Chapter 17

    One of the first to reach Johnstown from a distance was a New York World correspondent, who on Sunday wrote as follows: --
    "I walked late yesterday afternoon from New Florence to a place opposite Johnstown, a distance of four miles. I describe what I actually saw. All along the way bodies were seen lying on the river banks. In one place a woman was half buried in the mud, only a limb showing. In another was a mother with her babe clasped to her breast. Further along lay a husband and wife, their arms wound around each other's necks. Probably fifty bodies were seen on that one side of the river, and it must be remembered that here the current was the swiftest, and consequently fewer of the dead were landed among the bushes. On the opposite side bodies could also be seen, but they were all covered with mud. As I neared Johnstown the wreckage became grand in its massive

The debris above the Pennsylvania Railroad bridge.

    Proportions. In order to show the force of the current I will say that three miles below Johnstown I saw a grand piano lying on the bank, and not a board or key was broken. It must have been lifted on the crest of the wave and laid gently on the bank. In another place were two large iron boilers. They had evidently been treated by the torrent much as the piano had been.
    "The scenes, as I neared Johnstown, were the most heart-rending that men was ever called to look upon. Probably three thousand people were scattered in groups along the Pennsylvania Railroad track and every one of them had a relative lying dead either in the wreckage above, in the river below, or in the still burning furnace. Not a house that was left standing was in plumb. Hundreds of them were turned on their sides, and in some cases three or four stood one on top of the other. Two miles from Johnstown, on the opposite side of the river from where I walked, stood one-half of the water-works of the Cambria Iron Company, a structure that had been built of massive stone. It was filled with planks from houses, and a large abutment of wreckage was piled up fully fifty feet in front of it. A little above, on the same side, could be seen what was left of the Cambria Iron Works, which was one of the finest plants in the world. Some of the walls are still standing, it is true, but not a vestige of the valuable machinery remains in sight. The two upper portions of the works were swept away almost entirely, and under the pieces of fallen iron and wood could be seen the bodies of more than forty workmen.
    "At this point there is a bend in the river and the fiery furnace blazing for a quarter of a mile square above the stone bridge came into view.
    "'My God!' screamed a woman who hastened up the track, 'can it be that any are in there?'
    "'Yes; over a thousand,' replied a man who had just come from a neighborhood, and it is now learned that he estimated the number at one thousand two low.
    "The scenes of misery and suffering and agony and despair can hardly be chronicled. One man, a clerk names Woodruff, was reeling along intoxicated. Suddenly, with a frantic shout, he threw himself over the bank into the flood and would have been carried to his death had he not been caught by some persons below.
    "'Let me die,' he exclaimed, when they rescued him. 'My wife and children are gone; I have no use for my life.' An hour later I saw Woodruff lying on the ground entirely overcome by liquor. People who know him said that he had never tasted liquor before.
    "Probably fifty barrels of whisky were washed ashore just below Johnstown, and those men who had lost everything n this world sought solace in the fiery liquid. So it was that as early as six o'clock last night that shrieks and cries of women were intermingled with drunkards' howls and curses. What was worse than anything, however, was the fact that incoming trains from Pittsburgh brought hundreds of toughs, who joined with the Slavs and Bohemians in rifling the bodies, stealing furniture, insulting women, and endeavoring to assume control of any rescuing parties that tried to seek the bodies under the bushes and in the limbs of trees. There was no one in authority, no one to take command of even a citizens' posse could it have been organized. A lawless mob seemed to control this narrow neck of land that was the only approach to the city of Johnstown. I saw persons take watches from dead men's jackets and brutally tore finger-rings from the hands of women. The ruffians also climbed into the overturned houses and ransacked the rooms, taking whatever they thought valuable. No one dared check them in this work, and consequently, the scene was not as riotous at it would have been if the toughs had not had sway. In fact, they became beastly drunk after a time and were seen lying around in a stupor. Unless the military is on hand early to-morrow, there may be serious trouble, for each train pours loads of people of every description into the vicinity, and Slavs are flocking like birds of prey from the surrounding country.
    "Here I will give the latest conservative estimate of the dead - -it is between seven and eight thousand drowned and two thousand burned. The committee at Johnstown in the last bulletin placed the number of lives lost at eight thousand. In doing so they are figuring the inhabitants of their own city and the towns immediately adjoining. But it must be remembered that the tidal wave swept ten miles through a populous district before it even reached the locality over which this committee has supervision. It devastated a track the size and shape of Manhattan Island. Here are a few facts that will show the geographical outlines of the terrible disaster: The Hotel Hurlburt of Johnstown, a massive three-story building of one hundred rooms, has vanished. There were in it seventy-five guests at the time of the flood. Two only are now known to be alive. The Merchants' Hotel is leveled. How many were inside it is not known, but as yet no one has been seen who came form there or heard of an inmate escaping. At the Conemaugh round-house forty-one locomotives were swept down the stream, and before they reached the stone bridge all the iron and steel work had been torn from their boilers. It is almost impossible in this great catastrophe to go more into the details.
    "I stood on the stone bridge at six o'clock and looked into the seething mass of ruin below me. At one place the blackened body of a babe was seen; in another, fourteen skulls could be counted. Further along the bones became thicker and thicker, until at last at one place it seemed as if a concourse of people who had been at a ball or entertainment had been carried in a bunch and incinerated. At this time the smoke was still rising to the height of fifty feet, and it is expected that when it dies down the charred bodies will be seen dotting the entire mass.
    "A cable had been run last night from the end of the stone bridge to the nearest point across - - a distance of three hundred feet. Over this cable was run a trolley, and a swing was fastened under it. A man went over, and he was the first one who visited Johnstown since the awful disaster. I followed him today.
    "I walked along the hillside and saw hundreds of persons lying on the wet grass, wrapped in blankets or quilts. It was growing cold and a misty rain had set in. Shelter was not to be had, and houses on the hillsides that had not been swept away were literally packed from top to bottom. The bare necessities of life were soon at a premium, and loaves of bread sold at fifty cents. Fortunately, however, the relief train from Pittsburgh arrived at seven o'clock. Otherwise the horrors of starvation would have been added. All provisions, however, had to be carried over a rough, rocky road a distance of four miles (as I knew, who had been compelled to walk it), and in many cases they were seized by the toughs, and the people who were in need of food did not get it.
    "Rich and poor were served alike by this terrible disaster. I saw a girl standing in her bare feet on the river's bank, clad in a loose petticoat and with a shawl over her head. At first I thought she was an Italian woman but her face showed that I was mistaken. She was the belle of the town - - the daughter of a wealthy Johnstown banker - - and this single petticoat and shawl were not only all that was left her, but all that was saved from the magnificent residence of her father. She had escaped to the hills not an instant too soon. "The solicitor of Johnstown, Mr. George Martin, said to me to-day: - -
    "'All my money went away in the flood. My house is gone. So are all my clothes, but, thank God, my family are safe.'"

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