Chapter 5

   "Johnstown in annihilated, " telegraphed Superintendent Pitcarin to Pittsburg on Friday night. "He came, " says one who visited the place on Sunday, "very close to the facts of the case. Nothing like it was ever seen in this country. Where long rows of dwelling-houses and business blocks stood forty-eight houses ago, ruin and desolation now reign supreme. Probably 1500 houses have been swept from the face of the earth as completely as if they had never been erected. Main street, from end to end, is piled fifteen and twenty feet high with debris, and in some instances it is as high as the roofs of the houses. This great mass of wreckage fills the street from curb to curb, and frequently has crushed the buildings in and filled the space with reminders of the terrible calamity. There is not a man in the place who can give any reliable estimate of the number of houses that have been swept away. City Solicitor Kuehn, who should be very good authority in this matter, places the number at 1500, From the woolen mill above the island to the bridge, a distance of probably two miles, a strip of territory nearly a half mile in width has been swept clean, not a stick of timer or one brick on top of another being left to tell the story. It is the most complete wreck that imagination could portray.

    "All day long men, women, and children were plodding about the desolate waste looking in vain to locate the boundaries of their former homes. Nothing but a wide expanse of mud, ornamented here and there with heaps of driftwood, remained, however, for their contemplation. It is perfectly to say that every house in the city that was not located well up on the hillside was either swept completely away of wrecked so badly that rebuilding will be absolutely necessary. These losses, however, are nothing compared to the frightful sacrifice in precious human lives to be seen on every hand.

    "During all this solemn Sunday Johnstown has been drenched with the tears of stricken mortals, and the air is filled with sobs and sighs that come from breaking hearts. There are scenes enacted here every hour and every minute that affect all beholders profoundly. When homes are thus town asunder in an instant, and the loved ones hurled from the arms of loving and devoted mothers, there is an element of sadness in the tragedy that overwhelms every heart.

    "A slide, a series of frightful tosses from side to side, a run, and you have crossed the narrow rope bridge which spanned the chasm dug by the waters between the stone bridge and Johnstown. Crossing the bridge is an exciting task, yet many moment accomplished it rather than remain in Johnstown. The bridge pitched like a ship in a storm. Within two inches of your feet rushed the muddy waters of the Conemaugh. There were no ropes to easily guide, and creeping was more convenient than walking. on had to cross the Conemaugh at a second point in order to reach Johnstown proper. This was accomplished by a skiff ferry. The ferryman clung to a rope and pulled the boat over.

    "After landing on walks across a desolate sea of mud, in which there are interred many human bodies. It was once the handsome portion of the town. The cellars are filled up with mud, so that a person who has never seen the city can hardly imagine that houses ever stood where they did. Four streets solidly built up with houses have been swept away. Nothing but a small, two-story frame house remains. it was near the edge of the wave and thus escaped, although one side was torn off. The walk up to wrecks of houses was interrupted in many places by small branch streams. Occasionally across the flats could be seen the remains of a victim. The stench raising from the mud is sickening. Along the route were strewn tin utensils, pieces of machinery, iron pipes, and wares of every conceivable kind. In the midst of the wreck a clothing store dummy, with a hand in the position of beckoning to a person, stands erect and uninjured.

    "It is impossible to describe the appearance of Main street. Whole houses have been swept down this one street and become lodged. The wreck is piled as high as the second-story windows. The reporter could step from the wreck into the auditorium of the opera house. The ruins consist of parts of houses, trees, saw logs and reels from the wire factory. Many houses have their side walls and roofs torn up, and one can walk directly into what had been second-story bed-rooms, or go in by way of the top. Further up town a raft of logs lodged in the street, and did great damage. At the beginning of the wreckage, which is at the opening of the valley of the Conemaugh, one can look up the valley for miles and not see house. Nothing stands but an old wollen mill.

    "Charles Luther is the name of the boy who stood on an adjacent elevation and saw the whole flood. he said he heard a grinding noise far up the valley, and looking up he could see a dark line moving slowly toward him. He saw that it was houses. On they came, like the hand of a giant clearing off his table. high in the air would be tossed a log or beam, which fell back with a crash. down the valley it moved and across the little mountain city. For ten minutes nothing but moving houses were seen, and then the waters came with a roar and a rush. This lasted for two houses, and then it began to flow more steadily."

