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Chapter V. The Lessons Johnstown Taught

Our mill was completed and ready for occupancy when the Johnstown flood occurred, May 31, 1889, and in an hour wrought such havoc as no imagination can picture, havoc which must be seen to be believed possible. The property losses of our firm were very small for though our old plant was in the path of the flood and was swept away, it had been practically abandoned, much of the machinery and stock having been removed to the new mill.

We had built a steam railroad which ran from Moxham into Johnstown and for some time had been trying to get possession of the city’s street railways too. It was not until after the flood, however, and in consequence of the general demoralization of that business along with all other activities, that the owners were willing to sell. Then they were only too glad to get rid of the property, and they may have had small regard for the business sagacity of anyone who would buy a railroad when cars, shops and tracks had been washed away, and when what was left of the latter was covered by a seemingly hopeless mass of debris.

We made no money out of the strap-hangers or other passengers in the first days of operating in Johnstown for the street cars like our steam railroad ran free. So with the groceries, meat markets and other shops. I wasn’t a case of “After us the deluge,” but ” the deluge after us,” and “us” was everybody who had anything the community could use. There wasn’t much talk about the sacred rights of property around Johnstown just then as I remember it.

When the first shock of the disaster was over the dazed people realized that there was not responsible head to which they could look for relief, guidance or protection, for that little city was made up of eleven boroughs, each with its own set of councilmen, its burgess and its miniature city government. In times of comparative peace there was no getting together of these powers because of petty jealousies, continual bickerings and contested rights. The hopelessness of expecting anything from this quarter now was perfectly apparent to all. So a public mass meeting was called, at which it was decided to elect a Dictator – one in whom all powers, legislative and executive, should be vested. The choice fell upon Mr. Moxham, and a most fortunate choice it was, for so wisely did he administer the affairs of that afflicted community that his authority was never once questioned.

Think of being called upon to feed, clothe and house a destitute and panic stricken population of thousands, to search out and care for the bodies of unnumbered dead, to clear away the wreckage of a razed city, and withal to maintain order, insure public safety and provide against further calamity. This was the task which faced Johnstown’s elected dictator, himself a British subject, not an American citizen. Here was indeed “work that called for a man,” and I shall never cease to be proud of the splendid way in which Mr. Moxham responded to that call.

The first thing he did was to assign a duty to every man available for work of any kind.

It was but natural that he should look to the leading citizens, the men who stood high in business circles, those who were prominent in the churches and in the social life of the community for the most intelligent and spontaneous cooperation, but these failed so utterly to meet the emergency that their defection was a matter of general comment. They ran away from responsibility.

But if the calamity brought out the weakest and worst elements of character in this class, it had quite the opposite effect on those in the humbler walks of life. The men who were accustomed to work with their hands were not found wanting. All that was big and brace and strong and good in their characters came uppermost. And in that crisis when native worth -not artificial attributes -was the test of patriotism, or citizenship, or brotherhood, or whatever name you choose to call it by, the positions of the two classes of society in Johnstown were reserved.

One man who stood out like a giant was Bill Jones, known to the world because of his association with the early development of Andrew Carnegie’s enterprises, but deserving to be known for his own sterling worth. He had been connected with the Cambria Iron Company at one time and directly after the flood he came on from Pittsburgh with a great body of men, extensive camp equipment and tools of various kinds and went to work. In his rough and ready way he got right at the essential things and brought the kind of relief that money couldn’t buy.

One day when he and I were going through the devastated district on horseback, a man so begrimed with dirt as to be unrecognizable hailed him with a hearty, “Hello Bill!” Jones dismounted to exchange greetings with his unknown friend and said, “You’ll have to tell me who you are.” The man answered, “I’m Pat Lavell,” and then they embraced like two brothers.

There was a pause, for Bill Jones was hesitating before putting that hardest of all questions: “How did it go with you?” – the question so apt to bring a story of unthinkable disaster in reply.

“Lost everything,” answered Lavell, “my home, my savings-everything; but,” and in spite of the grime his face lighted up with the brightest look I ever saw, “I’m the happiest man in Johnstown, for my family’s all right.”

