Charleston, Galveston, Johnstown - Our American Disasters
( Originally Published 1906 )
Earthquake Shock in South Carolina—Many Lives Lost in the Riven City — Flames Follow the Convulsion—Galveston Smitten by Tidal Wave and Hurricane—Thousands Die in Flood and Shattered Buildings--The Gulf Coast Desolated—Johnstown, Pennsylvania, Swept by Water from a Bursting Reservoir—Scenes of Horror—Earthquakes on the California Coast.
OUR own land has experienced very few great convulsions of nature. True, there have been frequent earthshocks in California, and all along the Western coast, and occasionally slight tremors have been felt in other sections, but the damage done to life and property has been in almost every instance comparatively light. The only really great disaster of this class that has been recorded in the United States since the white man first set his foot upon the soil, occurred in 1886, when the partial destruction of Charleston, South Carolina, was accomplished by earthquake and fire.
On the morning of August 28, a slight shock was felt throughout- North and South Carolina, and in portions of Georgia. It was evidently a warning of the calamity to follow, but naturally was not so recognized, and no particular attention was paid to it. But on the night of August 31, at about ten o'clock, the city was rent asunder by a great shock which swept over it, carrying death and destruction in its path.
During the night there were ten distinct shocks, but they were only the subsiding of the earth-waves. The disaster was wrought by the first. Its force may be inferred from the fact that the whole area of the country between the Atlantic coast and the Mississippi river, and as far to the north as Milwaukee, felt its power to a greater or lesser degree.
Charleston, however, was the special victim of this elemental destruction. The city was in ruins, two-thirds of its houses were uninhabitable. Railroads and telegraph lines were torn up and destroyed. Fires burst forth in different sections of the city, adding to the horror of the panic-stricken people. Forty lives were lost, over 100 seriously wounded were reported, and property valued at nearly $5,000,000 was destroyed.
A writer in the Charleston News and Courier gave a vivid account of the catastrophe. Extracts from his story follow:
"It is not given to many men to look in the face of the destroyer and yet live; but it is little to say that the group of strong men who shared the experiences of that awful night will carry with them the recollection of it to their dying day None expected to escape. A sudden rush was simultaneously made for the open air, but before the door ,was reached all reeled together to the tottering wall and stopped, feeling that hope was vain; that it was only a question of death within the building or without, to be buried by the sinking roof or crushed by the toppling walls. Then the uproar slowly died away in seeming distance.
"The earth was still, and O, the blessed relief of that stillness! But how rudely the silence was broken! As we dashed down the stairway and out into the street, already on every side arose the shrieks, the cries of pain and fear, the prayers and wailings of terrified women and children, commingling with the hoarse shouts of excited men Out in the street the air was filled with a whitish cloud of dry, stifling dust, through which the gaslights flickered dimly. On every side were hurrying forms of men and women, bareheaded, partly dressed, many of whom were crazed with fear and excitement. Here a woman is supported, half fainting, in the arms of her husband, who vainly tries to soothe her while he carries her to the open space at the street corner, where present safety seems assured; there a woman lies on the pavement with upturned face and outstretched limbs, and the crowd passes her by, not pausing to see whether she be alive or dead.
"A sudden light flares through a window overlooking the street, it becomes momentarily brighter, and the cry of fire resounds from the multitude. A rush is made toward the spot. A man is seen through the flames trying to escape. But at this moment, somewhere—out at sea, overhead, deep in the ground—is heard again the low, ominous roll which is already too well known to be mistaken. It grows louder and nearer, like the growl of a wild beast swiftly approaching his prey. All is forgotten in the frenzied rush for the open space, where alone there is hope of security, faint though it be.
"The tall buildings on either hand blot out the skies and stars and seem to overhang every foot of ground between them; their shattered cornices and coping, the tops of their frowning walls, appear piled from both sides to the center of the street. It seems that a touch would now send the shattered masses left standing, down upon the people below, who look up to them and shrink together as the tremor of the earthquake again passes under them, and the mysterious reverberations swell and roll along, like some infernal drum-beat summoning them to die. It passes away, and again is experienced the blessed feeling of deliverance from impending calamity, which it may well be believed evokes a mute but earnest offering of mingled prayer and thanksgiving from every heart in the throng."
