McCullough presents a meticulously researched, detailed account of the Johnstown Flood of May 31 st 1889, which provides arguments for why the disaster was both "the work of man" and "a visitation of providence." However, it is apparent that McCullough believes that man was more responsible than nature / god for the extent of the catastrophe. In McCullough's opinion, the storm that caused the flood was no more than the inevitable stimulus of the disaster, whereas the deferred maintenance and poor repairs on the dam were the primary reason that Johnstown was devastated in 1889. McCullough exposes the failed duties of Benjamin Ruff and other members of the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club, whilst simultaneously questioning the responsibility of the Johnstown folk who were concerned about the safety of the dam but complacently trusted the wealthy, powerful club members to fulfil their responsibilities. McCullough clearly explains the debate that took place immediately after the flood, on what or whom was to blame for the disaster, by explaining the views of the press, the townspeople and the lawsuits that were filed. McCullough's view is evident from the sub-title of his book. By placing the word "natural" within quotation marks, McCullough immediately suggests that the flood was unusual to any other, and implies that mankind has displaced its blame onto nature.
McCullough explains how Johnstown became an example of 'The Gilded Age' industrialization prior to the 1889 disaster. The canal made Johnstown the busiest place in Cambria County in the 1820 s. By the 1850 s the Pennsylvania Railroad and the Cambria Iron Company began, and the population increased. There were about 30, 000 people in the area before the flood.
The Western Reservoir was built in the 1840 s, but became generally known as the South Fork dam. It was designed to supply extra water for the Main Line canal from Johnstown to Pittsburgh. By saving the spring floods, water could be released during the dry summers. When the dam was completed in 1852, the Pennsylvania Railroad completed the track from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh, and the canal business began its decline. The state offered to sell the canal, the railroad company bought it for the right of ways yet had no need to maintain the dam, which due to neglect, broke for the first time in 1862.
McCullough stresses that man was responsible for the dam and its weaknesses nearly thirty years before the great flood as he explains how the initial repair work was carried out by unqualified people and how the discharge pipes were blocked up. He also explains how heavy rainfall in 1879 and 1881 caused further damage. This information sets a precedent for the disaster of 1889. McCullough once again reiterates the responsibility of man prior to the 1889 disaster with the example of Daniel J.
Morrell's concerns in 1880. He sent John Fulton on behalf of the Cambria Iron Works to inspect the dam, where two major structural problems were found: there was no discharge pipe to reduce water in the dam, and, the previous repair left a leak that cut into the dam. This initial warning and advice was rejected, even after their offer to pay for repairs. McCullough then points out that there were in fact four other crucial problems that needed to be repaired that had not been noticed by Fulton. The height of the dam had been lowered, reducing the height between the crest and the spillway.
A screen of iron rods were put across the spillway, which would decrease its capacity when clogged by debris. The dam sagged in the center so it was lower than at the ends when the center should have been highest and strongest. Lastly, the club brought the level of the lake nearly to the top so there was no reserve capacity for a severe storm. By indicating the many problems with the dam prior to the great flood of 1889 and the South Fork Club's refusal to acknowledge the potential danger, McCullough is leaving little doubt to the reader of his position. Subsequently he brings about an interesting perspective, that the Johnstown flood can not be considered purely a 'natural disaster' as man had the chance (but refused) to take measures that would have prevented such destruction. McCullough presents the Club's argument that the flood would have occurred and had the same damaging impact on Johnstown even if the dam had been repaired as they argued the water would have broken away the dam eventually.
However, McCullough exposes this with his research on subsequent smaller dams built by Morrell nearby that had survived. The Club also suggested the flood was an 'act of God' as never before had such heavy rainfall been recorded, therefore they declined responsibility for extreme weather conditions. Some even accepted the comparisons between the Johnstown Flood and the bible story of Noah, as they believed that industrialization and the flourishing steel industry in particular had brought sin upon the town. Therefore the flood was God's way of purging the town from sin. McCullough accepts that the immediate aftermath of the Johnstown Flood in 1889 officially regarded the events as a 'natural disaster', due to the power and influence of the members of the South Fork Club. This was evident by the fact that "Not a nickel was ever collected through damage suits from the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club or any of its members." Although McCullough explicitly conveys that he believes the Johnstown Flood was the "work of man", he does not exclusively blame the South Fork Club members for the catastrophic events of 1889.
Although he does believe it was primarily the members' responsibility to collectively maintain the dam, he gives credit to the unpopular views of Cyrus Elder. Elder had been the only resident of Johnstown who was also a member of South Fork Club who claimed that "if anybody be to blame I suppose we ourselves are among them, for we have indeed been very careless in this most important matter and most of us have paid the penalty of our neglect." McCullough offers a detailed account of the events of the Johnstown Flood as well as a thorough description of prior events, consequences, newspaper coverage and public opinion. McCullough makes a firm argument for the responsibility of man, and asserts the blame on the necessary people, therefore I feel he makes a fair and accurate assertion which I would agree with. By balancing his argument and depicting reasons why the flood was both a "work of man" and a "visitation of providence", he illuminates not only the issues surrounding the Johnstown Flood, but on a broader scale he makes a powerful statement on the 19 th century class structures that dominated 'The Gilded Age' of Victorian America.
Throughout the book, I found the defining and most fundamental quote to be that of a New England newspaper that concluded, "The lesson of the Conemaugh Valley flood is that the catastrophes of Nature have to be regarded in the structures of man as well as its ordinary laws." Bibliography David McCullough, The Johnstown Flood, (Simon & Schuster: NY 1968).