Teach PA History
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Water, Water Everywhere: The Johnstown Flood
Equipment & Supplies
  • Computers with access to the Internet PowerPoint or other software for development of presentations or a web page Computer disks for homework assignment Newsprint


The day before the lesson, set it up by having students ask parents, neighbors, or grandparents about the most catastrophic event they've experienced. What was it?¦ When did it occur?¦ What were they doing when it happened?

Day 1

The next day, ask students to identify the most catastrophic experience that ever happened to them or someone they know. (Major fire, tornado, hurricane, flood, the assassination of a president, etc.) Ask where the person was at the time and what he/she was doing. For major events like this, people tend to remember a lot of details. They've shared their stories many times, and it becomes a benchmark in their lives.

Continue the lesson by reading an excerpt from The Johnstown Flood by David McCullough. (Selected student(s) might be assigned the book to read and summarize for the class.)

The next thing she knew, Gertrude was whirling about on top of a muddy mattress that was being buoyed up by debris but that kept tilting back and forth as she struggled to get her balance. She screamed for help. Then a dead horse slammed against her raft, pitching one end of it up into the air and nearly knocking her off. She hung on for dear life, until a tree swung by, snagging the horse in its branches before it plunged off with the current in another direction, the dead animal bobbing up and down, up and down, in and out of the water, like a gigantic, gruesome rocking horse. (p. 163)

Discuss what they think might happen in a community when an event like the Johnstown Flood takes place:

  • What happens when a flood happens as a result of a dam breaking? How are people harmed or killed? What kinds of property damage occur?

  • What human tragedies might be identified through newspaper articles, diaries, pictures, etc.?

  • How do such disasters happen?

  • What happens to the environment when a river is dammed up? What happens to the environment if the dam breaks?

  • Who gets blamed, and how might they be punished? What response might the community make so this wouldn't happen again?

Have students split into teams of three. Each team will take one of the themes below and brainstorm to identify what they need to know to be able to address the theme. Ask students to use the Pennsylvanians and the Environment story and the Student References page to do preliminary research to learn what they can about their theme. Ask them to find other Web sites that give them additional information. Tell them they will report back to the class about the web sites and their opinions of the information found at each site.

  • Who's at fault - Humans or Nature? Since this was a flood caused by the failure of the South Fork Dam, were humans at fault because of shoddy dam construction? Were there other human actions that aided flooding and increased the potential for loss of life (deforestation, in-filling along the river for construction, municipal dumping, industrial waste deposits along the rivers, and building right next to the river)? Was this a natural event, inevitable because of the topography of the area?

  • Heroic actions! Every catastrophe surfaces heroes and heroines, sometimes during the actual event, sometimes in the aftermath as people try to pick up the pieces. Identify some of those people and tell what they did that made them heroes/heroines.

  • How many Johnstown Floods have there been?

  • The wealthy had the high ground! Who were some of the prominent people who were members of the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club? Were they at fault in any way?

  • Creating dams causes change. What environmental impact does a dam have on the surrounding region for wildlife, including aquatic life. For flood control? For human pleasure and recreation?

  • Breaking dams causes change. What environmental impact does a flood have on the surrounding region for wildlife, including aquatic life. What impact does a flood have on people?

  • Money speaks! How did some of the power-people of Johnstown and those who were members of the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club acquire their money? How did the flood impact those people?

Day 2

When the class comes back together, ask these questions:

  • How do you know if what you are finding in your research is accurate and correct?

  • What makes a web site a good or bad source of information when you're trying to research a topic?

  • Discuss the difference between original source material and a report or article about an event.

Have students work in their small groups to develop a "storyboard" of important information relating to their theme. (Newsprint for each group works well to record.) After all their information is up on the newsprint, have them arrange it in a logical manner. What gaps do they have in their information? What needs to be fleshed out with more information? Have students go back to the research stage to gather more information to fill their gaps.

Day 3

NOTE: This would be an excellent time for a field trip to Johnstown, if possible.

Students now have the option of pulling together their research into creative presentations. PowerPoint presentations allow for them to practice their public speaking skills, with attention holding pictures and a bit of text to help the listener focus on main points. Students must decide how much print they should use to help their audience focus, but not detract from the speaker's words. (The presentation can be made to the presenter's class or to a junior high class.)

A second option: If you have a technology person willing to team with the class, or "techies" within the class, have students develop their presentation as a web site.

For either presentation, students must ask, "How will I present my story?"

  • Is it chronological?

  • Is it technical?

  • Is it geographical?

  • Do we follow one family around?

  • How many points of view can we offer?

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