A Story of the Red Cross

by Clara Barton

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Chapter IV: The Johnstown Flood

Chapter IV: The Johnstown Flood from A Story of the Red Cross

On Sunday afternoon, May 31, 1889, with the waters of the Potomac two feet deep on Pennsylvania Avenue, a half dozen of us left Washington for Johnstown, over washed-out ties and broken tracks, with every little gully swollen to a raging torrent. After forty-eight hours of this, we reached the scene, which no one need or could describe, but if ever a people needed help it was these.

Scarcely a house standing that was safe to enter, the wrecks piled in rubbish thirty feet in height, four thousand dead in the river beds, twenty thousand foodless but for Pittsburg bread rations, and a cold rain which continued unbroken by sunshine for forty days.

It was at the moment of supreme affliction when we arrived at Johnstown. The waters had subsided, and those of the inhabitants who had escaped the fate of their fellows were gazing over the scene of destruction and trying to arouse themselves from the lethargy that had taken hold of them when they were stunned by the realization of all the woe that had been visited upon them. How nobly they responded to the call of duty! How much of the heroic there is in our people when it is needed! No idle murmurings of fate, but true to the god-like instincts of manhood and fraternal love, they quickly banded together to do the best that the wisest among them could suggest.

For five weary months it was our portion to live amid the scenes of destruction, desolation, poverty, want and woe; sometimes in tents, sometimes without; and so much rain and mud, and such a lack of the commonest comforts for a time, until we could build houses to shelter ourselves and those around us. Without a safe and with a dry-goods box for a desk, we conducted financial affairs in money and material to the extent of nearly half a million dollars.

I shall never lose the memory of my first walk on the first day—the wading in mud, the climbing over broken engines, cars, heaps of iron rollers, broken timbers, wrecks of houses; bent railway tracks tangled with piles of iron wire; bands of workmen, squads of military, and getting around the bodies of dead animals, and often people being borne away; the smouldering fires and drizzling rain—all for the purpose of officially announcing to the commanding general (for the place was under martial law) that the Red Cross had arrived in the field. I could not have puzzled General Hastings more if I had addressed him in Chinese; and if ours had been truly an Oriental mission, the gallant soldier could not have been more courteous and kind. He immediately set about devising means for making as comfortable as possible a "poor, lone woman," helpless, of course, upon such a field. It was with considerable difficulty that I could convince him that the Red Cross had a way of taking care of itself at least, and was not likely to suffer from neglect.

Not a business house or bank left, the safes all in the bottom of the river; our little pocketbook was useless, there was nothing to buy, and it would not bring back the dead. With the shelter of the tents of the Philadelphia Red Cross, that joined us en route with supplies, when we could find a cleared place to spread, or soil to hold them, with a dry-goods box for a desk, our stenographer commenced to rescue the first dispatches of any description that entered that desolate city. The disturbed rivers lapped wearily back and forth, the people, dazed and dumb, dug in the muddy banks for their dead. Hastings with his little army of militia kept order.

Soon supplies commenced to pour in from everywhere, to be received, sheltered as best they could be from the incessant rain, and distributed by human hands, for it was three weeks before even a cart could pass the streets.

But I am not here to describe Johnstown—the noble help that came to it, nor the still more noble people that received it—but simply to say that the little untried and unskilled Red Cross played its minor tune of a single fife among the grand chorus of relief of the whole country, that rose like an anthem, till over four millions in money, contributed to its main body of relief, with the faithful Kreamer at its head, had modestly taken the place of the twelve millions destroyed. But after all it was largely the supplies that saved the people at first, as it always is, and the distribution of which largely consumed the money that was contributed later.

From one mammoth tent which served as a warehouse, food and clothing were given out to the waiting people through the hands of such volunteer agents, both women and men, as I scarcely dare hope to ever see gathered together in one work again. The great cry which had gone out had aroused the entire country, and our old-time helpers, full of rich experience and still richer love for the work, faithful to the cross of humanity as the devotee to the cross of the Master, came up from every point—the floods, the cyclones, the battle-fields—and kneeling before the shrine, pledged heart and service anew to the work. Fair hands laying aside their diamonds, and business men their cares, left homes of elegance and luxury to open rough boxes and barrels, handle second-hand clothing, eat coarse food at rough-board tables, sleep on cots under a dripping canvas tent, all for the love of humanity symbolized in the little flag that floated above them.

