Education: Johnstown Flood Museum

Johnstown Area Heritage Association
Student Activity: Before Your Visit

What on Earth Do We Do Next?

black and white photo of family of four standing in front of tent; sign on tent advertises sandwiches and coffee for sale

Johnstown proper was partly a lake, partly several small streams, partly a vast sandy plain, and partly clusters of more or less ruined houses. Around among, between, inside and on top of these houses, wherever the rushing torrent had been checked, were piled masses of wreckage; trunks of mighty trees, household furniture, houses whole and in fragments, bridges, locomotives and railroad cars, hundreds of tons of mud and gravel. Thickly strewn through it all were hundreds of corpses and carcasses....

From the stone bridge... for a distance of half a mile, no river could be seen, simply a dense mass of drift from twenty to fifty feet deep, apparently inextricable, bound together with miles of wire, here blazing and there smoldering, and enveloping the bridge in a cloud of nauseating vapor and smoke, giving unmistakable evidence of the presence of burning flesh. Not a thoroughfare was passable for a team, and very few for a horse.... Locomotion was difficult, the mud deep, the streets obstructed often to the roofs of the houses, the rain incessant.

Dr. Benjamin Lee describes Johnstown after the Flood

First Things First

After taking their first stunned looks around that morning, most survivors immediately started searching for family and friends, whom they prayed were safe somewhere downstream. The many dead bodies everywhere warned them that many did not make it. No one had food, safe drinking water, or warm dry clothes to change into. In fact, almost everyone had lost their homes, their places of business, their houses of worship, everything that made this place home.

Of course, anyone who was able searched high and low for survivors who were trapped in building ruins under piles of debris. When they found corpses, they laid them in a row to wait for burial.

Cut off from the outside world by downed telegram lines and torn up railroad track, people figured it was up to them to get themselves out of this mess.

Citizens Committee considers "What next?"

Rev. Beale explains what lead up to the first Citizens Committee meeting

...When we consider that the community commonly called Johnstown was made up of seven boroughs, each with its own independent officers and government; that our Chief of Police was overwhelmed by the loss of his family in the flood; that no one seemed to know whether or not the Burgess of Johnstown proper survived the disaster; and that the Burgess of Conemaugh Borough was certainly among the drowned‑when we consider these circumstances it will not seem surprising that we who had gathered together out of the flood, on Adam Street, felt compelled to organize a temporary government in the best and speediest manner possible.

It was, perhaps, very imperfectly accomplished, and accomplished, too, without any other authority than that of supreme necessity. The people were impressed with the feeling that something must at once be done; that some recognized authority must be immediately established.

You are the Citizens Committee

Your group is to act as the Citizens Committee at its first meeting to decide what needs to be done immediately, what can be done immediately, and what has to wait for later?

List each need your group identifies on a separate index card. Rearrange the cards as you decide what jobs have to be done immediately, what can wait or has to wait because you lack resources to do them.

Citizens Committee meeting

  • Decide how to organize your group to discuss the problem, "What do we do now?" Who will be in charge? How much authority will this person have?
  • What needs to be done first? What are the greatest needs? What must be done to take care of those needs?
  • What resources do we still have? How can we use them to meet the needs?
  • What dire needs don't we have the resources to meet? How can we get help?
  • With so many needs, focus on what needs to be done "right now" or "first." Even if they are important, some needs may have to wait if there are no resources available to meet them.
  • What needs will have to wait? Wait for what? How long will people be able to wait? What problems could delays cause?

Sort the cards with the jobs listed on them into two stacks:

As a Whole Class

Compare your list with other groups:

Read Beale's account of what the Johnstown Citizens Committee decided to do:

On Thursday, as soon as the waters in the rivers had fallen sufficiently for communication to be somewhat established between the different boroughs, the appointments we had made in Johnstown proper seemed by common consent to be recognized and respected throughout the entire community.

It was at the meeting held near the corner of Main and Adam Streets that the officers were chosen... General Manager John Fulton, of the Cambria Iron and Steel Company, had been first named as one competent to be at the head of all the committees that might be created but, upon learning that he was out of the city, Mr. A. J. Moxham, of the Johnstown Steel Street Railway Company, was unanimously chosen Director.

In making this choice we had a practical consolidation of Johnstown proper, of Conemaugh Borough, of Woodvale and of the new town of Moxham, having representatives from each present. Manager Moxham accepted the position to which he had been so cordially chosen, and did honor to himself by his good work for the suffering city. Under him the following named committees were chosen and set to work:

    • On Finances—W. C. Lewis, John D. Roberts, George T. Swank and Dwight Roberts.
    • On Supplies or Commissary—Rev. James P. Tahaney, John Thomas, Louis Von Lunen and C.B. Cover.
    • On Morgues—Rev David J. Beale, DD., and Rev. H. L. Chapman, DD.
    • On the Removal of Dead Animals and Debris—Charles Zimmerman and Thomas L. Johnson.
    • On Police—Captain A. N. Hart and Captain J. H. Gageby.
    • On Hospitals—Drs. W. B. Lowman, J. C. Sheridan and M. E. Matthews.

These committees at once began their difficult and sorrowful duties, most of them asking and receiving no compensation therefore. The plans of these several departments were projected and their arduous labors entered upon before assistance from abroad came to hand.

Discuss the reading

  • What jobs did the real Citizens Committee decide to do first?
  • How does their list compare to your lists? In what ways do your lists match?
  • In what ways do your lists differ?
  • What did you include that they didn't? Why didn't they include that need?
  • What did they include that you didn't? Why didn't you think this was a critical need? Why did they think it was?

Remember what you wrote in the voice of your "The Day After" survivor

  • How well does the Johnstown Citizens Committee's plan deal with the problems you are most worried about?
  • If their plan doesn't tackle your concerns, why do you think that is? What, if anything, can you do yourself about the problem?
  • What problems do you recommend for the Citizen's Committee and the Pennsylvania Relief Committee to take on next? How might they tackle these next-on-the-list problems? What resources will they need to deal with these problems? Where will the resources come from?

Discuss Johnstown's next steps

Next steps for survival or "relief":

  • What are some of these next-steps for Johnstown to take on its way back?
  • What did everyone who lost their homes need right away?

Next steps for rebuilding:

  • What did everyone in town lose with the Flood? What would be the next steps to bring all of these community services back?
  • What happened when the mills and businesses in town were damaged or destroyed? What would be the next steps to bring back the economy?

Discuss Johnstown's options: Rebuild or move on?

  • With all that needs to be done, is it worth it to rebuild Johnstown?
  • What other options were there? How much effort would each of these options take compared to the benefits?
  • When does it seem that Johnstowners decided to rebuild their town? We know what they lost -- now the question is what did they have left to build on? Why decide to rebuild?
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