A locomotive whistle was a matter of some personal importance to a railroad engineer. It was tuned and worked (even “played”) according to his own particular choosing. The whistle was part of the make-up of the man; he was known for it as much as he was known for the engine he drove. And aside from its utilitarian functions, it could also be an instrument of no little amusement. Many an engineer could get a simple tune out of his whistle, and for those less musical it could be used to aggravate a cranky preacher in the middle of his Sunday sermon or to signal hello through the night to a wife or lady friend. But there was no horseplay about tying down the chord. A locomotive whistle going without letup meant one thing on the railroad. It meant there was something very wrong.

The whistle of John Hess’s engine had been going now for maybe five minutes at most. It was not on long but it was the only warning anyone was to hear and nearly everyone in East Conemaugh heard it and understood instantly what it meant.

-David McCullough, The Johnstown Flood

The aftermath of the Johnstown flood of 1889 © the Johnstown Area Heritage Association
The aftermath of the Johnstown flood of 1889 © the Johnstown Area Heritage Association

He saw the whole Mussante family sailing by on what appeared to be a barn door. Mussante was a fruit dealer on Washington Street, a small, dark Italian with a dropping mustache, who had been in Johnstown now perhaps three years. He had had a pushcart at first, then opened the little place not far from the Heiser store. Victor knew him well and his wife and two children. Now there they were speeding by with a Saratoga trunk open beside them, and every one of them busy packing things into it. And then a mass of wreckage heaved up out of the water and crushed them.

But he had no time to think more about them or anything else. He was heading for a mound of wreckage lodged between the Methodist Church and a three-story brick building on the other side of where Locust Street had been. The next thing he knew he was part of the jam. His roof had catapulted in amongst it, and there, as trees and beams shot up on one side or crashed down on the other, he went leaping back and forth, ducking and dodging, trying desperately to keep his footing, while more and more debris kept booming into the jam.

-David McCullough, The Johnstown Flood

Main Street, Johnstown, after the flood. Andrews, E. Benjamin, History of the United States

Main Street, Johnstown, after the flood. Andrews, E. Benjamin, History of the United States

Weak and shivering with cold, she lay down on the mattress, realizing for the first time that all her clothes had been torn off except for her underwear. Night was coming on and she was terribly frightened. She started praying in German, which was the only way she had been taught to pray.

A small white house went sailing by, almost running her down. She called out to the one man who was riding on top, straddling the peak of the roof and hugging the chimney with both arms. But he ignored her, or perhaps never heard her, and passed right by.

‘You terrible man,’ she shouted after him. ‘I’ll never help you.’

-David McCullough, The Johnstown Flood

"The Debris above the Pennsylvania Railroad Bridge" from "History of the Johnstown Flood", by Willis Fletcher Johnson, 1889

"The Debris above the Pennsylvania Railroad Bridge" from "History of the Johnstown Flood", by Willis Fletcher Johnson, 1889

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