Book Review presents reviews of recent publications on Pennsylvania subjects by noted scholars, historians and journalists.

Ruthless Tide
The Heroes and Villains of the Johnstown Flood, America’s Astonishing Gilded Age Disaster
by Al Roker
William Morrow, 303 pp, cloth $28.99

The Johnstown Flood of 1889 retains  its fascination. The flood was caused by the breaking of a dam owned by the South Fork Fishing & Hunting Club, a group of Pittsburgh industrialists and financiers. In a horrifying display of the power of nature, some 2,200 residents perished. The flood resulted in the biggest news story of the period and a national scandal.

Now we have a new popular history of the disaster by weatherman Al Roker. One might question why another narrative history is needed given David McCullough’s page-turning The Johnstown Flood, now celebrating its 50th anniversary.

Roker’s account is more emphatic in holding the club members accountable for their negligence. Readers’ interest in the flood today may be driven, in part, by the current concern about the antidemocratic power of great wealth in American society.

The history provides a very detailed context for the industrial society created in post–Civil War western Pennsylvania, noting the numerous short-sighted environmental practices of the period, the state of labor relations, biographical sketches of Johnstown residents and club members, and chemical fires. This wide context is impressive and one of the strengths of the work, even if Roker has not mastered every one of his topics (steel technology, for example).

If imperfect, the minor flaws are overshadowed by the depth of details and the author’s obvious enthusiasm for his topic. I was pleased that Roker incorporated some new research on the flood by a group of geographers and hydrologists who have revised our understanding of the construction and reconstruction of the South Fork Dam. He also includes new research on changes to liability
law brought about by the disaster.

Andrew Carnegie, a member of the club, becomes the central figure in Roker’s account. While Henry Clay Frick, as an incorporator and founding member of the club, has been portrayed as the prime mover in the club’s development, Roker interprets the rustic retreat as a product of Carnegie’s interests and network of associates.

Roker’s prose is clear and vivid. Assessing the popular sentiment regarding the loss of 2,200 lives in Johnstown, Roker writes, “the pursuit of capital to the exclusion of all else lavished life in huge, beautiful dollops to a select few by grinding up the lives of the many.”

Richard Burkert
Johnstown Area Heritage Association