Johnstown Takes Lickin', Keeps Tickin'

Despite natural disasters and economic hardship, Johnstown remains a strong Pennsylvania community

by Jody Mihelic

Three devastating floods in less than a century. An extinct coal mining center. A failed steel industry. And at times, the worst unemployment rate in the nation. Who wants to live in such a place? But behind its disastrous floods and stagnant economy, it is a town rich in personal history, culture, and tradition. People born there tend to stay there, and are happy. What it lacks in sophistication, Johnstown makes up for by its strong sense of community, a unity that keeps the town alive.

Histories run deep in Johnstown. My father's family goes back to the late 1880s, almost to the very beginnings of the town. Mostly Central Eastern Europeans settled in the area that is now Johnstown, and is known for its Slavic people, either Croats or Serbs. My family is Croatian. While the Slavic population has thinned out recently, there is still a strong sense of nationalism. In addition to the Elks, Free Masons, Rotarians, and Shriners, there are societies for Slavs, as well. The Eastern Eurpean heritage is present sacred places. The Eastern Orthodox Church and the Roman Catholic Church refer back to the Old Country. But the Serbs and Croats aren't the only groups to have settled in the fertile Conemaugh Valley. Irishmen, Germans, Poles, Slovaks, Finns, Ukrainians, Hungarians, Italians... and the list goes on.

They all came to Johnstown for the same reasons, and they came from the very bottom of the European social ladder. They knew the value of hard work, thrift, and humility. They wanted not only to survive , but to feel the satisfaction of it. Most of the immigrants were farmers, and they came for the soil of the fertile river valley. However, it was the mines that were the main attraction. Bitmuninous coal mining was one way families could keep food on the table. Men whose nations were sworn enemies labored together in the mines to survive. The plight was the same for everyone. My grandmother recalls that when her father ran a garage in the 1920s, many of his employees were immigrants. 'They had to communicate somehow, 'she says. 'Since there were people from many different countries working in the same place, they ended up learning bits and pieces of eight different languages!' The ability of its people to live together has helped Johnstown to retain a strong sense of community to this day, despite many adverse conditions.

Founded in 1800, Johnstown remained nothing more than an immigrant town through the majority of the century. Fueled by iron and then steel mills, the railroad, and the coal mining industry, Johnstown gradually gained importance. Its proximity to Pittsburgh made Johnstown an important business center. However, it wasn't steel that brought Johnstown its true fame. It was water.

At one time, Johnstown was a port city. As an important stop on the canal system that linked Philadelphia to Pittsburgh, many famous people (including Charles Dickens) passed by in canal boats. The town's greatest fame, however, came from its disastrous floods in 1889, 1936, and 1977. The Great Flood of 1889 completely obliterated what was then a bustling steel town. An earthen dam on the South Fork of the Conemaugh River broke under the weight of 20 million gallons of gathered rainwater and the flood devoured everything in its path. Despite efforts to prevent an event like this from ever occurring again, it did in 1936. My grandmother, Dorothy Mihelic, who was 17 at the time, remembers it well.'Two weeks before the flood, we had gotten a new piano. It wasn't anything fancy, but the fact of the matter was that we had a piano. Well, we had to leave when the floodwaters came, but when we got back, the piano was upside down against the front door. No one could get in!' Not only was the new piano destroyed, but there were 7 inches of water on the second floor. In her father's business, records were kept in a huge rolltop desk. The day of the flood, all of the records were lost as the desk floated through a plate-glass window and drifted away.

Amazingly, the long-time residents of Johnstown rebuilt after the floods. Not many moved away, and to this day, few are apt to move. After the 1977 flood, one billboard read, 'WE WILL REBUILD TOGETHER.' No one is willing to give up his heritage and family history. I often used to wonder why my father's family moved. My grandmother explained that she opted to work at Penn State to put her three children through college.When asked if she misses Johnstown, my grandmother adamantly nods her head yes. She has remained in close contact with her family there. Her nephew, Lee, is a successful surgeon at (ironically) Lee Hospital, and his wife is a dentist. The two of them have found successful careers, despite a seemingly depressed, regional economy.

In the 1970s and 1980s, Bethlehem Steel Corporation, which has owned the Cambria works in Johnstown since 1923, shut down many of its operations. The unemployment rate in 1983 and 1984 topped 24 percent. An industry that once supported 40,000 workers now supports only 4,000. Considering the population of Johnstown and surrounding areas is about 93,000, there have to be other ways for people to support themselves. It is for that reason that most of Johnstown's jobs are in the services -- hospitals, construction and utility companies, banks, and retail businesses.

Recently, heritage tourism has found a niche in Johnstown. After generating revenues of $40 million in 1994, this looks like it may be a permanent addition to the Johnstown area. The Open-Hearth Project, started in June of 1990, employs the use of former steel workers and coal miners to give tours of the mines and mills as part of the 'Path of Progress.' The Path of Progress is a six-hour tour that includes the Flood Museum, the Franklin works, a blue-collar neighborhood, and the Seldom Seen Mine. All for a measley $10. While Open-Hearth has created many jobs, the wages are not close to the retirement benefits that the former workers need. Most people only work part-time. Tourists can be assured that the tours will be good -- their guides are not there for the pay. Rather, they are there to share the history of the town they have grown to love. Their own blood, sweat, and tears have mingled with the very soil on which the town rests. They are, in a sense, the stuff Johnstown is made of.

Although I have never lived in Johnstown, visiting there feels like coming home. Brick- and stone-faced buildings eliminate the imposing sense of concrete and steel. Many small retail stores, groceries, and drug stores that line the streets are 'mom-and-pop' places, where people greet each by first name. Beautiful churches rise high above the streets, and beckon the masses to enter.

A walk downtown can prompt conversation with perfect strangers. Everyone is anxious to share his hometown with you. Retired men in baseball caps and Steelers jackets joke with each other, and smile at passersby. There is a sleepiness to Johnstown -- the rush of city life is virtually unknown. People take one day at a time. Perhaps that is what they've had to do in the past and it is ingrained in them. The human spirit of Johnstowners dwarfs the lifeless mills that wall the city. It is the lifeblood of a city that has been challenged by fate... and survived.