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Clara Barton

American Nurse

1821-1912

A selection from
THE HISTORY OF THE RED CROSS

Narrated by Bernadette Dunne

Download mp3 file: The History of The Red Cross

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THE JOHNSTOWN FLOOD

On the thirtieth of May the knell of disaster rang over the entire world, and we were sharply reminded that the need of the Red Cross is ever present, and that its members must hold themselves in readiness to move at a moment's notice. The news of the awful calamity of Johnstown, Pennsylvania, with all its horrors, appalled us; and so frightful and improbable were the reports, that it required twenty-four hours to satisfy ourselves that it was not a canard.

In order to get an intelligent idea of this disaster and the terrible damage wrought by the irresistible waters, it may be well to give a short sketch of the city of Johnstown and its adjacent surroundings. Before the flood there were thirty thousand people in this busy community, which embraced the city of Johnstown proper and numerous suburbs. The city is situated at the junction of Stony Creek and the Little Conemaugh, forming the Conemaugh River. These streams are liable to sudden overflows, and owing to the contraction of the waterway in the lower part of the city by the dumping of cinders and slag from the large iron works on the banks of the stream, and also encroachments by riparian owners, the upper portion of the city is liable to inundations. About nine miles above the city a dam had been thrown across the Little Conenaugh River many years ago for commercial purposes, but had been abandoned and the site with much surrounding property had been subsequently purchased by a sporting club, whose membership embraced some of the wealthiest citizens of Pennsylvania. These gentlemen were attracted by the picturesque scenery, and the hunting and fishing of the vicinity, and they spent thousands of dollars in improving and beautifying their holdings. The dam was raised to a height of over seventy feet and held an immense body of water covering many acres.

This large mass of water was a constant source of fear to the inhabitants of the lower valleys, who were aware of the danger that threatened them; and many protests were made against the continuance of the danger, but owing to the prominence of the owners of the dam, and the strong social and political influence they exerted, they remained unmolested in the possession of the monster that was to break its bounds and carry death and destruction in its pitiless pathway.

A steady rainfall for several days in the latter part of May caused overflows in all the streams in western Pennsylvania, and much of the city of Johnstown was already under water to a depth of from two to ten feet, when suddenly the dam over the (city) gave way, and its flood, resembling a moving mountain of water thirty feet high, was precipitated upon the doomed city. Numbers of the inhabitants, who had carried the fear of this disaster in their minds for years, had become so alarmed by the long continued rains, and the floods that were already upon them, took their families and fled to the high grounds on the hillsides. But the great majority of the people, who, though fully aware of the danger, had lived with it so long that they had become careless and indifferent, took no precautions whatever. These were overwhelmed by the tide almost without warning, and before they could seek safety were swept away.

The number of lives lost will never be accurately known; but in all probability it reached in the entire valley nearly five thousand.

It was at the moment of supreme affliction when we arrived at Johnstown. The waters had subsided, and those of the inhabitants who had escaped the fate of their fellows, were gazing over the scene of destruction and trying to arouse themselves from the lethargy that had taken hold of them when they were stunned by the realization of all the woe that had been visited upon them. How nobly they responded to the call of duty! How much of the heroic there is in our people when it is needed! No idle murmurings of fate, but true to the godlike instincts of manhood and fraternal love, they quickly banded together to do the best that the wisest among them could suggest.

For five weary months it was our portion to live amid these scenes of destruction, desolation, poverty, want and woe; sometimes in tents, sometimes without; in rain and mud, and a lack of the commonest comforts, until we could build houses to shelter ourselves and those around us. Without a safe, and with a dry goods box for a desk, we conducted financial affairs in money and material.

I shall never lose the memory of my first walk on the day of our arrival — the wading in mud, the climbing over broken engines, cars, heaps of iron rollers, broken timbers, wrecks of houses; bent railway tracks tangled with piles of iron wire; among bands of workmen, squads of military, and getting around the bodies of dead' animals, and often people being borne away; — the smoldering fires and drizzling rain — all for the purpose of officially announcing to the commanding general (for the place was under martial law) that the Red Cross had arrived on the field.

