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"How I Did the Johnstown Disaster., Issue 8009, 11 September 1889
"How I Did the Johnstown Disaster.
[By a Young American Journalist.] Probably the first actual eye-witness of the suffering and desolation caused by the flooding of Johnstown to arrive in this country was Mr Richard Harding Davis, a young and bright Philadelphian journalist, with an admirable “ record ” for smartness and daring, who is now travelling here with the Philadelphia cricket team, whose tour through Great Britain he has been detailed to cbroniclo. Mr Davis was among the first to arrive at Johnstown after the disaster, and left it only in time to sail for this country, so that his verbal narrative to the ‘ Pall Mall Gazette* reporter is the first that has been given to a London paper. A NEW PRESS LAW.—“ THE LAST SHALL BE FIRST.” “The first news we received in Philadelphia from Johnstown,” said Mr Davis, “ was a brief telegram on Friday night—the night of the disaster. But it was not until Saturday’s telegrams appeared in the Sunday papers that the people of Philadelphia appreciated the full extent of the disaster. By one o’clock on the Sunday, I may add, Philadelphia looked like a city oat of which the people were flying from a pestilence; the people having, at the instigation of the mayor, seconded by the ministers and the Press, hastily collected all available goods for the relief of the sufferers. Coupes, express waggons, open carts, police patrol waggons, and every possible conveyance, loaded with food and clothing, flew through the streets to the two great railroad stations, where their contents were piled as high as the ceilings before they were bundled into freight-cars. It was five o’clock in the afternoon when the first relief train left Philadelphia. It consisted of twelve freightears (each 60ft long and 12ft wide) loaded with provisions, clothing, medical supplies, and barrels of flour and groceries. I received my instructions to go to Johnstown from the ‘ Philadelphia Press ’ on Sunday morning. 1 left in the first train over the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, and arrived in Johnstown on Wednesday at three o’clock, having spent three days in arriving at a point generally reached in twelve hours. All the other leading newspapers of Philadelphia, New York, Chicago, and Washington had started men out on Friday by different routes; bat in this matter there was a reversal of the usual principles of newspaper enterprise, for those who left last reached Johnstown first. The first batch of New York men got to Harrisburg early on Saturday morning. All communications by way of the Pennsylvanian Railroad had been entirely out off; but from there they found a way open to Marlinsbnrg on the Baltimore and Ohio Railway. However, fifteen miles from Marlinsbnrg, they learnt that communication on the B. and 0. was also out off, and they had to face about to return to Harrisburg. But a bridge over which they had crawled only twenty minutes before had given way, and that settled Harrisburg for them. It was just as well, though they didn’t know it, for no train left Harrisburg for Johnstown until seven days after the disaster. That gives you an idea how the whole country for a hundred miles about Johnstown was devastated by the flood. By working their way on hand oars, on locomotive engines, and on foot the New York reporters managed to reach Chambersburg, a city 150 miles from Johnstown. There they learnt that four Philadelphia aorrespondents bad hired a waggon and telegraphed ahead for relays of horses, purposing to diive to Johnstown that night over the Alleghany mountains ; and the two parties of rival newspaper men raced each other all night, wading through swollen streams, crawling over fallen trees, and often forced to lift Weir waggons over flooded rivers where the bridges had beep washed away, They reached Johnstown on Monday afternoon, the Philadelphia men getting there first, but not in time to beat the New York ‘ Sun ’ reporters, who arrived by special train ten miputes before them.
RIOHTT S|lt.Ha BT IN TWENTflOVB HCjDRS. “By the time the tram X was on had reached tyjarlinshnrg the track ahead, which baif been covered with Bft of water, was partly <?l?ar, >v o able to push on to Chamberaburg. It was the most trying journey 1 ever mafle. The train never moved for more than fifty yards at a time, and would then stop with a jerk, while the locomotive was uncoupled and sent ahead to test the rails. For thirty-six hoars wo were landlocked in the mountains. We slept sitting up, and had absolutely nothing to eat for that day and a half. My telegrams from that train filed along the route gave the first neuaof the destruction along the Potomac River. For 80 miles—a distance we covered in twenty-four hours—not a plot of cultivated ground remained. A level stretch of clay and stones was alt that the floods left of thousands of acres of corn and wheat, and even orchards. We got an idea of how hljffi the water had jieen from the fact that the telegraph wires still standing were frjnget} with weeds and debris as thick as the seaweed on the painter of a ship. On many of the crosspieces of the poles hnhg parte of fences and wicket gates. In some places railroad ties had been twisted in the wires by the water as securely as though human ingenuity had forced them there. A DISAPPOINTMENT AND SURPRISE. “ Qur train crawled into Jonnstown at three in the morning, and I started out at once to look for my fellow workers on the Press staff. The sun had not risen, and it was chilly and dark. There was no one about but a sentinel here and there deziog over the ashes of his wateh fire. I was disappointed at first. It seemed to me the disaster had been over-estimated. I saw a great wide plain of mad and stones with streams of water running over it in places, and a house or two still standing, although badly wrecked. At one side about fifty or a hundred houses, as far as I could see in the half-light, still remained intact. All around this barren plain of mud and running water rose the mountains, hidden by pine trees, and looking dark and desolate in the uncertain shadows of the early morning. As I was picking my way across the plain I caught 'my foot nnfier the handle of a lawn-mower that rose an inch or two out of the