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WEB EXTRA: Johnstown's History
By: WJAC Staff
JOHNSTOWN, Pa. -- The Johnstown area is nestled in a valley where the Little Conemaugh and Stonycreek rivers come together to create the Conemaugh, a waterway that flows west and links up with the rivers in the Pittsburgh area.
"In the springtime, when the waters were high, you could float goods on rafts down to Pittsburgh and beyond," said Historian Richard Burkert. "They would take iron ore made over in Blair County and other heavy cargo, including timber... it's a frontier economy."
River transportation made the location appealing to a German settler, Joseph Schantz, who later Americanized his last name to "Johns".
Johns bought the land and plotted out a village in 1800. He named it "Conemaugh Old Town." He had hoped his town would grow and prosper, making him money by selling land to businesses and settlers.
Many of the streets and locations for parks today were in Johns' original plans. He believed the county seat for the newly formed Cambria County would be here, adding to the value of his town, but it ended up in Ebensburg.
"It didn't work out like he planned. It was slow to grow and it wasn't until the canal came through that his town finally took off, long after his death," Burkert said.
Johns returned to farming in Davidsville, Somerset County. In 1834, the town started to boom when the Pennsylvania Canal used the rivers to link up with the Allegheny Portage Railroad. People and goods began going back and forth from Pittsburgh to Philadelphia. The town was chartered and named "Johnstown"
Natural resources such as iron ore and coal had new markets to the east and west. By 1850, the original, sleepy little town of 200 people topped 4,000 and the canal was replaced by the Pennsylvania railroad.
"In 1854, you could cross the state in 18 hours rather than the three and a half days it took by canal. It put the canal out of business very, very quickly," Burkert said.
The railroad helped to fuel the growth of Johnstown. Along with the abundance of coal, steel companies saw potential in Johnstown. In 1854, Cambria Iron Company opened doubling the city's population every decade well into the 1900's.
Immigrants from all over the world saw potential for themselves in Johnstown as well. The melting pot of America could be seen on the streets.
"When immigrants came here, the good life was wearing American clothes, owning your house, eating better. They achieved that," Burkert said.
Throughout history, the city's success and wealth reflected the country's economy of the time. When the steel industry declined in the 1890's, the area looked to find new businesses to keep people working.
"There are defense industries, the hospitals, the medical industry has expanded dramatically, it's still a regional center for banking," Burkert said. "Trails and white water rafting; tourism is part of the diversification."
It's no secret that the population of the area is currently decreasing as younger generations move away to find jobs. The Johnstown City leaders are working together to stop that trend.
Burkert said the hard work and dedication is part of the character in people in Johnstown and Western Pennsylvania.