office in an abandoned oil house on the mountain side, and have seven good wires working to Pittsburg, but none east.
The chasm between the railroad bridge and the depot has just been spanned by a rope bridge. The river can now be crossed at this place in safety. The skiffs sent from Pittsburg have arrived and will greatly aid in the search for bodies among the debris in the still furiously rushing river.
Several hundred bridge builders and trackmen are repairing the railroad company property, and trains will be able to cross the chasm by tomorrow morning.
Communication Established, But the Half Can Never Be Told.
Johnstown, Pa., June 3. - Telegraphic communication has again been established from what is left of this once beautiful city to the outside world. Although this has been done, it will be impossible to ever tell the extent of the disasters which has visited us.
The recovery of bodies has taken up the time of thousands all day. The theory now is that most of those killed by the torrent are buried beneath the debris, and the events of the day's work in the ruins, in a large degree justifies this assumption. Six bodies were taken out of one pile of rubbish not eight feet square. The truth is that bodies are almost as plentiful as logs, only the swirl of the waters put the bodies under and the logs and boards on top in the general stacking up of the animate and inanimate. The rigidity of arms standing out at right angles to the bloated and bruised bodies, shows that death in ninety-nine out of one hundred cases took place amid the ruins, that is after the wreck of houses had closed over them.
DR. D. G. FOSTER, who has been here all day, is of the opinion that most of the victims were killed by coming in violent contact with objects in the river and not by drowning.
Three hundred bodies were recovered yesterday.
The eastern end of Main street, through which the waters tore most madly and destructively and in which they left their legacy of wrecked houses, fallen trees and dead bodies in a greater degree than in any other portion of the city, has been cleared and the remains of over fifty taken out of the portion cleared. All over the town the searchers have been equally successful.
As soon as a body is found it is placed on a litter and sent to the morgue, where it is washed and placed on a board for several hours to await identification. The morgue is the Fourth ward school house, and it has been surrounded all day by a crowd of several thousand people. At first the crowd was disposed to stop those bearing the stretchers, uncover the remains and view them, but this was found to be prolific not only of great delay, but also of scenes of agony, that not even the bearers could endure, nor the thousands calmly stand up under. Now a litter is guarded by a file of soldiers with fixed bayonets in charge of a sergeant, and the people are forced aside until the morgue is reached.
It is astonishing to find how small a number of injured are in the city. Few survived. It was death or nothing, with the demon of the flood. It is true that not a few escaped, but they got off almost unhurt.
The central portion of Johnstown is as completely obliterated as if it had never had foundations. The river has made its bed upon the sites of the dwellings and a vast area of sand, mud, gravel and furrowed grounds marks the old channel. It is doubtful, if it is possible, ever to reclaim what was once the business portion of the city. The river, will have to be returned to its old bed in order to do this and that is an engineering feat hardly possible.
The massive accumulation of debris extending from 800 to 1,000 feet along the south shore of the Conemaugh, and immediately above the bridge, is now in complete possession of the flames and will be until the arrival of further relief from the Pittsburg fire department is received, so that another pang is added to those who had hoped to rescue the remains of their friends and relatives from the debris.
The magnitude of the horror increases with the hours. It is believed that not less than 2,000 of the drowned found lodgement beneath the mass of debris in the triangle of ground that the Conemaugh cut out of the bank between the river proper and the Pennsylvania railway bridge. There was the greatest funeral pyre in history. The victims were not upon it, but were parts of its horrible constitution. Whole houses were washed into the apex of the triangle. Hen coops, pig stigs, stables, the refuse of the gutter, the contents of sewers, whole lumber yards, boom upon boom of logs, composed the mass.
When the upsetting of a cook stove ignited the mass and the work of cremation began, it was a costly sacrifice to the demon of the flood, being a literal breast of fire. The smoke arise in a huge funnel shaped cloud, and at times it changed to the formation of an hour glass. At night the flames would light up this misty remnant of mortality. The effect upon the living, ignorant and intelligent, was the same. That volume of smoke, with its dual form, produced a feeling of awe in many that was superior in most cases to that in the awful moment of the storm's wrath on Friday afternoon. Hundreds stood for hours regarding the smoke and wondering if it forebode another visitation dire than its predecessor.
It was with a feeling of absolute loathing that all people hereabout, awoke Sunday morning to find that nothing but a mass of ashes, calcined human bones, stoves, old iron and other approximately indestructable matter, from which only a light blue vapor was arising.
Gen. HASTING'S took precautions to prevent the extension of the fire to another large pile, a short distance away and this will be searched at once for bodies of flood victims.
The people who escaped to the hillsides have no boats to get around with, and are hard pressed for food. They are camped out in the brush, and the women and children suffer greatly from hardships, besides being half crazed with anxiety over the fate of friends and relatives. The water is not receding much, because the choked up railroad bridge acts as a dam, and will do so until the debris that clogs the arches is removed, which will be a big job. The Pennsylvania railroad track is torn away bodily for distance of a mile or more in two or three places. The Baltimore and Ohio track suffered also, but not so severely.
