Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Book Review: The Johnstown Flood by David McCullough, narrated by Edward Herrmann

I believe I first heard about this flood when learning more about Carnegie and Frick in a documentary. I love the Gilded Age (or as I like to call it, the age of the Robber Barons. But I say it with love.) And this story perfectly epitomizes all the problems with that era, which is looking more and more similar to the times we live in today, with the highly polarized incomes, the complete disdain for the lower classes by the upper, and the pushing of the working classes until they're ready to revolt. And boy, did this deserve a push.

In Johnstown there was a huge dam, Or really, just uphill of Johnstown. It was built by the railroad company, which then promptly decided it wasn't needed after all. It wasn't built right in the first place, wasn't maintained at all, and was occasionally vandalized, like when the runoff valve was removed. But the kicker was when a bunch of Gilded Age millionaires got together to form a hunting club on the crest of the hill abutting the dam, and in order to make driving over the dam more convenient for them, they lowered the top and flattened it, making it closer to the water table, and less structurally sound. No problem, right? After all, this was their lake for their resort and so they'd do whatever they wanted to it. And then in 1889, it rained and rained and rained, overtopping the dam, and pretty quickly after that, it broke, and a wall of water slammed into Johnstown, killing over 2000 people.

The stories from that day are both staggeringly tragic, and shockingly bizarre, such as people who floated conveniently into structures that would save them, small children and even babies who survived solo, and then whole families that were killed. In the aftermath, it was difficult to ascertain who were members of the exclusive club with secret membership, but eventually it did come out, and it was a big scandal, even if it didn't cause much financial hardship for the club members in the end. But this was still the heydey of the Gilded Age, and it would take many more tragedies of this nature, if not of this caliber, to bring down the Robber Barons at last. I adored hearing Edward Hermann's voice again and I might seek out more of his audio narrations as I think he's just terrific, and his sonorous baritone is perfect for histories.

I downloaded this eaudiobook from my local library via Overdrive.

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