The Johnstown Flood by David McCullough, a riveting disaster story for a long road trip
In 1889 people were preparing for the dawn of a new century. In Johnstown, Pennsylvania, this was especially evident. The railroad and steel mills had brought industry and wealth into the valley and most of the citizens agreed that it was a good thing. But the South Fork Hunting and Fishing Club, well, those rich folk who built a resort at the top of the valley were another thing altogether. No one had a good thing to say about them. And what they’d done to that dam! They’d lowered it to build a road over the top, filled it up to the brim, and put up fish guards so their precious stock wouldn’t get away - then chased off all the locals who'd fished there for generations. All so they could have a huge lake all to themselves – just for pleasure and relaxation! Whoever heard of such a thing? A few townsfolk worried over the dam itself, and what might happen if it collapsed under the pressure. Most, however, thought that sort of a disaster was farfetched, more of a bogeyman tale to scare their children with.
Well, on May 31, 1889, during a storm the likes of which the valley had rarely seen, the dam above Johnstown did give way, sending tons of water crashing down onto the unsuspecting people below. Though the prospect of the dam breaking had been ever-present, no one was prepared, and over 2,000 were killed as the water swept away homes, railway cars, bridges, and entire towns, pushing the debris before it in a wave of death. McCullough explores the history of Johnstown, the dam, and the flood through the people who lived and died there. What could have been a very dry account is instead a riveting drama and social commentary – due greatly to Edward Hermann’s incredible narration, which catapulted me into the heart of 19th Century America.
My husband and I enjoyed this audiobook on a road trip, and each time we stopped the car we had to readjust our brains. We became so immersed in rainy 1889 Johnstown that it threw us off to step into the brilliant sunshine of a Wendy’s parking lot. And I became unduly concerned when we were traveling the Blue Ridge Parkway in the rain and we listened to the dam give way and the water start it’s thunderous path down the mountain. I highly recommend this audiobook to fans of Ken Burns, biography, drama, social commentary, and historical fiction.