Education: Johnstown Flood Museum

Johnstown Area Heritage Association
The Great Johnstown Flood of 1889

Rebuild or Move on? Before your Visit

Community decision and a personal choice

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 did in our generation. In fact, until 9/11, the 1889 Flood was the single largest loss of American civilian lives in one day (the greater number of deaths of the Galveston hurricane disaster of 1900 happened over several days).

Despite the fact that their hometowns were nearly scoured off the map, the survivors of the Great Johnstown (PA) Flood of 1889 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)

Rebuild or Move on?

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:

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. Its steel production had quadrupled! An inspirational story any time, 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.

Background: About Johnstown and the Flood

To prepare them for considering the massive challenges involved in rebuilding Johnstown or a family's life in Johnstown after the Flood, students should read the following short descriptions of Johnstown before the Flood and during the Flood.

The readings are short with just enough detail to arouse interest and suggest the huge challenges involved in rebuilding a city from scratch. We suggest wrapping up the readings with a few questions to check for understanding, then moving on to the first activity "The Day After" without delay. The goal here is to help students empathize with Johnstown Flood survivors emotionally first. They can better understand the facts about rescue, relief, recovery, rebuilding, and remembering against the backdrop of those feelings. Survivors could not help but make decisions about their future in light of the horrors they had experienced and continued to experience throughout the summer of 1889.

Reading 1: Johnstown before the Flood

Johnstown has become so famous for its devastating flood of 1889 that we sometimes forget what a growing, bustling town (or more accurately, collection of towns) it was before the Flood. In fact, its population was greater than it is today! To briefly make this point, have students read from Chapter 1 of David McCullough's book The Johnstown Flood. (Alternatively, depending on your students' reading levels, you might read it yourself and tell them an age-appropriate version of the story.)

The Simon Schuster Web site has posted Chapter 1, "The Sky was Red" from David McCullough's The Johnstown Flood in its entirety, nearly 20 pages.
For this lesson, we've chosen two shorter passages from the full chapter. Opens in a new window; close the window to return to this page.

Start and stop points for McCullough readings:


Explore the photo gallery of Johnstown before the Flood, if you wish.

Reading 2: "Story of the Johnstown Flood" and "The Path of the Flood"

This brings us to the events of May 31, 1889. What happened to nearly wipe this busy town and the valley where it lived off the map? Have students read the story and examine the map:

  1. "Story of the Johnstown Flood"
  2. "Path of the Flood"

Brief discussion to check for understanding

  • What was Johnstown like right before the flood?
  • Who were the biggest employers around? How did most people make a living? [Manufacturing iron and steel; mining coal]
  • Was that always the way it was? How did Johnstown make its living before Cambria Iron and Steel came to town? [canal and railroad]
  • How has Johnstown made its living at different points of its "life"? What were the main industries? [Transportation (canal and railroad), iron and steel manufacturing, mining]
  • What were some of the new technologies people were just getting used to? [telephone, electricity, streetcars, etc.] What common inventions today hadn't been invented yet? [automobiles, airplanes, bulldozers and other heavy construction equipment, movies, radio, TV, computers, etc.]
  • What did people do for fun? What holiday had they just celebrated the day before the Flood came? [Memorial or Decoration Day]

The Day After


People had spent the night after the Flood listening to the sound of water and the groan and crash of buildings finally giving up and plunging into the water. Worst of all were cries of the wounded humans and animals caught in the rubble unable to move, especially the screams of those in the jam at the bridge as the fire grew nearer.

Everyone was relieved when morning came, but with it came the first stunning look at what used to be home. A lake of filthy water still covered much of the area. Wide spaces were completely empty, the Flood having scraped the earth clean down to rock. The buildings, trees, trains, and living things that the Flood scraped off the ground it deposited in huge jams of rubble -- the jam at the stone bridge was 14 blocks long. As Rev. Beale wrote later wrote about The Day After:

…The flood had reached and passed its climax, leaving a torn and devastated town, upon whose wreck the stoutest heart on that Saturday never dared to dream would be rebuilt a town.


This activity helps students put themselves in the place of Flood survivors seeing their town at first light on Saturday morning June 1 after a night of terrors. What emotions would they be feeling? What thoughts would they be having? Most couldn't stay were they were -- on top of wreckage that could cave in at any moment; stranded in trees, trapped in debris. But how could they possibly make plans and decisions about what to do next?

The following activity uses some of the great collection of photographs taken in the aftermath of the Flood to prod students' historical imaginations. There are two options for this activity, depending on if your students have ready access to the Internet or not. For both options, you may wish to use the steps in "Reading a Photograph" if students are having trouble spending enough time with their photo to really see it.

Option 1: Stand-alone activity with printed handouts -- Internet access not required.

Download and duplicate "The Day After" worksheet PDF. A set of five photo pairs have been chosen and prepared on these worksheets for those without Internet access for multiple students at a time or for those wishing to use this exercise as homework.

The photo pairs on the worksheets consist of a photo of a survivor or group of survivors and a scene of the destruction that was Johnstown. Students are to imagine that they are the survivors in the top picture looking at the scene in the bottom picture. Worksheet directions appear below for your convenience.