One of the most awful tragedies of modern times visited Galveston, Texas, on Saturday, September 8, 1900. A tempest, so terrible that no words can adequately describe its intensity, and a flood which swept over the city like a raging sea, left death and ruin behind it. Sixty-seven blocks in a thickly populated section of the city were devastated, and not a house withstood the storm. The few that might have held together if dependent upon their own construction and foundations, were buried beneath the stream of buildings and wreckage that rushed west from the Gulf of Mexico, demolishing hundreds of homes and carrying the unfortunate inmates to their death.
A terrific wind, which attained a velocity of from 100 to 120 miles an hour, blew the debris inland and piled it in a hill ranging from ten to twenty feet high. Beneath this long ridge many hundred men, women, and children were buried, and cattle, horses and dogs, and other animals, were piled together in one confused mass.
The principal work of destruction was completed in six short hours, beginning at three o'clock in the afternoon and ending at nine o'clock the same night. In that brief time the accumulations of many a life time were swept away, thousands of lives went out, and the dismal Sunday morning following the catastrophe found a stricken population paralyzed and helpless.
Every hour the situation changed for the worse, and the mind became dazed midst the gruesome scenes. The bodies of human beings, the carcasses of animals, were strewn on every hand. The bay was filled with them. Like jelly-fish, the corpses were swept with the changing tide. Here a face protruded above the water; there the foot of a child; here the long, silken tresses of a young girl; there -a tiny hand, and just beneath the glassy surface of the water full outlines of bodies might be seen. Such scenes drove men and women to desperation and insanity. A number sought freedom in the death which they fought so stoutly. A young girl, who survived to find mother, father and sisters dead, crept far out on the wreckage and threw herself into the bay.
During the storm and afterward a great deal of looting was done. Many stores had been closed, their owners leaving to look after their families. The wind forced in the windows, and left the goods prey for the marauders. Ghouls stripped the dead bodies of jewelry and articles of value. Captain Rafferty, commanding the United States troops in the city, was asked for aid, and he sent seventy men, the remnant of a battery of artillery, to do police duty. Three regiments were sent from Houston and the city was placed under martial law. Hundreds of desperate men roamed the streets, crazed with liquor, which many had drunk because nothing else could be obtained with which to quench their thirst. Numberless bottles and boxes of intoxicating beverages were scattered about and easy to obtain.
Robbery and rioting continued during the night, and as the town was in darkness, the effort of the authorities to control the lawless element was not entirely successful. Big bonfires were built at various places from heaps of rubbish to enable troops the better to see where watchfulness was needed. Reports said that more than 100 looters and vandals were slain in the city and along the island beach.
The most rigid enforcement of martial law was not able to suppress robbery entirely. Thirty-three negroes, with effects taken from dead bodies, were tried by court-martial. They were convicted and ordered to be shot. One negro had twenty-three human fingers with rings on them in his pocket.
An eye-witness of the awful horror said: "I was going to take the train at midnight, and was at the station when the worst of the storm came up. There were 150 people in the depot, and we all remained there for nine hours. The back part of the building blew in Sunday morning and I returned to the Tremont house. The streets were "literally filled with dead and dying people. The Sisters' Orphan Hospital was a terrible scene. I saw there over ninety dead children and eleven dead Sisters. We took the. steamer Allen Charlotte across the bay, up Buffalo bay, over to Houston in the morning, and I saw fully fifty dead bodies floating in the water. I saw one dray with sixty-four dead bodies being drawn by four horses to the wharves, where the bodies were unloaded on a tug and taken out in the gulf for burial."
Mr. Wortham, ex-secretary of state, after an inspection of the scene, made this statement: "The situation at Galveston beggars description. Fully seventy-five per cent. of the business portion of the town is wrecked, and the same percentage of damage is to be found in the residence district. Along the wharf front great ocean steamers have bodily dumped them-selves on the big piers, and lie there, great masses of iron and wood that even fire cannot totally destroy. The great ware-houses along the water front are smashed in on one side, unroofed and gutted throughout their length; their contents either piled in heaps or along the streets. Small tugs and sailboats have jammed themselves into buildings, where they were landed by the incoming waves and left by the receding waters.
