Education: Johnstown Flood Museum

Johnstown Area Heritage Association
The Great Johnstown Flood of 1889

Recipe for Disaster: Ingredients of a Deadly Flood

After Your Visit

   ** Referenced PA Standards **

Debrief museum field trip

Start a class discussion of the museum visit by asking:

  • What part of the Johnstown Flood story surprised you the most? Why?
  • What was the most amazing thing you saw at the exhibit? What parts of the exhibit will you remember longest? Why?
  • What part of the exhibit helped you imagine the emotional impact of the flood?

Introduce Culminating Activity

Flood ingredients worksheets

  • How many flood ingredients were you able to find?
  • Make a class list of all the flood ingredients they found in the exhibit.
  • Did anyone find all of them? How closely did your list from the museum match your list of predictions you made before you left?
  • Add to the list any ingredients that students missed from the worksheet key.
  • Look for ways the ingredients are related, for example topography and rivers.

Which ingredients are most important to fix first? To help you decide, let's make two "top five" lists from your ingredients list:

• Most deadly ingredients


• Easiest ingredients to fix or control


Which problems will give you the most "bang-for-the-buck" -- the greatest number of saved lives for the least amount of effort/money? In other words, "how can we use the limited amount of money we have, to save the greatest number of lives?"

If you have a limited time period and can't go on to the "Congressional Hearing on Flood Disasters" cooperative learning exercise below, you may wish to pursue this question as a whole-class discussion. See the "Fire Safety" example below.

If you plan on continuing with the "Congressional Hearing on Flood Disasters" exercise, leave the question hanging as a challenge for each team.

Congressional Hearing on Flood Disasters

Student committees (in keeping with the Congressional Hearing theme!) will take part in a Congressional Hearing to figure out what new laws have to be passed and projects funded so this never happens again. At your discretion, you can set this hearing in 1889 (of course, their reforms should be limited to knowledge and technology that was available in 1889) or you can leave the time unspecified for students too young to have enough background knowledge in American history to stay within the context of 1889.

Ask questions

As you went through the Flood Museum and we worked on our list of flood ingredients, you probably wondered how such a terrible tragedy could happen. Our first step in fixing the problems that made the Flood so destructive is to start asking questions. As a congressperson, you will need to find answers to these questions if you are to make changes that will prevent future tragedies.

  • Why is Pennsylvania so prone to flooding (it is the most flood-prone state in the union!)? What makes floods so much more destructive in some areas than others? How can floods be managed to make them less destructive?
  • What made Pennsylvania's rainfall of spring 1889 hard to predict? How much rain fell?
  • How did the South Fork Dam fail?
  • Why wasn't the dam inspected regularly? Why didn't people act on their doubts about the dam's safety?
  • Wasn't there a warning system? What happened to it?
  • What made the 1889 Flood so destructive compared to other floods in Johnstown's history?
  • What part did industries' environmental practices (or lack of them) play in the severity of the Flood?
  • How can we anticipate how man-made structures like dams, bridges, roads, grading and filling change the natural flow of rivers and streams?
  • To what extent was the Johnstown Flood a "natural disaster" or "Act of God"?

Learn more: "Fact-finding"

Explain that their committee's first job will be to tackle these questions by learning more about each flood ingredient and how it became part of the Recipe for Disaster. Congress calls this step "fact-finding."

A Student Resource page has been prepared with links to primary and secondary sources from the collection of the Johnstown Flood Museum. An introduction to primary and secondary sources is available for students unfamiliar with these terms. They can also use other sources as necessary to get information that isn't included here.

In legal or Congressional lingo, a primary source might be called "evidence," oral history and personal accounts "witness testimony," and secondary sources "expert testimony."

Suggest reforms

Their committee's main job will be to suggest reforms to keep a tragic flood like the Johnstown Flood of 1889 from ever happening again. This is where they will have to consider the most-bang-for-the-buck question left hanging above.

"Reforms" can take the form of making and enforcing laws, research, building projects, training, public awareness campaigns, etc., to prevent a disaster like the Johnstown Flood of 1889 from ever happening again or control and plan for floods that can't be prevented.

Remind students that a single reform might require several kinds of action: new laws, money to pay government inspectors to enforce the laws, a public awareness campaign to tell people about the new laws, and money to train citizens how to fix problems so they can obey the new laws. Rarely does one big change fix a big problem; instead, a lot of smaller changes add up to a big change.

You may wish to use fire safety efforts (below) to illustrate the idea of wide-ranging reforms to prevent, control, and plan for deadly disasters. (In fact, major urban fire was another destructive force that plagued the 19th century and early 20th century before safety technology and legislation caught up with mushrooming city populations.)

Committee procedure

Assign students to cooperative learning committees of four to six students. You can choose between two options for organizing this activity, depending on what best meets your students' needs and abilities (Option 2 requires more self-direction on the part of students):

Option 1: One or two ingredients per group

Assign each committee one or two ingredients to research:

As a class, combine all the committee recommendations into one set of recommendations for the Congress to consider. Use the bang-for-the-buck question "How can we use the limited amount of money we have to save the greatest number of lives?" to help make tough decisions.

Option 2: One or two ingredients per student

Each group looks into all the ingredients by assigning one or two to each committee member to research:

For this option, each committee chooses (or you can assign) one member to serve on a committee to combine all the committee recommendations into one set of recommendations for the Congress to consider (very similar to how congressional committees prepare compromise bills for the whole House and Senate to vote on). Use the bang-for-the-buck question "How can we use the limited amount of money we have to save the greatest number of lives?" to help make tough decisions.

Fire Safety

Fire is a good example of a destructive force that we prevent when we can, and control and plan for what we can't prevent. Many smaller changes over the years have added up to big results: much safer cities than Chicago was in 1871, the year of its great fire.

How do we prevent fires?

  • Laws (fire ordinances) about how many people can be in a place at one time;
  • Fire-proof building materials, especially in downtown areas of cities;
  • Products: nonflammable fabrics;
  • No smoking laws, fire risk monitoring in forests;
  • Shipping flammables - can't on planes or through tunnels

How do we control and plan for fires that we can't prevent?

  • Controlling fires
    • Fire ordinances: limit crowds; inspect any electrical wiring systems; test electrical appliance safety; require well-marked emergency exits in public buildings
    • Early intervention--catch fires and douse them while they are still small: smoke alarms, fire extinguishers, sprinkler systems
  • Planning for fires
    • Fire fighters well-trained and on alert, keep equipment well maintained,
    • Make sure water pressure is good, install fire hydrants
    • Fire warning alerts (bells, whistles, sirens, fire drills, marked, unlocked (from the inside) emergency exits, fire doors, fire lanes; use stairs, not elevators, if there is a fire.


Natural disaster or Act of God?

The Johnstown Flood of 1889 was considered a "natural disaster" or "an act of God." No law suits were ever successfully brought against the South Fork Hunting and Fishing Club. How much of the disaster was "natural" and how much was "man-made"? If the Flood happened today, would people accept that it was a natural disaster? What would probably happen? Who all would be sued for their part in the flood?

Could a disaster like the Johnstown Flood happen again?

What have we learned from the Johnstown Flood? What flood safety measures have we taken since then? What else could we do?

The Johnstown Flood of 1977 was the result of a storm that was very similar to the storm of 1889. Research the Flood of 1977. Compare the number of lives lost and property damage for each. What made the 1977 flood much less deadly than the Flood of 1889? Will there ever be a way to completely protect ourselves from floods? Why or why not?

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