Chapter 29

     Day after day the work of reparation goes on. The city has been blotted out. Yet the reeking ruins that mark its site are teeming with life and work more vigorous than ever marked its noisy streets and panting factories. As men and money pour into Johnstown the spirit of the town greatly revives, and the people begin to take a much more favorable view of things. The one thing that is troubling people just now is the lack of ready money. There are drafts here in any quantity, but there is no money to cash them until the money in the vaults of the First National Bank has been recovered. It is known that the vaults are safe and that about $500,000 in cash is there. Of this sum $125,000 belongs to the Cambria Iron Company. It was to pay the five thousand employes of the works. The men are paid off every two weeks, and the last pay-day was to have been on the Saturday after the fatal flood. The money was brought down to Johnstown, on the day before the flood, by the Adams Express Company, and deposited in the bank. After the water subsided, and it was discovered that the money was safe, a guard was placed around the bank and has been maintained ever since.
     When the pay-day of the Cambria Iron Company does come it will be an impressive scene. The only thing comparable to it will be the roll-call after a great battle. Mothers, wives, and children will be there to claim the wages of sons, and husbands, and fathers. The men in the gloomy line will have few families to take their wages home to. The Cambria people do not propose to stand on any red-tape rules about paying the wages of their dead employes to the surviving friends and relatives. They will only try to make reasonably sure that they are paying the money to the right persons.
Columbia, Pa., Under the Flood

