Travel was resumed up the valley of Conemaugh Creek
for a few miles about five days after the flood, and a weird sight was
presented to the visitor. No pen can do justice to it, yet some impressions
of it must be recorded. Every one has seen the light iron beams, shafts,
and rods in a factory lying in twisted, broken, and criss-cross shape after
a fire has destroyed the building. In the gap above Johnstown water has
picked up a four-track railroad covered with trains, freight, and passengers,
and with machine shops, a round-house, and other heavy buildings with heavy
contents, and it has torn the track to pieces, twisted, turned, and crossed
it as fire never could. It has tossed huge freight locomotives about like
barrels, and cars like packing-boxes, torn them to pieces, and scattered
them over miles of territory. It has in one place put a stream of deep
water, a city block wide, between the railroad and the bluff, and in another
place it has changed the course of the river as far in the other direction
and left a hundred yards inland the tracks that formerly skirted the banks.
Add to this that in the midst of all this devastation, fire, with the singular fatality that has made it everywhere the companion of the flood in this catastrophe, has destroyed a train of vestibule cars that the flood had wrecked; that the passengers who remained in the cars through the fire and until the fire were saved, while their companions who attempted to flee were overwhelmed and drowned; and that through it all one locomotive stood and still stands comparatively uninjured in the heart of this disaster, and the story of one of the most marvelous freaks of this marvelous flood is barely outlined. That locomotive stands there on its track now with its fires burning, smoke curling from the stack, and steam from its safety valve, all ready to go ahead as soon as they will build a track down to it. It is No. 1309, a fifty-four ton, eight driver, class R, Pennsylvania Railroad locomotive. George Hudson was its engineer, and Conductor Sheely had charge of the train. They, with all the rest of the crew, escaped by flight when they saw the flood.
The wonders of this playground, where a giant force played with masses of iron, weighing scores of tons each, as a child might play with pebbles, begins with a bridge, or a piece of a bridge, about thirty feet long, that stands high and dry upon two ordinary stone abutments at Woodvale. The part of the bridge that remains spanned the Pennsylvania tracks. The tracks are gone, the bridge is gone on either side, the river is gone to a new channel, the very earth for a hundred yards around has been scraped off and swept away, but this little span remains perched up there, twenty feed above everything, in the midst of a desert of ruins - - the only piece of a bridge that is standing from the railroad bridge to South Forks. It is a light iron structure, and the abutments are not unusually heavy. That is should be kept there, when everything else was twisted and torn to pieces, is one other queer freak of this flood. Near by are the wrecks of two freight trains that were standing side by side when the flood caught them. The lower ends of both trains are torn to pieces, the cars tossed around in every direction, and may of them carried away. The whole of the train on the track nearest the river was smashed into kindling wood. Its locomotive is gone entirely, perhaps because this other train acted as a sort of buffer for the second one. The latter has twenty-five or thirty cars that are uninjured, apparently. They could move off as soon as that wonderful engine, No. 1309, that stands with steam up at their head, gets ready to pull out. A second look, however, shows that the track is in many places literally washed from beneath the cars. Some of the trucks also are turned half way around and standing with wheels running across the track. But the force that did this left the light wood box cars themselves unharmed. They were laded with dressed beef and provisions. They have been emptied to supply the hungry in Johnstown.
In front of engine 1309 and this train the water played one of its most fantastic tricks with the rails. The debris of trees, logs, planks, and every description of wreckage is heaped up in front of the engine to the headlight, and is packed in so tightly that twenty men with ropes and axes worked all day without clearing all away. The track is absolutely gone from the front of the engine clear up to beyond Conemaugh. Parts of it lie about everywhere, twisted into odd shapes, turned upside down, stacked crosswise one above the other, and in one place a section of the west track has been lifted clear over the right track, runs along there for a ways, and then twists back into its proper place. Even stranger are the tricks the water has played with the rails where they have been torn loose from the ties. The rails are steel and of the heaviest weight used. They were twisted as easily as willow branches in a spring freshet in a country brook. One rail lies in the sand in the shape of a letter "S." More are broken squarely in two. Many times rails have been broken within a few feet of a fish-plate, coupling them to the next rail, and the fragments are still united by the comparatively weak plates. Every natural law would seem to show that the first place where they should have broken was at the joints.
There is little to indicate the recent presence of a railroad in the stretch from this spot up to the upper part of Conemaugh. This little plain into which the gap widened here, and in which stood the bulk of the town, is wiped out. The river has changed its course from one side of the valley to the other. There is not the slightest indication that the central part of the plain was ever anything but a flood-washed gulch in some mountain region. At the upper end of the plain, surrounded by a desert of mud and rock, stands a fantastic collection of ruined railroad equipments. Three trains stood there when the flood swept down the valley. On the outside was a local passenger train with three cars and a locomotive. It stands there yet, the cars tilted by the washing of the tracks, but comparatively uninjured. Somehow a couple more locomotives have been run into the sand bank. In the centre a freight train stood on the track, and a large collection of smashed cars has its place now. It was broken to pieces. Inside of all was the day express, with its baggage and express cars, and at the end three vestibule cars. It was from this train that a number of passengers - - fifteen certainly, and no one knows how many more - - were lost. When the alarm came most of the passengers fled for the high ground. Many reached it; others hesitated on the way, tried to run back to the cars and were lost. Others stayed on the cars, and, after the first rush of the flood, were rescued alive. Some of the freight cars were loaded with lime, and this leaped over the vestibule cars and set them on fire. All three of the vestibule cars were burned down to the trucks. These and the particular-shaped iron frames of the vestibules are all that show where the cars stood.
