— When 67-year-old Clara Barton arrived in Johnstown on June 5, 1889, she and her American Red Cross team were met with a scene of devastation.
The Johnstown Flood claimed more than 2,000 lives and left substantial wreckage in its wake.
But it didn’t take long for Barton and the 50 doctors, nurses and relief workers to quickly set up feeding stations, and they immediately began providing medical care, shelter and relief.
Housing the homeless
The American Red Cross moved into Johnstown in a sprawling tent erected on Prospect Hill.
Barton quickly arranged for construction of Red Cross hotels to provide lodging for homeless flood survivors.
The first was built on the site of the destroyed St. Mark’s Episcopal Church on Locust Street, which would later be rebuilt on the same site, and had 34 rooms, a laundry, kitchen, bathroom and dining hall. Meals cost 25 cents.
Merchants and businessmen left homeless by the flood were the primary tenants of the hotel.
Because of its success, the American Red Cross built five more hotels and 3,000 single family homes.
A reporter described the houses as “partitionless, chimneyless, liningless, ceilingless; in fact it is only a caricature.”
Aesthetics aside, 4,700 of the town’s destitute took shelter in these homes the winter after the flood.
A day after Barton and her crew arrived in Johnstown, Dr. William H. Pancoast, president of the Associate Society of the Red Cross of Philadelphia, arrived.
At the time, the Red Cross was a loose collection of chapters scattered throughout the country. A parent organization to oversee and coordinate the work of smaller groups was still just a vision.
So despite a disagreement between Barton and Pancoast, both chapters coordinated relief efforts – Pancoast’s group tending to the medical needs of flood victims and Barton’s people providing food, shelter and furniture.