On the afternoon of May 31, 1889 the people of Johnstown, Pennsylvania, heard “a roar like thunder,” as the South Fork Dam broke high above them, unleashing 20 million tons of water in walls up to 60 feet high and speeds of 40 miles per hour. Initial casualties were 2,200 people, making it one of the worst national disasters in 19th-century America. Though the flood itself lasted less than 30 minutes, it took Johnstown many years to recover. For survivors, young and old, the Night of the Johnstown Flood was a life-changing, deeply traumatic ordeal. Controversies about the causes of the flood and the town’s defenselessness against it became a nation-wide debate about industrialization, capitalism, social inequality, immigration, and the role of government. Our term-long exploration of this singular event, through primary sources, novels, films, songs, and art, introduces students to the theory and methods of history. Weekly assignments are opportunities to develop writing skills and habits of open-ended, improvisational thinking.
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