The Johnstown Flood of 1889 and the American Red Cross

One of the most celebrated early Red Cross relief efforts followed the flood that struck Johnstown, Pennsylvania on the afternoon of May 31, 1889. After days of heavy rain, Lake Conemaugh, a massive man-made body of water formed by blocking up the Conemaugh River in the hills above Johnstown, had swelled to its limits, and the earthen dam surrounding it suddenly gave way. With barely a warning, a churning wave carrying 20 million tons of water and debris rolled down the valley toward Johnstown, burying Main Street and plowing through the far edge of town.[[#_ftn1|[1]]] When the wave subsided, parts of the city lay under 30 feet of water and 2,209 of the area’s 37,000 people were dead or missing.[[#_ftn2|[2]]]

The town, where a population of shopkeepers, independent professionals, schoolmasters, clergymen, and tradesmen made their homes, embodied nineteenth-century middle-class values of thrift, hard work, and religious devotion. While a significant population of workers, including a small minority of Hungarian and other eastern European laborers had recently arrived to operate the nearby ironworks, the town’s population consisted mostly of native-born Americans of English, Irish and German descent. Similar groups formed the audience of the Gilded Age mass newspapers, which would play a key role in publicizing the Johnstown flood and marshaling funds for relief.[[#_ftn3|[3]]]
On rumors of the flood’s destruction, newspapers rushed reporters and photographers to the scene, and competed to produce emotionally wrenching accounts of the disaster. Some photographers even staged death scenes. [[#_ftn4|[4]]] Tourists soon followed the photographers, coming to Johnstown to gawk at the wretched panorama and take home pieces of the town as souvenirs.[[#_ftn5|[5]]] Later, exhibits depicting reenactments of the flood became a staple attraction at amusement parks and World’s Fairs.[[#_ftn6|[6]]]

