A Tourist Guide to Johnstown, Pennsylvania

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Historical Perspective

Cradled by Pennsylvania’s Allegheny Mountains, 70 miles east of Pittsburgh, Johnstown is an historical expression of the mineral resources, industry, immigration, and natural disasters which shaped it.

Initially settled in 1770 and formally organized as a town 30 years later, it served as the head of the Pennsylvania’s Mainline Canal between 1834 and 1854.  The Allegheny Portage Railroad, employing the most advanced technology then available, traversed the imposing, mountainous obstacles between Philadelphia and Pittsburgh by means tracks and canals, the former surmounting the peaks with canal boat-carrying trains and the latter permitting nautical negotiation of the flatter sections.  The boats themselves were refloated in Johnstown before continuing to Pittsburgh and the Ohio Valley.

Engineering maturity inevitably obviated the rail-and-water, intermodal system, facilitating track laying throughout the entire route, but the change only served to strengthen Johnstown, which became a stop on the Pennsylvania Railroad.  It, itself, connected with the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad.

The rails brought people and commerce and connected the east with the west, but the area offered its own resources.  Mineral-rich, it brimmed with iron, steel, and coal, attracting the industry required to process it and the workforce needed to run it.

The Cambria Iron Company, a proverbial heart pumping blood into the town’s ever-expanding arteries, attracted countless immigrants and served as a catalyst of the Industrial Revolution.  Owning 40,000 acres and employing some 7,000, it fed the country’s insatiable hunger for steel needed to build skyscrapers, bridges, railroads, and ships, transforming iron in its sprawling processing plants and eventually becoming the leading steel producer.

Johnstown, however, was not all work.  A tiny pocket, located 14 miles from its core and created by Pittsburgh industrialists and businessmen such as Andrew Carnegie and Andrew Mellon, was for pleasure.  Like a ticking time bomb, however, it would also cause its destruction, and it was rapidly running out of minutes.

Located on a floodplain at the fork of the Little Conemaugh and Stonycreek rivers, it had been progressively depleted of its surrounding forest, eaten away by its expanding population’s need for land to support it.  Its thinning tree line, helpless to slow rain runoff, could only watch in vain as water flowed into the restricted channel.

Perched 450 feet higher on a mountainside was a two-mile-wide Lake Conemaugh, waiting behind its South Fork Dam gates to be released.  Hitherto used for fishing and sailing, it was acquired by the exclusive, South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club, along with the abandoned reservoir once an integral part of the Pennsylvania Mainline Canal, and a clubhouse and cottages were subsequently built.  But the poorly maintained dam progressively deteriorated in ratio to the lake’s progressive rise.  Although predictions concerning its ultimate failure had yet to materialize, its roulette wheel had been spun too many times, and the “perfect storm” was about to rage—in more ways than one.

Memorial Day of 1889 could not have been less predictive of the event.  It was beautiful and bucolic.  People were jovial.  Parades graced the streets.

The time bomb’s ticking became progressively louder to those wishing to listen to it.  But few did.

Torrential rains falling throughout the night had caused the lake to swell to almost uncontainable levels, its water creeping toward the dam’s crest, and on the morning of May 31, Colonial Elias J. Unger, the club’s manager, discovered that it was now rising between four and six inches per hour.

Alarmed into action at 10:00 a.m., he made a last ditch effort, with the aid of a team of Italian laborers, to create a spillway on its west end and elevate its breast.  But the impossible odds of pitting a handful of men against a potentially volcanic force proved too high and too predictable.  The bomb—and the dam—burst!

Audibly confirmed with a low rumble, which exploded into a “roar like thunder,” the 20 million tons of water ate through the crumbling dam like acid eating through paper at 3:10 that afternoon, transforming itself into a 36-foot-high aquatic monster of insurmountable force which cascaded down the valley at 40-mph speeds, consuming everything in its path and “crush(ing) houses like eggshells,” according to eyewitness accounts.

Reaching South Fork, two miles downstream, it ravaged between 20 and 30 structures before proceeding to narrowing Little Conemaugh River Valley, growing in height to 75 feet and ripping railroad ties and tracks in the process; it carried them as if they were helpless children.

Dividing, the deluge took two paths: part of it continued to follow the river and part of it plowed into the 78-foot-high Conemaugh Viaduct, which supported the railroad tracks.  But its debris-carrying stream formed a giant cork, as if it encountered a secondary dam, forming a temporary, 19-foot-deep lake behind it—deeper, in fact, than the original one from which the deluge had been created. 