The reason the flood, that twisted heavy steel rails like twigs just below, did not wipe out these three trains entirely is supposed to be that just in front of them, and between them and the flood, was the round-house, filled with engines. It was a large building, probably forty feet high to the top of the ventilators in the roof. The wave of wrath, eye-witnesses say, was so high that these ventilators were beneath it. The round-house was swept away to its very foundations, and the flood played jackstraws with the two dozen locomotives lodged in it, but it split the torrent, and a part of it went down each side of the three trains, saving them from the worst of its force. Thirty-three locomotives were in and about the round-house and the repair shops near by. Of these, twenty-six have been found, or at least traced, part of them being found scattered down into Johnstown, and one tender was found up in Stony Creek. The other seven locomotives are gone, and not a trace of them has been found up to this time. It is supposed that some of them are in the sixty acres of debris above the bridge at Johnstown. All the locomotives that remain anywhere within sight of the round-house, all except those attached to the trains, are thrown about in every direction, every side up, smashed, broken and useless except for old iron. The tenders are all gone. Being lighter than the locomotives, they floated easier, and were quickly torn off and carried away. The engines themselves were apparently rolled over and over in whichever direction the current that had hold of them ran, and occasionally were picked up bodily and slammed down again, wheels up, or whichever way chanced to be most convenient to the flood. Most of them lie in five feet of sand and gravel, with only a part showing above the surface. Some are out in the bed of the river.
A strange but very pleasant feature of the disaster in Conemaugh itself is the comparatively small loss of life. As the townspeople figure it out, there are only thirty-eight persons there positively known to have perished besides those on the train. This was partly because the buildings in the centre of the valley were mostly stores and factories, and also because more heed appears to have been paid to the warnings that came from up the valley. At noon the workmen in the shops were notified that there was danger and that they had better go home. At one o'clock word was given that the dam was likely to go, and that everybody must get on high ground. Few remained in the central part of the valley when the high wave came through the gap.
Dore never dreamed a weirder, ghastlier picture than night in the Conemaugh Valley since the flood desolated it. Darkness falls early from the rain-dropping, gray sky that has palled the valley ever since it became a vast bier, a charnel-house fifteen miles long. The smoke and steam from the placers of smouldering debris above the bridge aid to hasten the night. Few lights gleam out, except those of the scattered fires that still flicker fitfully in the mass of wreckage. Gas went out with the flood, and oil has been almost entirely lacking since the disaster. Candles are used in those places where people think it worth while to stay up after dark. Up on the hills around the town bright sparks gleam out like lovely stars from the few homes built so high. Down in the valley the gloom settles over everything, making it look, from the bluffs around, like some vast death-pit, the idea of entering which brings a shudder. The gloomy effect is not relieved, but rather deepened, by the broad beams of ghastly, pale light thrown across the gulf by two or three electric lights erected around the Pennsylvania Railroad station. They dazzle the eye and make the gloom still deeper.
Time does not accustom the eyes to this ghastly scene. The flames rising and falling over the ruins look more like witches' bale-fires the longer they are looked at. The smoke-burdened depths in the valley seem deserted by every living thing, except that occasionally, prowling ghoul-like about the edges of the mass of debris, may be seen, as they cross the beams of electric light, dark figures of men who are drawn to the spot day and night, hovering over the place where some chance movement may disclose the body of a wife, mother, or daughter gone down in the wreck. They pick listlessly away at the heaps in one spot for awhile and then wander aimlessly off, only to reappear at another spot, pulling feverishly at some rags that looked like a dress, or poking a stick into some hole to feel if there is anything soft at the bottom. At one or two places the electric lights show, with exaggerated and distorted shadows, firemen in big hats and long rubber coats, standing upon the edge of the bridge, steadily holding the hose, from which two streams of water shoot far out over the mass, sparkle for a moment like silver in the pale light, and then drop downward into the blackness.
For noise, there is heavy splashing of the Conemaugh over the rapids below the bridge, the petulant gasping of an unseen fire-engine, pumping water through the hose, and the even more rapid but greater puffing of the dynamo-engine that, mounted upon a flat car at one end of the bridge, furnishes electricity for the lights. There is little else heard. People who are yet about gather in little groups, and talk in low tones as they look over the dark, watchfire-beaconed gulf. Everybody in Johnstown looks over that gulf in every spare moment, day or night. Movement about is almost impossible, for the ways are only foot-paths about the bluffs, irregular and slippery. Every nigh people are badly hurt by falls over bluffs, through the bridge, or down banks. Lying about under sheds in ruined buildings, and even in the open air, wherever one goes, are the forms, wrapped in blankets, of men who have no better place to sleep, resembling nothing so much as the corpses that men are seen always to be carrying about the streets in the daytime.