By Dave Sutor, The (Johnstown) Tribune-Democrat

Johnstown, PA (AP) – By the 1960s, interest in the 1889 Johnstown Flood was waning.

Few survivors of the historic tragedy were still alive. Thanks to the installation of protective walls along the Stonycreek, Little Conemaugh, and Conemaugh rivers Johnstown was thought to be free from the threat of destructive flooding.

The disaster, which claimed 2,209 lives, seemed ready to fade away into nothing more than a sepia-toned past.

Then a self-described “young and inexperienced’’ writer and editor – with western Pennsylvania roots – came to the area to do some research. He interviewed people who had lived through the flood that occurred on May 31, 1889. He combed through documents, took meticulous notes and met with members of the community.

After countless hours of work, he released “The Johnstown Flood,’’ a book that went on national sale 50 years ago – on March 18, 1968.

It rekindled local and national interest in the flood and started David McCullough on a career in which he has become one of America’s most preeminent historians ever.

“Johnstown did a lot for McCullough, and McCullough did a lot for Johnstown’s heritage,’’ Richard Burkert, Johnstown Area Heritage Association’s president and chief executive officer, said.

“It launched, really, his career. He’s gone on to have a very accomplished career.

“People discovered McCullough because of this story. And, likewise, his telling brought that story back into public understanding because it had really pretty much disappeared by the late ‘60s.’’

Inspired by photographs

One day, in 1961, McCullough, then 27 years old and working as the editor of a magazine published by the U.S. Information Agency, was visiting the Library of Congress’ Prints and Photographs Division when he spotted some pictures of the Johnstown Flood on display.

He was immediately struck by the images.

“I was overwhelmed by the violence revealed in them, the destruction,’’ McCullough said during a telephone interview with The Tribune-Democrat.

His curiosity piqued, McCullough, a Pittsburgh native who had previously visited Johnstown, started researching the historic event.

“I was just amazed, and I thought, `I’ve got to find out what happened,’ “ McCullough said. He read two books about the subject – one with geographic errors and the other a standard “pot-boiler’’ – essentially pulp fiction – as he described it.

“I thought to myself – after mulling over this subject for several months or more – `Why don’t you try to write the book about the Johnstown Flood that you’d like to be able to read,’ “ McCullough said. “I’d never written a book before. I had taken very little history in college. And I was an English major. I imagined myself being a writer, but never a writer of history.

“I gave it a try. As soon as I got into the research part of it, I knew that that was the kind of work I wanted to do from then on. I loved it.’’

Humanity and politics

Meeting in person with survivors, including Gertrude Quinn Slattery and renowned physician Victor Heiser, gave McCullough the opportunity to learn about the flood in great detail – the sights, the sounds, the smells – which brought a personalized touch to his book that was lacking in previous works.

“That was a hugely, hugely beneficial stroke of luck,’’ McCullough said. “If I had waited another 10 years, I wouldn’t have been able to write the book I wrote.’’

His book, researched and written on nights and weekends away from his full-time job at American Heritage Publishing Co., became much more than a dry recounting of names, dates and statistics.

“The storytelling is what really gets you,’’ Doug Bosley, Johnstown Flood National Memorial’s park ranger, said. “It kind of reads like a novel. It’s not like a straight history book. It takes you in.

“I’ve heard about Mr. McCullough, that he’s an artist that paints with words. And that is very much what it is like. Once you start reading it – even if it’s your 20th time reading it – it just draws you in. You can’t put it down.’’

“The Johnstown Flood’’ told the story of how the owners of the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club – rich and powerful leaders of business and politics from the Pittsburgh area – neglected an earthen dam on their property, leading to its catastrophic failure during a heavy rainstorm.

The collapse sent a wall of water down the Little Conemaugh River valley for 14 miles – destroying all in its path – before crashing into the thriving steel town.