    Seen from the high hill across the river from Johnstown, the Conemaugh Valley gives an easy explanation of the terrible destruction which it has suffered. This valley, stretching back almost in a straight line for miles, suddenly narrows near Johnstown. The wall of water which came tearing down toward the town, picking up all the houses and mils in the villages along its way, suddenly rose in height as it came to the narrow pass. It swept over the nearest part of the town and met the waters of Stony creek, swollen by rains, rushing along with the speed of a torrent. the two forces coming together, each turned aside and started away again in a half-circle, seeking an outlet in the lower Conemaugh Valley. The massive stone bridge of the Pennsylvania Railroad Company, at the lower base of the triangle was almost instantly choked up with the great mass of wreckage dashed against it, and became a dam that could not be swept away, and proved to be the ruin of the town and the villages above. The waters checked here, formed a vast whirlpool, which destroyed everything within its circle. it backed up on the other side of the triangle, and devastated the village of Kernville, across the river from Johnstown.

    The force of the current was truly appalling. The best evidence of its force is exhibited in the mass of debris south of the Pennsylvania bridge. Persons on the hillsides declare that houses, solid from their foundation stones, were rushed on to destruction at the rate of thirty miles an house. On one house forty persons were counter; their cries for help were heard far above the roaring waters. At the railroad bridge the house parted in the middle, and the cries of the unfortunate people were smothered in the engulfing waters.

    At the Cambria Iron Works a huge hickory struck the south brick wall of the rolling mill at an angle, went through it and the west wall, where it remains. A still more extraordinary incident is seen at the foot-bridge of the Pennsylvania station, on the freight track built for the Cambria Iron works. The sunken track and bridge are built in a curve. in clearing out the track the Cambria workmen discovered two huge bridge trusses intact, the large one 30 feet long and 10 feet high. It lay close to the top of the bridge and had been driven into the cut at least 50 feet.

    It was with an impulse to the right side of the mountain that the great mass of water came down the Conemaugh river. It was a mass of water with a front forty feet high, and an eighth of a mile wide. Its velocity was so great that its first sweep did little damage on either side. It had no time to spread. Where it burst from the gap it swept south until it struck the bridge, and, although it was ten feet or more deep over the top of the bridge, the obstruction of the mass of masonry was so great that the head of the rush of water was turned back along the Pennsylvania Railroad bluff on the left, and , sweeping up to where it met the first stream again. licked up the portion of the town on the left side of the triangular plain. A great eddy was thus formed. Through the Stony Creek Gap to the right there was a rush of surplus water. In two minutes after the current first burst through, forty feet deep. with a solid mass of water whirling around with a current of tremendous velocity, it was a whirlpool vastly greater that that of ten Niagras. The only outlet was under and over the railroad bridge, and the continuing rush of waters into the valley from the gap was greater for some time that the means of escape at the bridge.

Ruins Showing The Path Of The Flood
Ruins Showing The Path Of The Flood

    "Standing now at the bridge," says a visitor on Monday, "where this vast whirlpool struggled for exit, the air is heavy with smoke and foul with nameless odors form a mass of wreckage. The area of the triangular space where the awful whirlpool revolved is said to be about four square miles. The area of the space covered by this smoking mass is sixty acres. The surface of the mass is now fifteen feet below the top of the bridge, and about thirty below the point on the bluff where the surface of the whirlpool lashed the banks. One ragged mass some distance above the bridge rises several feet above the general level, but with the exception the surface of the debris is level. It has burned off until it reached the water, and is smouldering on as the water gradually lowers. on the right bank, t about where was the highest water level, a detachments of the Pittsburg Fire Department is throwing two fitful streams of water down into the smoke, with the idea of gradually extinguishing the fire. In the immensity of the disaster with which they combat their feeble efforts seem like those of boys with squirt guns dampening a bon fire. About the sixty acres of burning debris, and too the left of it from where it begins to narrow toward Stony Creek Gap, there is a large area of level mud, with muddy streams wandering about in it. This tract of mud comprises all of the triangle except a thin fringe of buildings along the bluff on the Pennsylvania Railroad. A considerable number of houses stand on the high ground on the lower face of the central mountain and off to the right into Stony Creek Gap. The fringe along the Pennsylvania Railroad is mostly of stores and other large brick buildings that are completely wrecked, though not swept away. The houses on the higher ground are unharmed; but down toward the edge they fade away by degrees of completeness in their wreckage into the yellow level of the huge tract over which the mighty whirlpool swept. Off out of sight, in Stony Creek Gap, are fringes of houses on either side of the muddy flat.