Clergymen left their pulpits and laymen their charge to tramp over the hillsides from house to house, to find who needed and suffered, and to carry to them from our tents on their shoulders, like beasts of burden, the huge bundles of relief, where no beast of burden could reach.

We had been early requested by official resolution of the Finance Committee of the City of Johnstown to aid them in the erection of houses. We accepted the invitation, and at the same time proposed to aid in furnishing the nucleus of a household for the home which should in any way be made up. This aid seemed imperative, as nothing was left for them to commence living with, neither beds, chairs, tables, nor cooking utensils of any kind; and there were few if any stores open, and no furniture in town.

Of this labor we had our share. Six buildings of one hundred feet by fifty, later known as "Red Cross Hotels," were quickly put up to shelter the people, furnished, supplied, and kept like hotels, free of all cost to them, while others were built by the general committee. Three thousand of the latter were erected, and the Red Cross furnished every one with substantial, newly purchased furniture, ready for occupancy. The books of the "Titusville Manufacturing Company" will show one cash order of ten thousand dollars for furniture. The three thousand houses thus furnished each accommodated two families.

A ponderous book of nearly two feet square shows the name, sex, and number of persons of each family, and a list of every article received by them. To-day one looks in wonder at such a display of clerical labor and accuracy, under even favorable conditions.

This was only accomplished by the hard, unpaid labor of every officer, and the large amount of volunteer friendly aid that came to us.

The great manufacturers of the country, and the heavy contributing agents, on learning our intentions, sent, without a hint from us, many of their articles, as, for instance, New Bedford, Mass., sent mattresses and bedding; Sheboygan, Wis., sent furniture and enameled ironware; Titusville, Pa., with a population of ten thousand, sent ten thousand dollars' worth of its well-made bedsteads, springs, extension-tables, chairs, stands and rockers; and the well-known New York newspaper, The Mail and Express, sent a large lot of ]mattresses, feather pillows, bedclothing, sheets, and pillow-slips by the thousand and cooking utensils by the ten thousands. Six large teams were in constant service delivering these goods.

When the contributions slackened or ceased, and more material was needed, we purchased of the same firms which had contributed, keeping our stock good until all applications were filled. The record on our books showed that over twenty-five thousand persons had been directly served by us. They had received our help independently and without begging. No child has learned to beg at the doors of the Red Cross.

It is to be borne in mind that the fury of the deluge had swept almost entirely the homes of the wealthy, the elegant, the cultured leaders of society, and the fathers of the town. This class who were spared were more painfully homeless than the indigent poor, who could still huddle in together. They could not go away, for the suffering and demoralized town needed their care and oversight more than ever before. There was no home for them, nowhere to get a meal of food or to sleep. Still they must work on, and the stranger coming to town on business must go unfed, with no shelter at night, if he would sleep, or, indeed, escape being picked up by the military guard.

To meet these necessities, and being apprehensive that some good lives might go out under the existing luck of accommodations, it was decided to erect a building similar to our warehouse. The use of the former site of the Episcopal Church was generously tendered us by the Bishop early in June, for any purpose we might desire. This house, which was soon erected, was known as the "Locust Street Red Cross Hotel"; it stood some fifty rods from our warehouse, and was fifty by one hundred and sixteen feet in dimensions, two stories in height, with lantern roof, built of hemlock, single siding, papered inside with heavy building paper, and heated by natural gas, as all our buildings were. It consisted of thirty-four rooms, besides kitchen, laundry, bath-rooms with hot and cold water, and one main dining-hall and sitting-room through the center, sixteen feet in width by one hundred in length.

It was fully furnished with excellent beds, bedding, bureaus, tables, chairs, and all needful housekeeping furniture. A competent landlady, who, like the rest, had a few weeks before floated down over the same ground on the roof of her house in thirty feet of water, was placed in charge, with instructions to keep a good house, make what she could rent free, but charging no Johnstown person over twenty-five cents for a meal of food.

This was the first attempt at social life after that terrible separation, and its success was something that I am very proud of. The house was full of townspeople from the first day, and strangers no longer looked in vain for accommodations.

