Education: Johnstown Flood Museum

Johnstown Area Heritage Association
The Great Johnstown Flood of 1889

Rebuild or Move on? After your Visit

Rescue, Recover, and Relief

"Healing Takes Time: Recovery Timeline " Activity

Official Reports on Relief Efforts

Beale's informal reports

During the following discussion of the next steps in Johnstown's recovery, keep a running list of "next-step needs" that the students suggest.

Discussion: Next Steps

Previously, we learned what the Citizens Committee decided needed to be done right away when they met the day after the Flood. What needs did the Committee decide were the most immediate? [Finances, Supplies or Commissary, Morgues, Removal of Dead Animals and Debris, Police, Hospitals]

That was just the beginning, of course. After the survivors were rescued, the fires extinguished, bodies found, dead animals disposed of, what were the next steps?

  • What had to be done to care for homeless survivors' day-to-day needs?
  • What had to be done to start rebuilding for the future?
  • What did individual families need to do to start putting their lives back together?
  • What did Johnstown need to do as a community?

Five Rs on the Comeback Path"

Distribute as a hand-out, project as a slide, or transfer to the chalkboard "Five Rs on the Comeback Path."

Discuss the "Five R's" :

  • Which of the "R's" deal with the past--the damage done by the Flood?
  • Which of the "R's" deal with the present?
  • Which of the "R's" deals with the future?
  • What activities on our list deal with the past -- the damage done by the flood? What activities deal with the present -- surviving day-to-day in the midst of the devastation? What activities look to the future?
  • Which of our "next-step" ideas should happen first? Which steps require other things to be done first?

Now we're going to see what Johnstowners and the people helped them really did do to start rebuilding between June and December 1889.

Recovery Timeline Activity

Print out and distribute the Web page titled "Healing Takes Time: Events on Johnstown's Recovery Timeline" and the PDF worksheet "Healing Takes Time; Johnstown's Recovery Timeline."

Recovery Timeline Directions

  • Color-Code the events listed (on days with more than one event, color-code each event separately):
    • Rescue: Red
    • Recover: Orange
    • Relief: Yellow
    • Rebuild: Green
    • Remember: Blue
  • Cut the dates apart and arrange them on the timeline
  • Choose photos from the Rescue, Relief, and Rebuild Picture Galleries for each step along the way. Print the photos, and cut them out. (Hint: print out the thumbnail indexes for a full collection of photos that are a convenient size for this activity)
  • Arrange the photos on the timeline


  • What color patterns can you see in the timeline? What do these patterns tell you about the timing of recovery efforts?
  • What things happened first? What happened next?
  • How long did rescue efforts take? Recovery? Relief? Rebuilding? Which stages took the longest amount of time? Which took the shortest amount of time? Why?
  • At what point on this timeline does it seem Johnstowners took their first step to rebuilding their community? What was this first step?
  • What steps did they take toward recovery that we didn't have on our list? Why might this have been important to them, but didn't occur to us? What did we have on our list that they didn't have on theirs? Why was this step left out of their recovery efforts?

Optional Extension: Primary Sources - Reports on Relief Efforts (linked from Student Resources page)

If time and your students' reading levels allow, the following reports by officials in charge of various aspects of relief and recovery at Johnstown make fascinating reading. Assign students or small groups of students one of the following reports to read.

Official Reports on Relief Efforts

Beale's informal reports


  • What recovery efforts did each of these reports describe?
  • What events or activities did they mention that we don't have on our list or on the timeline? Add any missing activities to the timeline.
  • What did each author consider his or her biggest challenge? Where they able to solve it eventually? How?
  • What do the reports suggest should have been done differently? Why?
  • What did people learn about dealing with community disasters from Johnstown?

Discussion: Lessons for today

  • What do we do now to respond to a disaster? Who is in charge?
  • How is today's disaster response the same as Johnstown's? How is it different? Why? [think about differences in technology, transportation, communication, attitudes and values, population, etc.]
  • Think about local, state and national response to the Katrina and Rita hurricanes in the Gulf Coast. What did the Red Cross do? What similarities can you see in what they did at Johnstown?
  • What did the National Guard do? How does their role compare with the Guard's role at Johnstown?
  • FEMA didn't exist in 1889. What role does it play during disasters? What might it have done in Johnstown?
  • What are the advantages of having federal help during disasters? What are the disadvantages? What were some of the criticisms of FEMA's response to Katrina?
  • Considering what you've learned about disaster relief for Johnstown, how valid are those criticisms? What can be done to improve our disaster response now?


A Blank Slate

While the Flood forced Johnstown to start all over, it gave the town a hard-won "clean slate" to do things differently when they rebuilt. The following two activities, "Redrawing the Map" and "A New View from the Hill," challenge students to take on both the challenge and the possibilities. You may choose to do either the Map or View, or both, depending on your students' abilities and your instructional goals.