"The Day After" (option 1) Worksheet Directions

  1. On this page are photographs of flood survivors and the destruction that the Flood left behind.
  2. Use the steps in "Reading a Photograph" to learn what you can directly from the photos.
  3. Imagine you are the person(s) in the survivor photo looking out at the scene of destruction below:
    • What thoughts might be running through your head while looking at the damage the Flood caused?
    • What emotions would you be feeling? Why?
    • What will you do now? What will be your first step after the floodwaters recede? Your next step?
    • What are the toughest problems you face personally? What feel like almost impossible challenges facing your family?
    • What are the greatest difficulties Johnstown faces as a community?
    • Can Johnstown be rebuilt? Will you stay or move on?
  4. Write several paragraphs expressing the thoughts and concerns you (the survivor in the picture above) have as you look out over the disaster that used to be your hometown.

Option 2: Activity requiring Internet access.

Download and duplicate "The Day After" Option 2 worksheet PDF. For this option, students will need access to photos in several of the image galleries on this Web site:

The activity is the same as Option 1, except that they will choose their own photos to work with for this activity -- one from the survivors gallery and one from the destruction gallery -- and draw their choices in the spaces provided before continuing as in option 1.

"The Day After (option 2) Worksheet Directions

  1. Choose one photo from the "Survivors of the Flood" gallery and another from the "Destruction all Around" or "Destruction after the Flood" galleries.
  2. Draw the scenes in the photos in the boxes on the left (survivor) and below (destruction). (Drawing makes you look more carefully!)
  3. Imagine you are a survivor(s) in the picture on the left looking out at the scene of destruction below:
    • What thoughts might run through your head while looking at the flood damage?
    • What emotions are you feeling? Why?
    • What will you do now? What will be your first step after the floodwaters recede? Your next step?
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      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 summarized the situation that lead up to the first Citizens Committee meeting. Read students the following passage from his book:

      But, 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.

      Divide students into four groups. Each group is to act as the Citizens Committee at its first meeting to decide what has to be done immediately. In other words, what were the first steps to recovering from the flood's destruction? The following questions appear on a separate page for students, in case you wish to assign the discussion as independent or group work.

      Give each group a pack of index cards. Have them list each need that they identify on a separate card. Encourage them to rearrange the cards as they discuss priorities, resources, and other factors in their decision-making.

      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?

      List the jobs that have to be done right away and how you will get them done. Assign someone to be in charge of each job.

      List the jobs that have be done later and why (no resources or not as critical).

      Whole Class Discussion

      Compare the Citizen's Committees' lists to each other:

      • How do they agree? How do they differ? What needs does everyone agree on?
      • What needs were only mention by some of the groups? Why? Should they be promoted to "right now" or demoted to "later"?

      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 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? [Possibilities: Not a dire need to them, no resources to deal with this need right away]
      • What did they include that you didn't? Why didn't you think this was a critical need? Why did they think it was? [Possibilities: Didn't stop to think about the need (burning dead animals, for example); today we tend to think that someone else -- the government, for example, or the Red Cross, not citizens -- should take care of rescue efforts, set up morgues, dispose of dead animals, keep order, etc.]

      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? [They didn't have resources yet to answer concerns like "Where will I live?" or "How will I make a living?" They were more worried about whether their families and friends survived.] 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

      After the most immediate needs are taken care of, what has to happen next?

      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? [shelter, clothes, food, water]

      Next steps for rebuilding:

      • What did everyone in town lose with the Flood? [communication, transportation systems (railroad, streetcars, roads and bridges, horses and wagons), water, power/lights] what would be next steps to bring all of these community services back?
      • What happened when the mills and businesses in town were damaged or destroyed? [people lost their jobs or businesses] 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? [leave the valley and rebuild on higher ground, move the town somewhere else completely, everyone leave and start life over somewhere else] 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?


      Come-back Path

      For Johnstown to come back, the citizens will have to go beyond these first emergency needs. Many other needs will have to be filled before Johnstown is back on its feet. To help students remember these steps on the way to coming back, introduce the vocabulary and "5 R's of Recovery " mnemonic we'll use to describe the steps Johnstown took to come back from destruction. They will work more with this process after their museum visit.

      A version of this 5 R's outline for students appears here.

      The 5 R's of Recovery


      • Rescue the living, search the ruins for survivors; Look for family


      • Recover, identify, embalm, and bury dead; Clean up debris


      • Outside help to take care of Johnstown's survival needs -- shelter, food, and water -- until they could take care of themselves


      • Assess damage, what can be salvaged and repaired, what has to be rebuilt; Repair and reopen the mill, reopen stores and offices; rebuild businesses


      • Three year memorial -- dedication of Grandview Cemetery

      Tell students: On our trip to the Johnstown Flood Museum we'll find out how Johnstown made its incredible come-back by looking at what they did -- and what the rest of the world helped them do -- to accomplish each of these steps along the way.

      Stay and Rebuild or Leave and Start over?

      What's a survivor to do?

      Rebuilding was a personal, as well as community, decision. Survivors whose families had been drowned and homes destroyed sometimes decided not to go back to the scene of their tragedy. Others had deep roots in Johnstown and figured if they had to start over again, it might as well be where they knew everyone. When the Cambria Iron and Steel Company announced it was staying and would pay its workers to help clean up and rebuild the mill, at least people knew there would be work. Johnstown would survive!!

      Assign each student a name from the list of flood survivors on this page. When known, the list includes survivors' occupations and addresses from the 1889 Johnstown Directory. Tell students that throughout their visit to the Johnstown Flood Museum, they will be gathering information to help them predict whether or not their survivor decided to stay in Johnstown after the Flood or move on to start over somewhere else. Before their museum visit, they should start by reading their survivors' stories linked from the flood survivor list.

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