Suggested Reading

Johnstown Flood of 1889 ( A history of the history)

A select bibliography

The following titles stand out among the best to consult when researching the Johnstown Flood of May 31, 1889. To gain a more complete understanding of the story, we suggest using primary, secondary and third-level sources.


(*)McCullough, David G. The Johnstown Flood. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1968.
This was McCullough's first book. He makes excellent use of primary documents, including the PRR investigation transcripts. We consider this book the best available.

O'Connor, Richard. Johnstown: The Day the Dam Broke. Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1957.
This was a popular book at the time of its publication, and was featured in Reader's Digest. There are a few errors, but overall it is not a bad source.

Shappee, Nathan D. A History of Johnstown and the Great Flood of 1889: A Study of Disaster and Rehabilitation. Pittsburgh, unpublished dissertation, 1940.
Perhaps the best reference book ever written on the story. Difficult to find. This book provides a solid overview of the history of Johnstown and an exhaustive history of the Flood.


Beale, Reverend David. Through the Johnstown Flood. Philadelphia, Hubbard Brothers, 1890.
Rev. Beale's church was volunteered as one of the temporary morgues in the area. It was Beale who assisted many survivors the night of the Flood in Alma Hall, a building that still stands today on Main street.

Chapman, Reverend H.L. Memoirs of an Itinerant. ND, NP
This important memoir can be hard to find--your best bet being the Johnstown Flood Museum.

(*)Heiser, Victor. An American Doctor's Odyssey. New York: Norton, 1936.
Heiser was sixteen at the time of the Flood and lost both parents in the disaster. After completing medical school he lived a fascinating life helping third world countries conquer leprosy. Dr. Heiser died in 1972, leaving behind a rich medical legacy, saving over 2,000,000 lives.

Johnson, Tom. My Story. New York: Huebsch, 1911.
Johnson was a successful Johnstown businessman who survived the Flood. He left town and eventually became a powerful, and some say socialistic, mayor of Cleveland. A chapter from the book is called "Lessons from Johnstown."

McLaurin, J.J. The Story of Johnstown. Harrisburg, James M. Place, 1890.
One of the best. McLaurin, a Harrisburg journalist, was in the area at the time of the Flood. Of note is his history of the Cambria Iron Company. Very affecting book with excellent illustrations.

Slattery, Gertrude Quinn. Johnstown and its Flood. Wilkes-Barre, 1936.
She wrote this book for her children and wanted the world to know the true story of what happened to her family and her town on May 31, 1889. Her story of the experience with Maxwell McAchren is nothing but captivating.


Connelly, Frank, and George Jenks. The Official History of the Johnstown Flood. Pittsburgh, JPC, 1889.
Beware of any books containing the work "official" in the title. It was published at a time when relief efforts were still underway.

Dieck, Herman. The Johnstown Flood. Philadelphia, 1889.
Dieck was a popular writer at the time. This book was on sale a short time after the Flood. A lot of literary license was taken.

Ferris, George T. The Complete History of the Johnstown and Conemaugh Valley Flood. New York: Goodspeed, 1889.
The word "Complete" belongs with "official." This book appears to have been a compilation of news accounts mixed with some interviews.

Johnson, Willis F. History of the Johnstown Flood. Philadelphia: Edgewood, 1889.
This was one of the bestsellers--and is relatively easy to find. Johnson was a famous writer and biographer.

Walker, James H. The Johnstown Horror: or the Valley of Death. Chicago: L.P. Miller, 1889.
Entered into the Library of Congress on June 6, 1889 and quickly became a best seller.To quote Nathan Shappee, "Whatever the writers lacked in terms of facts, they more than made up for in imagination."


(*)Bridge, J.H. Inside History of the Carnegie Steel Company. Pittsburgh, reprint 1991.
This book caused a sensation when published in 1903, not long after Carnegie soldout to J.P. Morgan. It is obvious that in the feud between Carnegie and HC Frick, the author definitely sides with Frick.

(*)Carnegie, Andrew. Autobiography. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1920.
Carnegie abandoned writing his autobiography about the time WWI started. Beware of the autobiography. Carnegie's is often self-serving. Nonetheless, this is a fascinating book by a most fascinating man.

