Friday, March 28, 2014

Searching for Mary Hurst in the path of the flood

Nearly a decade ago, when I was just beginning my research, I consulted a variety of secondary sources and harvested them for information about the history of public libraries. I painstakingly borrowed nearly every title listed in a bibliography published by the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission. I also found Donald G. Davis' and Mark Tucker's American Library History: A Comprehensive Guide to the Literature (Santa Barbara: ABC-Clio, 1987) and tracked down each publication relating to Pennsylvania. I did the same with the Library History Round Table's Bibliographies of Library History. Those indexes led me to the Dictionary of American Library Biography and its supplements, which I scoured for Pennsylvania librarians, as well as books like Theodore Jones' Carnegie Libraries Across America: A Public Legacy (New York: Wiley, 1997) and Robert S. Martin's Carnegie Denied: Communities Rejecting Carnegie Library Construction Grants (New York: Praeger, 1993). Then I tapped Dissertation Abstracts, the State Library of Pennsylvania catalog, WorldCat, and a slew of history and library science journal databases. Whenever I found anything relevant, I photocopied the information and filed it. Within a year I amassed a cabinet of hanging files for each of Pennsylvania's 67 counties. Within them are folders documenting hundreds of libraries. Before I leave for any research trip, I grab the relevant file, review the secondary sources inside, and jot down keywords and research questions to guide my investigation.

Four weeks ago, I pulled my file for Cambria county in anticipation of a research trip to western Pennsylvania. Johnstown's folder was very thin. Inside was a copy from Jones' Carnegie book, which briefly described the Cambria Library. He stated that the 1889 Johnstown Flood "swept away" the first library, as well as the librarian, Mrs. Mary Hurst, "who was at her desk at the time" (pg. 10). No source for this information was noted.

Among my preparatory research notes for Johnstown, I scrawled in bold, red letters: "CONFIRM LIBRARIAN FLOOD DEATH."

In the larger scheme of things --  a statewide project describing the history of libraries from colonial times through the 1940s -- the obituary of one person is only a sidelight. But the journalist in me was intrigued by the story's potential. I sometimes imagined a dutiful, stoic woman, continuing to circulate books despite warnings of the impending deluge. Other times, I pictured a passionate lover of books, frantically carrying valuable reference volumes to the building's upper stories to save them from rising water. In other instances, I thought of the horror on her face at the second when tons of debris and muddy water smashed into the library.

A gap in library records from late May through late November 1889 is silent testimony to the chaos that the community experienced that summer and fall. Yet there appears to be little doubt that Hurst perished. An 1890 list of victims states that the body of a missing "Minnie" Hurst was "never recovered" (perhaps leaving some hope?), but the May 5, 1890 board of trustees meeting minutes confirm that "Mrs. Hurst" was lost during the tragedy. Unfortunately, the board records contain no eulogy, memorial resolution, or other information about her last days. I know that she was hired at the end of 1880 at the rate of $40 per month. Although this "arrangement" was only intended to be "temporary," subsequent minutes and city directories show that she probably remained in her position throughout the 1880s until her death (see board of trustee meeting minutes, December 11, 1880, December 27, 1882, and May 5, 1890, and Clark's Johnstown City Directory, 1887). By the winter of 1889, a new librarian, Mary L. Yeagley, was circulating materials from temporary quarters in the McMillan mansion, and plans were underway for the building donated by Andrew Carnegie.

From the sources I have consulted so far, I cannot determine whether Hurst was actually "at her desk" during the tragedy. David McCullough's definitive book, The Johnstown Flood, asserts that "Mrs. Hirst" was "crushed beneath a heap of bricks, slate, and books that stood where the public library had been" (pg. 195) but does not cite a source. Clues within extant records support such a conclusion. For example, the library's staff was small: only librarian Hurst, a janitor, and perhaps one or two assistants. The contents of the dam, plus all the debris it had accumulated, barreled into Johnstown on May 31st, a Friday, at mid-afternoon. Board minutes from other years seem to indicate that it operated daily from about 2:00 p.m. to 9:00 p.m., perhaps with a dinner break at 5 or 6 o'clock. Thus it is likely that the library would have been open if it were a normal day. This being said, there were possibilities for chance to interview. In this gas-lit era, libraries sometimes closed on summer afternoons because of the heat. Also, medical knowledge and transportation being limited as they were, library staff frequently took extended leaves for illnesses and vacations. Nonetheless, I found no evidence that Hurst was absent at the time, and given the small staff, it could be presumed that if the library were open that day, she would have been working. Both the Hurst home and the Cambria Library were located within a few blocks of each other on Washington Street, which runs along the Little Conemaugh River.

