Much to See and Do in the Historic Flood City
    Johnstown Flood Museum  display model depicts the path of the 1889 flood.

    Johnstown Flood Museum display model depicts the path of the 1889 flood.

    Located just 60 miles east of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania’s Johnstown has been a canal port, a railroad center, a steelmaking center, and a new home for an assortment of European immigrants—in addition to being the Flood City.

    In 2015, Johnstown was proudly named the first Kraft Hockeyville USA, recognizing the community as the most passionate hockey town in the United States.

    If you liked the Rocky movies, you’ll love Johnstown. This community was knocked down three times by devastating floods—in 1889, 1936, and 1977. Each time, the residents honored their dead, rolled up their sleeves, and rebuilt their homes and businesses.

    In the waning years of the 19th century, the steel barons from Pittsburgh enjoyed a private retreat in the mountains of Cambria County. Known as the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club, the members included Andrew Carnegie and Henry Clay Frick. The club boasted a multi-acre lake, boathouses, and cottages. A large clubhouse served as a hotel and restaurant for members and their guests. Life was easy along the lake until the rains came that day. The storm began on Memorial Day and continued through the night.

    On May 31, 1889, rising water in the lake breached the South Fork Dam, sending 20 million tons of water roaring through the Conemaugh Valley. The massive wall of water destroyed everything in its path. Houses, railroad cars, and other debris all became part of the deadly mix that crashed into Johnstown and literally swept the town away. When it was all over, 2,209 people were dead; but from the destruction rose a spirit of survival and commitment that is still alive in Johnstown. The Johnstown Flood was the largest natural disaster of the 19th century and was the first disaster relief effort for the American Red Cross.

    Photo gallery at Johnstown Flood Museum depicting the lively and vibrant community Johnstown was prior to the Flood of 1889.

    Photo gallery at Johnstown Flood Museum depicting the lively and vibrant community Johnstown was prior to the Flood of 1889.

    Johnstown’s flood history sites will take you on an unforgettable journey through a poignant time in Johnstown’s history; here the lessons of the past still apply today.

    The remains of the South Fork Dam can be found at the Johnstown Flood National Memorial, located at the ruins of the dam. The visitor center houses exhibits and a life-size “debris wall” that dramatically illustrates the flood wave that devastated Johnstown; the film Black Friday chillingly chronicles that day in 1889.

    The Johnstown Flood Museum re-creates the 1889 Flood with exhibits, artifacts, and the movie The Johnstown Flood, the only museum-commissioned documentary that has won an Academy Award® in the short subject documentary category. Exhibits also include the Oklahoma House, a prefabricated structure sent to Johnstown to house flood survivors.

    Johnstown’s innovation and industrial might fueled America’s westward expansion and transformed America into a modern industrial nation. The Johnstown Inclined Plane is a Historical Mechanical Engineering landmark and the world’s steepest vehicular inclined plane. The Incline carries passengers and automobiles up and down a 71 percent grade hillside measuring 900 feet from the valley below. Visitors can enjoy a breathtaking view of the city from the observation deck, browse the gift shop, or dine at Asiago’s Tuscan Italian high atop the city.

    In the early 19th century, the Allegheny Ridge presented a nearly insurmountable obstacle rising nearly 1,200 feet and standing in the way of expansion to the west. To conquer the Ridge—and cross it with roads, canals, and rail—was a challenge that mustered American ingenuity and established Pennsylvania as an industrial giant. The Pennsylvania Mainline Canal, completed in 1830, was the first route connecting Philadelphia with Pittsburgh and shortened the journey from three weeks by wagon to four days by railroad and canal. The Pennsylvania Railroad leaped the mountains with an all-rail route, sparking the development of the region’s iron, steel, and coal industries. Civil engineering masterpieces such as the Horseshoe Curve and the Gallitzin Tunnels, as well as the vast Pennsylvania Railroad locomotive and car shops in Altoona, established the Ridge area as an early testing and research laboratory for railroading.

    Wall inside Johnstown Flood Museum shows debris that piled up against the stone bridge and caught fire during the Flood of 1889.

    Wall inside Johnstown Flood Museum shows debris that piled up against the stone bridge and caught fire during the Flood of 1889.

    Visit Johnstown today and you can hear the inspirational stories arising from the Johnstown floods. But you also can see how the area made steel and mined coal. You can experience its immigrant heritage and arts scene in the Cambria City Historic District. Or you can party at one of the top-10 motorcycle rallies in the nation and other first-rate festivals celebrating music and ethnicity. Lovers of the outdoors can boat whitewater in the Stonycreek Canyon; bicycle country lanes; mountain-bike single-track and cycle rail-trails; hike atop lush ridges; and boat, fish, or swim in lakes once owned by steel companies.

    And all of the Johnstown area’s attractions come beautifully framed by the scenic Allegheny Mountains.

    Since 2006, Olivia Bragdon has been working in the destination marketing industry as communications and group tour coordinator for the Greater Johnstown/Cambria County Convention and Visitors Bureau.
    Photos courtesy of Brittney Lybarger and the Greater Johnstown/Cambria County Convention and Visitors Bureau