The American public immediately recognized the flood as anything but an “Act of God”: most newspapers placed the blame squarely on the industrialists who owned the lake and its dam. The lake formed the centerpiece of the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club, an exclusive retreat for Pittsburgh capitalists including Henry Clay Frick and Andrew Carnegie. In the years before the flood, the club’s owners failed to make needed repairs to the dam. A spillway, which would have allowed the lake in high water to run off the side of the dam, had been blocked by a screen and clogged with timber.[[#_ftn7|[7]]] Some Johnstowners had long known that the dam’s condition posed a danger to them, but could do little. Local government remained weak, and the dam was located outside the town boundaries of Johnstown. The only concentrated power in the surrounding area lay with the Cambria Iron Works, which employed 7,000 residents, but the Iron Works’ managers owned a membership in the club. [[#_ftn8|[8]]]
When Barton heard the first reports of the flood, she became determined to rush to Johnstown herself. Gathering supplies from the Red Cross warehouse, and contacting friends and associates to accompany her or help with material donations and supplies, the 67 year-old Red Cross leader and her assistant, Dr. Julian Hubbell, boarded a train that evening. It took them three days to reach the city, Barton wrote to a supporter, but “less than one day after our arrival fifty women and men were at work on these fields—surgeons, nurses, supply people, stenographers, bookkeeper, house to house visitation—and so it has gone on.”[[#_ftn9|[9]]]
As in most other relief operations, the Red Cross did not act alone. By the time Barton’s crew arrived, a group of Johnstowners had organized committees to assume functions of local government and to clean up and repair buildings, as well as providing food, supplies, and employment for the people.[[#_ftn10|[10]]] A Pittsburgh relief committee had raised over $48,000 in 24 hours and had sent a relief train loaded with doctors, food, medical supplies, clothing, coffins, lumber and other donations, to the city. The Children’s Aid Society became involved in reuniting parents with lost children and in keeping track of the orphans. And the Yellow Cross, a voluntary body organized independently of the Red Cross to provide medical and nursing care in yellow fever epidemics, offered its nurses and physicians amid a growing fear the unsanitary conditions of the wreckage would lead to epidemics.[[#_ftn11|[11]]]
With all this competition for relief, what additional help could the American Red Cross offer? Barton and Hubbell surveyed the scene. “[F]ood, the first necessity, was literally pouring in from every available source,” Barton wrote. “But the wherewithal to put and keep clothes upon this denuded city full of people, and something to sleep on at night was a problem; and shelter for them, a present impossibility.”[[#_ftn12|[12]]] So the Red Cross set up a tent to distribute food, clothing, and supplies to the people.[[#_ftn13|[13]]] Additionally, the Philadelphia Red Cross had sent 40 volunteer doctors and nurses to Johnstown. Red Cross workers conducted a “house-to house canvas” to locate sick and injured people in need of medical assistance.[[#_ftn14|[14]]]
The Red Cross filled an important niche in the relief effort by providing emergency aid before permanent relief funds could be distributed. While Americans and others contributed nearly $3 million in relief funds to various ad hoc relief committees following the wave of newspaper publicity, it was not until June 27 that Pennsylvania’s governor organized a Johnstown Flood Relief Commission to decide how to distribute these funds.[[#_ftn15|[15]]] He appointed businessmen and civic leaders to the all-male commission, including two members of the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club. The Commission’s Board of Inquiry then took an additional six weeks to decide how it would distribute the donations provided. It rejected 1,000 applications because the people who filled them out were deemed too wealthy to merit relief, or were suspected of fraud. It provided no formal appeal process.[[#_ftn16|[16]]] Residents could also apply to receive a small prefabricated house, but delivery of these houses became tied up in a patent dispute. They also learned that accepting such a house would mean a deduction from the Flood Relief Commission’s cash award to them.[[#_ftn17|[17]]] The Red Cross in the mean time tried to meet the citizens’ urgent needs on an individualized basis.
In addition to clothing, the Red Cross provided people with household supplies.[[#_ftn18|[18]]] Barton secured donations of mattresses, bedding, sheets, furniture, and utensils from merchants in manufacturing areas and charitable groups.[[#_ftn19|[19]]] Furthermore, she attended to the particular material needs of women. “[O]ur supplies are running short in underclothing for women and children,” she wrote to a Binghamton, New York contributor. “The demand for necessary toilet articles is greatly in excess of the supply—and women’s shoes in the larger sizes are gravely needed. Everything for the comforts of life is acceptable.” In another letter, she thanked Mrs. W.C. Clayson of Syracuse for selecting “the ‘little articles’ most needed” to donate to the Red Cross. “These people are without needle and thread to mend or make another’s dress, [or for] their own use.”[[#_ftn20|[20]]] To distribute these donations, Barton organized the women of Johnstown into a ladies’ relief committee. She later estimated that the committee served more than 20,000 people and supplied three thousand homes with “the essential foundations of a complete household.”[[#_ftn21|[21]]]
This careful effort to restore the “domestic sphere,” in contrast to the businesslike system of financial relief disbursal administered by the men of the Flood Relief Commission, reflected a nineteenth-century Protestant, middle class ideology of gender difference. This ideology, promoted through a plethora of popular sources from advice books, to “sermons, novels, essays, stories, and poems,” was rooted in the belief that women possessed greater capacities for love, sympathy, compassion, and moral virtue than did men, and thus properly occupied the domestic sphere of the home and family, where they could exercise their virtuous and sympathetic natures in caring for members of their household.[[#_ftn22|[22]]] Men were held to possess superior judgment and intellect and inferior virtue, and thus belonged in the rational and corrupt world of business and politics. And yet, as numerous scholars have noted, this notion of “separate spheres” contained a critical contradiction: women’s supposed moral superiority justified their frequent incursion into the public sphere for the purposes of morally improving it. As a result, women’s benevolent societies for moral and social reform proliferated from the 1830s onward.[[#_ftn23|[23]]]
In fact, like other female-run organizations of the mid- to late-nineteenth century, Barton’s Red Cross transformed the public sphere by infusing it with the ‘domestic’ virtues of individualized caring, comfort and compassion. And while other voluntary groups, from poor relief associations to temperance societies, ventured beyond the domestic sphere behind the protective moral shield of ‘benevolence’, Barton possessed an even more refined moral imperative: the feminized, Americanized ideals of humanity and neutrality. These twin ideals enabled Barton to be viewed as within her proper feminine role of moral guardian, even while working in the roughest conditions of death, injury and public disarray.
