It is now the Thursday after the disaster, and amid the ruins of Johnstown people are beginning to get their wits together. They have quit the aimless wandering about amid the ruins, that marked them for a crushed and despairing people. Everybody is getting to work and forgetting something of the horror of the situation in the necessity of thinking of what they are doing. The deadly silence that has prevailed throughout the town is ended, giving place to the shouts of hundreds of men pulling at ropes, and the crash of timbers and roofs as they pull wrecked buildings down or haul heaps of debris to pieces. Hundreds more are making an almost merry clang with pick and shovel as they clear away mud and gravel, opening ways on the lines of the old streets. Locomotives are puffing about, down into the heart of the town now, and the great whistle at the Cambria Iron Works blew for noon yesterday and to-day for the first time since the flood silenced it. To lighten the sombre aspect of the ruined area, heightened by the cold gray clouds hanging low about the hills, were acres of flame, where debris is being got rid of. Down in what was the heart of the city the soldiers have gone into camp, and little flags snap brightly in the high wind from their acres of white tents.
The relief work seems now to be pretty thoroughly organized, and thousands of men are at work under the direction of the committee. The men are in gangs of about a hundred each, under foremen, with mounted superintendents riding about overseeing the work.
The first effort, aside from that being made upon the gorge at the bridge, is in the upper part of the city and in Stony Creek Gap, where there are many houses with great heaps of debris covering and surrounding them. Three or four hundred men were set at work with ropes, chains, and axes upon each of these heaps, tearing it to pieces as rapidly as possible. Where there are only smashed houses and furniture in the heap the work is easy, but when, as in most instances, there are long logs and tree-trunks reaching in every direction through the mass, the task of getting them out is a slow and difficult one. The lighter parts of the wreck are tossed into heaps in the nearest clear space and set on fire. Horses haul the logs and heavier pieces off to add them to other blazing piles. Everything of any value is carefully laid aside, but there is little of it. Even the strongest furniture is generally in little bits when found, but in one heap this morning were found two mirrors, one about six feet by eight in size, without a crack in it, and with its frame little damaged; the other one, about two feet by three in size, had a little crack at the bottom, but was otherwise all right.
Every once in a while the workmen about these wreck-heaps will stop their shouting and straining at the ropes, gather into a crowd at some one spot in the ruins, and remain idle and quiet for a little while. Presently the group will stir itself a little, fall apart, and out of it will come six men bearing between them on a door or other improvised stretcher a vague form covered with a canvas blanket. The bearers go off along the irregular paths worn into the muddy plain, toward the different morgues, and the men go to work again.
These little groups of six, with the burden between them, are as frequent as ever. One runs across them everywhere about the place. Sometimes they come so thick that they have to form in line at the morgue doors. The activity with which work was prosecuted brought rapidly to light the dark places within the ruins in which remained concealed those bodies that the previous desultory searching had not brought to light. Many of the disclosures might almost better have never seen the light, so heart-rending were they. A mother lay with three children clasped in her arms. So suddenly had the visitation come upon them that the little ones had plainly been snatched up while at play, for one held a doll clutched tightly in its dead hand, and in one hand of another were three marbles. This was right opposite the First National Bank building, in the heart of the city, and near the same spot a family of five-father, mother, and three children-were found together. Not far off a roof was lifted up and dropped again in horror at the sight of nine bodies beneath it. There were more bodies, or fragments of bodies, found, too, in the gorge at the bridge, and from the Cambria Iron Works the ghastly burden-bearers began to come in with the first contributions of that locality to the death list. The passage of time is also bringing to the surface bodies that have been lying beneath the river further down, and from Nineveh bodies are continuously being sent up to Morrellville, just below the iron works, for identification.
