Of Thunder and Floods – Johnstown PA

Of Thunder and Floods – Johnstown PA

Nestled in a deep valley at the confluence of the Little Conemaugh and Stonycreek River, Johnstown PA stands as a testament to the tenacity and resilience of early settlers and the American industrial complex.  Settled in 1770 by German immigrants, Johnstown was originally named “Schantzstadt” in 1800 but the name quickly became anglicized to the modern version.  Over the first half of the 19th century, the city grew into a thriving port and transfer point along the Pennsylvania Main Line Canal.  The South Fork Dam, completed in 1853 to supply water for the canal system, earned the dubious distinction as the failure point contributing to the Great Flood of 1889 (more on that as the story unfolds).

The canal system was eventually rendered obsolete by the railroad, and the South Fork Dam fell into disrepair.  Johnstown was not hindered by the disappearance of the canal system  – instead, the city evolved to become a main stop of the Pennsylvania Railroad as growth continued with the coal and iron industries.  The remnants of the early railroad still exist today, most obviously in the form of tunnels and trails through the area.  The Staple Bend Tunnel, now the site of a walking and biking trail, is located along the Path of the Flood trail and showcases remarkable stonework from its completion in 1833.  Staple Bend was the first railroad tunnel built in the United States, while being the third tunnel in the country at the time (the other two tunnels were used for the canal and also located in Pennsylvania).

By 1860, Johnstown became the leading steel producer in the nation, fueled by the Cambria Iron Company and the mineral-rich lands surrounding the town.  Coal mining was, and still is, a major industry in the region with towns such as South Fork originally settled specifically as mining communities.  Speaking of South Fork, we enjoyed a warm Saturday afternoon at the South Fork Heritage Days festival listening to an Irish-influenced rock band, eating Polish food, and drinking beers on the steeply-sloped streets in town.

Early mining efforts severely impacted the environment of the Johnstown region, as industry leaders in the 1800s and early 1900s had little concern for conservation and were more focused on profits and expansion.  Today, organizations such as the Somerset County Conservancy strive to undo the damage created by mining operations over the past century.  Mines produce acid runoff and pollute the water supply with metals well above natural concentration levels.  The Somerset County Conservancy oversees five areas created to reduce acidity and pollution through natural means, using the filtering properties of the environment to reverse the impacts of mining.  We strolled through one of these areas designated as the Oaks Trail Project located between Hooversville and Stoystown and learned about the processes used by the Conservancy, including using limestone in creek beds to reduce acidity, and various holding ponds to filter the water before being introduced to the Stonycreek River.  The passive treatment system handles 50 gallons per minute of acid mine drainage, effectively raising pH and alkalinity, while lowering iron, aluminum, and acidity.  The project has created a beautiful natural area that now attracts wildlife while restoring the native environment.

Now back to Johnstown in the late 19th century – the city is producing over two-thirds of the steel used in the nation, not to mention the vast majority of the barbed wire in high demand in the developing Western states, all while maintaining the bustling railroad hub.  The South Fork Dam, originally built with sound engineering, has since changed ownership twice after sitting abandoned, and has been shoddily repaired at the hands of the exclusive South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club.  Rather than supplying water for the now-defunct state canal system, the 72-foot tall dam holds back an estimated 20 million tons of water forming a lake used as a recreational resort by the wealthy members of the club.  Despite repeated attempts by residents and business owners of Johnstown to implore the club to repair and reinforce the dam, nothing was done and the club president assured the worried townsfolk that the dam presented no danger to Johnstown.  Meanwhile, Johnstown was already located in a floodplain and struggled to handle the runoff from the tree-stripped mountains surrounding the city.  Should the South Fork Dam fail, all the water in the lake would rush down the 450-foot elevation drop 14 miles into the city of Johnstown.

Sure enough, on that fateful day in May of 1889 the rains fell and continued to fall, raising the lake to unsafe levels.  The water quickly overtopped the earthen dam, weakening and ultimately destroying the repaired section and unleashing a horrid wall of water 70 to 75 feet high traveling 40 miles per hour directly for Johnstown.  The flood claimed the lives of over 2,200 people and destroyed entire villages in its path.  The story of the flood has been told in multiple books, so I won’t rehash the details here, and any interested travelers can visit the Johnstown Flood National Memorial outside of Sidman and St. Michael for a detailed retelling of the event, including a 35-minute black and white movie.  The movie is a bit dated but it does tell much of the story, if in a maudlin and Alfred Hitchcock-esque way.

After the Great Flood, the steel mills were back in operation within a month and Cambria Iron Company grew, along with the city, bigger than ever.  Johnstown endured another major flood in 1936 (not as a result of the now-destroyed and never rebuilt South Fork Dam), and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers worked for five years starting in August 1938 to prevent the city from ever flooding again.  Professional ice hockey flourished in Johnstown starting in the 1940s, and the city earned the Kraft Hockeyville USA distinction in 2015, receiving $150,000 for arena upgrades.

The Johnstown steel industry struggled with EPA regulations in the 1970s, and the proclaimed “flood-free city” experienced yet another major flood in 1977.  Extensive damage from this flood, coupled with increasingly strict federal environmental regulations essentially doomed the return of the steel industry in Johnstown.  By the early 1990s nearly all steel work in Johnstown was abandoned, with little to return.

The once-bustling prosperous industrial center has since fallen into disrepair.  Some manufacturing has returned in the form of renewable energy, specifically wind power and wind turbine production, but nothing to the extent of the original steel and iron industry.  The city hosts the popular Thunder in the Valley (http://www.visitjohnstownpa.com/thunder-valley/rally-info) motorcycle rally, attracting over 200,000 people to Johnstown on the fourth weekend in June every year.  We happened to be in town for the event this year, so we joined some of Ashley’s family members to watch the parade and check out the sites downtown.

One group dressed as characters from the Wizard of Oz

These short videos (especially the second video) will show you why the event is called Thunder in the Valley!

While the city may never reclaim the prosperity of the 19th and early 20th centuries, Johnstown still remains as an example of enterprise and rebirth, and possibly a cautionary tale of industrial development.  In addition to Thunder in the Valley, various music festivals and sporting events attract thousands to the city throughout the year.  The Cambria County War Memorial Arena is now the home of the Johnstown Tomahawks, a junior hockey team in the NAHL.  The city is also home to the famed Johnstown Inclined Plane (https://www.inclinedplane.org/), the steepest vehicular inclined plane in the world.  We didn’t take a ride up the hillside during our stay this time, so I don’t have any photos to share – but I have ridden the trolley on a previous visit years past and it is definitely something to experience.  With a little planning (and maybe with the help of a few locals), Johnstown could be a worthwhile stop for any travelers interested in early American history and the Second Industrial Revolution.

And before I forget – here are a few photos from inside Morris’ Tavern that I promised in the last entry!


“Are you going to finish that?”

Blurry photo of deer family in the dining room

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *