Photographs & History

Photographs and History

Johnstown: Remembering the Great Flood of 1889

On May 30th, 1889 storms struck the Conemaugh Valley in Cambria County, dumping an estimated 6-10 inches of rain on the region. Tributaries and creeks flooded their banks, swelling the Conemaugh River with raging currents and miscellaneous debris. Fourteen miles east of the bustling city of Johnstown concerns were escalating at the elite South Fork Fishing & Hunting Club where a former reservoir for the Mainline of Public Works turned recreational lake, began to rise to dangerous levels. Lake Conemaugh had been stripped of its fail-safes after the Pubic Works system was abandoned and had no way of relieving the rising floodwaters. Various efforts to mitigate the high water were considered but were too little, too late, in a last ditch effort messengers were dispatched to South Fork to report the dangerous situation to neighboring towns via telegraph.

"The Johnstown Calamity" by George Baker depicts the devastation of the great flood, note homes tossed on their side as the waters recede leaving nothing but mud in an area that was once a residential neighborhood. Image collection of the New York Public Library.

"The Johnstown Calamity" by George Baker depicts the devastation of the great flood, note homes tossed on their side as the waters recede leaving nothing but mud in an area that was once a residential neighborhood. Image collection of the New York Public Library.

By the afternoon of May 31st, Johnstown was already experiencing flooding in various areas but at approximately 3:10PM the situation grew far beyond what anyone could have ever imagined. The dam holding back Lake Conemaugh collapsed, releasing some 20 million tons of water into the Conemaugh River valley. Taking approximately 40 minutes to drain the lake, flood waters raged through the valley taking less than an hour to reach the city of Johnstown, picking up houses, trees and even a railroad viaduct in its course. By the time it hit Johnstown the wall of floodwater was estimated to be 60’ high in places and traveling at 40 miles per hour.  The flood entered town in the areas of East Conemaugh and Woodvale leveling rail yards, tossing passenger trains and causing major damage to the Gautier Iron Works, picking up even more debris including barbed wire manufactured at the mills. Flood waters tore through the center of Johnstown which is hemmed in by the Stoney Creek and Conemaugh Rivers on the the valley floor becoming the epicenter of disaster. Spreading across the city the floodwaters washed back and forth forcing debris against the PRR stone viaduct near the Cambria Iron Works creating further peril during the situation. The unintended dam became engulfed in flames creating a 70’ high wall that had to eventually be blasted away after waters receded.

The great stone bridge on the Pennsylvania Railroad's main line played a large role in the devastation during the flood when debris washed across the valley piling up against the bridge creating an unintended dam, trapping flood victims in a 70' high debris pile that burned for three days. After the fire and flood water subsided clearing of the bridge required the expertise of "Dynamite Bill" Flynn and a 900 man crewtaking 3 months to complete the task. Photograph by Ernest Walter Histed, collection of the Library of Congress.

The great stone bridge on the Pennsylvania Railroad's main line played a large role in the devastation during the flood when debris washed across the valley piling up against the bridge creating an unintended dam, trapping flood victims in a 70' high debris pile that burned for three days. After the fire and flood water subsided clearing of the bridge required the expertise of "Dynamite Bill" Flynn and a 900 man crewtaking 3 months to complete the task. Photograph by Ernest Walter Histed, collection of the Library of Congress.

Efforts were mobilized immediately to provide disaster relief and recovery. The Pennsylvania Railroad restored the railroad west to Pittsburgh and was running trains by June 2nd bringing in manpower and supplies. Clara Barton, a nurse and founder of the Red Cross arrived on June 5th, staying for more than five months to lead the group’s first major disaster relief effort. The flood, the result of the of the South Fork Hunting Club’s negligence to properly maintain the earthen dam ultimately took 2,209 lives, 16,000 homes and cost $17 million in property damage, making the Great Flood of 1889 one of the worst floods to hit the US in the 19th Century.

Changing Pace: Other Attributes of the Main Line Project

As the main line tour progresses I have been doing a lot of thinking about the direction of my blog posts during my seemingly endless research on the physical plant of the former Pennsylvania Railroad. In the process of producing this tour I have been ignoring a large part of the project, the towns the railroad traveled through. These places large and small developed around natural resources and manufacturing, much of which revolved around iron and steel production. The landscape of Pennsylvania, Eastern Ohio and West VA first began expanding because of natural and man-made waterways, which provided industry with a means of transportation to expand their markets. Though a major advancement, canals and rivers were subject to seasonal changes shutting down shipping with the winter freeze and summer droughts. It quickly became evident that a better mode of transportation was needed and the railroad was the answer. Politicians, lobbyists and industrial magnates fought for access to prime locations, rail lines were chartered, built and continually improved through the late 19th Century.  As a result towns along the railroad boomed, people were no longer in isolated communities but part of an industrial chain that drove the American economy. With the new ability to move large quantities of raw material and finished product across the country the steel industry expanded and so did the need for labor. Immigrants came by the thousands to places scattered across the region to work the mills, mines and for the railroads. The ethnic diversity was reflected in the various churches, neighborhoods and shops that brought the familiar comforts of the old country to this new place of work. Throughout the years there have been high times and lows in many of these towns, rocked by labor disputes, natural disasters and the eventual decline of the American steel industry.

