Family Stories

A Photo From Johnstown, PA – and a Book By David McCullough

Who has read one or more of the amazing books by David McCullough?  He is, by far, my favorite author.  When I start one of his books I become immersed into whatever time period he is writing.  He captures your attention and holds it so masterfully, even his 1,120 page Truman seems like a short story.  The 85-year-old author has twice received the Pulitzer Prize – for Truman and John Adams – and twice received the National Book Award for The Path Between the Seas and Mornings on Horseback.

The book I write about today is his first book, The Johnstown Flood, published in 1968.  I read this book last year and was fascinated at the amount of research that went into this project – perhaps that’s why I enjoy his writing!  He somehow finds even the most minute, true details that make a story interesting and those involved come to life as real as you and I.

Johnstown, Pennsylvania, was a coal and steel town in 1889.  On the mountain above the town, an old earth dam was rebuilt to create a lake for a summer resort for the rich and famous of that day.  And it was not rebuilt correctly.  It was brought to the attention of those for whom it was built, but they did nothing to make it sturdier.  On May 31, 1889, after much rain, the dam burst, and water rushed down the mountain, gathering speed with every foot it traveled, into Johnstown, killing more than 2,000 people.  An absolute tragedy.

In the June 21, 1889, edition of The News, Newport, Pennsylvania, a letter sent by Rupley Schaeffer to his father was published:

God be praised, I am saved from an awful, watery grave.  It is too awful to describe – words fail me at this time.  How did I ever get out alive?  Only God’s providence saved me, and I was such an unworthy child.  This has changed my whole life.  God has spared me, and I am going to be his and live for and in his service henceforth.  I can’t describe my escape for 14 long hours, through the night on top of buildings, walls gone on every side, men perishing beside me, and I was saved!  The whole town is gone.’

And in the same newspaper, an account written by a comrade tells the story more fully.

In the afternoon, with four associates, we spent time playing checkers in the hotel, the streets being flooded.  At 4:30 we were startled by a shrill whistle.  Thinking a fire was the cause we looked out of the window.  Great masses of people were rushing through the water in the street, which had been there all day, and still we thought the alarm a fire.

‘All of a sudden, the roar of the water burst upon our ears, and in an instant more the streets were filled with debris.  Great houses and business blocks began to topple and crack and go down as if they were toy block houses.

‘People on the streets were drowning on all sides.  One of our company started downstairs, and, alas, was drowned.  The other four, including myself, started upstairs, for the water was fast rising as if by magic.

‘When we got on the roof we could see whole blocks swept away.  Hundreds of people were floating by, clinging to roofs of houses, rafts, timbers or anything they could get hold of.

‘The hotel began to tremble, and we made our way to an adjoining roof.  Soon afterward part of the hotel went down.  The brick structures seemed to fare worse than frame buildings, as the latter would float, and the brick would crush and crumble into masses of ruins.

We finally climbed into a room of the last building mentioned, and remained there all night, in company with 116 other people, among the number being a crazy man.  His wife and family had all been drowned only a few hours before, and he was a raving maniac.

‘And what a night!  Sleep, yes, I did a little, but every now and then a building near by would crash in, and we would all jump, fearing that at last our time had come.

‘Finally, morning came.  In company with one of my associates, we climbed across the tops of houses, built a raft and poled ourselves ashore to the hillside.  I don’t know how the others escaped.  This was 7 o’clock Saturday morning.’

As in all tragedies, some we ready to take advantage and make extra cash.  Sixteen days later in The Pittsburgh Dispatch was an ad that read:

The Horror of the Keystone State

The most correct and finest finished photographs of the principal views of the great Johnstown flood are contained in the set presented with every purchase of not less than $5 at Kaufmanns’ this week.’

On the same page this ad ran six times in the same column!

And the following from the same page:

Excursion to Johnstown

‘To accommodate those who desire to view the ruins at Johnstown, the B & O Railroad Co. will run a special train on Tuesday, June 18, leaving Pittsburgh at 7 a.m., stopping at Hazelwood, Glenwood, Braddock, McKeesport, West Newton and Connellsville, arriving at Johnstown at 12:30 noon and leave Johnstown on return trip at 5 p.m.  The rate from Pittsburgh and all points named above will be $2.35 for the round trip.

