Johnstown, PA History

Johnstown, PA resides in Cambria County approx. 60 miles east of Pittsburgh. Johnstown has an estimated population of about 144,995. Our city is home to the steepest vehicular inclined plane in the world, the Johnstown Chiefs hockey team, Sunnehanna Country Club, AAABA, 1889 Flood, Grandview Cemetery, Luzerne Street, Conemaugh Gorge, & Thunder in the Valley.

It all started in November of 1768 when the Penn Family sent representatives to meet with the Iroquois Indians about making a pact to secure land for Settlers. Less than a year later the piece of land that is now Johnstown was opened up for settlement.

Formally known as a town as of 1800, Johnstown was named by Joseph Johns. For the first half of the 1800s, the city was a choice stop along the Pennsylvania Mainline Canal. Boats would be sent in on trains and dropped in the water in Johnstown to make their Journey to Pittsburgh and points west. For the second Half of the 1800s and on into the 1900s, Coal, Iron, and Steel were the Staple Industries here and on May 31, 1889, Johnstown became home to the most devastating inland natural disaster with the Great Flood of 1889. Over 2200 people were killed either from drowning or from being pinned under the flaming debris that had sailed down the river and got caught against the Stone Bridge. Most of the town placed the blame on the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club for not properly maintaining the Dam, but no lawsuits were ever filed. Shortly after the flood, the Cambria Iron Company built the Incline Plane to transport people down the hill from Westmont (then called “Yoder Hill”).

As the 1900s were chugging along, the 1936 Flood happened causing about $40-50 Million in property damage, roughly 15 feet of water in downtown Johnstown and forced the city to get help from the Federal Government. The Flood Prevention System which involved channelizing the rivers through Johnstown cost 8.7 million and was completed by the end of 1938. The Canal system gave everyone here a sense of confidence and Johnstown was nicknamed the “Flood Free” City. The System worked great even during Hurricane Agnes in 1972, up until the flood of 1977.

The 1977 Flood was noted as the once in a thousand years flood. Rainfall was at 1 foot over 10 hours. Six dams totaled over 100 million gallons of water that went roaring into Johnstown from all angles. The Flood Prevention System did its job until the water became too much and spilled over the sides onto the streets. This Flood put the nails in the coffin for Johnstown’s branch of the Steel Industry. As of 1990, the steel industry was all but gone from Johnstown with some machine shops and fabricators still working.

Nowadays, Johnstown is home to some very prominent employers. Memorial Medical Center purchased Lee Hospital from UPMC in 2005 and took on all of their employees which added to Memorial’s already gigantic staff. Johnstown Welding and Fabrication has grown enough to actually utilize many of the old Bethlehem Steel Buildings scattered about the town. Many Defense/Technology Contractors have also moved to the area in recent years including Kuchera Industries, MTS Technologies, DRS, Lockheed Martin, and Northrop Grumman. As of 2009, most of the US is in Economic Decline, but Johnstown is still rebuilding itself and prospering again just as it always has.

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