Johnstown area wipes off the rust
This article appeared in the Cleveland Plain Dealer, July 10, 1988; details cited may no longer be timely.
(Serial rights revert to the author after initial publication.)
Above: Old Bedford Village, a Colonial frontier town typical of a 19th-century village in the Allegheny mountains, is one of mid-Pennsylvania's many family vacation stops. The village, near the Bedford exit of the Pennsylvania Turnpike, is in the new America's Industrial Heritage vacation project area.
Photos by Jon Kennedy
By JON KENNEDY
Some cities in this part of the country refuse to live up to the "rust belt" label. Pennsylvanias Johnstown and sister city Altoona, 45 miles across the Allegheny Mountain ridge, have a familiar history: the steel mills that built Johnstown are virtually dormant; the railroad shops that ran Altoona for more than a century are mere museum sites.
But rusty these cities are not. Out of the grime and soot of old factories have risen cities of the 1980s. These historically linked cities are alive with a good measure of vitality, optimism, and employment.
At the moment, theres a frenzy to get ready for the centennial of the great Johnstown flood of May 31, 1889. It was one of the worst disasters in American history, killing 2,209 residents. The flood brought international attention to Johnstown, which for a time in the 1870s had the worlds top steel-producing factory. So newsworthy was the flood, caused by the collapse of the South Fork Dam 14 miles upstream, that it occupied the entire front page of two New York newspapers for five days.
A recent banquet previewing next years festivities was attended by two survivors of the great flood, 96-year-old Elsie Frum and 99-year-old Frank Shomo.
"Im looking forward to attending the many festivals planned for next year," Frum told reporters.
Preparation for the centennial include construction of a $5 million museum at the Johnstown Flood National Memorial where the dam broke, and a glass-enclosed visitor center and restaurant overlooking the city from the top of its famous Inclined Plane.
But work will not end when the centennial has passed. Johnstown and Altoona are the centerpieces in a federal plan to develop the National Park Services most ambitious project. The project, called Americas Industrial Heritage, includes sites in nine Pennsylvania countiesCambria, Blair, Indiana, Huntingdon, Bedford, Somerset, Westmoreland, Fayette and Fulton. The goal is to turn this part of southwestern Pennsylvania into one of the nations top family vacation destinations.
Its not necessary to wait for the centennial or completion of the Industrial Heritage project. This is a good family destination now. For instance, in addition to the Flood Memorial at South Fork Dam, families will enjoy the Portage Railroad National Historic Site. It commemorates the navigable canal that linked Philadelphia with the Ohio River at Pittsburgh before the middle of the 19th Century.
The Portage Railroad site is just a hop and a skip from one of the worlds most-visited transportation attractions, the Horseshoe Curve on the mainline of the Conrail and Amtrak route across Pennsylvania.
Nearby is Raystown Lake, an Army Corps of Engineers dam stretching for over 25 miles on the Raystown branch of the Juniata River south of Huntingdon. It is Pennsylvanias largest lake and offers fishing, boating, water skiing, swimming, paddlewheel boat excursions, houseboat vacations and shore resorts.
There are 10 developed state parks in the region, including Pennsylvanias second largest dam, Glendale Lake at Prince Gallitzin State Park near Patton, and Blue Knob ski resort near Claysburg. Boyertown USA Theme Park in the Lakemont section of Altoona and Bland Amusement Park 14 miles north, at Tipton, provide midways and rides.
Volunteer docent M.J. Goodman holds a sample of lead ore that was vital to the manufacture of ammunition during the American Revolution at Fort Roberdeau.
History buffs will enjoy the recently restored Fort Roberdeau near Altoona. It is one of the few sites fortified during the Revolutionary Way on what was then the nations frontier; it protected deposits of lead needed for the Continental Armys bullets.
The highly photogenic East Broad Top Railroad, a coal-fueled steam system dating from the 1870s, is now devoted exclusively to excursion tours. The Shade Gap Electric railway adjacent to the East Broad Top in Orbisonia offers trolley rides on weekends and holidays, Memorial Day through October.
Old Bedford Village is a Colonial frontier town built and maintained by volunteers at Bedford. The collection of 40 buildings dating from 1750 is made up mostly of log houses, schools and shops moved from other Bedford County locations and reassembled log by log. Many of them were inhabited until the 1970s. Costumed volunteers demonstrate gunmaking, tinsmithing, leathermaking, wood-working, quilting, spinning, weaving and other crafts.
At St. Boniface in northern Cambria County, Pennsylvania, tourists get a look at Seldom Seen Valley Mine.
Vacationers may ride 300 feet underground into an actual coal mine near St. Boniface. There are also tours at Indian Caverns near Huntingdon and Coral Caverns at Manns Choice.
