Historical Johnstown, Pennsylvania, 1902
Johnstown, settled in 1770, is perhaps most famous for its three major floods. The "Great Flood" of May 31, 1889, occurred after the South Fork Dam collapsed 14.1 miles (22.7 km) upstream from the city during heavy rains. At least 2,209 people died as a result of the flood and subsequent fire that raged through the debris. Another major flood occurred in 1936. Autograph Letter Signed, 03/15/1902 - 6 x 7 1/2 written on line parchment in blk ink by, Mrs. Regima Steepe to: J.K. Haner & Co. regarding photographic images to be made and framed. Rich dark browning seen with a four-fold crease and a half frank signed. Overall, very good/fine condition.
Despite a pledge by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt to make the city flood free, and subsequent work to do so, another major flood occurred in 1977. The 1977 flood - in what was to have been a “flood free” city - may have contributed to Johnstown's subsequent population decline and inability to attract new residents and businesses.
Johnstown was formally organized as a town in 1800 by the Swiss German immigrant Joseph Johns (born Josef Schantz). The settlement was initially known as "Schantzstadt", but was soon anglicized to Johnstown.
From 1834 to 1854, the city was a port and key transfer point along the Pennsylvania Main Line Canal. Johnstown was at the head of the canal's western branch, with canal boats having been transported over the mountains via the Allegheny Portage Railroad and refloated here, to continue the trip by water to Pittsburgh and the Ohio Valley. Perhaps the most famous passenger who traveled via the canal to visit Johnstown briefly was Charles Dickens in 1842.
By 1854, canal transport became redundant with the completion of the Pennsylvania Railroad, which now spanned the state. With the coming of the railroads, the city's growth improved. Johnstown became a stop on the main line of the Pennsylvania Railroad and was connected with the Baltimore & Ohio. The railroads provided large-scale development of the region’s mineral wealth.
Iron, coal, and steel quickly became central to the town of Johnstown.
By 1860, the Cambria Iron Company of Johnstown was the leading steel producer in the United States, outproducing steel giants Pittsburgh and Cleveland. Through the second half of the 19th century, Johnstown made much of the nation's barbed wire.
Johnstown prospered from skyrocketing demand in the western United States for barbed wire. Twenty years after its founding, the Cambria Works was a huge enterprise sprawling over 60 acres (240,000 m2) in Johnstown and employing 7,000. It owned 40,000 acres (160 km2) of valuable mineral lands in a region with a ready supply of iron, coal and limestone.
Floods were almost a yearly event in the valley during the 1880s. On the afternoon of May 30, 1889, following a quiet Memorial Day ceremony and a parade, it began raining in the valley. The next day water filled the streets, and rumors began that a dam holding an artificial lake in the mountains to the northeast might give way. It did, and an estimated 20 million tons of water began spilling into the winding gorge that led to Johnstown some 14 miles (23 km) away.
The destruction in Johnstown occurred in only about 10 minutes. What had been a thriving steel town with homes, churches, saloons, a library, a railroad station, electric street lights, a roller rink, and two opera houses was buried under mud and debris. Out of a population of approximately 30,000 at the time, at least 2,209 people are known to have perished in the disaster.
An infamous site of a major fire during the flood was the old stone Pennsylvania Railroad bridge located where the Stonycreek and Little Conemaugh rivers join to form the Conemaugh River. The bridge still stands today.
The Johnstown Flood established the American Red Cross as the pre-eminent emergency relief organization in the United States. Founder Clara Barton, then 67, came to Johnstown with 50 doctors and nurses and set up tent hospitals as well as temporary “hotels” for the homeless, and stayed on for five months to coordinate relief efforts.
The mills were back in operation within a month. The Cambria Works grew, and Johnstown became more prosperous than ever. The disaster had not destroyed the community but strengthened it. Later generations would draw on lessons learned in 1889.