Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Review: The Johnstown Flood by David McCullough

On May 31, 1889, the town of Johnstown Pennsylvania experienced a near biblical flood, caused by a dam failure in the valley above the town. David McCullough, as usual, does an academically sound job of bringing tons of research together into an interesting account to help the reader understand all the complex variables that contributed to this well-known, but often misunderstood disaster.  Ed Herrman, the narrator keeps the story moving with his wonderful news reporter voice, and a perceptible personal interest in the story.

Before reading this, I knew only that the town of Johnstown got washed away in a flood, and I remember images (paintings perhaps?) showing train locomotives floating in an ocean of water and debris along with bodies and houses.  I believe I was taught that a dam burst, and washed everything away.  End of that history lesson.......NOT

McCullough traces the building of the dam, the decisions made about how certain engineering feats were handled (or mishandled), lays the groundwork for explaining what really happened, why it happened, and what could have been done to prevent it.  By weaving these facts with historical accounts from survivors to portray the human toll taken, McCullough gives us an almost eyewitness account.  It is a masterful work, particularly considering it could have been very boring.

The entire time I was reading/listening to this, I kept thinking of New Orleans and FEMA and the disaster that followed the disaster.  The people of Johnstown and the surrounding area could have taught FEMA some interesting lessons.

Highly recommended for anyone wanting to know more about the flood that cost so many lives, the events leading up to it, and the aftermath.


  1. I am not a big non-fiction fan...but the fact that it was written by McCullough might sway me. From what I know of the story, it is fascinating, both what led up to it and the aftermath. I have often meant to visit the Flood Museum in Johnstown....

  2. How did I miss reading this one? I've been to Johnstown but not to the museum and I'd love to know more about the flood. I'll certainly put this one on my list.

  3. I have McCullough on my shelf but haven't read him yet. Must do so soon!


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