Nor was the life of the correspondents at Johnstown altogether a happy one. The life of a newspaper man is filled with vicissitudes. Sometimes he feeds on the fat of the land, and at others he feeds on air; but as a rule he lives comfortably, and has as much satisfaction in life as other men. It may safely be asserted, however, that such experiences as the special correspondents of Eastern papers have met with in Johnstown are not easily paralleled. When a war correspondent goes on a campaign he is prepared for hardship and makes provision against it. He has a tent, blankets, heavy overcoat, a horse, and other things which are necessaries of life in the open air. But the men who came hurrying to Johnstown to fulfill the invaluable mission of letting the world know just what was the matter were not well provided against the suffering set before them.
The first information of the disaster was sent out by the Associated Press on the evening of its occurrence. The destruction of wires made it impossible to give as full an account as would otherwise have been sent, but the dispatches convinced the managing editors of the wide-awake papers that a calamity destined to be one of the most fearful in all human history had fallen upon the peaceful valley of the Conemaugh. All the leading Eastern papers started men for Philadelphia at once. From Philadelphia these men went to Harrisburg. There were many able representatives in the party, and they are ready to wager large amounts that there was never at any place a crowd of newspaper men so absolutely and hopelessly stalled as they were there. Bridges were down and the roadway at many places was carried away.
Then came the determined and exhausting struggle to reach Johnstown. The stories of the different trips have been told. From Saturday morning till Monday morning the correspondents fought a desperate battle against the raging floods, risking their lives again and again to reach the city. At one place they footed it across a bridge that ten minutes later went swirling down the mad torrent to instant destruction. Again they hired carriages and drove over the mountains, literally wading into swollen streams and carrying their vehicles across. Finally one party caught a Baltimore and Ohio special train and got into Johnstown.
It was Monday. There was nothing to eat. The men were exhausted, hungry, thirsty, sleepy. Their work was there, however, and had to be done. Where was the telegraph office? Gone down the Conemaugh Valley to hopeless oblivion. But the duties of a telegraph company are as imperative as those of a newspaper. General Manager Clark, of Pittsburgh, had sent out a force of twelve operators, under Operator Munson as manager pro tem., to open communications at Johnstown. The Pennsylvania Railroad rushed them through to the westerly end of the fatal bridge. Smoke and the pall of death were upon it. Ruin and devastation were all around. To get wires into the city proper was out of the question. Nine wires were good between the west end of the bridge and Pittsburgh. The telegraph force found, just south of the track, on the side of the hill overlooking the whole scene of Johnstown's destruction, a miserable hovel which had been used for the storage of oil barrels. The interior was as dark as a tomb, and smelled like the concentrated essence of petroleum itself. The floor was a slimy mass of black grease. It was no time for delicacy. In went the operators with their relay instruments and keys; out went the barrels. Rough shelves were thrown up to take copy on, and some old chairs were subsequently secured. Tallow dips threw a fitful red glare upon the scene. The operators were ready.
Toward dusk ten haggard and exhausted New York correspondents came staggering up the hillside. They found the entire neighborhood infested with Pittsburgh reporters, who had already secured all the good places, such as they were, for work, and were busily engaged in wiring to their offices awful tales of Hungarian depredations upon dead bodies, and lynching affairs which never occurred. One paper had eighteen men there, and others had almost an equal number. The New York correspondents were in a terrible condition. Some of them had started from their offices without a change of clothing, and had managed to buy a flannel shirt or two and some footwear, including the absolutely necessary rubber boots, on the way. Others had no extra coin, and were wearing the low-cut shoes which they had on at starting. One or two of them were so worn out that they turned dizzy and sick at the stomach when they attempted to write. But the work had to be done. Just south of the telegraph office stands a two-story frame building in a state of dilapidation. It is flanked on each side by a shed, and its lower story, with an earth floor, is used for the storage of fire bricks. The second-story floor is full of great gaps, and the entire building is as draughty as a seive and as dusty as a country road in a drought. The Associated Press and the Herald took the second floor, the Times, Tribune, Sun, Morning Journal, World, Philadelphia Press, Baltimore Sun, and Pittsburgh Post took possession of the first floor, using the sheds as day outposts. Some old barrels were found inside. They were turned up on end, some boards were picked up outdoors and laid on them, and seats were improvised out of the fire-bricks. Candles were borrowed from the telegraph men, who were hammering away at their instruments and turning pale at the prospect, and the work of sending dispatches to the papers began.