"Redrawing the Map" Activity

Download and reproduce "Redrawing the Map" (PDF)

Up to now, we've considered Johnstown's immediate needs right after the flood and in the months following -- rescue, recovery, and relief. After the National Guard, the Red Cross, and other relief workers went home, the citizens of Johnstown were left with the huge job of rebuilding.

Instead of focusing on how they would survive from day to day, they could think about what they needed to grow over the long term. It was a chance to change things and make the town better. They could modernize and make the town safer. Individual families could do the same with their houses: they could build the same exact house, a different house in the same place, or a new house in a completely different area of town.

When city planners today make decisions about what the city will be like in the future, they don't start with a map; they start with a list of needs.

Have students brainstorm a list of needs that all cities have, then a list of special needs that apply to Johnstown. These lists will serve as guides as they work on their plans and, later, evaluate the plans. For example:

Needs all cities would have in 1889:

Johnstown's special needs:

Since all good city planning is the result of many people's contributions, this activity makes an ideal cooperative learning project. As each group devises its plan, individual students can champion one or more of the needs above to ensure that the plan meets those needs.

"Redrawing the Map" Worksheet Directions

  • After the Flood swept through and the debris was hauled away, much of Johnstown was a clean slate.
  • This map of Johnstown was drawn in 1889, just before the Flood. The areas “ghosted out” in white were either leveled by the Flood of so damaged that they had to be torn down. Only the buildings in the black areas — few and far between — remained.
  • Johnstown was starting over.
  • Imagine that you are the city planner in charge of designing the new Johnstown:
    • How much of the old Johnstown should be rebuilt?  Why?
    • What things will you do differently? Why?
    • What street grid will you design?
    • What can you do to protect citizens from future floods?
  • Draw your design over this map to show the changes you will make.

Compare designs with the whole class. Discuss:

Have the planners taken into account all Johnstown's needs (above)? What, if anything, has been left out?

What is the strength of each design?

How would you decide which plan to use, if you were on the Johnstown Citizen Committee in 1889?

How do these plans compare with what Johnstown actually ended up doing (see the "Rebuilding Johnstown … Again and Again" photo gallery for panoramic views of the rebuilt Johnstown (1891 and 1904 views))?

Optional extensions to this activity:

"A New View from the Hill" Activity

Download and reproduce "A New View from the Hill" (PDF)

"A New View from the Hill" Worksheet Directions

  • When the floodwaters left, Johnstowners found that most of their town had been washed away (see photo on right taken one week after). Most remaining buildings were so damaged they had to be torn down anyway. After the debris was hauled away, Johnstown was starting over. Below is the same photo with the debris digitally removed:

Imagine that you are a city planner designing the new Johnstown:

  • How much of the old Johnstown should be rebuilt?  Why?
  • What things will you do differently? Why?
  • What can you do to protect citizens from future floods?

Draw your vision for the new Johnstown in the cleared area of the photo below. If you did “Redrawing the Map”, try matching the drawing and map.

Rebuilding Johnstown …Again and Again

Photo Gallery: Rebuilding Johnstown...Again and Again

The "Rebuilding Johnstown … Again and Again" Photo Gallery contains panoramic photographs of Downtown Johnstown from before the 1889 Flood to the present.

All the photos are taken from the same general vantage point (from the Inclined Plane) looking toward the Little Conemaugh River valley in the background (where the Flood made its entrance). The Stonycreek River is in the foreground. You may wish to use corresponding maps on this site along with these photos to help identify landmarks.

For each thumbnail view, there is a close-up of roughly the same location at the same scale (when possible) and a full scale, high-resolution version of the panorama provided as a PDF. PDFs can be zoomed in on for more even more detail on every area of the photo.

The page offers this explanation of viewing the photos for students:

  • Click on image to view a larger or closer version in a new window.
  • Arrange the windows on your screen to compare two or more views.
  • Download PDF and use Adobe Reader tools to zoom in on details.

For this page to work properly, make sure your browser isn't set to block pop-up windows.

Interestingly, the series of panoramas suggests that Johnstown (like all cities) has been rebuilt numerous times over its 200-year history. The rebuilding after the 1889 Flood -- an involuntary destruction and rebuilding that happened over a very short period of time -- was certainly the most dramatic! Other rebuilding efforts have been more gradual. The latest rebuilding -- after the economic disaster of the 1980s and 90s -- is still going on. This is the time to build "the next Johnstown" and students will play a part in planning Johnstown's future. These are some of the conclusions that students may come to through the activities and discussion that follow.


