Education: Johnstown Flood Museum

Johnstown Area Heritage Association
Teachers' Guide

Telling the Story: After your visit

Materials list for this lesson
Readings* Activities Primary sources*

General Background on the Flood

Short Background Readings in this section:

Activity sheets for students:

Standard blue-red 3-D glasses can be used to view 3-D picture galleries or glasses can be purchased from the Johnstown Area Heritage Association.

PDFs of primary Sources used in activities:

Same Flood, Different Stories

Every Picture Tells a Story

Heroes and Hoaxes: Sung and Unsung

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

   ** Referenced PA Standards **

Depending on your language arts, arts, or media literacy instructional goals, after your museum visit you may take your study of "Telling the Story" one of several directions:

Same Flood, Different Stories

In this activity, students will read and analyze descriptions of the same event -- the Johnstown Flood of 1889 -- written by different authors for different purposes. They will learn to tell the difference between an eyewitness account (a primary source) and a secondary source like a newspaper article.

Distribute the graphic organizer "Same Flood, Different Stories" to the class. Point out the four categories of stories on the Student Resources page, which also head the columns of the graphic organizer: "Survivor Stories," "Eyewitness Stories," "Newspaper Articles," and "Official Reports." Students should read at least one story from each category, keeping notes as they read in the squares of the organizer. See below for suggestions for adapting to younger readers or shorter time periods.

After reading

Ask students to review the notes they made on their graphic organizers. Read across the rows of the table to find differences between the four types of stories:

  • Who are the authors and for whom are they writing?
  • Why are they writing? What is the purpose of the story, article, or report?
  • What voice are they written in (first, second, or third person)?
  • What kinds of vocabulary do they use to describe the flood and its victims? Which are easiest to read? Which are most difficult? Why?
  • What aspects of the flood does each kind of story tell best?
  • Were all the stories in one category alike? How did the newspaper stories differ? How did the reports differ? How were the survivor and eyewitness stories different from each other?

Fact and Opinion

  • Which stories are more factual? Which are opinions? Which stories are more emotional? How can you tell?
  • What words are used to explain facts? What words are used to state opinions? What words are used to express emotions?
  • Are emotional stories less true than factual stories? Why or why not? [Emotions are personal, so they are true for the person feeling them. Two people can have different emotions about the same factual event -- both are experiencing true feelings. In their stories, flood survivors report facts, like the floodwave lifting their houses off the ground and crashing them into a neighbor's house, and their emotional response to the fact -- terror and grief. Both the fact and the emotional response are true.]


  • What does "sensationalize" mean? [to emphasize the most shocking and emotional aspects of a subject, rather than accuracy] Which stories were most sensationalist? What kinds of words and phrases did they use to shock readers?
  • Why do some writers resort to sensationalism?
  • What programs and publications use sensationalism today?

Different sources for different purposes

Which of these stories would you read…

  • …If you were an emergency officer in another town in 1890 looking for ways to keep your citizens safer during floods?
  • …If you were a genealogist who just discovered that your ancestor lived through the Flood and wanted to find out what it was like for them?
  • …If you were a historian studying the Pennsylvania Railroad?
  • …If you were a historian studying civil engineering in the 1800s?
  • …If you were a charity with money to give for Flood relief in 1890?

Adapting for younger readers or shorter instruction time

For younger students or shorter time, this comparison activity can be limited to two kinds of stories rather than four. "Survivor Stories" and "Newspaper Articles" make a good combination for younger readers. Older students have the background and higher reading levels to understand the engineering (how the South Fork Dam failed) and Board of Health (preventing thousands of decaying bodies from causing terrible epidemics) reports in the "Official Report" category.

Every Picture Tells a Story

In this activity, students take on the role of an editor or curator who has limited space to tell the story of the Johnstown Flood using only four photographs. They must decide what information is important to tell the Johnstown Flood story, choose photographs to tell as much as possible, and decide what parts of the story cannot be told through photos.

This activity can serve several purposes, depending on your instructional goals:

However you decide to integrate it into your instruction, students will practice summarizing important "take-home" knowledge, judging which media are suitable to communicate different messages, and translating ideas from one communication medium to another.

Distribute the "Every Picture Tells a Story" worksheet.

Discuss Step 1

  • Why it is important for editor, curators, and authors to decide the main points of a story before telling it -- whether in words or pictures?
  • How would they decide which points of the Flood story are best told in pictures?
  • What about the Flood has to be seen to be believed? Which photos amazed you most? Why?

Direct students to the Flood picture galleries to find the four pictures they would choose to tell the story of the Flood. Sketch the photos in the frames and write a caption that helps viewers understand the important points of the story (just as a curator or book or magazine editor does).

If practical, ask them to share their choices with the class or a small group:

  • Have any photos been chosen more than once? How are people using these photos in their stories? Why do these photos communicate so strongly?
  • How difficult was it to limit yourself to four photos? What good photos did you decide against? How did you make those decisions?


Discuss Step 3

  • What aspects of the Flood story were you able to tell with photos?
  • What parts of the story could not be told in pictures? What other media would do a better job telling those parts of the story?
  • What did you learn from the written stories that photos didn't show? [individual stories, what happened before and after the pictures were taken, what people were thinking and feeling, etc.]
  • What other information would help tell the story? [facts, statistics, geographical information, etc.] How could these parts of the story be told? [charts, graphs, maps, etc.]