Pieces, portions, and entire houses, plucked from their foundations like crumbs, along with valley-dislodged material, piled up against the bridge’s arches, before erupting into telegraph pole-, freight car-, and human-fed flames, burning, according to Johnstown newspapers, with “all the fury of hell.”

Ultimately eating its way through the bridge’s arches, the debris-saturated torrent, now an oily-black slime, gushed with even greater intensity.

Continuing its descent, it plowed through the single-street village of Mineral Point, one mile from the viaduct, sweeping 16 people to their demise and leaving only bare rock.

Carrying so much debris by the time it reached East Conemaugh, it no longer appeared a transport medium, but instead resembled a rolling hill of solid material.

As the river valley straightened out between East Conemaugh and Woodvale, the tidal wave gained maximum momentum, impacting with the Gaultier Wire Works, whose boilers exploded into black mist.  Three hundred fourteen of the 1,100 local residents perished.

Plunging into Johnstown ten minutes after it had been unleashed, it smacked into the stone church at the corner of Locust and Franklin streets, splitting as if given divine direction and propagating until it lost power.  Behind it lay a trail of unprecedented death and destruction.

The following morning revealed its war-like, but ghostly-silent aftermath.  Locomotives had been lifted from their tracks and tossed for miles, as if they had been made of papiermache.  From the rubble of houses, which stood three stories high, protruded trees and telegraph poles, as if they had been the town’s dismembered limbs.  Entire blocks had been striped, leaving naked fields.  Bombing raid-reminiscent rubble rose into mini-mountains.  Oil- and coal-fed fires burned for two days.  Bodies lay buried beneath the muddy sludge.  And 2,209 souls had, as a result of it all, departed the world.  The subsequent spread of ravaging disease, mostly due to typhoid fever, bid farewell to another 40.  And the Great Flood of 1889 forever left its scars on Johnstown.

But, Phoenix-like, it rose from the rubble, the steel mills rebuilt and activated only a month after its destruction, once again resurrecting the otherwise decimated town, which entered its second, even more prosperous, period.

Always known for, and shaped by, the event, Johnstown was subjected to not one, but two, other catastrophic floods.

The first of these occurred on March 17, 1936, when a steady rain, coupled with snow and melting ice cascading down the surrounding hills, caused a steady rise in the Little Conemaugh and Stonycreek rivers, peaking at 18 inches per hour and spilling over on to Valley Pike.

The Johnstown Inclined Plane, connecting the lower city with Westmont, enabled half of the town’s residents to escape its harm, but when cars were no longer able to gain traction, they could not reach it.  Workers were trapped in buildings and the electricity ultimately failed.

The water level, peaking at 17 feet at midnight, then receded, but left $50 million worth of damage.

The third, occurring between July 19 and 20, 1977, resulted from unprecedented rainfall, totaling 11.82 inches in a ten-hour period and unleashing 128 million gallons of water in to the Conemaugh Valley when six dams overflowed and failed.

Most of this history can now be experienced by visiting Johnstown’s sights.

Johnstown Flood Museum

Located in the former Cambria Library, the Johnstown Flood Museum recreates the catastrophic, 1889 event through exhibits, artifacts, and films.

The French Gothic structure itself, designed by Addison Hutton of Philadelphia, rests on a circular, stone pier foundation and features Pennsylvania pine interior woodwork, eight chimneys, and third-floor dormers.  Replacing the original library, but occupying its original site on the corner of Washington and Walnut streets, it was constructed after the flood with funds provided by steel magnate Andrew Carnegie, who himself had been a member of the ill-fated South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club.  Before being converted for its present use, it had sported lecture rooms on its first floor, the library itself on its second, and a gymnasium on its third.

It is now listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Operated by the Johnstown Area Heritage Association, it features, as its cornerstone, a fiber-optic, multi-media relief map entitled “The Path of the Flood” and interpreted by a museum docent, illustrating the event of May 31, 1889 in time and space.  A timeline with light and sound effects also navigates the visitor through it.

Other exhibits include photographs of, and artifacts from, the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club, actual flood objects, news stories, and recovered items, such as Red Cross supplies and a doctor’s kit.

“The Johnstown Flood,” a 26-minute, academy award-winning film, produced by internationally acclaimed filmmaker Charles Guggenheim, is shown in the museum’s second-floor Robert S. Waters Theater.  It won the award for “best documentary, short subject.”

Additional, flood-related photographs hang from the stairway halls and from the walls on the third floor.  The room’s ceiling alone is worth the visit.

