The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

June 1, 2009

1889 Flood coverage recalled


Several hundred people turned out at Heritage Discovery Center on Sunday afternoon for a presentation by Patty Wharton-Michael of her “The Johnstown Flood of 1889: Through the Eyes of The Johnstown Tribune.”

Her presentation was a slide show employing both words and photographs to bring the devastating flood and its immediate aftermath to life again 120 years later.

Wharton-Michael is assistant professor of communications at Pitt-Johnstown. She began investigating The Tribune’s coverage of the 1889 flood at the beginning of her doctorate studies in 2004 at Penn State. Her work takes in the first year after the disastrous flood, which claimed more than 2,200 lives.

She concentrated her research on The Tribune’s coverage of the first year after the flood.

The Tribune was the first newspaper in Johnstown to resume publishing after the flood, getting that edition on the streets June 14, 1889.

The flood took place May 31, 1889, when the dam 14 miles upstream of Johnstown maintained by the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club broke, sending a monstrous wall of water

cascading into the valley below and destroying downtown Johns-town and its neighborhoods. Much of the debris along with bodies of both humans and animals piled up at the Stone Bridge just west of the downtown.

In that first post-flood edition, Editor George T. Swank termed the devastation “Complete & Absolute” in his Page 1 story. That edition contained

33 stories, with all but two chronicling the flood, Wharton-Michael told her audience.

She said Swank resisted the journalistic temptations of those times to sensationalize the news.

Rather, she said Swank committed himself to ensuring that The Tribune provided accurate accounts of the devastation and the start of recovery efforts.

“He employed The Tribune as a tool that helped reunite the community,” she said.

The most important part of what The Tribune did was getting news out about how Johns-towners were coping and the help that was becoming available to the town, added Wharton-Michael.

She said the 1889 Flood was one of the first tests for legendary Red Cross nurse Clara Barton.

Wharton-Michael noted that The Tribune formed an organization to continue the recovery work started by Barton after she came to Johnstown.

Her presentation covered five main themes of The Tribune’s coverage: Firsthand accounts of the disaster, identification of bodies, requesting help, informing the community and identifying the flood’s cause.