Harvey, George. Henry Clay Frick: The Man. New York: Scribner's, 1928.
This less-than-objective biography was written by a fellow who had a definite admiration for Frick. Still very useful.

Hendrick, Burton. The Life of Andrew Carnegie. New York: Doubleday, 1932.
A very thought provoking two-volume biography of one of the most famous industrialists and philanthropists.

Hersh, Burton. The Mellon Family: A Fortune in History. New York: Morrow, 1978.
A solid and long overdue portrait of the powerful families in American economic history.

(*)Josephson, Matthew. The Robber Barons. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1934.
Written as the nation was falling deeper into the Depression, this book provides a mildly socialistic view of what Mark Twain called the "Gilded Age." The economic policies that were practiced by Carnegie, Frick, and especially Andrew Mellon, were essentially discredited after the stock market crash of 1929.

(*)Mellon, Judge Thomas. Thomas Mellon and his Times. Pittsburgh: Upitt, 1993.
A reprint edition. Mellon wrote this with the impression that it would not leave the family circle. Mellon provided the financial boost for some of Pittsburgh most notable, especially HC Frick. Introduction by David McCullough.

O'Connor, Harvey. Mellon's Millions: The Life and Times of Andrew W. Mellon. New York: John Day, 1933.
We tend to forget how powerful Andrew Mellon was--indeed next to Gallatin and Alexander Hamilton, Mellon was one of our nation's most powerful economic strategists. Mellon's presence is still felt, not only at local Mellon banks, but also when one visits the Mellon art collection in Washington DC.

Schreiner, Samuel. Henry Clay Frick and the Gospel of Greed. New York: Scribner's, 1995.
The first biography of Frick since George Harvey's. Very critical of Frick in both a personal and business sense at the end. Out-of-print.

(*)Wall, Joseph. Andrew Carnegie. New York: Oxford, 1970.
You don't get much better than this. Exhaustive in his research, Wall covers every aspect of Carnegie's life, from his youth in Scotland to his final reflective years.

(*)Wall, Joseph. The Andrew Carnegie Reader. Pittsburgh, Upitt 1988.
A collection of Carnegie's writings, edited by Wall. Sometimes we forget just how talented and prolific writer Carnegie was.

(*)Warren, Kenneth. Triumphant Capitalism: Henry Clay Frick and the Industrial Transformation of America. Pittsburgh, U Pitt, 1996.
A very informative and even-handed business biography of Frick.


American Society of Civil Engineers. Transactions. 1891.
Many engineers investigated the South Fork Dam, and they disagreed among themselves over whether the dam was safe and sufficient. Some blamed the Club solely, some blamed the weather, some saw both as the culprits. "The experiences of civilization teach many lessons that go unheeded until some great disaster comes as an object-lesson." (John Wesley Powell)

Boucher, J.N. William Kelly: A History of the So-called Bessemer Process. Greensburg, published by the author, 1924.

Boucher firmly believes that Sir Henry Bessemer stole this process from William Kelly. It was the "Bessemer" iron-steel conversion method that made Cambria Iron as powerful as it was--CIC was one of the first plants in the USA to make advantage of this technology. Mention is made of Daniel Morrell, general manager of CIC until 1884.

Brown, Eliza. HSR--Clubhouse, Annex, Moorhead, and Brown Cottages. NPS, 1990.
Two volume inventory of the Historic District in Saint Michael with history, some photographs, and recommendations for the Historic Society. Excellent research.

Brown, Sharon. Historic Structure Report--Cambria Iron Company. NPS, 1988.
Solid analysis of the significance of the Cambria Iron Company and its role in Johnstown's and our Nation's growth.

Burkert, Richard, and Eileen Cooper. Uphill all the Way: Johnstown and its Inclined Plane. Johnstown, 1985.
Built after the Great Flood, the Inclined Plane remains an integral part of Johnstown's history.

Cambria County Transit Authority. Floods-1889, 1936, 1977. Johnstown: Benshoff, 1988.
This is the only title available that deals with all three of Johnstown's major Floods.

Clark Company. Clark's Johnstown City Directory. Altoona, 1889.
Compare the directories before and after the Flood and you will realize the scope of the disaster--with over a thousand less names.

(*)Degen, Paula and Carl. The Johnstown Flood of 1889: The Tragedy of the Conemaugh. Eastern Acorn Press, 1984.
A brief history of the Flood in words and pictures. Makes excellent use of contemporary quotes.