Appendaged to the museum is an actual “Oklahoma house,” a temporary shelter used by flood survivors and a marked improvement over the crude blanket, tent, and lean-to coverages they were otherwise forced to assemble from the rubble.

An early example of a prefabricated structure built in Chicago for homesteaders, the museum’s single-floor example, once located in the city’s Moxham neighborhood, has a wood plank floor, a pot belly stove, a round dining table, a wooden storage chest, and a rocking chair.

The houses built by the Johnstown Flood Finance Committee between July and August of 1889 were offered in two sizes: ten by 20 and 16 by 24 feet.  Three hundred ten were constructed during this period.

Like the Chicago fire and the San Francisco earthquake, the Johnstown flood of 1889 was an iconic and pivotal event in American history, and the museum admirably illustrates it and its underlying struggle of man versus nature—especially when the former tempts the latter.

Johnstown Inclined Plane

Symbolic of the city is the Johnstown Inclined Plane, which is a National Historic Landmark and is listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as “the steepest vehicular inclined plane in the world.”

Designed by Samuel Diescher of Pittsburgh and built by the Cambria Iron Company as a steep rail system to transport its workers from the valley floor to the newly-created Westmont residential development located on the hill’s rim overlooking Johnstown, it features a double track.  Its original, dual-level cars, hailing from Pittsburgh, offered a 12-passenger cabin below and accommodation for horses and wagons above, and operated differentially, the upward-traveling car counterbalancing the downward one.  Power was provided by a steam engine connected to a 16-foot-diameter, dual-directional drum, which had a 50-foot circumference.

Inaugurated into service on June 1, 1891, or 13 months after construction had begun, the funicular assessed a two-cent fare for a single person, ten cents for a horse and rider, and 25 cents for a small wagon, operating at five-minute intervals and carrying 600 passengers and 30 horse-drawn wagons on its very first day.

Maintaining these five-minute interval frequencies 24 hours per day until 1920, it carried a record 1,356,293 passengers and 124,825 vehicles during the prior year.

Early improvements included the replacement of the steam engine with a 300-hp electric one in 1911 and the substitution of single-deck cars for the original dual-level ones in 1921.  Offering increased capacity, they accommodated 50 passengers and three Ford Model Ts.

The opening of Pennsylvania State Highway 271, road-connecting Johnstown with Westmont for the first time, inevitably affected ridership, whose decline began in 1953 and slowed to a trickle, just before its 1961 closure.

Viewed as an area attraction, the Cambria County Tourist Council assumed operational responsibility for it in April of the following year, making several improvements before reopening it in July and altogether purchasing it for a token $1.00 in 1983, at which time it was restored to its original, 1891 appearance.

Today, the Johnstown Inclined Plane is accessed by a heavy iron bridge, which crosses the Stonycreek River, and its lower entrance is built up of three-foot-thick iron girders and supported by stone abutments.

Its two cars, measuring 15.2 by 15.6 by 34 feet and accommodating passengers in a bench-provisioned side cabin and several vehicles next to it, are duplicates of those which hauled cargo boats on the Allegheny Portage Railroad, weighing 38 tons each.  Pulled by three, two-inch-thick, power steel, wire rope, 2,150-foot-long cables, whose weight is 23,125 pounds, they ply the 85-pound-per-yard rail manufactured by the Bethlehem Steel Company and imbedded in the hillside at a 35-degree slope and a 71-percent grade.  The incline’s length is 896.5 feet, while the total rail length is 3,586 feet.

Powered by a 400-hp electric motor, the system employs a 16-foot, alternate-directional hoisting drum round which the cables are wound, reeling in one while releasing the other.  That on the drum’s top pulls the north car while that on the bottom releases the south one.

Wood-lined drum brakes are used for emergency back up, although an overspeed lilly governor severs electric current to the hauling motor if any car exceeds a predetermined speed, stopping it.  Compressors supply air to the braking mechanisms.

Several facilities are located at the summit, including scenic overlooks, the motor room where visitors can view the system’s inner works during operation, a gift shop, a tourist information center, and the City View Bar and Grill.

Since its inception, the Johnstown Inclined plane has transported more than 40 million passengers and countless horses, wagons, and vehicles.

Frank and Sylvia Pasquerilla Heritage Discovery Center

Located in the Cambria section of Johnstown, 85 percent of which had been populated by immigrants during the 1880s, and operated by the Johnstown Area Heritage Association, the Frank and Sylvia Pasquerilla Heritage Discovery Center is a multiple-attraction venue housed in a 1907 building originally used by the city’s Germania Brewery Company.

