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Johnstown, PA history

Johnstown, Pennsylvania, the Great Flood, and since...

Several months before Hurricanes Katrina and Rita devastated the Gulf Coast, we had started collecting historical material for a CD-ROM on the Johnstown Flood of 1889.  It was clear to us that the Johnstown Flood was an incident of local history that had a national impact -- and that a Johnstown Flood CD-ROM belonged in our local history catalog.

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Johnstown Flood: temporary buildings

Since Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, commentators have pointed out that there have been disasters in American history to which they beg comparison.  We found columnist David Brooks' New York Times Op Ed piece on September 1, 2005, entitled "The Storm After the Storm" particularly provocative -- including his allusions to the Johnstown Flood and its aftermath.  The aftermath of the great Johnstown Flood, by the way, included the Progressive movement in the United States, which Brooks notes was crystallized by the Johnstown Flood.

There are other similarities worth noting.  Just as they did in New Orleans, the poor in Johnstown lived next to the water.  And, "the" Johnstown flood was really only the biggest of many Johnstown floods, which both preceded and followed the big one. The 1889 flood was remarkable really because a dam upstream burst and made the usual flooding into a catastrophe of proportions that are still considered epic.  The people of Johnstown, like the people of New Orleans, had for decades feared that a man-made device to hold back the waters would ultimately fail and that catastrophe would be the result.  In both cases  the fears of the hapless residents were justified.

Ultimately, whether you're interested in Johnstown because you had family who lived there, because you're a current resident of the area, because you have an interest in Pennsylvania history, because you are interested in how our nation historically has reacted to disasters, because you are interested in the history of the development of the iron and steel industry in America (the Cambria Iron and Steel Company was important in this respect), or for some other reason, we hope that this CD-ROM about Johnstown, PA will be of interest to you.

Here's a summary what the CD includes.  We've tried to capture a bit of Johnstown's more recent history as well as accounts of "the" Johnstown flood and its short-term aftermath because we feel that there is nothing quite like 116 years of historical perspective to help understand what is still viewed as one of the singular disasters of United States history, its context and its aftermath.

(Click on any of the images below to see a full-sized version)

  • Some news photos of the Johnstown flood of 1936 that in some small measure recalled the great flood of 1889 -- minus the dam burst upstream.  We were fortunate to find what appears to be an incomplete set from an unknown newspaper or broadside of one or a series of feature stories about that later flood.  One does not see pictures of this particular Johnstown flood often.
  • Postcards from our collection of Johnstown views.  Johnstown has several distinctions -- including its inclined railway, its huge cemetery of unknown dead from "the" flood, and the Cambria Iron/Steel Works -- one of the earlier large-scale iron smelting operations in the United States.  (We should also mention the Johnstown Jets -- that Eastern Professional Hockey League team that vied with such groups as the Long Island Ducks and the Clinton Comets -- sadly, we do not have any mementos of that group on this CD.  But we did enjoy watching the mayhem years ago when we were at Hamilton College, in Clinton, NY.)  With considerable national public interest in the city of Johnstown, there are many postcards out there.  We've actually stopped collecting them because too many would be required to constitute a comprehensive collection!  Nonetheless, on the CD are some that we do have, as well as some donated images.
  • History of the Great Flood in Johnstown, PA, May 31, 1889 by which Ten Thousand Lives Were Lost, by J. S. Ogilvie (1889). 224 pages.  This is not our favorite Johnstown flood book.  Three notable more or less contemporary books about the Johnstown flood were rushed into print soon after the disaster, of which two appear on this CD-ROM.  This one is a fast read and contains all the errors, misstatements, prejudices, melodrama, and hype that characterized accounts of the flood at the time.

Ogilvie title page

  • Commencement program for the Class of 1950 of Johnstown High School.  This is an interesting study in surnames, even if you know no one who graduated that year.  The iron industry was a microcosm of the American melting pot, and it still echoed in the names of the 1950 Johnstown High School graduates.

Johnstown HS 1950 Commencement program cover

  • Promotion Exercises of Cochran Junior High School, Johnstown, PA, 1929.  Oddly, the surnames in this graduation program 21 years earlier does not reflect the ethnic diversity that the 1950 program does.  One can only speculate why this would be the case.

Cochran JHS Commencement program cover

  • History of the Johnstown Flood by Willis Fletcher Johnson (1889).  459 pages.  This book is our favorite of the two contemporaneous "flood books" on this CD-ROM.  First off, it contains a number of photographs of Johnstown after the flood.  It is considerably more comprehensive in its reporting on the recovery efforts -- and, interestingly, it identifies many of the donors to the relief effort. We were surprised to see the extent to which the Wall Street community opened their wallets in support of this working class disaster. 

Cover of Johnson book   Map of Johnstown flood area   Title page from Johnson book

  • "High Fever Follies II" program of the 1958 benefit production of the Junior Auxiliary of Memorial Hospital, Johnstown.  52 pages.  If you enjoy social history, this program provides a vignette of the social life of an upper or upper-middle class woman in a small industrial city in 1950s America.  If your roots are in Johnstown, there will be many reminders here of "the old days".  The ads alone -- many of which feature Junior Auxiliary members (and in some cases family members) as models in the photos -- are quite remarkable.  There are also two pages of photos of the children and, we suppose, the grandchildren, of the members.

Cover of Hi-Fever Follies

How can I obtain the Johnstown CD-ROM?  When will it be available?

It's available now for $15.00! To purchase it on line, simply click the "Add to shopping cart" button below.


 

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Or, return to our Pennsylvania page -- additional Johnstown material there!

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