‘Those who desire to go on this excursion should provide themselves with lunch baskets, as provisions cannot be procured at Johnstown.’

Recently I found a photo of a young woman – taken by G. M. Greene in Johnstown, Pennsylvania.  After reading Mr. McCullough’s book, I couldn’t help but think – did this woman survive the flood?  Did she perish?  Let’s try to date this photo and make a timeline.

The woman in this photo wears a perfect example of a late 1880’s dress.  The sleeves are very tight, with a ‘cap’ or jockey’ on the upper arms.  The pleated skirt hangs straight, not flared, but still with plenty of material for easy walking.  The hairstyle is high on the forehead, close to the head at the sides with no hair worn in front of the ears.

Now let’s look at the card and printed information – G. M. Greene, Johnstown, Pennsylvania.  The black background of the card was seen from 1884-1895.  The small, plain text of the photograph’s name and city date 1870-1883.

But the back of the card, with its full coverage advertisement – G. M. Greene, No. 127 Franklin Street, opposite the M. E. Stone Church, Johnstown, PA – has a narrower time period – 1887-1890.  We know the flood occurred on May 31, 1889.  It was quite likely this photo was made a year or two before that date.  How I wish we knew this young woman’s name, but most importantly, did she survive the flood to relate the experience to her children and grandchildren?  I doubt we will ever know.

George Green’s parents were Isaac and Elizabeth Green.  Isaac Greene built the first house in Blairsville, PA, finishing it by noon of the same day, complete with stove and bits of furniture, thus winning the lot in a contest held by the owner of the lots.  In 1861 George married Jennie Davidson; they were divorced in 1880.  The couple had one daughter, Minnie, 1862-1884.

In The Photographic Times, a monthly magazine edited by Walter E. Woodbury, Volume XXVII, page 186, is an obituary for our photographer.  It says, ‘George Miles Greene, the veteran photographer of Johnstown, Pennsylvania, passed away Wednesday, July 17, 1895, aged 65 years.  He will be remembered by members of our profession as a man of sterling character and business ability.  He built up a large practice in Johnstown before the great flood, when, like hundreds of the business houses in that city, his beautiful studio was swept away, and, like a matchbox on the troubled ocean, was carried down the raging Conemaugh River.  After the flood he again followed his beloved calling and built a fine ground-floor studio.  On July 1, 1894, owing to ill health, he sold out to the Boston Art Co., who now are in full possession of the business.  He was a great sufferer form sciatic rheumatism for five years and was a marvel of endurance and patience.  He leaves no wife or children to mourn his absence.’

Today at the corner of Franklin St. and Locust Street in Johnstown, the Franklin Street United Methodist Church – the beautiful old stone church – still stands.  Across Locust Street is the US Post Office, and across Franklin Street is Cambria County Central Park Complex, a variety of shops, and where G. M. Greene’s photography studio was located in 1889.  Across Locust Street at the last of the four corners is a central park with benches and a fountain.  It is also where the local farmer’s market is held.   Four blocks away, close to the Walnut Street Bridge that crosses the Conemaugh River is the Johnstown Flood Museum.  One day Ritchey and I will visit the town and museum, and we will continue this story.  And in the meantime, pick up a David McCullough book and transpose yourself into another era of history.

3 replies »

  1. Veerrryyy interesting.  We once stayed in Johnstown for an evening, but didn’t learn much about the flood… My grandfather, William Lemmon, lived a ways south of there after the Revolution. I think we finally found his home last fall. He was an occasional spy for Genl. Washington…. confirmed by several things, including his youngest brother.Ron

  2. From 1992 until 1998. we spent 7 summers in Indiana, Pennsylvania, where I was working on my doctorate. We traveled through Johnstown frequently and remember the stories of the flood. Will have to find this book and read it.

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