Tag Archive | David McCullough

2018 Circus Trip: Johnstown Flood National Memorial

Day 38, Wednesday, August 22, 2018

Johnstown, Pennsylvania

The previous evening, I crossed into Pennsylvania (sorry I wasn’t able to get a pic with a sign!), and discovered that Pennsylvania really LOVES its toll roads.  In the span of about 30 miles, I racked up $17 in tolls!  Ugh!  I was excited to start exploring a new state though!

I first learned about the Johnstown Flood when I read a book about the event by David McCullough about a dozen years ago.  I have always thought that this tragedy could have been avoided, and find the story pretty interesting, so I wanted to see the Johnstown Flood National Memorial.

In 1889, the city of Johnstown, Pennsylvania was a thriving community built on the banks of the Conemaugh River, just past where the Stonycreek and Little Conemaugh Rivers joined together.  The Cambria Iron Works was a bustling iron and steel mill supporting a town of about 30,000 people.  Above the city was the South Fork Dam, an earthen dam originally built by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania between 1838 and 1853 as a part of a cross-state canal system.  Once the railroads took over, Pennsylvania sold off the canal and dam to the railroad, who in turn, sold the dam and its lake to a private interest.

That private interest was the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club, a membership club for the wealthy elite of nearby Pittsburgh.  The hunt club was built near Johnstown, and members and their families could enjoy a country respite from the dirty, crowded city.  Unfortunately, over several years before the flood, a series of alterations were made to the dam which affected its structural integrity, regular maintenance was lacking, and leaks that sprang up were repaired haphazardly.

Which leads us to May 31, 1889.  During the three days leading up to this fateful Friday, there was rain.  In fact, so much rain that they estimated between 6 and 10 inches fell in the 24 hours before the dam breached.  Colonel Elias Unger, who managed the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club, lived above the dam, and recognized that it was in bad shape that morning.  He called in engineers and laborers who tried desperately to clean out the spillway, which had been clogged by debris.  They also tried to dig a new spillway to release water, but stopped when they became convinced that it would just cause the entire dam to give way.  Unger also sent a man to the telegraph station to warn communities down below of the danger, but it is unclear whether the message was received in Johnstown.  Oops.

When the dam finally breached at about 2:50 pm, more than 3.8 billion gallons of water released in a torrent downstream.  It hit several communities along its path, which suffered more or less depending on whether they had enough advance notice to get to higher ground.  One community was wiped away completely; the land where the town had been located was scoured down to bedrock.  Johnstown, about 14 miles from the dam, was hit about an hour after the dam breached, and by that time the river was carrying a huge amount of deadly debris along with it, including trees, logs, houses, locomotives, barbed wire, animals, and human victims.

The horror was unimaginable and people died from drowning, being bludgeoned to death by debris, and even being burned, as a large pile of debris got trapped by a bridge over the river and caught on fire.  Bodies were found as far away as Cincinnati, Ohio, 357 miles away by today’s roads, and as late as 1911.  When it was over, 2209 people had died, including entire families; at the time it was the largest civilian loss of life in U.S. history.

The Johnstown Flood National Memorial preserves the site of what remains of the dam and gives visitors a view of the narrow valley where the waters raged, and have continued to flood the towns below periodically (most recently in 1977).  The Visitor’s Center has exhibits on the flood, photos and artifacts that were collected from the flood waters, stories of the people who died and those who survived.  There is also a very powerful (and not suitable for young children) movie on the event; it evokes the fear that you would have felt as that wall of water crashed into town.

The Johnstown Flood National Memorial was authorized by Congress on August 31, 1964 and annual visitation of the National Memorial is approximately 112,000.

It was very interesting to see the artifacts and the movie; they also have a list of nearby sites that also relate to the flood, including the Grandview Cemetery (where most of the victims are buried) and the historic structures of the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club.  I’ll blog about those next!

 

 

 

Book Review: The Pioneers

The Pioneers: The Heroic Story of the Settlers Who Brought the American Ideal West, by David McCullough

I’m a big fan of David McCullough’s books; he always does such a great job of making his history topics interesting and relatable.  This book is no different.

The book covers the period from the late 18th century to the early 19th century, and the settlement of what was then the far west of the United States, and what is now Ohio.

The Pioneers: The Heroic Story of the Settlers Who Brought the American Ideal West

Manasseh Cutler was a clergyman who was born in Connecticut, and served as a chaplain during the Revolutionary War.  He became an agent of the Ohio Company, which he helped form in order to develop land in the Western territories.  He was responsible for ensuring that Congress financially backed the venture, and was a part of the original group created to explore and establish the new colony in present day Ohio.  Cutler also pushed for the Northwest Ordinance of 1787, which created the Ohio territory and ensured that there would be no slavery in territories formed from that land mass.  It was controversial at the time, and required him to assert his strong will and influence to ensure it passed.