"Houses are packed and jammed in great confusing masses in all the streets. Great piles of human bodies, dead animals, rotting vegetation, household furniture, and fragments of the houses themselves, are piled in confused heaps right in the main streets of the city. Along the Gulf front human bodies are floating around like cordwood."
As time passed on the terrible truth was pressed home on the minds of the people that the mortality by the storm had possibly reached 8,000, or nearly one-fourth of the entire population. The exact number will never be known, and no list of the dead could be accurately made out, for the terrible waters carried to sea and washed on distant and lonely shores many of the bodies. The unknown dead of the Galveston horror will forever far surpass the number of those who are known to have perished in that awful night, when the tempest raged and the storm was on the sea, piling the waters to unprecedented heights on Galveston island.
One of the great catastrophes of the century in the United States was the flood that devastated the Conemaugh valley in Pennsylvania, on May 31, 1889. Though the amount of property destroyed was over $10,000,000 worth, this was the slightest element of loss. That which makes the Johnstown flood so exceptional is the terrible fact that it swept away half as many lives as did the battle of Gettysburg, one of the bloodiest of the Civil War, and transformed a rich and prosperous valley for more than twenty miles into a vast charnel-house.
Johnstown is located on the Pennsylvania Railroad, seventy-eight miles southeast of Pittsburg, and was at the time mentioned a city of about 28,000 inhabitants. It was the most important of the chain of boroughs annihilated; and as such has given the popular title by which the disaster is known. The Conemaugh valley has long been famous for the beauty of its scenery. Lying on the lower western slope of the Alleghany mountains, the valley, enclosed between lofty hills, resembles in a general way an open curved hook, running from South Fork, where the inundation first made itself felt, in a southwesterly direction to Johnstown, and thence sixteen miles northwest to New Florence, where the more terrible effects of the flood ended, though its devastation did not entirely cease at that point.
A lateral valley extends about six miles from South Fork in a southeasterly direction, at the head of which was located the Conemaugh Lake reservoir, owned and used as a summer resort by the South Fork Hunting and Fishing Club of Pitts-burg. In altitude this lake was about 275 feet above the Johnstown level, and it was about two and one-half miles long and one and one-half miles in its greatest width. In many places it was 100 feet deep, and it held a larger volume of water than any other reservoir in the United States. The dam that restrained the waters was nearly 1,000 feet in length, 110 feet in height, ninety feet thick at the base, and twenty-five feet wide at the top, which was used as a driveway.. For ten years or more this dam was believed to be a standing menace to the Conemaugh valley in times of freshet, though fully equal to all ordinary emergencies. With a dam which was admitted to be structurally weak and with insufficient means of discharging a surplus volume, it was feared that it was only a matter of time before such a reservoir, situated in a region notorious for its freshets, would yield to the enormous pressure and send down its resistless waters like an avalanche to devastate the valley.
This is precisely what it did do. A break came at three o'clock in the afternoon of May 31, caused by protracted rains, which raised the level of the lake. Men were at once put to work to open a sluice-way to ease the pressure, but all attempts were in vain. Two hours before the break came, the threatened danger had been reported in Johnstown, but little attention was paid to it, on the ground that similar alarms had previously proved ill-founded. There is no question that ample warning was given and that all the people in the valley could have escaped had they acted promptly.
When the center of the dam yielded at three o'clock, it did so in a break of 300 feet wide. Trees and rocks were hurled high in the air, and the vast, boiling flood rushed down the ravine like an arrow from a bow. It took one hour to empty the reservoir. In less than five minutes the flood reached South Fork, and thence, changing the direction of its rush, swept through the valley of the Conemaugh. With the pro-cession of the deluge, trees, logs, debris of buildings, rocks, railroad iron, and the indescribable mass of drift were more and more compacted for battering power; and what the advance bore of the flood spared, the mass in the rear, made up of countless battering rams, destroyed.
The distance from Conemaugh lake to Johnstown, some-thing over eighteen miles, was traversed in about seven minutes; and here the loss of life and the damage to property was simply appalling. Survivors who passed through the experience safely declare its horrors to have been far beyond the power of words to narrate.