Education: Johnstown Flood Museum

Johnstown Area Heritage Association
The Great Flood of 1889

Telling the Story

Harpers Weekly engraving of artist's conception of floodwave hitting Johnstown

Since no photos exist of the flood wave, artists talked to eye-witnesses and tried to imagine what it must have been like when the flood wave hit. This is an engraving that was printed in the popular magazine Harper's Weekly.


At first there was no news. The Flood had swept away every means Johnstown had of communicating with the world -- telephone and telegraph lines, railroad tracks, wagon roads, and bridges all washed away.

It didn't take long, though, for signs to arrive downstream that something was terribly wrong. The flooded Conemaugh River suddenly rose even higher and started bringing with it furniture, wagons, animals, and humans, some already dead, others still clinging to pieces of wreckage.

Citizens of the small towns rushed to get ropes, poles and anything else they might use to fish people out of the water before they drowned. They started to piece together the incredible story from the rescued survivors: the dam everyone had feared might fail had burst, sending a giant wave of destruction down the valley. No one knew yet just how bad it was.

By 21st century standards, communications technologies of 1889 were limited, but it was so far advanced from what it had been just 40-50 years before, that people rightfully considered that they were living in an age of wonders. (In fact, the "Age of Wonders" that began with the instant electronic communication breakthroughs in the mid-1800s has progressed nonstop to the present!)

By 1889 the telegraph and the telephone had contributed much to knitting a vast expanse of land into a nation. They had also raised expectations: being out of touch with a community for even a short time was cause for alarm.

The Flood had swept away the telegraph lines, leaving the Conemaugh Valley cut off from everyone and everything. The floating debris with its load of survivors and victims plus the loss of all communication added up to disaster.

Railroad tracks, roads, and bridges were washed out as well, so there was no way to resort to old-fashioned messengers. The Pennsylvania Railroad officials were the first to put together the clues. They telegraphed Pittsburgh, and from there, the rest of the world: a dam had broken as a result of the recent heavy rains, destroying Johnstown and other Conemaugh Valley towns. Thousands lost their lives.

By the next morning, citizens met in cities around the nation to plan relief efforts. The railroads started repairing their tracks to be able to deliver people and goods to help and to evacuate the wounded and homeless. The first reporters were already on their way! After taking the train as far as they could, they set out cross-country on horseback or on foot.

Before long those first reporters were joined by hundreds more, along with photographers and artists. The Johnstown Flood became the most sensational media event since the assassination of President Lincoln in 1865. Coverage was on the scale recent generations witnessed surrounding the terrorists attacks of September 11, 2001. The Flood was front page news for weeks. Front pages of major national newspapers carried nothing but stories of the flood for days.

In spite of the press becoming obstacles to recovery and relief efforts at times, in the end, the coverage brought the plight of homeless, grieving Johnstowners home (literally) to the whole nation. People were touched and generous, donating money, goods, expertise, and time to help. These relief efforts were in turn covered by the press! The press reported the needs; the people responded.

Later, the Johnstown Flood story inspired books, some memoirs of survivors, others embellished rumors churned-out quickly to make a quick buck. Eventually, there were also songs, prints, commemorative plates and spoons. Heroes were created out of nothing while real heroes went unsung. Most bizarrely, Coney Island (an amusement park) created a "Johnstown Flood" amusement attraction for its boardwalk!

From our vantage point over 100 years later, we recognize all the marks of a media frenzy. In 1889 the media coverage was precedent-setting.

Examining how this incredible (even now!) story was told can help students view today's media more critically. Language arts, music, art, and media students can learn to separate the media and the message, see how messages are tailored to specific audiences, judge fact and opinion.

With the wealth of primary materials that such wall-to-wall coverage of the Flood left behind, students will consider such questions as:

Teacher's Guide for "Telling the Story "

   ** Referenced PA Standards **

Disciplines: Social studies (economics, geography, history, government), language arts, visual arts, journalism, literature, creative writing, music.

Students will experience the challenge of "Describing the Indescribable" and "Imagining the Unimaginable" by translating eyewitness accounts into illustrations and photographs into words.

At the museum, choose between surveying/analyzing the media and messages visible in the exhibits and a creative writing exercise to give voice to the "silent witnesses" -- artifacts that survived the Flood.

Compare Flood stories written for four different purposes and audiences. Choose from several ways for students to tell what they consider the most important stories the Flood has to tell.

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