They say at some of the fine London hotels that Bill Jones didn’t cut much of a figure when he visited the English metropolis. When I hear this I like to call up in my mind the image of Bill at Johnstown, and I wish I could make everybody else see the picture of that man triumphant. I cherish the memory of my acquaintance with Bill Jones as one of the great privileges of my life.

Somehow the value and importance of “leading citizens” to a community have never impressed me much since then.

I reached Johnstown from Cleveland the day after the flood, arriving just a few hours after Mr. du Pont, who had come on from Cincinnati, where he happened to be when the news of the disaster reached him. We were both immensely relieved to find our partner, Mr. Moxham, all right. We three men were all smokers, but it had not occurred to Mr. du Pont or to me to bring an extra large supply of cigars, for even if we had been thinking of our own comfort, which we were not, we did not know that it was impossible to get tobacco in Johnstown, nor had we anticipated the difficulties in getting supplies of any kind from Pittsburgh or any other place in the outside world.

Mr. Moxham and I got together early and took account of stock and hit upon a plant which would prevent the tobacco famine from affecting Mr. du Pont for several days at least. We planned that when we go together each morning, preparatory to separating and going about our respective work for the day, that one of use would say, “Well, how many cigars have we among us?” Mr. Moxham and I would produce ours, being careful not to let Mr. du Pont know that we had no large reserve supply in our rooms; he would of course produce his and then we would divide them equally among us. Arthur and I would put ours into our pockets, remarking casually that we didn’t care to smoke then but would do so later. The plan worked all right. Mr. du Pont, all unsuspecting, smoked his cigars and never knew that we carried ours around in our pockets and added them to the common store the next morning. It was the greatest source of comfort to both of us that our elder partner did not have to be deprived of his cigars, but we never dared tell him of the deception we practiced upon him, for while we considered it a good joke and enjoyed it hugely we knew he wouldn’t have forgiven it.

The work delegated to me was the removal of the bodies of the victims of the disaster. No words can describe the horror and reluctance with which I approached this gruesome task. The sight of the first few bodies recovered moved me to tears. But before we had gone far I had lost all feeling of shrinking or even of sadness and went about it in a seemingly heartless manner, It was the stress of the cruel situation, the absolute necessity for getting the awful work done which made this possible.

The natural buoyancy of my nature soon asserted itself and as there was nothing else out of which any fun could be had, I “made fun” of the free operation of our street cars, which continued for some sixty or ninety days. I told my partners that this method of operating was the most perfect device I ever had encountered for getting rid of evils arising from the collection of fares. I insisted that it could not be improved upon; that it did away with all possibility of dishonesty or carelessness on the part of the conductors and the general public; in fact, that it was a cure-all. They retorted that they preferred the disease, even in its most virulent form to so drastic a remedy.

Whether my hope of some day seeing the people riding on free street cars had its birth before this time or was due to the Johnstown object lesson I cannot say. But certain it is that that experience convinced me that free cars were not only possible but practicable. When I seriously advocated them some years later the objection I met oftenest was that people would spend all their time riding. Even if I had not been able to refute this by citing Johnstown where nothing of the kind happened, I should still have answered that people would no more ride aimlessly hour after hour on free cars than they now ride aimlessly on free elevators.

Have you ever really thought what free cars would mean?

Wouldn’t the greatest advantage be the removal of franchises which are to-day the prizes that Big Business strives for, bribes for, and even corrupts whole communities to acquire?

Did you ever hear of anybody trying to get a fire department franchise?

How would free car service be paid for? How is free elevator service paid for? The owners of buildings provide it without pay? Oh, no, they don’t. In apartment houses the tenants pay for elevator service in their rent. And in office buildings the tenants seem to do the same thing, but they don’t really. You and I pay for the elevator service. It is charged to us in the bills rendered by our doctors, our lawyers, our plumbers, our dressmakers, our tailors, our milliners, our contractors, albeit it isn’t separately itemized.

Well, wouldn’t you rather pay it that way than to fish in your pocket for a nickel or three cents or a penny every time you enter an elevator? I would.

Free street car rides would be paid for in the same way, –not by some public benefactor, some mysterious agency which gives something for nothing -but by the car riders themselves. And they would find the item in their rent receipts.