The first days brought in dispatches and letters to the amount of about a hundred a day, tendering sympathy, offering help, and giving notice of material and money sent. We were then living in tents and working literally night and day, some of us at work all the time.

From one mammoth tent, which served as a warehouse, food and clothing were given out to the waiting people through the hands of such volunteer agents, both women and men, as I scarcely dare hope ever to see gathered together in one work again. The great cry which had gone ot had aroused the entire country, and our old-time helpers, full of rich experience and still richer love for the work, came up from every point —the floods, the cyclones, the battlefields — and kneeling before the shrine, pledged heart and service anew to the work. Fair hands laying aside their diamonds, and business men their cares. left homes of elegance and luxury to open rough boxes and barrels, handle secondhand clothing, eat coarse food at rough board tables, sleep on boxes under a dripping canvas tent, all for the love of humanity symbolized in the little flag that floated above them.

Clergymen left their pulpits, and laymen their charge to tramp over the hillsides from house to house, find who needed and suffered, and to carry to them from our tents on their shoulders, like beasts of burden, the huge bundles of relief, where no beast of burden could reach.

Let it not be supposed that all this was accomplished without perplexity to someone. Goods came in from many sources of transport, five entries by freight and express requiring to be constantly watched; for, strange to say, there is no work in which people grow more reckless, selfish and jealous, than in the distribution of charities. Persons outside grew anxious that the receipt of goods was not acknowledged before they were received; that checks were not drawn and returned before the bank safes were out of the mud; and that houses were not built and the people living in them before it was possible to find a cleared spot for a little tent in which a workman could sleep at night. We finally found space, however, for the erection of a pine warehouse, fifty by one hundred and fifty feet in dimensions in the center of the old town. The building was put up in four days, and, still in the rain, our accumulation of supplies was removed to it on the first of July.

We had been early requested by official resolution of the Finance Committee of the city of Johnstown to aid them in the erection of houses. We accepted the invitation, and at the same time proposed to aid in furnishing the nucleus of a household for the homes which should in any way be made up. This aid seemed imperative, as nothing was left for them to commence living with, neither beds, chairs, tables, nor cooking utensils of any kind; and there were few if any stores open, and no furniture in town.

It now became possible to more fully systematize the work; and a committee of Johnstown ladies of every denomination was formed, at our request, to receive the people and ascertain their greatest wants, which were carefully noted on printed blanks to be returned to us. These wants we undertook to fill without further trouble to the people themselves.

The result of this committee's work was the written requests of three thousand families, aggregating eighteen thousand persons, to be served, in addition to two thousand others whom we had previously promised to help.

The great manufacturers of the country, and the heavy contributing agents, on learning our intentions, sent, without a hint from us, many of their articles, as for instance, New Bedford, Mass., sent mattresses and bedding; Sheboygan, Wis., sent furniture and enameled ironware; Titusville, Pa., with a population of ten thousand, sent ten thousand dollars' worth of its well-made bedsteads, springs, extension tables, chairs, stands and rockers; and the well-known New York newspaper, The Mail and Express, sent car loads of mattresses, feather pillows, bed-clothing,-sheets, and pillow slips by the thousand, and cooking utensils by the ten thousands. Six large teams were in constant service delivering these goods.

When the contributions slackened or ceased, and more material was needed, we purchased of the same firms which had contributed, keeping our stock good until all applications were filled. The record on our books showed that over twenty-five thousand persons had been directly served by us. They had received our help independently and without begging. No child has learned to beg at the doors of the Red Cross.

Meanwhile our building contracts were not neglected. It is to be borne in mind that the fury of the deluge had swept almost entirely the homes of the wealthy, the elegant, the cultured leaders of society, and the fathers of the town. This class who were spared, were more painfully homeless than the poor, who could still huddle in together. They could not go away, for the suffering and demoralized town needed their care and oversight more than ever before. There was no home for them, nowhere to get a meal of food or -to sleep. Still they must work on, and the stranger coming to town on business must go unfed, and return to Cresson at night, if he would sleep, or, indeed, escape being picked up by the military guard.

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