I cannot determine whether library employees had tried to flee for higher ground ahead of time. There was apparently some debate regarding whether the city had been forewarned. One prominent eyewitness, Reverend G. W. Brown, contended that residents had no warning at all. On the other hand, George Swank, a local news editor, stated that the torrential rain had caused substantial flooding earlier in the day and prompted many to evacuate. The only other details I found in primary sources pertaining to the flood were in John McLaurin's The Story of Johnstown: Its Early Settlement, Rise and Progress, Industrial Growth, and Appalling Flood on May 31st, 1889 (Harrisburg.: J.M. Place, 1889). According to McLaurin, the two other Hursts that perished that day -- Emily (age 10) and Nathaniel (age 15) -- were Mary Hurst's grandchildren. The 1890 list indicates that the bodies of Mary and Emily were never recovered, while Nathaniel Hurst was buried in Somerset, a smaller city about 30 miles south. Searches of the library's vertical files, as well as American Periodical Series, Google Books, Newspaper Archives, PERSI, Readers Guide Retrospective, and other online databases turned up nothing.

I also tried to use HeritageQuest to trace the earlier years of Mary Hurst's life. According to the 1880 U.S. Census, Mary "Hirst" was widowed, living with her daughter, Maime(?) Gaither, and Gaither's husband and children. It doesn't appear that she was working outside the home at that point. I did not find any "Hirsts" or "Hursts" in the 1860 or 1870 censuses for Cambria or Somerset counties. From there, all potential leads went cold. Part of the difficulty is that historical documents variously listed her as "Mary," "Minnie," or "Mrs. Andrew," and "Hirst" or "Hurst." Another problem is that Johnstown suffered additional floods -- in 1936 and 1977 -- which have ruined some local history materials. Furthermore, Johnstown's newspapers have not been digitized, making them all but impossible for me to use given the time constraints of my project.

In the end, the only way I could access a bit of Mary Hurst's experience that horrible day was to walk the Path of the Flood Trail, an 11-mile hike/bike path. It follows the Little Conemaugh River from Ehrenfeld, a village just east of the South Fork Dam, through several other towns into the City of Johnstown. Most of my hiking days were overcast, adding to the gloom of bare trees, dead grass, muddy ground, and chilly March temperatures. I held back quite a lot of prickly brush in my efforts to photograph the terrain. My best shot, of a viaduct that was rebuilt in the 1890s, illustrates the narrowness of the Little Conemaugh valley. Here, water and debris was trapped behind the previous bridge, which then collapsed. From this area the flood had surged ahead with renewed energy toward Johnstown.

Over the course of 3 days, I wound my way past Mineral Point, East Conemaugh, and Woodvale, communities which also lost residents to the flood. As I tramped downhill toward Johnstown, I realized in a visceral way that I was at the bottom of a gorge with steep rock rising all around me. I imagined floodwaters gaining force as they throttled down the narrow valley. It became clear why Mary Hurst and many other Johnstown residents had little chance of escape.

The Path of the Flood Trail terminates at the Johnstown Flood Museum, the building which was erected by Andrew Carnegie on the site of the earlier structure where Mary Hurst possibly lost her life. I sat on the museum steps for a minute and offered a silent prayer for her, her family, and more than 2,200 other souls who lost their lives 125 years ago. I mused about the folly of those who failed to maintain the dam, the power of God in unleashing days of torrential rain, and the unpredictability of human fate, which lies both in our choices and in the Almighty's hand. I reflected on my greedy motive of trying to get "a good story." I wasn't sorry that my frustrated attempts ended with a moment of reverence. 


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