The view from Singer Street in Johnstown, Pennsylvania exemplifies the somber beauty of mill towns across Pennsylvania. Homes cling to the hillsides and business districts look toward the mill, once the focal point to the local economy. Today countless places like Johnstown are a quiet memorial to the era of steel and manufacturing across the region. 

The view from Singer Street in Johnstown, Pennsylvania exemplifies the somber beauty of mill towns across Pennsylvania. Homes cling to the hillsides and business districts look toward the mill, once the focal point to the local economy. Today countless places like Johnstown are a quiet memorial to the era of steel and manufacturing across the region. 

Today many of these places serve as a monument to industry and a way of life that has disappeared. The villages, company towns and entire sections of cities often look onto the mill, celebrating the pride and prosperity these now abandoned places once provided for many hard working families. I have found myself completely entranced by places like Johnstown and Braddock, places that are a fraction of their former self, wondering what it was like when these places were in their prime. In residential areas there is little uniformity from house to house with the exceptions of clusters of company housing yet all of these places look oddly the same. Frame houses on hill sides, all slightly modified over the years or just plain neglected, empty streets and brown fields, virtually deserted town squares flanked with grand commercial buildings constructed of stone and terracotta, town by town the theme repeats.

East Conemaugh was situated across from the Franklin Works of Cambria Iron, later Bethlehem Steel. The mills are gone and the rail yards empty, the Main Line of the Pennsylvania Railroad still enters town on the far side of the Conemaugh River, the final resting place of engineer John Hess who used his locomotive whistle to warn the townspeople of the impending destruction of the great flood of 1889. 

East Conemaugh was situated across from the Franklin Works of Cambria Iron, later Bethlehem Steel. The mills are gone and the rail yards empty, the Main Line of the Pennsylvania Railroad still enters town on the far side of the Conemaugh River, the final resting place of engineer John Hess who used his locomotive whistle to warn the townspeople of the impending destruction of the great flood of 1889. 

Like much of my work, this imagery is an observation, part of connecting the dots to understand a particular place or landscape. To many its a bleak and depressing place, I am often asked why bother visiting let alone taking pictures, some locals even get mad that an outsider would objectify their struggling community. To me the typical mill town is a comforting and familiar place, one of repetition and rhythm. You can find something different in every visit, grand and ornate homes in a row of company buildings, five story apartment houses in a town that doesn’t even rate a gas station, and the rail line that once fed this industrial giant snaking along from town to town. This is where the Main Line of the Pennsylvania Railroad once travelled, the towns it built, nurtured and its predecessors served until the industry dried up. The railroad still thrives but like many places, the trains don’t stop here anymore. The mill town is a place of beauty in its own right, and I am happy to have experienced every one of them and look forward to sharing a different viewpoint of the built landscape that came as result of the railroads and industry. Over the coming months you can expect images celebrating these places as work continues on understanding the late Pennsylvania Railroad and the landscape it travelled. Enjoy!

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays!

Web_Froio.SFbranchWe find ourselves amidst the fresh snow fall in Cambria County, Pennsylvania along the South Fork Branch of the Pennsylvania Railroad. Following the valley of the southern branch of the Conemaugh River the line dissects the former dam that caused the 1889 Johnstown Flood to reach various coal mines along the way. Though this is Norfolk Southern’s property now, the spirit of the Pennsy lives on through so many who are dedicated to the preservation of all facets of  the “Standard Railroad of the World”. Thank you for all you interest as I move into my third year of writing this blog! From my family to yours I would like to wish you all a Merry Christmas and a Happy and Healthy New year!

Sincerely,

Michael Froio

PRR and the Greater Johnstown Area

Part 2: East Conemaugh

The railroad maintained facilities here including Woodvale Yard, access to the Johnstown branch and interchange with the Conemaugh and Black Lick RR, the Baltimore and Ohio Railway, and a engine terminal that supported both local operations and helper assignments that assisted Eastbounds on the ascent of the Allegheny escarpment.

View looking toward East Conemaugh. Taken from the Town of Franklin, Conemaugh and Black Lick trackage is in the foreground, the River, and finally the PRR and East Conemaugh nestled along the distant ridge. The bridge to the right is the Strank Memorial Bridge which is soon to be replaced.

View looking toward East Conemaugh. Taken from the Town of Franklin, Conemaugh and Black Lick trackage is in the foreground, the River, and finally the PRR and East Conemaugh nestled along the distant ridge. The bridge to the right is the Strank Memorial Bridge which is soon to be replaced.

The town itself, like many other smaller Pennsylvania towns, is a unique assortment of original buildings, signage, and character, void of the congestion, shopping malls, and the box store epidemic of suburban sprawl.

Small businesses flank quiet side streets that run parallel to the former PRR Mainline and Woodvale Terminal. This is a view from Davis Street between Cherry and East Railroad St.

Small businesses flank quiet side streets that run parallel to the former PRR Mainline and Woodvale Terminal. This is a view from Davis Street between Cherry and East Railroad St.

