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The Great Johnstown (PA) Flood of 1889, the result of a record-setting rainstorm speeding the failure of an earthen dam, was the top media story of its day. The catastrophe, in which over 2,200 were killed, dominated the front pages of newspapers around the world just as the terrorist strikes of September 11, 2001 and in our generation. In fact, until 9/11, it was the single largest loss of American civilian lives in one day (the greater number of deaths of Galveston hurricane disaster of 1900 happened over several days).
Despite the media attention the Flood received in its day, it has been all but forgotten to most Americans. Yet it has plenty of lessons to teach the 21st century: altering the environment without considering the consequences begs disaster; people in positions of authority (the owners of the dam was a secretive club whose members included the likes of industry moguls Andrew Carnegie and Henry Frick) don't necessarily act responsibly.
The better side of human nature also shines through: despite the fact that their home towns were nearly scoured off the map, the survivors of the Flood almost immediately began rebuilding their homes and businesses. The world responded to stories of the Flood with an unprecedented out-pouring of charity.
To an amazing extent survivors of the Johnstown Flood of 1889 were able to put the trauma of the Flood behind them. As the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina suggests, perhaps we should not be so quick to forget. Teachers will find three very relevant-to-today thematic threads to explore with their students before, during, and after field trips to the Johnstown Flood Museum (classes too distant to make a field trip will find that enough of the Museum's collection has been posted online for an effective study of the Flood).
Emphasis: Geography, Earth and Physical Science, Environment, Civics, Economics, Social Studies
Hard as it is to believe today, no successful lawsuits were brought against the owners of the dam that unleashed Lake Conemaugh's destruction on the valley below. It is human nature to look for causes and place blame. However, this is probably not the most useful way to approach a tragedy on the scale of the Johnstown Flood of 1889. After all, the dam had held for decades with only a few minor (in terms of destruction) problems. Why did it fail so colossally on May 31, 1889? Why was the Conemaugh Valley so vulnerable to flooding? What other factors contributed to the size and destructiveness of the Johnstown Flood?
In this thread, students will investigate these big questions by digging into the evidence to seek answers for a multitude of other questions that overlap geology, meteorology, engineering, communication and transportation technologies, as well as history, geography, and economics disciplines within the social studies.
Emphasis: Social Studies, Civics, Economics, Character Education, Visual Arts (architecture)
After witnessing the destruction at Johnstown and surrounding communities, it is a wonder that everyone didn't abandon the ravaged Conemaugh Valley. The enormity of personal and financial loss makes rebuilding even more unimaginable.
This thread looks at the process of rebuilding:
- Rescue of survivors immediately after the Flood;
- Recovery of victims' bodies and clearing debris;
- Relief efforts fueled by an unprecedented out-pouring of public charity, including the Red Cross' first disaster relief effort;
- Rebuilding the communities, politically and physically.
The decision to rebuild or move on was a personal, as well as a community, decision. Many individuals, having lost every family and physical tie to Johnstown, did move on. Others who went to stay out-of-town with friends or relatives simply stayed away.
The majority of flood survivors did stay in the Valley. Cambria Iron and Steel rebuilt its mill and people got back to work. Incredibly, by 1910, Johnstown's population had more than doubled since 1889. It is an inspirational story any time, but it is especially so at a time when western Pennsylvania is trying to rebuild after its economic base was destroyed by less obvious, but just as devastating, market forces.
Emphasis: Language Arts, Visual Arts, Music, Performing Arts, Character Education
The Johnstown Flood of 1889 was the biggest news story of the 1800s last quarter century. Reporters, photographers, and artists flocked to what used to be Johnstown.
These professional writers and artists had the challenge of describing the indescribable in newspapers, magazines, and books around the world. Photographs of the destruction were gripping and told much of the tale without words (just as they brought home the horrors of the Civil War 25 years before). Newspapers were not able to print photographs yet, so photographers published their work as "stereograms" -- three-dimensional photos viewed in a special viewer. Artists tried to fill in the story of the time during the Flood when no photos were taken.
Soon other media picked up the story: postcards circulated the photos; commemorative spoons and plates; sheet music celebrating "heroes" of the Flood; even a Coney Island attraction called the "Johnstown Flood"!
Just as today, not all publications were equally reliable. Students will read and compare a variety of accounts, from straightforward survivor stories and official reports to sensationalist tabloids like The Johnstown Horror.
There were genuine heroes whose bravery remains unsung. Students will rescue them from obscurity using the medium of their choice.
In the course of reading and interpreting these stories and telling their own, students will learn to read more critically, considering how audience and purpose effect the telling of a story and how different media are suited to telling different aspects of a story. They will explore such concepts as fact and fiction and such ethical issues as exploitation, fact-checking, and sensationalism.