As an overview of the Johnstown Flood Story, have students read the background article "Johnstown Flood Story" and examine the Flood timeline and floodpath maps:
- Johnstown Flood Story
- Johnstown Flood Timeline
- Path of the Johnstown Flood Map (PDF)
- Historic Map Gallery
Explain the impact the Flood had on the media (and the media had on recovery efforts) of the time. It was the biggest news event since President Lincoln's assassination, very much like the coverage of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks or the Southeast Asian Tsunami of 2005.
Today we are accustomed to watching news while it happens ("Live on location!"), thanks to videotape, satellite, and broadcast technologies that have only been available for the last few decades. In 1889, when the Johnstown Flood occurred, the new technologies that eventually evolved into today's 24/7/365 news coverage were still young.
After the 1840s electric telegraph was the surest way of sending one-to-one messages quickly over long distances. Telegraph lines ran along the train tracks in most towns, because the railroads used them to control train traffic. Newspapers quickly formed networks like the Associated Press to telegraph stories to each other from every part of the country. A little more than ten years before the Flood, Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone, which sent voice messages over telegraph wires. Some Johnstowners already had telephones, though they didn't have many other people to talk to yet in 1889! A way to send signals without wires — radio— would have been a great help to Johnstown after the Flood washed out all railroad tracks and telegraph/telephone wires, but the "wireless telegraph" wouldn't be invented for another seven years.
As for ways to publish or broadcast one-to-many, print on paper was the only medium available in 1889: newspapers, magazines, and books. The process for getting news to the public was for reporters to telegraph their stories to their editors who put together the newspapers, which were printed every day and delivered to subscribers.
Photographs did not appear with the stories, since newspaper presses couldn't print them clearly. Instead artists would illustrate the stories, by looking at photos, if they were available, or listening to eyewitness descriptions. Like other artist-reporters, they often went on location sketching and drawing what was happening and sending them back for other artists to make into engravings. Some famous artists of the late 1800s, like Winslow Homer and Thomas Nast, got their start as artist journalists in the Civil War.
Instead of being published in newspapers and magazines, photographs were published as prints, as "plates" in books, or as stereographs. Almost every house had a stereopticon — a viewer for stereo photos — so this was one of the most popular ways of distributing photographs of the Flood.
Imagining the Unimaginable - Describing the Indescribable
Distribute the activity sheet "Imagining the Unimaginable" (page 1, JFM-story-before-wksht01.pdf, 1 mb).
The top photo of Downtown Johnstown was taken before the Flood; the bottom one soon after. The Flood crashed down the Conemaugh Valley and arrived in Johnstown through the gap between the hills in the center of these photographs. Newspaper artists had the tough job of reconstructing what happened in-between — what people saw during the Flood.
In this activity, students serve as artist reporters trying to piece together an image of this event from eyewitness accounts and before and after photographs of Johnstown.
- Read eyewitnesses’ descriptions of the floodwave on the "Student Resources" Web page. Choose at least three (though you may read all of them, if you wish).
- As you read these accounts, note words and phrases that "paint a picture" (help you imagine) the floodwave in all its fury. Collect these words and phrases on the graphic organizer “Describing the Indescribable” (page 2, PDF).
- Find pictures of waves, floods, wind, and heavy rain for more ideas. Look at the Flood destruction picture galleries and the before and after pictures on the "Imagining the Unimaginable" worksheet (page 1, PDF).
- Draw what you think people saw when the floodwave hit Johnstown.
When students are finished drawing,...
...ask volunteers to show their drawings to the class and share some of the words and phrases from the eyewitness accounts that they were trying to communicate.
- What other words and phrases helped you (all class members) picture the Flood in your imagination?
- How did you use those ideas in your drawing?
- What was the hardest part of doing a drawing like this?
Show students the news illustrations of the Flood that were actually published in 1889.
- Which of these news drawings seems closest to what the eyewitnesses described? Why?
- Which drawings seems farthest from the eyewitness stories? Why?
- What did each of the drawings get "right" based on your opinion of eyewitness accounts?
- What things about each drawing seems inaccurate or hard to believe? [Example: In one of the illustrations, all the people being rescued are women and the rescuers are all men — how likely would that have been? In the same drawing, everyone's clothes seem clean and in good shape — from what you know about the Flood so far, what would you expect the clothes to look like?]
Alternate Activity: Putting it into Words
Of course, print journalists had their own challenges — how to put into words the scenes of destruction that they could scarcely believe seeing with their own eyes! Turn this activity around for a descriptive writing exercise, that also stretches historical imagination:
- Browse the photographs of destruction photo galleries;
- Examine one of the photographs more closely using the tool "Reading a Photograph";
- Read survivor and eyewitness accounts of the arrival of the floodwave (as if interviewing them for a newspaper story);
- Write a newspaper article describing the destruction at Johnstown or another point along the Conemaugh Valley flood path.