The town’s design speaks of its relationship to the railroad, how the commercial center borders just blocks off the railroad tracks, becoming more residential as you progress further up the hill. Hand painted signage, beautiful old examples of small town architecture and community churches dot the landscape.

Former First National Bank Building, 300 Block of Greeve St.

Former First National Bank Building, 300 Block of Greeve St.

Church of the Living God, Cambria Street, with residences on neighboring Heritage St. to the right.

Church of the Living God, Cambria Street, with residences on neighboring Heritage St. to the right.

PRR: A Johnstown View

Johnstown, Pennsylvania is a town dear to me, through my travels photographing the Mainline Series, the location was key to other areas that lacked amenities, central to the railroad's Western ascent of the Alleghenies, and home to some amazing people, landscapes, architecture, and history. Beginning in the 1850’s with Cambria Iron works, the area flourished, with the steel works growing and changing, the facilities eventually became part of the Bethlehem Steel Company. In early times, tragedy in the way of the Great Flood of 1889 struck, taking over an estimated 2200 lives, with almost 1000 more missing. Subsequent floods in 1936 and 1972 necessitated additional flood walls and engineered river channels to prevent the loss of life and property that devastated Johnstown at an early age.

Later, in the 20th Century tragedy would come in other ways, mainly the collapse of domestic steel production. In the early 1970’s employment was holding steady at approximately 11,800 employees. Ten years later compounded by environmental regulations, a location that couldn’t compete with the inter-modal transport Pittsburgh and Burns Harbor was privileged to, and damage incurred from the Flood of 1977; employment plummeted to 2100 workers in 1982. As time progressed some facilities have been re-purposed, others survived only later to be shuttered. While much of the Steel Production is gone the City has embraced re-invention moving forward into the 21st Century.

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Over the three plus years traveling the Mainline from Harrisburg to Pittsburgh I stayed in Johnstown many times, through out the various seasons. It allowed me time to become aquatinted with the area and photograph in the surrounding landscape more than many other places. While Altoona, Pittsburgh, and the Harrisburg areas have plenty to offer, for me, Johnstown is a particularly special place.

Though the steel industry at large has been absent from Johnstown for quite some time, the resilient people have moved on, adapted and are moving forward to bring more business and tourism to the area. Small boroughs, beautiful and unique architecture and a sense of small town life are things that really attracted me to the area, not to mention the history and railroad!

Over the next two months we will examine the region and its relationship to the former PRR Mainline moving from East to West, establishing a larger view of not just the trains, but the greater landscape that thrived around it.

South Fork and the PRR

Taken from the former Portage Railroad alignment in neighboring Ehrnfield PA, the viewer can see the South Fork Valley carved by the Little Conemaugh River of which the town of about 1100 is named. The river played host to America's worst disaster, the Johnstown Flood in 1889, which the PRR played an instrumental role in the recovery and rebuilding of the area.

Taken from the former Portage Railroad alignment in neighboring Ehrnfield PA, the viewer can see the South Fork Valley carved by the Little Conemaugh River of which the town of about 1100 is named. The river played host to America's worst disaster, the Johnstown Flood in 1889, which the PRR played an instrumental role in the recovery and rebuilding of the area.

In the small village of South Fork, named for the confluence of the Little Conemaugh River with its  south fork, the Mainline of the PRR follows the path of the former Allegheny Portage Railroad. Down stream, directly center in the photo, the south fork comes North from the notorious site of a dam that burst giving way to the tragic Johnstown Flood of May 31st, 1889, claiming more than 2200 lives, in what is still considered one of America's worst disasters. Today the small mining village in Cambria County plays host to mainline traffic, and local coal trains originating out of the valley to the south. Next to the River, just about directly below the low spot in the ridge, the small rail yard and terminal for the South Fork Mine Runs is visible. This plays host to daily unit coal trains coming and going, with a junction to the mainline in both directions sending the trains West to Pittsburgh and East to the Mid Atlantic Coast.

Woodvale Yard and the West Slope

The sleepy Borough of Franklin wakes up in a low fog alongside former Woodvale Yard on the PRR mainline about 275 miles West of Philadelphia's Broad Street Station. Like many local communities Franklin has a prominent church, St john the Baptist that stands dominant along the nearby mountain ridge.

The sleepy Borough of Franklin wakes up in a low fog alongside former Woodvale Yard on the PRR mainline about 275 miles West of Philadelphia's Broad Street Station. Like many local communities Franklin has a prominent church, St john the Baptist that stands dominant along the nearby mountain ridge.

Woodvale Yard sat along the Mainline and Conemaugh River, in the communities of East Conemaugh and Franklin, Eastern Sections of the City of Johnstown. The yard once provided support for the bustling steel works and acted as an interchange with the Conemaugh and Black Lick Railroad, a Bethlehem Steel owned shifting railroad that serviced the sprawling complex that was spread across the Conemaugh River Valley. Today, the yard is little more than staging and storage for coal trains heading west to the nearby power plant in New Florence. The yard also serves as the western base for helpers to assist trains up the Western ascent of the Allegheny Range to the Summit at Gallitzin PA.