Monthly Archives: May 2014

“Not A Hideous Dream” 125 Years Ago — Newspaper Coverage of the Johnstown Flood

Pittsburg Dispatch June 2, 1889 On May 31, 1889 unusually heavy rainfall washed out the South Fork dam in western Pennsylvania and released twenty million tons of water from a reservoir known as Lake Conemaugh.  A monstrous flood swept through the Little Conemaugh River Valley and made its way towards Johnstown, 14 miles downstream from the dam, destroying everything in its path.

As the water rushed through the valley, it accumulated an enormous amount of debris which caught fire once it reached Johnstown. Many drowned in the flood as it swept through town while others were killed by the resulting blaze–a staggering 2,209 men, women and children died.

“With railroad tracks washed away and telegraph lines down, contact with the city was completely cut off,” explains one source, “so most early newspaper editions carried stories based on rumor, conjecture, and the accounts of a few overwrought survivors.” Reports started coming on June 1 and one example of conjecture was the estimated death toll—some reports were low while others were as high as 10,000.

Somerset Herald June 3, 1889

In the days and weeks following the Johnstown flood, newspapers covered the story PD June 9, 1889 Fourth Ward Schoolobsessively. They published details of the moments before, during and after the flood, included sketches of makeshift morgues, destroyed buildings and railroad lines and maps of the water’s course, and provided numerous personal stories of loss and survival. The devastating circumstances of the event made it a national news story with newspapers from as far as California providing reportage.

Because it had so much local and national coverage, Chronicling America is an excellent resource for newspaper accounts of the flood and its aftermath. The articles and images below are just fraction of what can be found on Chronicling America and they tell the story of the Great Johnstown Flood of 1889.

Coverage from nearby Pittsburgh, Lancaster and Somerset:

Reports … read more »

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The Casket and Institute Jewel

Located in Suffolk, Virginia and chartered in 1881, the Suffolk Female Institute was run by Misses Sallie Finney in what had once been the Central Hotel and offered a “thorough education. . .correct moral training and proper social cultivation” to “young ladies and little girls” for $160.00 per year. “The Corps of teachers is efficient and experienced,” an 1886 ad for the school explained, “The home training, moral and attractive. Fine advantages in music, art and languages, at moderate rates.”

An etching of the Suffolk Female Institute from the Sketch Book of Suffolk, Virginia written by Edward Pollock and published in 1886.

Advertisement for the Suffolk Female Institute from the Sketch Book of Suffolk, Virginia.

Like many schools, the Suffolk Female Institute, in operation from 1869-1908, published its own newspaper, the Casket. Where the title came from is anyone’s guess, but the content of the paper was not so macabre (actually, “Casket” had a not so macabre meaning in the 1800s–for an explanation, see Bill Bynum’s comment below). Poetry, personals, jokes, student news, alumni updates, homilies, the latest fashion trends and advertisements made up a typical issue, which was free to students and five cents for everyone else. Of course, sometimes the news could be melancholy: “A sudden death,” announced one headline, “Died at Suffolk Female Institute, Dec. 3d., 1877, little Frank, Miss Mattie’s darling little bird. We will all miss little Frank very much. We will no more be awakened from our slumbers by his sweet singing. He has sung his last song, and left us to mourn his loss.”

Thanks to generous patron Joe Neagle, the Library of Virginia now has four issues of the Casket on microfilm and one original copy. The papers, dating from 1878-1879, were originally collected by his great-grandmother while she attended the school. Mr. Neagle saved the papers and brought them to the Library of Virginia where they were microfilmed by the Virginia Newspaper Project.

December 1879 front page of the Casket, published by the students of the Suffolk Female Institute.The Casket is a rare gem of women’s history and offers insight … read more »

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