It is a story that is told in generalities in middle and high schools across the nation, but without the specific names of men who played a part.  It is often glossed over in favor of the stories of later westward expansion through the Plains States, so it is nice to see this story told in more detail.

The book is about Cutler and a small number of white men who played a role in establishing the territory; it tells the stories of their efforts and trials along the way.  Some critics have pointed out that McCullough does not tell the stories of the Native Americans who were already living there, and were killed or pushed off the land by the white men who settled there.  I understand their criticism, but also believe that the book would be overly long and broad if McCullough tried to tell the story of everyone who played a role.  As it is, he worked from primary source documents and journals left by Cutler and the other men who founded the colony, and the view of the Native Americans clearly comes as a product of their time.  That said, it would be nice if there were a companion book that told the other half of the story.

There is some repetitiveness in the story, and times when it felt like the action moved very slowly.  But overall, it was well written and well researched, as all of David McCullough’s books are.

3 stars.

 

 

Random, Catching Up Book Reviews… (part 2)

In my last post, I started catching up on books I had listened to in the car on my road trip.  Here’s the rest of what I worked my way through in the last six months!

The Light Between Oceans, by M.L. Stedman

This novel is about a couple living on a remote island, where the husband keeps the lighthouse.  The wife is pregnant, but miscarries late in the pregnancy.  A few days later, a row boat washes up on shore with the body of a man, and a baby who is very much alive.  Where did they come from?  Where is her mother?  What do they do with her?  Is she a gift from God?  In their grief, and against more sound judgment, they decide to keep the baby and raise her as their own.  No one will ever know she wasn’t theirs…  Or will they?

The novel is excellent; exploring the fragility of grief and loss.  The reader can see both sides of the story, the tale of the couple as monsters who would steal a child who is not their own, and the desperate desire to have a child to call their own.  There is obviously a morally correct choice, but one can empathize with why they made the decision they did.  The problem is that everyone eventually suffers.  5 stars.

Lincoln’s Grave Robbers, by Steve Sheinkin

This is a brief book about that one time in November, 1876 when grave robbers attempted to steal Abraham Lincoln’s body from his tomb in Springfield, Illinois.  Why? Because they wanted to ransom it in exchange for the release of Ben Boyd, a talented engraver on the counterfeit currency market who was serving time in prison.  The plan might have gone off without a hitch, except for the fact that two of the men who were in on the plot were actually informants.  Oops.  Sadly, in addition to learning more about this strange event in Lincoln history, I also learned about just how poorly his body was treated after his death.  One more reason to be cremated…  I realized later that the book was written for the teen market, but it was still well written and well read.  3 stars.

Scrappy Little Nobody, by Anna Kendrick

Anna Kendrick was incredible in Up In the Air, a movie with George Clooney about consultants who travel the country implementing corporate downsizings.  I didn’t know that she was a child star, making her debut on Broadway at the age of 12.  She is witty and funny, telling her stories through a series of short chapters about life, trying to find love, and growing up as a child star.  She is really quite funny, and it shows through in her book.  She narrates the audio book version and does a great job with it too.  4 stars. 

Someday, Someday, Maybe, by Lauren Graham

I love Lauren Graham, the actress who played Lorelai Gilmore in Gilmore Girls.  She is whip-smart and witty, and can talk faster than one of my prior employees, which is really saying something.  But this first novel fell flat for me.  It is the story of Franny Banks, a young, aspiring actress trying to make it in New York City.  Unfortunately, the characters seem one-dimensional and false, and the writing style is choppy.  Add to it that Graham is the reader for this audio book version, and inexplicably, she is a terrible book reader.  I was shocked when I saw that this was a New York Times bestseller, which I can only imagine is due to Graham’s star power.  And just so you know, it pains me to write this, because I have so much respect for her acting work.  1 star.

The Wright Brothers, by David McCullough

The book – very good.  David McCullough is excellent.  He researches meticulously, and tells the story in a way that keeps his readers interest from beginning to end.  The Wright Brothers were incredible.  Neither one of them finished college, and were largely self-taught, yet they managed to get an airplane into the air to pioneer modern aviation!  The books follows their triumphs and their failures.  The adjustments that they had to make to their flying machine each and every time they tried to get it airborne would make all but the toughest in us quit; their resolve was very impressive.  It weaves in the story of their sister, who provided integral assistance, and the difficulties they sometimes had in getting their work recognized and marketed.  Everybody wanted a piece of the action and to claim the Wright Brothers’ accomplishments of their own.

I only had one gripe about this book (specifically the audio-book version).  David McCullough should not read his own work.  His monotone voice and flat rendition of the book threatened to put me to sleep, and I like history!  It needed someone more skilled in audio book reading…  4 stars.

 

I notice in this group of reviews, that the reader can really make or break a book.  Something for those publishers to really consider!