    "This flat is a peculiar thing. It is level and uninteresting as a piece of waste ground. Too poor to grow grass, there is nothing to indicate that it had never been anything else that what it is. it is as clean of debris and wreckage as though there had never been a building on it. In reality it was the central and busiest part of Johnstown. Buildings, both dwellings and stores, covered it thickly. Its streets were paved, and its sidewalks of substantial stone. it had street-car lines, gas and electric lights, and all the other improvements of a substantial city of 15,000 or 20,000 inhabitants. Iron bridges spanned the streams, and the buildings were of substantial character. not a brick remains, not a stone nor a stick of timber in all this territory, There are not even hummocks and mounds to show where wreckage might be covered with a layer of mud. They are not there, they are gone--every building, every street, every sidewalk and pavement, the street railways, and everything else that covered the surface of the earth has vanished as utterly as though it had never been there. The ground was swept as clean as though some mighty scraper had been dragged over it again and again. Not even the lines of the streets can be remotely traced.

    "íI have visited Johnstown a dozen times a year for a long time,í said a business man to-day, Ďand I know it thoroughly, but I havenít the least idea now of what part of it this it. I canít even tell the direction the streets used to run.í

    "His bewilderment is hardly greater than that of the citizens themselves. They wander about in the mud for hours trying to find the spot of the house of some friend or relative used to stand. It takes a whole family to locate the site of their friendís house with any reasonable certainty.

    "Wandering over this muddy plain one can realize something of what must have been the gigantic force of that vast whirlpool. It pressed upon the town like some huge millstone, weighing tens of thousands of tons and revolving with awful velocity, pounding to powder everything beneath. But the conception of the power of that horrible eddy of the flood must remain feeble until that sixty acres of burning debris is inspected. It seems from a little distance like any other mass of wreckage, though vastly longer than any ever before seen in this country. It must have been many times more tremendous when it was heaped up twenty feet higher over its whole area and before the fire leveled it off. But neither then nor now can the full terror of the flood that piled it there be adequately realized until a trip across parts where the file has been extinguished shows the manner in which the stuff composing it is packed together. It is not a heap of broken timbers lying loosely thrown together in all directions. It is a solid mass. The boards and timbers which make up the frame buildings are laid together as closely as sticks of wood in a pile-- more closely, for they are welded into one another until each stick is as solidly fixed in place as though all were one. A curious thing is that wherever there are a few boards together they are edge up, and never standing on end or flat. The terrible force of the whirlpool that ground four square miles of buildings into this sixty acres of wreckage left no opportunity for gaps or holes between pieces in the river. Everything was packed together as solidly as though by sledge-hammer blows.

    "But the boards and timber of four square miles of buildings are not all that is in the sixty acre mass. An immense amount of debris from further up the valley lies there . Twenty-seven locomotives, several Pullman cars and probably a hundred other cars, or all that is left of them, are in that mass. Fragments of iron bridges can be seen sticking out occasionally above the wreckage. They are about the only things the fire has not leveled, except the curious hillock spoken of , which is an eighth of a mile back from the bridge, where the flames apparently raged less fiercely. Scattered over the area, also, are many blackened logs that were too big to be entirely burned, and that stick up now like spar buoys in a sea of ruin. Little jets of flame, almost unseen by daylight, but appearing as evening falls, are scattered thickly over the surface of the wreckage.

    "Of the rest of Johnstown, and the collection of towns within sight of the bridge, not much is to be said. They are, to a greater or less extent, gone, as Johnstown is gone. Far up the gap through which came the flood a large brick building remains standing, but ruined. It is all that is left of one of the biggest wire mills and steel works in the country. Turning around below the bridge are the works of the Cambria Iron Company. The building are still standing, but they are pretty well ruined, and the machinery with which they were filled is wither totally destroyed of damaged almost beyond repair. High up on the hill at the left and scattered up on other hills in sight are many dwellings, neat, well kept, and attractive places apparently, and looking as bright and fresh now as before the awful torrent wiped out of existence everything in the valley below.

    "This is Johnstown and its immediate vicinity as nearly as words can paint it. It is a single feature, one section out of fifteen miles of horror that stretches through this once lovely valley of the Allegheny. What is true of Johnstown is true of every town for miles up and down. The desolation of one town may differ from the desolation in others as one death may differ from another; but it is desolation and death everywhere--desolation so complete, so relentless, so dreadful that it is absolutely beyond the power of language fairly to tell the tale."

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