Education: Johnstown Flood Museum

Johnstown Area Heritage Association
The Great Flood of 1889

Recipe for Disaster: Ingredients of a Deadly Flood

The South Fork Dam, an earthen dam with a large gap revealing empty lake in the background

The South Fork Lake overflowed its earthen dam after many days of heavy rain. The dam gave way, releasing a huge floodwave down the Conemaugh Valley, destroying everything in its path.


For nearly 120 years -- since the moment the South Fork Dam was pushed aside by the over-flowing Lake Conemaugh -- people have looked for someone to blame. Usually that has boiled down to the members of the South Fork Hunting and Fishing Club. In 1889, however, the Flood was ruled a "natural disaster" or "act of God." No one was held legally responsible for what happened.

If the Flood happened today, imagine the lawsuits that would be filed by thousands against everyone remotely connected!

Maybe it is human nature to look for causes and place blame. However, looking for someone to blame is not really the most useful way to think about a tragedy on the scale of the Johnstown Flood of 1889. After all, the dam had held for decades with only a few problems that did not cause much destruction. Why did it fail so colossally on May 31, 1889? Why was the Conemaugh Valley so vulnerable to flooding? What other factors contributed to the size and destructiveness of the Johnstown Flood?

These are the big questions students will investigate by digging into the evidence. To answer the big questions, however, students will need to ask and seek answers for a multitude of other questions that overlap geology, meteorology, engineering, communication and transportation technologies, as well as history, geography, and economics disciplines within the social studies:

Why investigate these questions now? As the old saying goes, "Hindsight is 20/20"! Is it unfair for us to judge everything that went wrong in May 1889 from the comfort of the 21st century? It is unfair if we are judging just to find more people to blame. But looking back at the Great Flood of 1889 to learn rather than judge can teach us many important lessons for today about getting along with the environment, keeping ourselves safe, and having the courage to stand up to powerful people who might not have our best interests in mind.

Teacher's Guide for "Recipe for Disaster"

Referenced PA Standards are available.

Disciplines: Earth science, technology, social studies (economics, geography, history, government.)

Laying groundwork: After learning about the causes and effects of flooding in Pennsylvania generally, students will use a topographical map to hypothesize what factors might have contributed to the severity of the Johnstown Flood of 1889.

Looking for clues: On their museum field trip, students will collect and categorize all the factors that contributed to the destructiveness of the Flood -- the "ingredients" of the Flood.

Hearing the evidence: Working in small groups, students will delve further into the factors they found through primary and secondary historical sources. They will present their findings and recommendations in a Congressional Hearing on Flood Disasters and...

Recommend changes: Determine which ingredients can be fixed and which are not fixable, but can be controlled or prevented. Then, recommend changes to keep Johnstown and other areas in our region safe from such devastating ruin and tragic loss of life.

Resources for "Recipe for Disaster"

General Background

Topography and Land Use

The South Fork Dam



Warnings and evacuation plans

Picture Galleries


*Primary sources: Evidence, opinion, First-hand accounts

**Secondary sources: Expert Witnesses

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