Johnstown Flood



Image courtesy of the  Johnstown Area Heritage Association

Johnstown prior to the flood.  Image courtesy of the Johnstown Area Heritage Association

“Most of the people in Johnstown never saw the water coming; they only heard it, and those that lived to tell about it would for years after try to describe the sound of the thing as it rushed on them”

Johnstown after the flood.  What  landscape changes between the two photographs do you notice?


floodThe Johnstown Flood by David McCullough is a riveting account of the 1889 Johnstown Flood.  McCullough takes the reader through the days and weeks leading up to the massive flood that killed over 2000 people and leveled the Pennsylvania City. This work of nonfiction culminates with the actual flood that was spurred by a dam break that resulted in a miles long tidal wave.  Who or what was to blame?  Students will enjoy debating this question as well as exploring the environmental factors that caused such a horrific disaster.

Things to consider:

  • Who was responsible for the flood?  Whose side are you on?
  • How could the disaster been averted?
  • Why did some people survive while others did not?
  • What role did the railroad play?
  • How was the physical geography of the region changed by the flood?
  • What impact did technology play in the geography of the region?
  • What lessons can be learned from the Johnstown flood of 1889?
  • How did communications affect the outcome of the flood?



  • 96 entire families died
  • 1600 homes were destroyed
  • Over 2200 people lost their lives
  • The flood debris covered 30 acres
  • The flood wave was over 35 feet high and traveled at about 40 miles per hour.
  • Flood lines were found as high as 80 plus feet above river level
  • The flood was the first peacetime disaster relief effort done by the Red Cross and was headed up by Clara Barton
  • The source of the flood contained 20 million tons of water


Johnstown Flood National Memorial:

Johnstown Flood Museum:

New York Times accounts of the flood:


If you like The Johnstown Flood you might like:

  • Isaac’s Storm by Eric Larson
  • The Children’s Blizzard by David Laskin

Related books:

  • Images of America:  Johnstown by Lyndee Jobe Henderson and R. Dean Jobe (photos, documents, and imagery collection with descriptions)
  • We the People, The Johnstown Flood by Marc Tyler Nobleman (for elementary readers)