May 11, 2012

Soapy Smith and the Johnstown Flood of 1889.

The Great Conemaugh Valley Disaster
Flood and Fire at Johnstown, Pa.
(subtitled) Hundreds Roasted Alive at the Railroad Bridge
Published by Kurz and Allison Art Publishers, 1890
(Click image to enlarge)

he Johnstown Flood of 1889 has been the subject of many books, films, songs, a national park, a museum, and even made into an episode of a 1947 Mighty Mouse cartoon, the difference being one with a happy ending. The real event did not have a cartoon ending. At the time the flood was responsible for the largest American civilian death toll ever recorded.

The South Fork dam, 14 miles from Johnstown, Pennsylvania fell into disrepair and recent heavy rains filled the reservoir far higher than the engineers who built the dam had ever intended. Warnings were sent by telegraph but they were ignored. On Friday, May 31, 1889 the water began overflowing and then the dam suddenly collapsed, unleashing 20,000,000 tons of water into the Conemaugh River Valley, destroying everything in its path. Before the flood hit East Conemaugh, train engineer John Hess tried to warn the residents by tying his train whistle down and racing to town ahead of the wave but there was not enough time to get to safety for many. When the water reached the town, the wave was cresting nearly 40 feet high. 2,209 people drowned, crushed by debris, or were burned in fires caused by the blockage of debris at the Old Stone Bridge (see picture at top). Johnstown was devastated.

In the aftermath, people around the country rallied to help the survivors and later to rebuild the town. The flood provided the newly formed American Red Cross under the leadership of Clara Barton with its first test. Barton and her staff of 50 doctors and nurses arrived in Johnstown five days after the flood. 1,376 miles away in Denver, Colorado Soapy Smith read about the disaster and jumped to attention to aid those in need. The following comes from my book.

Jeff read newspapers. They gave him political weather reports, listed prospective visitors, revealed opportunities for assisting politicians with their problems, and measured “Soapy Smith’s” level of exposure to public view. At one time Jeff employed a clipping service to gather news articles about him from major newspapers around the state. Two of the last photographs taken of Jeff, one standing at the bar in his saloon in Skaguay and the other on horseback there, show him in possession of what appear to be newspapers. He was also interested in national affairs, including natural crises such as poverty, hunger, and epidemics and in man-made disasters. In these cases, he often responded by opening his pocketbook to make contributions and often encouraged his friends and others to do the same. The disastrous Johnstown, Pennsylvania, flood of May 31, 1889, was one of the worst natural disasters of its kind. After heavy rains, the 1852 dam 14 miles above the river valley town gave way and sent a 20-foot high, debris-filled wall of water roaring down the narrow valley. The catastrophe was of astonishing scale. In moments, Johnstown was completely destroyed, and over 2,000 people were dead, including over 100 entire families and nearly 400 children. The disaster was on the minds of everyone and in their conversations. Jeff and friend John Kinneavy each gave fifty dollars out of their saloon businesses to aid the victims and their families, which in contemporary dollars amounts to $1,479. The Denver Chamber of Commerce appointed a committee to solicit donations, and a list of those donating was published in the News. Of over 200 donations, 18 were for more than $50. In September 1888 Jeff gave $10, or $296 today, to a subscription being taken for yellow fever victims in Jacksonville, Florida, no small amount for victims 1,475 miles away.
Alias Soapy Smith: The Life and Death of a Scoundrel
page 133

Johnstown National Memorial
Johnstown Flood Museum
Wikipedia: Johnstown Flood

Johnstown Flood donation: page 133.

MAY 11
1792: The Columbia River is discovered by Captain Robert Gray. 
1858: Minnesota is admitted as the 32nd U.S. state. 
1872: Passengers on a Kansas Pacific train protest against the senseless killing of buffalo from railroad cars. 1889: Robbers unsuccessfully attempt to steal $28,000 in gold and silver in the Arizona Territory. During the attack two members of the 24th Infantry Regiment took heroic action to fend off the robbers. Sergeant Benjamin Brown and Corporal Isaiah Mays (both black soldiers) received the Congressional Medal of Honor for their bravery. Eight soldiers are wounded and eight of the attackers are arrested. 
1894: Workers at the Pullman Palace Car Company in Illinois go on strike.

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Thank you for leaving your comment and/or question on my blog. I always read, and will answer all questions left here. Please know that they are greatly appreciated. -Jeff Smith