The summer of 1889 will ever be memorable for its appalling disasters by flood and flame. In that period fell the heaviest blow of the nineteenth century—a blow scarcely paralleled in the histories of civilized lands. Central Pennsylvania, a centre of industry, thrift and comfort, was desolated by floods unprecedented in the records of the great waters. On both sides of the Alleghenies these ravages were felt in terrific power, but on the western slope their terrors were infinitely multiplied by the bursting of the South Fork Reservoir, letting out millions of tons of water, which, rushing madly down the rapid descent of the Conemaugh Valley, washed out all its busy villages and hurled itself in a deadly torrent on the happy borough of Johnstown. The frightful aggravations which followed the coming of this torrent have waked the deepest sympathies of this nation and of the world, and the history is demanded in permanent form, for those of the present day, and for the generation to come.
The work of clearing up the wreck and recovering the bodies is now being done most systematically. Over six thousand men are at work in the various portions of the valley, and each little gang of twenty men is directed by a foreman, who is under orders from the general headquarters. As the rubbish is gone over and the bodies and scattered articles of value are recovered, the débris is piled up in one high mass and the torch applied. In this way the valley is assuming a less devastated condition. In twenty-four hours more every mass of rubbish will probably have been searched, and the investigations will be confined to the smoking wreck above Johnstown bridge.
The valley of the Conemaugh in which Johnstown stood lies between the steep walls of lofty hills. The gathering of the rain into torrents in that region is quick and precipitate. The river on one side roared out its warning, but the people would not take heed of the danger impending over them on the other side—the great South Fork dam, two and a half miles up the valley and looming one hundred feet in height from base to top. Behind it were piled the waters, a great, ponderous mass, like the treasured wrath of fate.
The South Fork Reservoir was the largest in the United States, and it contained millions of tons of water. When its fetters were loosened, crumbling before it like sand, a building or even a rock that stood in its path presented as much resistance as a card house. The dread execution was little more than the work of an instant.
The eastern end of Main street, through which the waters tore most madly and destructively, and in which they left their legacy of wrecked houses, fallen trees and dead bodies in a greater degree than in any other portion of the city, has been cleared and the remains of over fifty have been taken out.
The losses, however, are as nothing compared to the frightful sacrifices of precious human lives. During Sunday Johnstown has been drenched with the tears of stricken mortals, and the air is filled with sobs that come from breaking hearts. There are scenes enacted here every hour and every minute that affect all beholders profoundly. When brave men die in battle, for country or for principle, their loss can be reconciled to the stern destinies of life. When homes are torn asunder in an instant, and the loved ones hurled from the arms of loving and devoted mothers, there is an element of sadness connected with the tragedy that touches every heart.