Lesson Plan

Run for Your Lives! The Johnstown Flood of 1889

Aftermath of Johnstown Flood
Grade Level:
Middle School: Sixth Grade through Eighth Grade
Social Studies
Lesson Duration:
90 Minutes
Common Core Standards:
6-8.RH.1, 6-8.RH.2, 6-8.RH.3, 6-8.RH.4, 6-8.RH.5, 6-8.RH.6, 6-8.RH.7, 6-8.RH.8, 6-8.RH.9, 6-8.RH.10, 9-10.RH.1, 9-10.RH.2, 9-10.RH.3, 9-10.RH.4, 9-10.RH.5, 9-10.RH.6, 9-10.RH.7, 9-10.RH.8, 9-10.RH.9, 9-10.RH.10, 11-12.RH.1, 11-12.RH.2, 11-12.RH.3, 11-12.RH.4, 11-12.RH.5, 11-12.RH.6, 11-12.RH.7, 11-12.RH.8, 11-12.RH.9, 11-12.RH.10
Additional Standards:
US History Era 6 1A: The student understands the connections among industrialization, the advent of the modern corporation, and material well-being.
Curriculum Standards for Social Studies from the National Council for the Social Studies.
Thinking Skills:
Remembering: Recalling or recognizing information ideas, and principles. Understanding: Understand the main idea of material heard, viewed, or read. Interpret or summarize the ideas in own words. Applying: Apply an abstract idea in a concrete situation to solve a problem or relate it to a prior experience. Analyzing: Break down a concept or idea into parts and show the relationships among the parts. Creating: Bring together parts (elements, compounds) of knowledge to form a whole and build relationships for NEW situations. Evaluating: Make informed judgements about the value of ideas or materials. Use standards and criteria to support opinions and views.

Essential Question

What social and natural factors contribute to a disaster?


1. To analyze the reasons people shrug off the potential for disasters such as the Johnstown flood;
2. To outline the circumstances that caused the flood and to explain how it could have been prevented;
3. To use maps and photographs as well as the written record to analyze a historical event
4. To describe humanitarian responses to such disasters;
5. To research local history to see if any disasters have occurred in their region.


On June 1, 1889, newspapers across the country bore huge headlines announcing that on the day before, Johnstown, Pennsylvania, had been ravaged by the most devastating flood in the nation's history. With railroad tracks washed away and telegraph lines down, contact with the city was completely cut off, so most early newspaper editions carried stories based on rumor, conjecture, and the accounts of a few overwrought survivors. One bold headline proclaimed, "JOHNSTOWN BLOTTED OUT BY THE FLOOD! HALF OF ITS PEOPLE KILLED." The story that followed told of unbelievable horrors, but the truth, when it became known, was scarcely less ghastly than the fabricated tales of the "yellow" journalists of the time: more than 2,200 people were known to be dead and hundreds more were missing. Property damage amounted to $17 million. The cleanup operation would take five years, and bodies were still being found months and even years after the flood.

Lesson Hook/Preview

The Johnstown Flood National Memorial in Pennsylvania commemorates the most devastating flood of the 19th century in the United States and the greatest national catastrophe in the post-Civil War era. The Johnstown Flood was caused by the giving way of the South Fork Dam and is an example of what can happen when people disregard principles of engineering and hydrology. The flood has provided a vast literature with important lessons for environmental management today. At present, all that remains of the historic earthen dam (originally about 900 feet long and 75 feet high) are the north and south abutments, the spillway cut around the north abutment to carry off excess water, and a few remnants of wood and culvert foundation stones representing the location of the control mechanism.

The story of the break of the South Fork Dam begins innocently enough. The dam had been built between 1838 and 1853 by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania to provide water for the operation of the Western Division of the Pennsylvania Mainline Canal between Johnstown and Pittsburgh. Located some 12 miles east of Johnstown at a point where the South Fork branch of the Little Conemaugh River and several mountain streams converged, the dam created what was, at the time, one of the largest artificial lakes in the nation, more than two miles long and nearly a mile wide in some places. The Pennsylvania Railroad Company purchased the entire Mainline works in 1857 and left the dam and the reservoir virtually unattended.

In 1879 a group of wealthy industrialists formed the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club and bought the dam and the reservoir for a private summer resort. By 1881 the dam had been repaired–without benefit of an engineer–and the reservoir filled to capacity to form the now nearly three-mile-long Lake Conemaugh. A clubhouse with 47 rooms fronted the lake. From its large porch, members could watch the club's two steam yachts setting off on excursion trips. A number of club members built large cottages nearby. For the next eight years the summer resort offered fishing, hunting, boating, and other recreational opportunities for club members, until, in 1889, the dam broke and sent some 20 million tons of water crashing down the valley towards Johnstown. When it was over, the flood had claimed more than 2,000 lives.


Getting Started Prompt
Map: Orients the students and encourages them to think about how place affects culture and society
Readings: Primary and secondary source readings provide content and spark critical analysis.
Visual Evidence: Students critique and analyze visual evidence to tackle questions and support their own theories about the subject.
Optional post-lesson activities: If time allows, these will deepen your students' engagement with the topics and themes introduced in the lesson, and to help them develop essential skills.



Additional Resources

Johnstown Flood National Memorial 
Visit the Johnstown Flood National Memorial web pages to learn more about the park or the story of the flood. Included on the site are details about the dam, eye witness accounts of the disaster, information on other U.S. disasters, and much more.

The Johnstown Flood Museum
The Johnstown Flood Museum web pages offers extensive photographs and a detailed history of the incident.

Johnstown Historic Information
The Johnstown Pennsylvania Information Source Online offers a great compilation of writings on different aspects of Johnstown history. Included is information about how the town came into existence, its railroad age, the flood, news on the flood from different sources, and much more.

The Johnstown Inclined Plane
For a brief history and photographs of the railway, visit the Johnstown Inclined Plane web page.

U.S. Geological Survey
The U.S. Geological Survey provides a Web page detailing significant floods in the United States during the 20th Century. Included on the site is information on details such as flood measurements, why floods occur, which areas are most likely to flood, flood facts, and more.

Contact Information

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Last updated: August 3, 2023