The most awful destruction in a single house occurred at the Hurlburt hotel. There were fifty-seven people in the house when the mountain of water came down, and of these only ten are living. Four travelers, who were staying at the Hurlburt, went to the fourth floor when the flood came, and after wishing each other "Good-by," surrendered themselves to fate. Fate was death to three of them. Those three were JOHN LITTLE, of Lewickley; W. J. COX, of Philadelphia, and R. SMITZ.
The one survivor is JOHN DORSAY, of M. A. RETTEW & Company, of Philadelphia. The register of the wrecked hotel cannot be found, and it impossible to give the names of all those who perished in the Hurlburt house. Those who are known to have perished are: ELMER BRINKER and DR. BRINKER, two brothers, two MRS. RICHARDS, a man named BUTLER, MRS., MISS and LEWIS BENFORD, mother, sister and brother of the proprietor, MRS. SMITH and her two children ascended to fourth floor with the four travelers when the flood came. The woman was drowned and the men escaped.
Names of Prominent People Drowned.
Johnstown, Pa., June 8. - Some of the most prominent citizens of this city and of the state are among those who have perished. JOHN FULTON, President of the Constitutional Amendment association and General Manager of the Cambria Iron works is drowned with his wife and children. HOWARD J. ROBERTS, cashier of the First National bank, and JOHN DILBERT, a banker, were drowned, the formers son perishing with him. The wife and daughter MINNIE, of CYRUS ELDER, one of the greatest authorities on the tariff in the country are dead. H. A. SCHUMACHER, prothonoetary, of Cambria county, H. G. ROSE, District Attorney, DR. JOHN LOWMAN, the wife and eight children of Chief of Police HARRIS, and the wife and three children of T. W. WIRLAND, a well known jeweler are dead. C. T. SCHUBERT, editor of the Free Press, is also believed to be drowned.
THE OTHER TOWNS DESTROYED.
Some of the Villages Entirely Wiped Out of Existence.
Johnstown, Pa., June 3. - Conemaugh, Woodvale, Wernville, Cambria City and other surrounding towns in the flooded district are as badly off as Johnstown.
At Conemaugh the inhabitants of the lower lying portion of the town have been literally wiped out of existence.
At Woodvale, the percentage of death is even greater than that at Johnstown.
Wernville has only a house or two as monument to its former respectable proportions.
Cambria City is not even a ghost of its former self, while all along the line of the torrent the isolated houses of hundreds are without occupants.
The relief provisions for Johnstown must be extended to these other places as rapidly as railroad transportation facilities can be furnished.
The towns named all lie between Johnstown and the South Fork dam, whose bursting caused the disaster.
At Woodvale the dead bodies of hundreds are lying in the debris relatively as numerously as they are in Johnstown.
At Conemaugh the same condition of things prevails. The scarcity of the living at both places makes the recovery of bodies very slow work.
A special train of twelve cars loaded with provisions for the sufferers has just arrived.
BURYING THE VICTIMS.
The Sad Work Begun, Which Will Fill a Large Cemetery at Once.
Johnstown, Pa., June 8. - The work of burying the dead began Sunday morning and has been kept up ever since. The bruising of the bodies by logs and trees and other debris, and exposure in the water, have tended to hasten decomposition, which has set in in scores of cases, rendering interment instantly necessary. Bodies are being buried as rapidly as they are identified. The work of undertakers in embalming the dead has rendered it impossible to keep all those embalmed two or three days longer, but his is only desirable in cases where identification is dubious and no claimants appear at all.
Yesterday the cars sent out from Pittsburg with provisions for the living were hastily cleared in order to contain the bodies of the dead intended for interment in suburban cemeteries and in graveyards handy to the city, and formality is dispensed with. In some instances only the undertaker and his assistants are present, and in others only one or two members of the family of the dead.
TELEGRAPH OPERATORS DROWNED.
Mrs. Ogle, the Manager, Stood by Her Post and Bravely Met Death.
Johnstown, Pa., June 3. - It has just transpired that the whole corps of Western Union telegraph operators was lost Friday evening. Among them were MRS. OGLE, manager, who for twenty-five years has acted as receiver of Associated Press reports at this place and her daughter MINNIE, also well known, also MISSES GORMAN and WATKINS and three messenger boys, who were unable to escape from the building.
MRS. OGLE will go down in history as a heroine of the highest order. Notwithstanding the repeated notifications which she received to get out of reach of the approaching danger, she stood by the instrument with unflinching loyalty and undaunted fearlessness sending words of warning to those in danger in the valley below. When every station in the path of the coming torrent had been warned, she wired her companion at South Fork: "This is my last message," and as such it shall always be remembered as her last words on earth, for at that very moment the torrent engulfed her and bore her from her post on earth to her post of honor in the great beyond.
The Newark Daily Advocate
June 3, 1889
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