Nowhere was this transformative effect of organized benevolence more evident than in the way Barton’s Red Cross injected “feminine” value of sensitivity to suffering into medical work. While numerous physicians volunteering at Johnstown had been working to stem an expected outbreak of typhoid and other waterborne diseases, the Red Cross attended to people suffering from the psychological shock of losing their families and houses. In their canvas, Red Cross workers found numerous cases of “nervous prostration in the most aggravated form, and many cases of temporary insanity.” One man had suffered such serious shock that his hair had turned white and fallen out. The Red Cross treated these cases in its medical tents. While the physicians had no way to cure this illness, the attention and care the doctors and nurses provided may have helped these people to regain their bearings.[[#_ftn24|[24]]] This attention may well be the first recorded instance of mental health care in the wake of a disaster.
By July, housing proved the overarching need of the people. Consistent with Barton’s project of restoring the domestic sphere, the Red Cross not only helped build houses but erected a temporary hotel where people could experience the comforts of home before their houses were ready. The wooden two-story barn-like structure, built with donated lumber on a donated church lot, was designed for 25 to 30 families. It featured bathrooms, hot and cold running water, heating, a kitchen, and laundry facilities, as well as a large common area in the center of a long hallway, with a common table where people could meet to eat and socialize.[[#_ftn25|[25]]] “This was the first attempt at social life after that terrible separation,” wrote Barton, indicating that the Red Cross had provided these accommodations to meet the psychological and social needs of the people as well as their physical needs.[[#_ftn26|[26]]]
The Red Cross, however, rejected poorer applicants to its hotels in favor of more prominent members of the professional class. Barton later described the guests it chose as the families of “refined looking gentlemen, who were, before this great misfortune carried away most of their worldly belongings, the wealthiest and most influential citizens.” Because these men had never had to struggle before, Barton reasoned, they would soon become sick and die if they were not properly cared for, whereas the “poorer and more hardy people” could survive until their houses were finished. This class discrimination seems invidious, but it may have had some rationale: The Commission had rejected applications from townspeople that its members deemed too wealthy to receive relief. Reports also surfaced indicating that some of these people, having lost everything, were too proud to apply for aid.
On an ideological level, the Red Cross’ choice of middle-class applicants over poorer ones reflected the class-bound limits of the “separate spheres” construct. This ideology did not just originate in the middle-classes of nineteenth century North: it defined them. A woman who was able to devote her time to the care and moral development of the family rather than manual farm or domestic labor could only do so because her husband possessed sufficient paying employment, from professional or business work outside the home.[[#_ftn27|[27]]] While early and mid-nineteenth century economic development gave birth to such a division of labor among these new “middling sorts”, by the postbellum era, with immigration, rapid industrialization and the creation of the urban “masses,” this ideology only reinforced widening class divisions. “The heirs of antebellum benevolence had strikingly different perspectives and agendas than their predecessors,” writes Lori Ginsburg, “referring less to a mission of moral regeneration and far more to a responsibility to control the poor and ‘vagrant.’”[[#_ftn28|[28]]] As an older woman whose benevolent work traversed this generational divide, by 1889 Barton stood between these agendas. She evinced special sympathy for the middle classes and some suspicion of the poor, but did not possess the hostility or reforming impulses toward the urban poor that so occupied younger charity reformers.
By the time the Red Cross left in late October, Barton had become a local heroine. The adoring farewell she received cannot be attributed only to the amount of relief that the Red Cross provided—about $39,000 in cash donations and $211,000 in supplies—or to its medical care, its feeding and clothing the townspeople, the temporary lodging it had given to at least 100 families, or the household necessities and “comforts” it had distributed to thousands more. Neither can it be attributed solely to the Red Cross’ willingness to stay in Johnstown beyond the crisis stage. While these aspects of the relief operation factored in, it was Barton’s individualized, “feminine” manner of relief that led the ladies of Johnstown to embrace her on the eve of her departure by bringing her into their domestic sphere. “The first to come, the last to go, she has indeed been an elder sister to us—nursing, soothing, tending, caring for the stricken ones through a season of distress such as no other people ever knew,” an editorialist for the Johnstown Daily Tribune wrote that evening.[[#_ftn29|[29]]] While the Red Cross workers had provided their share of hammering, nailing, and supply distribution, the relief effort was thus publicly characterized as a personalized expression of domestic virtue. Due to the publicity accorded Barton’s work at Johnstown, the country would henceforth begin to think of Barton and the Red Cross as a supplier of maternal succor in times of national need.
The fact that the Red Cross operated within the feminine sphere of benevolence, coupled with its ideal of neutrality, meant that it did not have to address the thorny public issue of whom to blame for the dam’s collapse. This task was left to survivors of the flood, who brought several ultimately unsuccessful suits against the South Fork club. Despite numerous assessments by leading engineers that the dam had been rendered structurally unsound by the club’s failure to maintain it, courts generally held that the flood was an Act of God.[[#_ftn30|[30]]] The dam owners did, however, contribute funds to the Flood Relief Commission—the only avenue through which the wronged were compensated. Thus the dam owners could publicly maintain their innocence and bolster their reputations as good citizens.
In the Johnstown relief effort, the Red Cross had hardly adhered to Barton’s interpretation of neutrality, especially with regard to sex. Instead, she and the Red Cross volunteers had acted in accordance with middle-class ideologies of feminine domesticity, engaging the “ladies” of Johnstown in an individualized, caring form of relief work while interacting to a lesser extent with the men of Johnstown. Neither had the Red Cross treated all sufferers equally, displaying a preference for the middle-class over the poorer residents, in keeping with the belief, inherent in this ideology of domesticity, that the refined middle class needed domestic comforts more than the poor. This inequality illustrates the omission in Barton’s interpretation of neutrality; it did not require equal treatment of all classes. Four years later, the Sea Islands relief effort pose an even greater challenge to this idea.

