The Johnstown Flood by David McCullough

On May 31, 1889 an earthen dam on the Little Conemaugh River gave way after torrential rains and washed Johnstown, a small community east of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania off the face of the earth. McCullough published his work on the disaster in 1968, for which he was able to interview survivors, getting first-hand accounts of the flood. McCullough, who would later win a Pulitzer Prize, researched historical records and publications to piece together a minute-by-minute recreation of the tragedy, much like Isaac’s Storm by Erik Larsen and The Children’s Blizzard by David Laskin.

Unlike those later works, McCullough’s work reads more like a history book, stating facts in a school-book manner. Larsen and Laskin put faces on the tragedies, giving the reader a personal connection with the victims. McCullough finally does break away from the aloof prose, but not until after the depiction of the flood.

His style also includes frequent moments of ‘familiarity’ as though he were speaking to the reader rather than writing. His sentences are peppered with vague descriptors like ‘more or less’, ‘something like’, ‘no more than’. McCullough also cannot help inserting his own editorializing in the final chapter when blame for the tragedy was being tossed about. He comments that ‘anyone with a minimum of horse sense’ could have known about or realized that the dam was in no condition to hold indefinitely.

Another drawback to McCullough’s style was a frequent propensity to digress when discussing the people involved with tragedy. He mentioned facts and historical points of interest that may or may not have any bearing on the story. These tangents often subtract from the subject of the book.

McCullough also moved back and forth in time whenever shifting to different points of view. He may describe how one person experienced the wave when it hit Johnstown about an hour after the dam burst; then in another sentence he discussed another person’s witness but starting well before the dam broke. It gives a confusing account of the sequence of events. Larsen and Laskin changed points of view but kept the timeline in tact throughout their works.

Overall, the book is a great account of one of the country’s worst disasters. McCullough’s exhaustive research interviewing eyewitnesses and historical records pays off in the end result. The reader sees and feels the sadness and horror of a town utterly destroyed, followed by the heroism and scandal that followed.