Johnstown, PA Flood, May 1889
It is astonishing to find how small a number of injured are in the city. Few survived. It was death or nothing, with the demon of the flood. It is true that not a few escaped, but they got off almost unhurt.
The central portion of Johnstown is as completely obliterated as if it had never had foundations. The river has made its bed upon the sites of the dwellings and a vast area of sand, mud, gravel and furrowed grounds marks the old channel. It is doubtful, if it is possible, ever to reclaim what was once the business portion of the city. The river, will have to be returned to its old bed in order to do this and that is an engineering feat hardly possible.
The massive accumulation of debris extending from 800 to 1,000 feet along the south shore of the Conemaugh, and immediately above the bridge, is now in complete possession of the flames and will be until the arrival of further relief from the Pittsburg fire department is received, so that another pang is added to those who had hoped to rescue the remains of their friends and relatives from the debris.
The magnitude of the horror increases with the hours. It is believed that not less than 2,000 of the drowned found lodgement beneath the mass of debris in the triangle of ground that the Conemaugh cut out of the bank between the river proper and the Pennsylvania railway bridge. There was the greatest funeral pyre in history. The victims were not upon it, but were parts of its horrible constitution. Whole houses were washed into the apex of the triangle. Hen coops, pig stigs, stables, the refuse of the gutter, the contents of sewers, whole lumber yards, boom upon boom of logs, composed the mass.
When the upsetting of a cook stove ignited the mass and the work of cremation began, it was a costly sacrifice to the demon of the flood, being a literal breast of fire. The smoke arise in a huge funnel shaped cloud, and at times it changed to the formation of an hour glass. At night the flames would light up this misty remnant of mortality. The effect upon the living, ignorant and intelligent, was the same. That volume of smoke, with its dual form, produced a feeling of awe in many that was superior in most cases to that in the awful moment of the storm's wrath on Friday afternoon. Hundreds stood for hours regarding the smoke and wondering if it forebode another visitation dire than its predecessor.
It was with a feeling of absolute loathing that all people hereabout, awoke Sunday morning to find that nothing but a mass of ashes, calcined human bones, stoves, old iron and other approximately indestructable matter, from which only a light blue vapor was arising.
Gen. HASTING'S took precautions to prevent the extension of the fire to another large pile, a short distance away and this will be searched at once for bodies of flood victims.
The people who escaped to the hillsides have no boats to get around with, and are hard pressed for food. They are camped out in the brush, and the women and children suffer greatly from hardships, besides being half crazed with anxiety over the fate of friends and relatives. The water is not receding much, because the choked up railroad bridge acts as a dam, and will do so until the debris that clogs the arches is removed, which will be a big job. The Pennsylvania railroad track is torn away bodily for distance of a mile or more in two or three places. The Baltimore and Ohio track suffered also, but not so severely.
The most awful destruction in a single house occurred at the Hurlburt hotel. There were fifty-seven people in the house when the mountain of water came down, and of these only ten are living. Four travelers, who were staying at the Hurlburt, went to the fourth floor when the flood came, and after wishing each other "Good-by," surrendered themselves to fate. Fate was death to three of them. Those three were JOHN LITTLE, of Lewickley; W. J. COX, of Philadelphia, and R. SMITZ.
The one survivor is JOHN DORSAY, of M. A. RETTEW & Company, of Philadelphia. The register of the wrecked hotel cannot be found, and it impossible to give the names of all those who perished in the Hurlburt house. Those who are known to have perished are: ELMER BRINKER and DR. BRINKER, two brothers, two MRS. RICHARDS, a man named BUTLER, MRS., MISS and LEWIS BENFORD, mother, sister and brother of the proprietor, MRS. SMITH and her two children ascended to fourth floor with the four travelers when the flood came. The woman was drowned and the men escaped.
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