Hoaxes and Heroes, Sung and Unsung

This exploration of heroes in the press and other media (popular song) begins with an investigation to discern fact from fiction in a fabricated story of "the Paul Revere of Johnstown." In debunking the hoax in his book, Rev. David Beale provides a good example of arguing a point of view by substantiating it with facts.

A discussion of the possible harm done by hoaxes (the Paul Revere hoax did considerable harm to Flood victims by claiming this cavalierly disregarded warnings that the Flood was coming) can be expanded to cover journalistic ethics, if you wish.

Finally, students discuss why people look for heroes in times of disaster and tragedy. After reviewing the stories of some genuine, mostly unsung, heroes of the Flood, they will choose one to honor with a song, poem, or monument.

The Paul Revere of Johnstown

Read the news stories and song lyrics linked on the page "The Paul Revere of Johnstown, Part 1."

Discuss the "Paul Revere" stories

  • Who was Paul Revere? What do the stories mean when they say the ""Paul Revere of Johnstown"?
  • What did this "Paul Revere" do? How are the stories the same? What parts of the Daniel Peyton/Periton stories have a ring of truth to them?
  • How are they different? What could be the reason that stories don't agree in a courtroom or sources don't agree in history? [Someone isn't telling the truth; the story was made up]
  • What parts of this story are hard to believe (think about all you've learned at the museum and by reading eyewitness stories and official reports)? [How long would it take to ride a horse the 14 miles from South Fork to Johnstown? How easily could a horse and rider have ridden through the streets of Johnstown?]
  • What lines in these stories and songs probably upset Johnstowners? [That Johnstowners were warned the Flood was coming but didn't listen to the warnings.]
  • How do you think people felt when they read lines that blamed them for not listening to warnings? Why hadn't the telegraph warnings gotten through to everyone?

Read Rev. David Beale's response to the Paul Revere (and telegraph) stories on the page "The Paul Revere of Johnstown, Part 2."

Discuss Rev. Beale's opinion

  • Why did Rev. Beale think it was important to set the Paul Revere story straight? What are some of the doubtful parts of the story that Rev. Beale argues against? How does he back up his opinions? [With facts about the geography of the region and events that were happening when the ride was supposed to have taken place.]
  • If Johnstowners did hear rumors or warnings that the dam was ready to break, how might they have responded? What might they think would happen? Did they have any reason to expect the Flood to be as bad as it was?
  • What happened the other time the dam broke in the 1860s? [The dam broke once before in the 1860s and there hadn't been much damage.] Had they ever been through floods before? What had happened? [Johnstown flooded almost every spring. They moved valuables above the waterline, rowed boats through the streets -- flooding usually didn't cause serious damage. The water had never gotten as high as it did in 1889 and the dam held.]
  • Were Johnstowners ignoring the flood? What were they doing to prepare for the rising waters?  [No. People were moving themselves and valuables to the second floor of houses, taking animals to safe places. Workers were sent home at noon to help their families get ready.]
  • Has there ever been a flood where you live? What did people do to protect themselves?
  • What is a flood watch? A flood warning? How are they sent out? [broadcast on radio and TV] What should people do when there is a flood watch? A flood warning? What are the rules for staying safe in a flood or flash-flood? Download NOAA/Red Cross/FEMA brochure and flyer.
  • Would this system have helped Johnstown in 1889? Why or why not? [Family emergency plans, getting to higher ground would have helped, but without a warning system, no one would know when to put these plans into effect.]


Even if Daniel Peyton wasn't real, many other heroes were. Most of them we'll never know about. Many died being heroes. Some were even animals!

Have students read the stories of some of the heroes we know about, though we may not know for sure. One of these stories involves the telegraph operator Hettie Ogle, who died at her post.

Another story comes from a photo of a little girl who was supposed to have been saved from drowning by the family dog. Students will gather more evidence about the breed of the dog in the photo to shed more light on the story. [NOTE: Dog breeders and trainers asked to identify the breed in this picture took the educated guess that it was likely an American Water Spaniel, a popular all-around hunting dog in the late 1800s. Other possibilities: Irish Water Spaniel, Curly-Coated Retriever. Though it looks like a Portuguese Water Dog, they were not known in the USA in 1889. All are the size and color of the dog in the picture, are strong swimmers and devoted family dogs, and can be clipped as in the photo (the Lion Clip) for easier swimming.

Discuss the stories

  • Why do we admire people like John Hess and Hettie Ogle?
  • What was heroic about what they did? [they put themselves in danger to help other people or go over and above the "call of duty" (do more to help than is expected of them) to help others]
  • Why do people look for heroes when terrible tragedies occur? Why do we tell their stories (even to the point of making them up, like Daniel Peyton!)?


Most of the heroes of the Johnstown Flood were "unsung." Give them the recognition they deserve!

1. Choose a hero from the people (or animals!) whose stories are on this site or at the Johnstown Flood Museum.

2. Think about what your hero did and why you admire him or her for it.

3. Write a poem or song (set to any appropriate tune) or design a monument to honor the hero you have chosen.

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