[[#_ftnref1|[1]]] Michael R. McGough, The 1889 Flood in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, Gettysburg, Pa.: Thomas Publications, 2002, p. 60.

[[#_ftnref2|[2]]] Exhibit at Johnstown Flood Museum, Johnstown PA. Visited on September 15, 2006. McGough, p. 68, 163. The town of Johnstown had a population of approximately 28,000 within its official limits, while about 3,000 workers lived on flats between Johnstown and the adjoining valley town of Conemaugh, with a population of about 6,000. The flood did not stop at the city limits, affecting those residents of adjoining towns who lived along the river. Willis Fletcher Johnston, History of the Johnstown Flood, Edgewood Publishing Co., 1889, pp. 15-18.

[[#_ftnref3|[3]]] Henry Wilson Storey, History of Cambria County, New York: Lewis Publishing Co., 1907, pp. 283-289, 400-420. Biographical and Portrait Cyclopedia of Cambria County, Pennsylvania: Comprising about Five Hundred Sketches of the Prominent and Representative Citizens of the County, Philadelphia: Union Publishing Company, 1896. Ted Curtis Smythe, The Gilded Age Press, 1865-1900, Westport, CT: Praeger, 2003, pp. 71-72.

Press Exhibit at Flood Museum. McGough, pp. 136-137, 103.

[[#_ftnref5|[5]]] New York Times, June 7, 1889, quoted in McGough, p. 108.

[[#_ftnref6|[6]]] McGough, p. 137.

[[#_ftnref7|[7]]] The club had bought the lake from the state of Pennsylvania, which had once used it as a reservoir. McGough, pp. 5, 20-21. “The Cause,” Johnstown Tribune, June 14, 1889, quoted in McGough, p. 126.

