Education: Johnstown Flood Museum

Johnstown Area Heritage Association
The Great Johnstown Flood of 1889

Rebuild or Move on? During your Visit

Materials list for this lesson
Readings* Activities Primary sources*

Survivor Stories Key: Who Stayed and Who Left?

Activity sheets for students:

Artifacts and documents in the exhibits at the Johnstown Flood Museum

Survivor Stories (referred to during gallery activity)

*Direct students to "Student Resources" page for links to these resources

        ** Referenced PA Standards **

A personal choice: Stay or Leave?

Assign identities

Survivors and their addresses before the Flood: Who will stay and who will leave?

Just before your museum visit, assign each student one of the survivor's names from the list "Flood survivors and their Addresses before the Flood." TIP: The table is designed so that you can print it out, and then cut strips with the name of the survivor, their occupation and address, if known. You can fold up the strips and have students draw a name out of a "hat," if you wish the assignments to be random.

The survivor story for each of these survivors is linked from the table. Have students read their survivor's story before going to the museum. This is an ideal homework assignment the night before their museum trip.

Their goal by the end of the museum visit is to predict whether their survivors stayed to rebuild their lives in Johnstown or moved on to start over somewhere else. Besides the occupation, address, and story, students should keep their eyes open for clues at the museum (see the activity "Stay and Rebuild or Leave and Start over" below).

"Stay and Rebuild or Leave and Start Over" Activity

Download worksheet "Stay and Rebuild or Leave and Start Over?" (PDF)

To help them focus at a museum, students find it helpful to have a "job" to complete during their visit. This activity serves as that focus. By its nature, it encourages students to look at everything in the exhibits, because they might be clues about "their" survivor! In a sense, this activity is a special scavenger hunt.

Introduce the activity

Think of what you already know about your survivor from his or her occupation, address, and story, but here at the museum, look for other clues that might have influenced your survivor's decision. For example, these clues might include:

  • Map that shows what parts of town were destroyed (where are their homes and businesses on that map?);
  • Photographs of businesses showing how much damage they received (did their business suffer less damage than others?);
  • List of the dead (did they have relatives on the list?);
  • The jobs they had during the recovery and clean-up (did they have a particularly gruesome job that they might want to forget?);
  • Artifacts showing the property loss;
  • Lists of the injured or sick (might their health have been affected by the Flood?), etc.

Distribute the worksheet "Stay and Rebuild or Leave and Start Over?"

This worksheet will help you keep track of the clues you find. In the left columns list clues that seem to be reasons to stay; in the right columns list clues that seem to be reasons to leave. The chart includes examples of the types of primary sources you might find that have clues (facts and figures, artifacts, maps, stories, etc.). You may not find them all for every survivor, but the chart will help you remember to look.

At the end of the museum tour, you will guess whether your survivor stayed or left Johnstown. Then you will write a letter in your survivor's voice explaining your decision to a friend in Johnstown (see below).

Museum Worksheet directions

Stay and Rebuild or Leave and Start Over?

As you go through the Flood Museum, you will see many artifacts, photos, and stories that will help you imagine what citizens of the Conemaugh Valley went through during and, if they survived, after the Flood. Think of all these things as clues about how your survivor decided whether to stay and rebuild his or her life in Johnstown or move to another place to start over. In the chart below:

1. List on the left all the reasons you can think of to stay and rebuild in Johnstown;

2. List on the right all the reasons you can think of to move to another place to start over;

3. Consider all areas of your life, including jobs, school, church, friends and neighbors, and family members.

Reasons to stay

Reasons to leave

Museum object or story

Why it’s a reason to stay

Museum object or story

Why it’s a reason to leave

Facts and figures

Stories and quotes

Images and artifacts

Other clues

4. Take into account clues from the city directories (addresses and occupations) [HINT: Check whether their homes or businesses were in the flooded area in an old Johnstown map);

5. Decide whether to stay and rebuild your life or leave Johnstown and start over somewhere else. What are your reasons? Explain them in a letter to a Johnstown friend.

"Letter to a Johnstown Friend" Activity (PDF)

Download worksheet "Letter to a Johnstown Friend"

Depending on your field trip schedule, you may wish to do this activity at the museum, wait to do it back at class, or assign it for homework the night of your museum trip. Leave about 30 minutes to complete the activity -- write the letters, share them, then find out what their survivor really decided.

If time is short, start the letters at the museum and finish them in class or for homework. Beginning the activity while they are still at the museum is highly recommended to get students' creative juices flowing.

The worksheet for this letter includes questions to help students start writing, whether their person is staying or leaving. If you prefer doing the assignment without the worksheet (as a journal entry or with regular paper, for example), following are the questions that you can use to coach students.

Letter to a Johnstown Friend

Write a letter to a Johnstown friend explaining your decision to stay and rebuild your life in Johnstown or leave and start over somewhere else.

Explain your reasons. Express your fears and regrets. As you write, think about these questions:


  • How sure are you of your decision? Are you in conflict? What draws you to stay? What urges you to move on?
  • What personal ties keep you in Johnstown? Job ties?
  • How afraid are you of another Flood? What will you do to protect yourself?
  • How do you plan to rebuild? Why is this better than moving elsewhere?


  • Will you try to stay in touch? Why or why not?
  • Where will you go? What are your plans?
  • How sure are you of your decision? Why are you in conflict? What draws you to stay? What urges you to move on?
  • What will you miss most about Johnstown? Least?

What happened to your survivor?

Now the moment of truth! Did they stay or leave?

This chart tells what we know about the future of these survivors. Some appeared in the Johnstown Directory of 1896. Others we know from other sources, like letters or news articles.


How accurately did you predict what your survivor would decide to do?

What information would you have liked to have about your survivor? Do you think this information is available somewhere? Why or why not?

If you had been your survivor, would you have made the same decision? Why or why not?

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