The conception of the need of this house, and the method of selecting its inmates, and the manner of inducting them into their new home, were somewhat unique and may be of interest to the reader. I had noticed among the brave and true men, who were working in the mud and rain, many refined-looking gentlemen, who were, before this great misfortune carried away most of their belongings, the wealthiest and most influential citizens. Never having had to struggle amid such hardships and deprivations, their sufferings were more acute than those of the poorer and more hardy people; and it did not require any great foresight to know that they were physically incapable of such labor if prolonged, nor to predict their early sickness and death if they were not properly housed and fed. As the salvation of the town depended in a great measure upon the efforts of these men, it was vitally necessary that their lives should be preserved. Realizing all this, it occurred to us that the most important thing to do, next to feeding the hungry, was to provide proper shelter for these delicate men and their families. The idea once conceived was soon communicated to my staff, and, after due consideration, it was put in the way of realization.

On the afternoon of July 27th hundreds of citizens called on us, and congratulations and good wishes were the order of the day. As the members of each family whom we had selected to occupy apartments in the house arrived, they were quietly taken aside and requested to remain and have dinner with us. After all the guests were departed except those who had been requested to remain, dinner was announced, and the party was seated by the members of the Red Cross. Beside the plate of each head of a family were laid the keys to an apartment, with a card inviting the family to take possession at once, and remain as long as they chose.

I can not describe the scene that followed; there were tears and broken voices; suffice to say, the members of that household were made happy and comfortable for many long months; and I venture to assert that those now living recall those days with the fondest recollections.

The contributions to the general committee had been so liberal that it was possible to erect and provide for the great burial-place of its dead—"Grand View," that overlooks the city. It was also suggested that a benevolent society, as a permanent institution, be formed by the united action of the general committee and the Red Cross. This was successfully accomplished by the generous provision of eight thousand dollars from the committee on its part and the turning over of our well-made and supplied hospital buildings, and the funds we had left placed in charge of a faithful custodian under our pay for the following six months.

This is the present "Union Benevolent Society" of Johnstown to-day.

I remained five months with these people without once visiting my own home, only returning to it when the frost had killed the green I had left in May.

In that time, it was estimated, we had housed, handled, and distributed $211,000 worth of supplies—new and old—for, by request of the weary chairman of the general committee, at the last, we took up the close of its distribution. It is our joy and pride to recall how closely we worked in connection with that honored committee from first to last, and how strong and unsullied that friendship has remained.

The value of money that passed through our hands was $39,000, as stated in the official report of the general committee, to which all required returns were made, recorded, and published by the committee.

Our usual quota of assistants was fifty persons, the higher grade of men and women assistants largely volunteers. Two railroads brought our supplies. To handle these the strongest men were required, and seven two-horse teams ran daily for three and a half months in the distribution, at customary rates of pay. These were the workingmen of the town who had suffered with the rest.

It was a joy that in all the uncertainties of that uncertain field not a single complaint ever reached us of the non-acknowledgment of a dollar entrusted to us.

The paths of charity are over roadways of ashes; and he who would tread them must be prepared to meet opposition, misconstruction, jealousy, and calumny. Let his work be that of angels—still it will not satisfy all.

In the light of recent events, I may perhaps be pardoned for quoting a few lines from the official report of the Johnstown Flood Finance Committee appointed by Governor Beaver, as showing how these gentlemen, the foremost men in the community, regarded our efforts to give them a helping hand:

"In this matter of sheltering the people, as in others of like importance, Miss Clara Barton, President of the Red Cross Association, was most helpful. At a time when there was a doubt if the Flood Commission could furnish houses of suitable character and with the requisite promptness, she offered to assume charge, and she erected with the funds of the Association three large apartment houses, which afforded comfortable lodgings for many houseless people. She was among the first to arrive on the scene of calamity, bringing with her Dr. Hubbell, the Field Officer of the Red Cross Association, and a staff of skilled assistants. She made her own organization for relief work in every form, disposing of the large resources under her control with such wisdom and tenderness that the charity of the Red Cross had no sting, and its recipients are not Miss Barton's dependents, but her friends. She was also the last of the ministering spirits to leave the scene of her labors, and she left her apartment houses for use during the winter, and turned over her warehouse with its store of furniture, bedding, and clothing, and a well-equipped infirmary, to the Union Benevolent Association of the Conemaugh Valley, the organization of which she advised and helped to form; and its lady visitors have so well performed their work that the dreaded winter has no terrors, mendicancy has been repressed, and not a single case of unrelieved suffering is known to have occurred in all the flooded district."

Enterprising, industrious, and hopeful, the new Johnstown, ph[oe]nix-like, rose from its ruins more beautiful than the old, with a ceaseless throb of grateful memory for every kind act rendered, and every thought of sympathy given her in her great hour of desolation and woe. God bless her, and God bless all who helped save her!


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