“By the time I was nearing the end, I suddenly realized what the theme is about,’’ McCullough said. “And that is something that we must keep in mind today, as never before: that it’s dangerous – perhaps even perilous – to assume that because people are in positions of responsibility they are therefore behaving responsibly. You can never assume that.’’

Russell Shorto, a Johnstown native and author of historical books, including, most recently “Revolution Song,’’ credited McCullough with successfully blending together the personal stories with social commentary.

“For Johnstown, the flood is still the one thing that kind of put it on the map, even though it’s the thing that almost wiped it off the map,’’ Shorto said. “That’s the book that documents it. And he did it in this – I think what was then – pretty innovative way of really trying to have a human feel for this event and also having a pretty sharp political angle, too. It’s really kind of the haves and the have-nots and this case of outright – or egregious – mismanagement and refusal to pay attention to what engineers were saying about the dam.’’

`First source’ on the flood

“The Johnstown Flood’’ is widely considered to be the definitive book about the tragedy.

All new employees at the Johnstown Flood National Memorial – located at the spot where the dam once stood – get a copy on their first day.

About 300 books are sold every year combined at the memorial and Allegheny Portage Railroad National Historic Site.

Nick Wuckovich, a tour guide at the Johnstown Flood Museum in downtown Johnstown, considers McCullough’s book essential reading for people wanting to learn about the flood – along with “The Story of Johnstown’’ by J. J. McLaurin and “A History of Johnstown and the Great Flood of 1889: A Study of Disaster and Rehabilitation’’ by Nathan Daniel Shappee.

“Probably, in my estimation, if you read those three, you’ll get a good feel for what happened here,’’ Wuckovich said. “No doubt about it.’’

Staff at the Cambria County Library System recommend McCullough’s work to researchers and lovers of history alike.

Joyce Homan, a genealogy and reference librarian, said it “puts meat on the bones of what happened during the flood.’’

“Any time people want information on the 1889 flood itself – an overview – David McCullough’s book is the first source that we send them to because it has the background of what led up to the flood,’’ Esther Vorhauer, the library’s head of reference, said. “It’s a fairly easy read, as far as a nonfiction work.’’

His book has never been out of print. A Simon & Schuster representative said the book has sold at least 500,000 copies, although tracking software does not go much past the 2000s. The company plans to have a new edition – with an updated introduction by McCullough – ready and in stores by April 30.

“That it’s still the subject of much interest is, in itself, to me, an immensely gratifying reward,’’ McCullough said.

`Beloved in the community’

McCullough has remained affectionately linked to Johnstown throughout his life and career.

In the days before the national release of the book, McCullough visited Johnstown, meeting with survivors and residents and signing copies of his work. He then participated in events for the 100th anniversary of the flood in 1989 and received JAHA’s Heritage Preservation Award in 2011.

“He became very, very beloved in the community,’’ said Richard Mayer, The Tribune-Democrat’s publisher from 1963 to 1987 and chairman of the centennial committee for the 1889 Flood.

McCullough’s work brought attention to the flood and city.

“Since he was such a good author and the book did so well in the market, more and more people became interested in Johnstown,’’ Mayer said.

“Some of that interest was negative, of course, because Johnstown is never flood-free. But, on the other hand, people all over the United States and all over the world were talking about Johnstown, Pennsylvania. Could that be all bad? No. There was lots of activity, lots of conversation. It was very good at the time.’’

Johnstown also suffered devastating floods in 1936 – after which the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers installed miles of flood protection walls in the city – and 1977. But the city has benefited from the connection to McCullough’s book.

Its release came a few years after the Johnstown Flood National Memorial opened, which helped increase interest in the site. The Johnstown Flood Museum was established in 1973. “The Johnstown Flood,’’ a 1989 short documentary directed by Charles Guggenheim, won an Academy Award.

Johnstown, in the ensuing years since publication of “The Johnstown Flood,’’ has become a tourist destination for history buffs.

The book, Burkert said, marked “the beginning of Johnstown’s historical consciousness.’’