To meet the problem of a community with no money was not easy, but we were presently confronted with the graver problem of a community with too much money. The greatly exaggerated reports of the loss of property and of human lives, the first press dispatches placing the number of the latter at ten thousand, brought a correspondingly great volume of relief.

That curious inconsistency which make human nature quite complacent in contemplating the annual slaughter of infants in our great cities, the physical, mental and moral crimes involved in the employment of little children in industry, the menace to the race in over-working and underpaying women, and the terrible social consequences of forced unemployment of great numbers of men, but which moves it to frantic expressions of sympathy by the news of an earthquake, a fire or a kidnapping, caused the American people to empty their purses and their children’s savings banks for the benefit of Johnstown.

When it was known that three millions of dollars had been sent in, the town quit work and it seems as if every inhabitant was bent upon getting a share of the cash.

The hungry were fed, the naked clothed, the homeless housed, widows pensioned; charitable acts, every one, and made possible by a generous charity fund. But these expenditures didn’t exhaust it. They hardly made an impression on it.

Roads were repaired, bridges rebuilt, the river widened, cemeteries laid out, monuments erected, hospitals established; public work every bit of it with no legitimate claim on the charity fund. But still there was money left!

Three million dollars doesn’t sound like much when you say it, so familiar have we become with figures which represent the fortunes of the one hundred men whom Senator LaFollette named by name for the enlightenment of his professedly skeptical colleagues, but when you take three million dollars and go out to buy things with it, real material things, it turns out to be a very great deal of money.

When we had managed to use perhaps a million of the fund a meeting was called to decide what should be done with the rest of it. The situation was extremely serious. The flood of gold threatened as great disaster, though of a difference nature, as the flood of water had caused. The residents couldn’t be induced to work and workmen had to be brought in from the outside, thus further taxing the capacity of the already overcrowded houses.

The Governor of the State, James A . Beaver, frightened us by counseling delay and investigation of individual cases. Others urged indemnification for losses. This was clearly as improper a use for a charity fund, a fund given to relieve actual suffering and immediate distress, as the public work had been.

Surely no body of men assembled in conference was ever faced by a more unique situation. At this meeting I shocked everybody by advising that the money be converted into silver dollars, since it could not be returned to the donors, loaded into wagons, hauled out and dumped into the streets where the people might literally scramble for it. It was now absolutely certain that nothing could be done until we got rid of it, and this plan had the merit of speed to recommend it anyhow, and I wasn’t at all sure that it wouldn’t result in about as full a measure of justice as any plan that could be devised after protracted investigation. Mr. Moxham and I were for any plan that was quick.

In the end the committee reimbursed losers, giving each a certain percentage of estimated losses. Before the people were completely demoralized the money was all given away or appropriated, and then the town went to work, went back to the sober pursuit of every-day affairs, and life assumed a normal aspect once more.

Lest some reader of the foregoing paragraphs think I condemn the motives which prompt charity let me disclaim that! It is not generous impulses, not charity itself, to which I object. What I do deplore is the short-sightedness which keeps us forever tinkering at a defective spigot when the bung-hole is wide open. If we were wise enough to seek and find the causes that call for charity there would be some hope for us.

In Johnstown it was a defective dam used for the recreation of the well-to-do. A great reservoir of water in which fish were kept to be fished for by the privileged members of the South Fork Hunting and Fishing Club of Pittsburgh. This property, comprising some five hundred acres, had been acquired by purchase. Originally a part of the State canal system it had passed into the hands of the Pennsylvania Railroad Company when the latter purchased the canal in 1857-58, and became private property in 1875 when Congressman John Reilly bought it. He later offered it for sale at two thousand dollars, when it was purchased by the originator of the Club above mentioned and two other Pittsburgh gentlemen.

It was suspected that the dam wasn’t safe. I myself had gone to look at it one day the summer before it broke and had speculated on what might happen to us in the little city eight miles down the valley in case the dam should give way. The innocent cause of the catastrophe when at last it did come was some leaves which clogged the spill-way. Citizens living in the vicinity wanted to remove the wire grating which held the leaves back and caused the water to go over the breast of the dam, but were refused permission to do so, refused, forsooth, because some of the privately-owned fishes swimming around in the privately-controlled pool might escape-might be swept over the confines of their aristocratic dwelling and eventually be caught with a bent pin attached to a cane pole, instead of being hauled out of the sacred waters, in which they had been spawned, by that work of art know as a high class rod and reel equipped with a silk line and a many-hued artificial fly.

