The Johnstown Flood by David McCullough

If you like American history, you should love David McCullough. You really should. But it’s not easy. His books are all so heavy. The type is so small. The prose is so dense. The footnotes are so many. I confess that I have never managed to get through any of McCullough’s numerous award-winning presidential biographies.

That’s why I’d recommend you start with his slender-by-comparison debut title. Before McCullough earned his reputation as the country’s premier popular historian his meticulous research supported his storytelling instead of overshadowing it.

The Johnstown Flood takes place during the peak of the Industrial Revolution. Robber barons from Pittsburgh converted an abandoned reservoir into a vacationers’ lakefront paradise. The dam that held the lake gave way after an unusually wet spring in 1889, and the rush of water flattened Johnstown, the working-class steel town downstream, in a matter of minutes.

It’s easy to see how The Johnstown Flood launched McCullough’s career. He expertly manages to create a page-turner even though everybody already knows how the story ends by raising questions we may never otherwise think to ask. Was the flood a straight forward natural disaster or an epic failure of civil engineering? Were the casualties just unlucky victims of capricious Mother Nature or were they killed by callous capitalists who knew but did not care that their sailboat paradise would eventually jeopardize the lives of their workers downstream? And why did legal system ultimately fail to identify those responsible?

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