One of many brick structures encircling an inner courtyard, it had been sold to Louis Zang for $38,000 in 1919 when prohibition had obviated its purpose, but was almost as quickly resold to the Ferguson Packing Company for a single dollar.  The Morris Electric Supply Company became yet a fourth owner, in 1946.

Because of its important industrial history, the Johnstown Area Heritage Association acquired it in 1993, renovating it and opening it as the multi-faceted museum it is today.

A 12-foot sculpture, created in 1989 by Charles Zilch, Dennis Waitz, Larry Ramach, and Robert Scarsella, represents the struggles and triumphs of local steelworkers, entailing floods, recessions, and plant closings, thus reflecting the character traits expressed by its very title, “Man of Steel.”

One of the museum’s principle exhibits, as befits its Cambria section location, is “America: Through Immigrant Eyes,” which begins with immigrants riding the very rails they themselves would shortly make at the Cambria Steel Company in Johnstown.

The multi-media exhibit, located on the museum’s first floor, focuses on Johnstown-related immigration, providing insight into their adjustments and challenges as they transformed local resources into steel and, ultimately, paychecks with which to support themselves.  Represented scenes include the Old Country; Ellis Island of New York; the Johnstown Railroad Station, which served as their threshold to the area; and “The Neighborhood of 1907,” where they discuss life in an industrial town.

The building also houses the Johnstown Children’s Museum, located on the third floor; a Rooftop Garden; Galliker’s Café; and several temporary exhibits.

Aside from its immigration focus, another area-indicative aspect can be experienced in the Iron and Steel Gallery.

Its three-floor “Steel: Made in Pennsylvania” gallery itself, evoking a mill atmosphere, features prints by State Museum of Pennsylvania photographer Donald Giles, while “The Mystery of Steel” film, shot in Johnstown’s Bethlehem Steel Mills just before they closed, chronicles the evolution of steel and its technological innovations during the 1854 to 1880 period.  Shown on a 30-foot, three-panel screen, it immerses the viewer in the experience with the use of infrared heaters, approximating mill-interior temperatures, and low-resolution speakers, which simulate incessant, machinery-created rumble.

Johnstown Flood National Memorial

Located outside of the city off of Route 219, the Johnstown National Memorial marks the origin of the cataclysmic, 1889 flood.

The valley below its Visitors Center once cradled scenic, two-mile Lake Conemaugh, held by the weakening earthen dam, and the exclusive South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club, remnants of which remain today.

Lush, green hills, a few distant houses, and railroad tracks now meet the visitor’s eyes.  Peace fills the air.  The sweet aromas of spring permeate the nostrils in April and May.  Immersed in this tranquil, bucolic setting, it is difficult to imagine what transpired here more than a century ago, but the gruesome, National Park Service-produced “Black Friday” film, recounting the chaos, destruction, suffering, and death, and shown inside the Visitors Center, will snap you back to the area’s pivotal day in an instant.  It is complemented by maps and tactical displays of the flood and its debris-strewn aftermath.

The Unger House, constructed in the mid-1880s by South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club manager Elias J. Unger, is located across from the Visitors Center.  After lying abandoned for a decade, it was added to the memorial in 1981 and restored to its original, 1889 appearance, but is today only used for administrative purposes and is therefore public-inaccessible.

The 1889 clubhouse is another structure retained from the resort.  Donated by the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club Historical Preservation Society, the three-floor, 47-room building served as the principle member lodge, and today sports its original, wood-grained floors, ceramic tiled fireplace, and wallpaper.

Other Sights

Inextricably tied to the tri-flood history which shaped it, Johnstown offers several other event-related sights.

The Path of the Flood Trail, for example, is both a walking and bicycling route which retraces the Great Flood of 1889 from Ehrenfeld Borough Park to the Johnstown Flood Museum, navigated by means of interpretive signs, while a self-guided walking tour of the Johnstown National Historic District encompasses more than 15 sites.  Commemorative plaques placed on the outside corner of the Johnstown City Hall at Main and Market streets mark each of the three floods’ highest water levels, recorded as 21 feet in 1889, 17 feet in 1936, and 8.6 feet in 1977.  The Monument of Tranquillity, located at Grandview Cemetery on Millcreek Road, overlooks the 777 graves of the unidentified, 1889 flood victims collectively designated the “Plot of the Unknown.” 

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