Wandering about near the ruins of Wood, Morrell & Co.'s store a messenger from Morrellville found a man who looked like the pictures of the Tennessee mountaineers in the Century Magazine, with an addition of woe and misery upon his gaunt, hairy face that no picture could ever indicate. He was tall and thin, and bent, and, from his appearance, abjectly poor. He was telling two strangers how he had lived right across from the store, with his wife and eight children. When the high water came and word was brought that the dam was in danger, he told his wife to get the children together and come with him. The water was deep in the streets, and the passage to the bluff would have been difficult. She laughed at him and told him the dam was all right. He urged her, ordered her, and did everything else but pick her up bodily and carry her out, but she would not come. Finally he set the example and dashed out, himself, through the water, calling to his wife to follow. As his feet began to touch rising ground, he saw the wall of water coming down the valley. He climbed in blind terror up the bank, helped by the rising water, and, reaching solid ground, turned just in time to see the water strike his house.
"When I turned my back," he said, "I couldn't look any longer."
Tears ran down his face as he said this. The messenger coming up just then said:-
"Your wife has been found. They got her down at Nineveh. Her brother has gone to fetch her up."
The man went away with the messenger.
"He didn't seem much rejoiced over the good news about his wife," remarked one of the strangers, who had yet to learn that Johnstown people speak of death and the dead only indirectly whenever possible.
It was the wife's body, not the wife, that had been found, and that the messenger was to fetch up. The bodies of this man's eight children have not yet been found. He is the only survivor of a family of ten.
Queer salvage from the flood was a cat that was taken out alive last evening. Its hair was singed off and one eye gone, but it was able to lick the hand of the man who picked it up and carried it off to keep, he said, as a relic of the flood. A white Wyandotte rooster and two hens were also dug out alive, and with dry feathers, from the centre of a heap of wrecked buildings.
The work of clearing up the site of the town has progressed so far that the outlines of some of the old streets could be faintly traced, and citizens were going about hunting up their lots. In many cases it was a difficult task, but enough old landmarks are left to make the determination of boundary lines by a new survey a comparatively easy matter.
The scenes in the morgues are disgusting in the highest degree. The embalmers are at work cutting and slashing with an apathy born of four days and nights of the work, and such as they never experienced before. The boards on which the bodies lie are covered with mud and slime, in many instances.
Men with dynamite, blowing up the drift at the Pennsylvania Railroad bridge, people in the drift watching for bodies, people finding bodies in the ruins and carrying them away on stretchers or sheets, the bonfires of blazing debris all over the town, the soldiers with their bayonets guarding property or taking thieves into custody, the tin-starred policemen with their base ball clubs promenading the streets and around the ruins, the scenes of distress and frenzy at the relief stations, the crash of buildings as their broken remnants fall to the ground-this is the scene that goes on night and day in Johnstown, and will go on for an indefinite time. Still, people have worked so in the midst of such excitement, with the pressure of such an awful horror on their minds that they can get but little rest even when they wish to. Men in this town are too tired to sleep. They lie down with throbbing brains that cannot stop throbbing, so that even the sense of thinking is intense agony.
The undertakers and embalmers claim that they are the busiest men in town, and that they have done more to help the city than any other workmen. The people who attend the morgues for the purpose of identifying their friends and relatives are hardly as numerous as before. Many of them are exhausted with the constant wear and tear, and many have about made up their minds that their friends are lost beyond recovery, and that there is no use looking for them any longer. Others have gone to distant parts of the State, and have abandoned Johnstown and all in it.
A little girl in a poor calico dress climbed upon the fence at the Adams Street morgue and looked wistfully at the row of coffins in the yard. People were only admitted to the morgue in squads of ten each, and the little girl's turn had not come yet. Her name was Jennie Hoffman. She was twelve years old. She told a reporter that out of her family of fourteen the father and mother and oldest sister were lost. They were all in their home on Somerset Street when the flood came. The father reached out for a tree which went sweeping by, and was pulled out of the window and lost. The mother and children got upon the roof, and then a dash of water carried her and the eldest daughter off. A colored man on an adjoining house took off the little girls who were left-all of them under twelve years of age, except Jennie-and together they clambered over the roofs of the houses near by and escaped.
Go to chapter 29
Go Back to the Documents page!
This page has been accessed 638 times since November 30, 2007
Last modified on:
©1998-2010 Robert Schoenberg - email@example.com