Yes, the Johnstown flood was caused by Special Privilege, and it is not less true that Special Privilege makes charity apparently necessary than it is that “crime and punishment grow on one stem!” It is cupidity which creates unjust social conditions sometimes for mere pleasure-as in this case-but generally for profit. The need of charity is almost always the result of the evils produced by man’s greed.

What did charity do for Johnstown? It was powerless to restore children to parents, to reunite families, to mitigate mourning, to heal broken hearts, to bring back lost lives. It had to be diverted to uses for which it was not intended. As charity it has to be eliminated, as we have seen, before the people could save themselves.

Materially Johnstown was benefited by the flood, just as so many other communities have been by similar catastrophes. And material prosperity seems so important that we have acquired a habit of saying, “Oh, the fire was a good thing for Chicago or London,” “The flood was a good thing for Johnstown,” etc., etc. But is it not true that when human lives are lost the price paid for material benefits is one that can’t be counted? We must leave this out of the reckoning then when we say that the flood was a good thing for Johnstown.

The town went forward as one united people now no longer divided by separate borough governments, and on the wreckage of the former city built up a great manufacturing community which to-day numbers more than fifty thousand souls.

It was a marvelous thing to witness such utter destruction and in so short a time such complete reconstruction, and the spectacle made a profound impression upon me. When I became mayor of Cleveland twelve years later I was faced by problems of a different character, but problems due to the same root cause from which Johnstown’s difficulties came. And many, many times when these problems seemed hopelessly entangled I reasoned with myself that there must be a way out, since in Johnstown under apparently greater disadvantages we have always found a way.

In Cleveland we made progress by slow and painful degrees. No complete picture presented itself here as in Johnstown, but, leaving out the element of time, the cases were, to my mind, so similar as almost to parallel each other.

The problems which had to be met in Johnstown and which are being met in Cleveland have their counterparts in all other communities, and sooner or later will present themselves for solution. Just as surely as we meet these problems with remedial measures only, with charitable acts and time-serving expedients,–just so surely will great catastrophes in some form or other overtake us.

If we seek out and remove the social wrong which is at the bottom of every social problem, the problem will vanish. Nothing could be simpler. If, on the other hand, the cause is not eradicated the problem will persist, multiply itself and all the evils that go with it, until one day that particular catastrophe which goes under the dreadful name -revolution-occurs.

It was at our Johnstown plant during the panic of the early nineties that we hit upon a device for supplying the shortage of currency which had since been so widely used in times of similar stress. There were plenty of orders for our product -street railroad rails -but the buyers couldn’t pay cash. We called our employees together and explained the situation to them. We told them we were unable to command enough currency to pay the full amount of their wages, but that if they were willing to accept a small percentage in cash and the remainder in certificates that we should be able to continue to operate the mill; if they could not agree to such an arrangement we should have to shut down.

The law specifically prohibited the payment of wages in anything but money -a provision intended to protect working men from exploitation by ” the company store,” an institution we never had in connection with any of our industries. To avoid violating the law therefore we should have to hand over to each employee his full pay in currency with the understanding that he was to present himself immediately at another window in the office and buy an agreed upon percentage of certificates.

We were selling rails for such cash payments as we could get and accepting the purchasers’ bonds for the remainder. We were proposing to do for our men just what our customers were doing for us. The bonds were to be held by a joint committee of company representatives and working men and against these bonds the certificates were issued. Our employes decided to accept our proposition, and our cooperative enterprise, for that is what it was, proved entirely satisfactory. The certificates passed at nearly par and we experienced no serious legal embarrassment, nor was there any misunderstanding of our motives.


In a way these certificates corresponded to clearing house certificates, at that time forbidden by law, but since partially legalized -which is to say that certain national banks now have legal authority to issue clearing house certificates. It’s curious that what is right and lawful for some banks is wrong and unlawful for others. But necessity knows a law that isn’t written on statute books and will continue to force the use of clearing house certificates or similar expedients from time to time until we are wise enough to arrange our money-issuing machinery with a view to taking care of business in hard times as well as in good times.*




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