Johnstowns Flood Museum and Coal Heritage Center offers a fascinating exhibit of artifacts, photographs, and re-creations of flood memorabilia and the implements of coal mining and mining family life. They are housed in a former library building that was the only major gift to Johnstown by industrialist and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie after the 1889 flood. Carnegie, whose name is on a university in Pittsburgh and dozens of libraries and museums across the country (and Carnegie Hall in New York), was one of the owners of the inadequately maintained South Fork Dam.
A few blocks from the Flood Museum is the Johnstown Inclined Plane, a gigantic outdoor elevator that gracefully lifts carloads of passengers up the mountainside from Johnstown to suburban Westmont. Built in the wake of the 1889 flood, it was restored at a cost of $3 million.
Among National Park Service plans for Johnstown is preservation of its most historic steel mill as the National Steel Heritage Center, a focal part of the Industrial Heritage project.
Matching this in Altoona will be the preservation of that citys remaining car shops of the former Pennsylvania Railroad. The shops are adjacent to Altoonas Railroaders Memorial Museum, a growing collection of railroading implements and lore. The museum has a collection of rolling stock from the railroads earlier days, including a coal-powered K-4 steam locomotive. The steam engine may be used for regularly scheduled excursions from Altoona to Johnstown. Among the museums rail cars is the Loretto, private parlor car of steel magnate Charles Schwab, whose estate, dating from the early years of this century, still dominates the nearby village for which he named his rail car.
The Portage Railroad National historic site offers an interpretive rail tour in conjunction with Amtrak between Johnstown and Altoona once a weekfor the round trip fare of $14.
Though small industrial cities arent traditionally big on high culture, the Southern Alleghenies Art Museum on the St. Francis College campus has hosted first-class exhibits since opening in 1975. Its sponsors include Pittsburghs art patrons, the Mellon family. The Community Arts Center of Cambria County in Johnstown features exhibits, free outdoor concerts, guest lectures and arts and crafts classes in a restored two-story log house built in 1834. Summer playhouses offer productions at Cresson Lake near Cresson, and at Old Bedford Village.
It may seem far-fetched to suggest that this rugged mountain country known mostly for heavy industry could become a major tourist destination. Could it even hope to compete with Pennsylvanias Lancaster County Amish country or Gettysburg or Hershey with its free chocolate factory tours and major amusement park? But the folks around Johnstown and Alttoona clearly are in the tourist business.
Johnstown-Altoona area an
easy drive from Cleveland
The nine-county Johnstown-Altoona area is an easy drive from Greater Cleveland, along the Ohio and Pennsylvania turnpikes. Exit the turnpike at Somerset and take limited-access divided US 219 to Johnstown. From there, limited-access freeways are available through to Altoona. Continue on US 219 to Ebensburg, then east to Altoona on US 22. The stretch from Ebensburg to the Altoona area is a new freeway.
Prices at attractions in the nine-county Johntown-Altoona area are relatively low. Fort Roberdeau, in a valley nine miles from Altoona, is worth the drive just for its scenic beauty. The fort is free. Boyertown USA theme park offered free admission on weekday evenings, and admission to Bland's Park is always free. There are no admission or parking fees at Pennsylvania's state parks, and admission to the Lemon House National Historic Site and Johnstown Flood National Memorial run by the National Park Service is also free. So was admission to the Southern Allegheny Art Museum and the Schwab estate gardens in Loretto.
For accommodations, the best answer may be to divide time among several sites. Somerset and Bedford, both turnpike towns, offer plentiful accommodations, as do Johnstown, Ebensburg (near Loretto and approximately midway between the two cities), Altoona, US 220 between Altoona and Tipton, US 22 east of the Altoona area, and Huntingdon. Besides standard motels, there are several bed and breakfasts, lakeside resort, a guest farmhouse and numerous camping sites in the area.
Every imaginable fast food and restaurant franchise seems to be available in Johnstown and Altoona. For a special meal, set aside some moneyand appetitefor a blow-out at Erculiani's. The grill, in a tavern in the village of Gallitzin near Horseshoe Curve, features food from France and Italy. The proprietors return to Europe every winter to add to their array of dishes, and they want you to try them all.
For more information on area points of interest and accommodations, contact the Blair County Convention and Visitors Bureau, 1212 12th Avenue, Altoona, PA 16601; the Johnstown Flood Centennial Project, 304 Washington Street, Johnstown, PA 15901; the National Park Service, POB 247, Cresson, PA 16630, and the Huntingdon County Tourist Agency, 508 Penn Stret, Huntingdon, PA 16652. A toll-free information telephone number is provided by agencies representing six of the nine counties. Outside Pennsylvania, call 800-458-3433; in Pennsylvania, call 800-252-3595.
For additional reading, consider The Johnstown Flood, by David G. McCullough (Simon and Schuster, due out in a centennial paperback edition). It's an excellent history of Johnstown as well as a moving and highly personal account of a world-renowned disaster.
© Jon Kennedy 1998