[[#_ftnref8|[8]]] Ibid, p. 118.
[[#_ftnref9|[9]]] CB LOC Reel 21. Clara Barton, June 24 Letter to Dennis S. McEnerey, Letterbook, “Johnstown June to July 1889.”

[[#_ftnref10|[10]]] McGough, p. 86

[[#_ftnref11|[11]]] “Plague Now Threatens,” Chicago Daily Tribune June 9, 1889, p. 11. McGough, p. 95.
[[#_ftnref12|[12]]] Barton, The Red Cross in Peace and War, Washington, D.C.: American Historical Press, 1899, p. 159.

[[#_ftnref13|[13]]] Ibid. “Clara Barton’s Work,” Milwaukee Daily Journal, June 8, 1889, Col. E.

[[#_ftnref14|[14]]] CB LOC Reel 21, July 1889 “Relief Work in the Conemaugh Valley and its Difficulties.” McGough, p. 96.

[[#_ftnref15|[15]]] McGough, pp. 89-93. “Owners of the Dam Held Culpable,” Chicago Daily Tribune, July 7, 1889, p. 10.

[[#_ftnref16|[16]]] McGough, pp. 92-93; “Owners of the Dam Held Culpable.”
[[#_ftnref17|[17]]] “A Pitiful Picture of Destitution and Shameful Mismanagement,” Chicago Daily Tribune, July 7, 1889, p. 10.

[[#_ftnref18|[18]]] CB LOC Reel 21, Barton, July 4 letter to Ernest Clawson.

[[#_ftnref19|[19]]] Barton, Peace and War, pp. 160-161.

[[#_ftnref20|[20]]] CB LOC Reel 21, Barton to J.D. Whitfield, Jun. 21, 1889. Barton to Mrs. W.C. Clayson, Jun. 26, 1889.

[[#_ftnref21|[21]]] “Miss Barton’s Good Work,” Chicago Daily Inter Ocean, October 25, 1889, issue 215, Col. E.
[[#_ftnref22|[22]]] Nancy F. Cott, The Bonds of Womanhood: Woman’s Sphere in New England, 1780-1835, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1977, 1997, p. 8.

[[#_ftnref23|[23]]] Cott, The Bonds of Womanhood, pp. 5-10, 160-162. Barbara Welter, “The Cult of True Womanhood: 1820-1860,” American Quarterly, Vol. 18, No. 2, Part 1 (Summer 1966), p.152. Lori D. Ginzburg, Women and the Work of Benevolence: Morality, Politics and Class in the Nineteenth-Century United States, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1990, pp. 12-16. Also see Frances B. Cogan, All American Girl: The Ideal of Real Womanhood in Mid-Nineteenth Century America: Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1989. This is not to imply that a static gender ideology spanned the entire nineteenth-century in America. Ideals of passive, dependent fragile femininity contended with those promoting strong self-reliance, and the events such as the Civil War and Industrialization led to changes in earlier notions of domesticity. Yet, the belief in women’s moral superiority, heightened emotional sensitivity, and special benevolent role did persist through the beginning of the twentieth century, underpinning a variety of movements from Temperance to suffrage and child-saving campaigns.

[[#_ftnref24|[24]]] “Clara Barton’s Work,” New York Times, June 7, 1889, p. 1.
[[#_ftnref25|[25]]] CB LOC Reel 21, Barton Letter July 12 to Rock Island Lumber Co.

[[#_ftnref26|[26]]] Barton, Peace and War, p. 162.
[[#_ftnref27|[27]]] Cott, “Preface to the Second Edition,” The Bonds of Womanhood, pp. xvi – xx.

[[#_ftnref28|[28]]] Ginzberg, Women and the Work of Benevolence, p. 5.
[[#_ftnref29|[29]]] Barton, Peace and War, pp. 169-170.
[[#_ftnref30|[30]]] McGough, pp. 134-135.