     An assistant cashier, Thomas McGee, in the company's store saved $12,000 of the company's funds. The money was all in packages of bills in bags in the safe on the ground floor of the main building of the stores. When the water began to rise he went up on the second floor of the building, carrying the money with him. When the crash of the reservoir torrent came Mr. McGee clambered upon the roof, and just before the building tottered and fell he managed to jump on the roof of a house that went by. The house was swept near the bank. Mr. McGee jumped off and fell into the water, but struck out and managed to clamber up the bank. Then he got up on the hills and remained out all night guarding his treasure.
     At dawn of Thursday the stillness of the night, which had been punctured frequently by the pistol and musket shots of vigilant guards scaring off possible marauders, was permanently fractured by the arousing of gangs of laborers who had slept about wherever they could find a soft spot in the ruins, as well as in tents set up in the centre of where the town used to be. The soldiers in their camps were seen about later, and the railroad gang of several hundred men set out up the track toward where they had left off work the night before. Breakfast was cooked at hundreds of camp-fires, and about brick-kilns, and wherever else a fire could be got. At seven o'clock five thousand laborers struck pick and shovel and saw into the square miles of debris heaped over the city's site. At the same time more laborers began to arrive on trains and march through the streets in long gangs toward the place where they were needed. Those whose work was to be pulling and hauling trailed along in lines, holding to their ropes. They looked like gangs of slaves being driven to a market. By the time the forenoon was well under way, seven thousand laborers were at work in the city under the direction of one hundred foremen. There were five hundred cars and as many teams, and half a dozen portable hoisting engines, besides regular locomotives and trains of flat cars that were used in hauling off debris that could not be burned. With this force of men and appliances at work the ruined city, looked at from the bluffs, seemed to fairly swarm with life, wherever the flood had left anything to be removed. The whole lower part of the city, except just above the bridge, remained the deserted mud desert that the waters left. There was no cleaning up necessary there. Through the upper part of the city, where the houses were simply smashed to kindling wood and piled into heaps, but not ground to pieces under the whirlpool that bore down on the rest of the city, acres of bonfires have burned all day. The stifling smoke, blown by a high wind, has made life almost unendurable, and the flames have twirled about so fiercely in the gusts as to scorch the workmen some distance away. Citizens whose houses were not damaged beyond salvation halve almost got to work in clearing out their homes and trying to take them somewhere near habitable. In the poorer parts of the city often one story and a half frame cottages are: seen completely surrounded by heaps of debris tossed up high above their roofs. Narrow lanes driven through the debris have given the owners entrance to their homes.
     With all the work the apparent progress was small. A stranger seeing the place for the first time would never imagine that the wreck was not just as the flood left it. The enormity of the task of clearing the place grows more apparent the more the work is prosecuted, and with the force now at work the job cannot be done in less than a month. It will hardly be possible to find room for any larger force.
     The railroads added largely to the bustle of the place. Long freight trains, loaded with food and clothing for the suffering, were continually coming in faster than they could be unloaded. Lumber was also arriving in great quantities, and hay and feed for the horses was heaped up high alongside the tracks. Hundreds of men were swarming over the road-bed near the Pennsylvania station, strengthening and improving the line. Work was begun on frame sheds and other temporary buildings in several places, and the rattle of hammers added its din to the shouts of the workmen and the crash of falling wreckage.
     Some sort of organization is being introduced into other things about the city than the clearing away of the debris. The Post-office is established in a small brick building in the upper part of the city. Those of the letter carriers who are alive, and a few clerks, are the working force. The reception of mail consists of one damaged street letter-box set upon a box in front of the building and guarded by a carrier, who has also to see that there is no crowding in the long lines of people waiting to get their turn at the two windows where letters and stamps are served out. A wide board, stood up on end, is lettered rudely, "Post-office Bulletin," and beneath is a slip of paper with the information that a mail will leave the city for the West during the day, and that no mail has been received. There are many touching things in these Post-office lines. It is a good place for acquaintances who lived in different parts of the city to find out whether each is alive or dead.
     "You are through all right, I see," said one man in the line to an acquaintance who came up this morning.
     "Yes," said the acquaintance.
     "And how's your folks? They all right, too?" was the next question.
     "Two of than are-them two little ones sitting on the steps there. The mother and the other three have gone down."
     Such conversations as this take place every few minutes. Near the Post-office is the morgue for that part of the city, and other lines of waiting people reach out from there, anxious for a glimpse at the contents of the twenty-five coffins ranged in lines in front of the school-building, that does duty for a dead-house. Only those who have business are admitted, but the number is never a small one. Each walks along the lines of coffins, raises the cover over the face, glances in, drops the cover quickly, and passes on. Men bearing ghastly burdens on stretchers pass frequently into the school-house, where the undertakers prepare the bodies for identification.
     A little farther along is the relief headquarters for that part of the city, and the streets there are packed all day long with women and children with baskets on their arms. So great is the demand that the people have to stand in line for an hour to get their turn. A large unfinished building is turned into a storehouse for clothing, and the people throng into it empty-handed and come out with arms full of underclothing and other wearing apparel. At another building the sanitary bureau is serving out disinfectants.
     The workmen upon the debris in what was the heart of the city have now reached well into the ruins and are getting to where the valuable contents of jewelry and other stores may be expected to be found, and strict watch is being kept to prevent the theft of any such articles by the workmen or others. In the ruins of the Wood, Morrell & Co. general store a large amount of goods, chiefly provisions and household utensils, has been found in fairly good order. It is piled in a heap as fast as gotten out, and the building is being pulled down.
     About the worst heap of wreckage in the centre of the city is where the Cambria Library building stood, opposite the general store. This was a very substantial and handsome building and offered much obstruction to the flood. It was completely destroyed, but upon its site a mass of trees, logs, heavy beams, and other wreckage was left, knotted together into a mass only extricable by the use of the ax and saw. Two hundred men have worked at it for three days and it is not half removed yet.
     The Cambria Iron Company have several acres of gravel and clay to remove from the upper end of its yard. Except for an occasional corner of some big iron machine that projects above the surface no one would ever suspect that it was not the original earth. In one place a freight car brake-wheel lies just on the surface of the ground, apparently dropped there loosely. Any one who tries to kick it aside or pick it up finds that it is still attached to its car, which is buried under a solid mass of gravel and broken rock. Several lanes have been dug through this mass down to the old railroad tracks, and two or three of the little yard engines of the iron company, resurrected with smashed smoke-stacks and other light damage, but workable yet, go puffing about hardly visible above the general level of the new-made ground.
     The progress of the work upon the black and still smoking mass of charred ruins above the bridge is hardly perceptible. There is clear water for about one hundred feet back from the central arch, and a little opening before the two on each side of it. When there is a good-sized hole made before all three of these arches, through which the bulk of the water runs, it is expected that the stuff can be pulled apart and set afloat much more rapidly. Dynamiter Kirk, who is overseeing the work, used up the last one hundred pounds of the explosive early this afternoon, and had to suspend operations until the arrival of two hundred pounds more that was on the way from Pittsburgh. The dynamite has been used in small doses for fear of damaging the bridge. Six pounds was the heaviest charge used. Even with this the stone beneath the arches of the bridge is charred and crumbling in places, and some pieces have been blown out of the heavy coping. The whole structure shakes as though with an earthquake at every discharge.
     The dynamite is placed in holes drilled in logs matted into the surface of the raft, and its effect being downward, the greatest force of the explosion is upon the mass of stuff beneath the water. At the same time each charge sent up into the air, one hundred feet or more, a fountain of dirt, stones, and blackened fragments of logs, many of them large enough to be dangerous. The rattling crash of their fall upon the bridge follows hard after the heavy boom of the explosion. One of the worst and most unexpected objects with which the men on the raft have to contend is the presence in it of hundreds of miles of telegraph wire wound around almost everything there and binding the whole mass together.
     No bodies have yet been brought to the surface by the operations with dynamite, but indications of several buried beneath the surface are evident. A short distance back from where the men are not at work, bodies continue to be taken out from the surface of the raft at the rate of ten or a dozen a day. The men this afternoon came across hundreds of feet of polished copper pipe, which is said to have come from a Pullman car. It was not known until then that there was a Pullman car in that part of the raft. The remnants of a vestibule car are plainly seen at a point a hundred feet away from this.

Go to chapter 30
Go Back to the Documents page!

Go back to the PRR index!
This page has been accessed 545 times since December 1, 2007
Last modified on:
©1998-2010 Robert Schoenberg -