`Triumphs and tragedies’

McCullough followed up the critical and commercial success of “The Johnstown Flood’’ with the release of “The Great Bridge’’ – a book about the Brooklyn Bridge – in 1972. His other subjects have included Theodore Roosevelt, the Wright Brothers and the American Revolution. Most notably, he won Pulitzer Prizes for his biographies “Truman’’ and “John Adams.’’ He is currently working on “The Pioneers,’’ a book about American pioneers to the Northwest Territory, set for release in 2019 by Simon & Schuster.

Along with his writing, the Yale-educated McCullough – with his distinctive voice – has also become well known for his narration work that includes “The Civil War’’ documentary by Ken Burns. He has also hosted “Smithsonian World’’ and “American Experience.’’

“I think – for him – `The Johnstown Flood’ turned out to be a foundation of his style,’’ Shorto said. “His style is, especially since he narrated documentaries famously, whenever I open a book of his and start reading, I immediately hear his actual voice in my head. They talk about writers having a voice. His voice on the page kind of – to me – matches his actual voice, and I think that’s the book that started that.’’

McCullough has received countless accolades during his career: the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the Officer of the Legion of Honor by decree of the President of the Republic of France, National Book Foundation Distinguished Contribution to American Letters Award and more than 50 honorary degrees. The 16th Street Bridge in Pittsburgh was renamed in his honor.

His work has also contributed significantly to the dialogue about the country’s history.

“For decades, David McCullough’s work has inspired us to dive deeper into and think more critically about our nation’s history,’’ said Pennsylvania U.S. Sen. Bob Casey Jr., a fan of McCullough’s writing. “His writings have explored some of the greatest American triumphs and tragedies and have done a great deal to remind us of all that has occurred in this great country. As we celebrate 50 years of McCullough’s portrait of `The Johnstown Flood,’ it’s important that we take the time to remember the over 2,000 lives lost following that terrible tragedy in 1889.’’

And, for McCullough, the journey all started with his experience in Johnstown.

“It was a lucky break that I walked past that table full of photographs that morning,’’ McCullough said. “It was a lucky break that I had so many people who were part of the story. And it was a lucky break the way the people of Johnstown, in general, treated me.’’

Looking back, he calls the time spent working on his book about the flood “a great interlude in my life.’’

The Johnstown Flood

The scale of the Johnstown flood of 1889 is hard to imagine. Summarizing the flood’s impact in statistics and facts is a quick way to convey the enormity of the event. Here is a list of some of the most descriptive facts about the Johnstown flood.
. 2,209 people died.
. 99 entire families died, including 396 children
. 124 women and 198 men were left widowed.
. More than 750 victims were never identified and rest in the Plot of the Unknown in Grandview Cemetery
. Bodies were found as far away as Cincinnati, and as late as 1911
. 1,600 homes were destroyed
. $17 million in property damage was done
. Four square miles of downtown Johnstown were completely destroyed
. The pile of debris at the stone bridge covered 30 acres
. The distance between the dam that failed and Johnstown was 14 miles.
. The dam was owned by the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club, an exclusive club that counted Andrew Carnegie and Henry Clay Frick among its members.
. The dam contained 20 million tons of water before it gave way, about the same amount of water as goes over Niagara Falls in 36 minutes.
. Flood lines were found as high as 89 feet above river level
. The great wave measured 35-40 feet high and hit Johnstown at 40 miles per hour.
. The force of the flood swept several locomotives weighing 170,000 pounds as far as 4,800 feet
. $3,742,818.78 was collected for the Johnstown relief effort from within the U.S. and 18 foreign countries
. The American Red Cross, led by Clara Barton and organized in 1881, arrived in Johnstown on June 5, 1889 – it was the first major peacetime disaster relief effort for the Red Cross.
. Johnstown has suffered additional significant floods in its history, including in 1936 and 1977.
– Johnstown Area Heritage Association

Images: Johnstown’s downtown after the flood of 1889
McCullough at work on his typewriter
McCullough on the Brooklyn Bridge; he wrote The Great Bridge