Find similarities and differences between each of the views of Downtown:

  • Mark buildings and landscape features that were not there in the previous picture. Try to find explanations for those changes in the timeline (below).
  • Mark buildings and landscape features that appear in two or more photos in another color.

Then discuss:

  • How much of Johnstown was new after the 1889 Flood (use the 1888, 1889, 1891 and 1904 photos)?
  • How much of the 1950s city is new since the rebuilt Johnstown of 1904?
  • How much of the 2004 city is new since 1904?
  • Besides the terrible disasters, like the 1889 Flood, what other events can cause a city to rebuild?
  • From what you can see in these photos, how many times has Johnstown rebuilt itself?

Johnstown History Timeline and Population Graph: 1800-2000

Download and reproduce "Johnstown History Timeline and Population Graph: 1800-2000" worksheet PDF

This timeline uses layers that can only be viewed using Adobe (Acrobat) Reader v6.0 or higher. Visit Adobe's site to upgrade to the latest version of Adobe Reader (formery Adobe Acrobat Reader) .


  • Print and cut out the panorama thumbnail images and arrange them where they belong on the timeline.
  • Match up events on the timeline with things you can see in the photos (railroads, mills, roads, etc.). What changes do you see in the photos after major events on the timeline? What changes do you see in the landscape after changes in transportation on the timeline?
  • What events caused the most change in the shortest time? [the Flood] What events caused the most change overall? [automobiles, steel industry expanding and collapsing]

Use the photos with the timeline and population graph to answer these discussion questions.


  • How long did it take to recover the population lost in the Flood (at least 2200 dead, plus those who moved)? [less than ten years, the population had almost doubled between 1890 and 1900!]
  • When did Johnstown's population start to shrink? When did the population loss stop? What clues does the timeline give about why Johnstown is shrinking? What are some of the events that happened before or during the loss that might be related (causes or symptoms)? [Sale of companies; mills employ fewer workers; closing mines; automobile and truck transportation taking the place of railroads; US Rt. 22, US Rt. 30 and the PA Turnpike by-passing Johnstown (the canal and railroad went right through Johnstown); 1977 Flood damage; local downtown stores close; national stores move in outside the city; new businesses aren't manufacturing; hospitals and schools merging]
  • Explain: When "heavy industry" (mining and manufacturing) goes out of business or leaves an area, it is called "deindustrialization." Johnstown is not the only place suffering population loss from deindustrialization -- all of Pennsylvania has lost population, as well as other areas that made their living from heavy industry in the northeast and Midwest (examples: Detroit, Buffalo, Cleveland, Akron, Wheeling, etc.)
  • During what periods on the timeline would you say Johnstown was "industrializing"? [1830s to 1900] If you could write what happens during industrialization as a math statement, what might it look like? [transportation + manufacturing = population growth + stores + hospitals + newspapers + schools, etc.] Without heavy industry, how are people in Johnstown making a living? What are some of the things Johnstowners are doing to try to make a new economy?
  • Why has it taken so much longer to recover from deindustrialization than from the terrible 1889 Flood?


Remembering the Lost and the Lessons Learned

How should we remember?

When Johnstowners gathered to dedicate the Johnstown Flood Memorial and the graves at Grandview Cemetery on the third anniversary of the flood in 1892, they saw the ceremony as a way of putting the past behind them and moving on. There were no Flood anniversary observances for another 50 years!

Discuss personal and public memorials

  • Why do we construct memorials, hold funerals, observe anniversaries? How do they help us move on after we experience terrible loss?
  • What is the balance between grieving losses in the past and living for the future?

We go through the same mouring process today when someone dies in our families. Communities go through when a tragedy strikes.

  • What are some of the debates you've heard about memorials for the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks?
  • Find out what is happening for these memorial projects:
    • Planning the Flight 93 memorial in Somerset County;
    • Designing a new building to replace the World Trade Center's Twin Towers in New York City.
  • What questions are people discussing about these memorial projects? [What is the best way to respect the people who died here? Should the land be saved as a cemetery or reused to show terrorists that whatever they destroy, we will rebuild?]
  • How long has it taken to design and build these memorials? [four years and counting] How does that compare to Johnstown's ?
  • What are some of the differences between these disasters? [Johnstown's were personal losses not related to a terrorist attack -- the others were attacks on the whole nation; millions witnessed the Twin Towers fall live on TV; mourning customs and artistic styles change over time; NYC and Johnstown were cities where space is crowded and needs to be reused, Somerset site is vacant rural land ] How might these differences effect how each of these disasters should be remembered?

Lessons learned: Why should we remember?

Ask students why they think you've been spending time studying the Johnstown Flood of 1889.

You have to look no further than the headlines to find examples to bring your discussion up-to-date:


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