Not a man had assuaged his hunger. Not a
man knew where he was to rest. All that the
operators could take, and a great deal more, was
filed, and then the correspondents began to think
of themselves. Two tents, a colored cook, and
provisions had been sent up from Pittsburgh for
the operators. The tents were pitched on the
side of the hill, just over the telegraph "office,"
and the colored cook utilized the natural gas of a
brick-kiln just behind them. The correspondents
procured little or nothing to eat that night. Some
of them plodded wearily across the Pennsylvania
bridge and into the city, out to the Baltimore
and Ohio tracks, and into the car in which they
INSERT PHOTO FROM PAGE 415 HERE!
SEVENTH STREET, WASHINGTON, D. C., DURING THE FLOOD.
had arrived. There they slept, in all their clothing, in miserably-cramped positions on the seats. In the morning they had nothing to wash in but the polluted waters of the Conemaugh. Others, who had no claim on the car, moved to pity a night watchman, who took them to a large barn in Cambria City. There they slept in a hay-loft, to the tuneful piping of hundreds of mice, the snorting of horses and cattle, the nocturnal dancing of dissipated rats, and the solemn rattle of cow chains.
In the morning all hands were out bright and early, sparring for food. The situation was desperate. There was no such thing in the place as a restaurant or a hotel; there was no such thing as a store. The few remaining houses were overcrowded with survivors who had lost all. They could get food by applying to the Relief Committee. The correspondents had no such privilege. They had plenty of money, but there was nothing for sale. They could not beg nor borrow; they wouldn't steal. Finally, they prevailed upon a pretty Pennsylvania mountain woman, with fair skin, gray eyes, and a delicious way of saying "You un's," to give them something to eat. She fried them some tough pork, gave them some bread, and made them some coffee without milk and sugar. The first man that stayed his hunger was so glad that he gave her a dollar, and that became her upset price. It cost a dollar to go in and look around after that.
Then Editor Walters, of Pittsburgh, a great big man with a great big heart, ordered up $150 worth of food from Pittsburgh. He got a German named George Esser, in Cambria City, to cook at his house, which had not been carried away, and the boys were mysteriously informed that they could get meals at the German's. He was supposed to be one of the dread Hungarians, and the boys christened his place the Cafe Hungaria. They paid fifty cents apiece to him for cooking the meals, but it was three days before the secret leaked out that Mr. Walters supplied the food. If ever Mr. Walters gets into a tight place he has only to telegraph to New York, and twenty grateful men will do anything in their power to repay his kindness.
Then the routine of Johnstown life for the correspondents became settled. At night they slept in the old car or the hay-mow or elsewhere. They breakfasted at the Cafe Hungaria. Then they went forth to their work. They had to walk everywhere. Over the mountains, through briers and among rocks, down in the valley in mud up to their knees, they tramped over the whole district lying between South Fork and New Florence, a distance of twenty-three miles, to gather the details of the frightful calamity. Luncheon was a rare and radiant luxury. Dinner was eaten at the cafe. Copy was written everywhere and anywhere.
Constant struggles were going on between correspondents and policemen or deputy sheriffs. The countersign was given out incorrectly to the newspaper men one night, and many of them had much trouble. At night the boys traversed the place at the risk of life and limb. Two Times men spent an hour and a half going two miles to the car for rest one night. The city or what had been the city was wrapped in Cimmerian darkness, only intensified by the feeble glimmer of the fires of the night guards. The two correspondents almost fell through a pontoon bridge into the Conemaugh. Again they almost walked into the pit full of water where the gas tank had been. At length they met two guards going to an outlying post near the car with a lantern. These men had lived in Johnstown all their lives. Three times they were lost on their way over. Another correspondent fell down three or four slippery steps one night and sprained his ankle, but he gritted his teeth and stuck to his work. One of the Times men tried to sleep in a hay-mow one night, but at one o'clock he was driven out by the rats. He wandered about till he found a night watchman, who escorted him to a brick-kiln. Attired in all his clothing, his mackintosh, rubber boots, and hat, and with his handkerchief for a pillow, he stretched himself upon a plank on top of the bricks inside the kiln and slept one solitary hour. It was the third hour's sleep he had enjoyed in seventy-two hours. The next morning he looked like a paralytic tramp who had been hauled out of an ash-heap.
Another correspondent fell through an opening in the Pennsylvania bridge and landed in a culvert several feet below. His left eye was almost knocked out, and he had to go to one of the hospitals for treatment. But he kept at his work. The more active newspaper men were a sight by Wednesday. They knew it. They had their pictures taken. They call the group "The Johnstown Sufferers." Their costumes are picturesque. One of them--a dramatically inclined youth sometimes called Romeo--wears a pair of low shoes which are incrusted with yellow mud, a pair of gray stained trousers, a yellow corduroy coat, a flannel shirt, a soft hat of a dirty greenish-brown tint, and a rubber overcoat with a cape. And still he is not happy.