Johnstown Area Heritage Association. Johnstown-Story of a Unique Valley. 1984.
Examines all facets of Johnstown, including its history, economy, geography, geology, and so forth.

Law, Anwei. The Great Flood. Johnstown: JAHA, NPS, 1997.
The newest book on the disaster, written by somebody who has a deep admiration for Victor Heiser and his work. Includes some of the Louis Semple Clarke photographs.

(*)Lubow, Arthur. The Reporter Who would be King: A Biography of Richard Harding Davis. New York: Scribner's, 1992.
A good biography of Davis, who was a relatively novice reporter who covered the 1889 flood. While in town he floored his fellow reporters by inquiring where in Johnstown he could get a clean white boiled shirt! Later a prominent writer and reporter, friend of Theodore Roosevelt, and at the turn of the century, considered the essence of "the masculine condition."

Muson, Howard, Triumph of the American Spirit. AASLH, 1989.
Written to be a tribute to the people of Johnstown. Forward by Lee Iacocca.

Pennsylvania Railroad Company. Testimony Taken by the PRR. 1889-1891.
After the disaster the PRR interviewed people who lived along and worked on the railroad--the result is a spellbinding account of the horrors of May 31, 1889. Oral history at its finest.

(*)Pryor, Elizabeth. Clara Barton: Professional Angel. Philadelphia, Upenn, 1987.
Perhaps the best biography of Clara Barton ever written.

Strayer, Harold. A Photographic Story of the Johnstown Flood of 1889. Johnstown: Benshoff, 1964, 1993.
They say that a photograph is worth a thousand words...

Unrau, Harlan. Historic Structure Report--The South Fork Dam. NPS, 1980.
Describes the significance of the South Fork Dam and discusses the complex history of the dam itself, as well as the best ways of preserving the abutments.

Unrau, Harlan. Historic Structure Report--Unger House. NPS, 1987.
A good overview of the significance of Colonel Unger's house, the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club, and the fateful events of May 31, 1889. Still some mystery about Elias Unger that we may never answer.


The 1889 Flood was the biggest news story since Lincoln's assassination in 1865. Circulations of newspapers skyrocketed. While much of the early reporting was exaggerated and bordered on fiction, the reports generated a sympathy and generosity among readers, who in turn contributed heavily to the relief efforts.

Among those to consult, throughout 1889 and 1890:
The Johnstown Tribune
The Johnstown Daily Democrat
Johnstown Freie Presse
The Chicago Herald
The New York Times
The New York Sun
The Pittsburgh Press
The Pittsburgh Commercial Gazette
Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper
Harper's Weekly


This can be a difficult story for children to understand. There are a handful of books that do the job well.

Dahlstedt, Marden. The Terrible Wave. Beach Haven, NJ:The Attic, 1972.
A fine and popular juvenile novel based on the Flood. It is the story of Megan Maxwell and her adventure on May 31, 1889. Mrs. Dahlstedt's grandparents survived the Flood.

Dolson, Hildegarde. Disaster at Johnstown. New York: Random House, 1965.
Does a fine job of explaining to children why the disaster should never have happened.

(*)Gross, Virginia. The Day it Rained Forever: A Story of the Johnstown Flood. New York: Penguin, Puffin, 1991.
Designed for elementary and early middle school children. A novel told through the eyes of the Berwind family.

(*)Hamilton, Leni. Clara Barton, Founder--American Red Cross. New York: Chelsea House, 1988.
An easy to read introduction to Barton's life. Much of the focus is on Barton's Civil War efforts.

(*)Reynolds, Patrick M. The Johnstown Flood and Other Stories. Willow Street, PA: Red Rose Studio, 1989.
A compilation of "Pennsylvania Profiles" cartoons that deal with the Flood.

Stein, R. Conrad. The Story of the Johnstown Flood. Chicago: Children's Press, 1984.
Focuses on some compelling stories from the Flood, including those of Victor Heiser, Gertrude Quinn, and Clara Barton.

Walker, James. Head for the Hills! New York: Random House, 1993.
Very popular with teachers across the country. Part of the "Read it to Believe It" series.

(*) Indicates that this title is available from your local bookseller.

Last updated: January 27, 2017

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