mud. I pulled at it, and" found that it was standing upright. Then I saw that I was walking over a buried city, and that several feet under me lay streets, and railway tracks, and fallen lamp-posts, doorsteps, and cellars. Later in the day I was told that near where I had been standing an opera-house had been picked up, and scattered so widely that not a brick had been found, and that but a square off two churches had been swept away as completely aS though they had been Ijfted np into the air and dropped into the sea. Add out of the mud oh which I had walked the first morning, I saw them take safes and refrigerators: filled with food, ploughs and pianos, marble statues and iron flower pots, and loathesomo masses of flesh ind broken bones that had been meh and women. When the sun rose and drank up the mists that came from the damp pools, and the smoke from the timbers of the wreck below the 1 stone Railway bridge,. I saw that the houses still standing were either gutted or wrecked by the loss of a wall or two. The streets between them were filled to the second story with the walla and floors and roofs of other buildings, and with furniture and goods from stores and warerooms scattered in among the debris. The people placed planks and doors and shutters from one roof top to another, and so walked and clambered over the homes of hundreds of their fellowtownsmen. When’ you were not picking yohf' teiy ovhV these of of brOken housesj you had either to walk ovcjr the stones from Stony Creek, or up to your knees in water and mud. I found a freightcar weighing 11,0001b wedged in under the debris on the main street. It had been whirled and tossed on the wave of the flood like a paper canoe, and had been carried on half a mile from where it stood when the water caught it up. All you could see in looking down at it through the wreckage was the painted warning: “Any person injuring this car will he punished according to law.” How impudent it sounds, doesn’t it ? Some of the incongruities of the flood were very striking. _ A dead horse and rocking-horse stand side by side; a live chicken was taken out of the wreck below the bridge an hour after I had seen sixty dead bodies dug out from the same place. There were £6O bodies taken out that day, but I stopped counting at sixty, The bodies
were greatly mutilated, and some of them had had all the clothing torn from them. The little children were the worst. “ The strain of our work lay in that there was no relief from it. If the people had been hysterical or riotous it would have been a change. But I didn’t see a woman cry while I was there. They were far past weeping. Some of them were insane, and they all wore that strained, frightened look that yon see on the faces of the people who have suffered greatly. I saw two women go crazy; one of them imagined she was still in the water and begged to be taken out. When people met they did say ‘ Good morning,’ but, as one of our writers put it, their greeting was ‘ How many of your folk are gone Y They asked it indifferently, and were often answered ‘Only one; my brother.’ It was not that the speaker did not or had not loved his brother; but that in the face of whole families swept away he could not but consider himself fortunate. We lived a week and a day in Johnstown, There was so much dramatic incident and so much patient suffering and genuine unselfish heroism in those who came to help the sufferers, that what would have stirred one deeply at any other time became a matter of routine. There were many young men who wore no red cross badge and who waved no banner who paid their way to Johnstown, and endured the sufferings there, so that they might help those whose need was greatest. They dug graves, put up tents, kept guard at night, and distributed provisions, doing everything indeed that they were asked to do, and without any idea of reward, HOW THE JOURNALISTS FARED. “ There was very little rest for anyone,” Mr Davis continued. “ One telegraph operator, for instance, sent 18,000 words in the first two days. The average work of each operator was 12,000 words daily, or what would make when set up eight columns of ‘The Times.’ The location of the telegraph office—a wooden shanty at one end of the railroad bridge—kept us almost continually at work immediately above the half-mile of smouldering refuse below the bridge, from which a terrible odor of burning flesh rose night and day. We slept in a limekiln and under a tent lent us by the Relief Committee, and our chief diet was quinine or whisky to keep off the malaria. We had ham when we were lucky, but ginger cakes were our greatest mainstay. It’s surprising how much you can do on ginger cakes. We could buy nothing in the place, and our money was as useless as Robinson Crusoe’s gold on his desert island. For nine days I was unable to sleep in a bed or to change my clothes, and a great part of the time we were actually starving. But at the same time the correspondents sent off enough matter of the right sort to cause thousands of newspaper readers to fling their money into Johnstown. The mental strain was quite as great as the physical discomfort, and the majority of the men who worked there for the papers left the place ill with fever or cold, “ The story of the Johnstown flood,” concluded the dashing young journalist, “ has yet to be written, I think, for the reason that the first men on the ground were Pittsburg reporters or Associated Press men, who are as able to write as the average census taker. When the descriptive writers reached the place they were instructed to take up the story day by day, and not to tell it over again, and tell it propel ly. I doubt if anyone can give an idea of it in writing—one had to see it to comprehend it. The men who came nearest it, to ray mind, were Chamberlain and Kellogg in the ‘ New York Sun,’ and A, E. Watroua in the ‘ Sunday Press.’ Watrous is considered among the young newspaper men in America as one of its best descriptive writers, and his rmmi of the flood, if a bit feverish in places, was one of the most brilliant pieces of newspaper writing, though written against time by a tallow candle on the top of a barrel, that I have ever read.”— ‘ Pall Mall Gazette.’
"How I Did the Johnstown Disaster., Issue 8009, 11 September 1889
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