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Official History of the Johnstown Flood

Frank Connelly and George C. Jenks, Journalist Publishing Co., 1889, BOOK I.
- Contributed by Nancy Piper




Johnstown is situated in Cambria County, Pa., at the confluence of two important mountain streams,- Conemaugh Creek and Stony Creek,-about seventy-eight miles by rail east of Pittsburg, on the main line of the Pennsylvania Railroad. From Johnstown west the united streams are known as the Conemaugh River. Nearly the whole of the town, as it existed prior to May 31, 1889, was built upon an almost perfectly level plain. The beauty of its situation, the hills covered with green encircling it on every hand, often attracted the attention of artists and travelers . The site of the town must have been exceedingly beautiful in the days when the Indians were its only occupants.

Johnstown is not a city, but a borough. Prior to May 31, 1889, it was the centre of a nest of nearly a dozen boroughs and suburban villages, the population of the whole aggregating fully thirty thousand souls. The population of Johnstown alone amounted to about ten thousand persons. A proposition to consolidate Johnstown and the contiguous boroughs and villages into a city was often considered, but was always dismissed, chiefly for financial reasons.

Towards the close of the seventeenth century a number of German farmers from Southeastern Pennsylvania and Western Maryland settled upon the site of Johnstown and in the neighborhood, and in the year 1800, one of these settlers-Joseph Johns-laid out a town in the territory lying between the two streams and just above their junction, calling it Conemaugh. The name was afterwards (about 1830) changed to Johnstown.

The town grew slowly, and in 1810 its population was not above fifty families. Before this time, however, it had become a point of shipment, by flatboats on the Conemaugh, of pig-iron, etc., made at blast furnaces in the Juniata Valley. These flat-boats were usually built on the north bank of Stony Creek and at points below. The flat-boating business subsequently embraced the shipment of Juniata blooms, as well as pig-iron and bar-iron, and not only Pittsburg, but points farther west and south were visited by the flat-boats of the Conemaugh.

The development of the shipping traffic from Johnstown led John Buckwalter and another enterprising family named Halliday to embark at Johnstown, in 1809, in the manufacture of blooms and bar-iron. This enterprise embraced a forge, with two hammers,-a tilt-hammer and a trip-hammer.

A little earlier than this, in 1808, a blast-furnace was built by Gerehart & Keynolds, on Shade Creek, Somerset County, fifteen miles southeast of Johnstown, for the manufacture of pig-iron, pots, kettles, andirons, sad-irons, clock-weights, mill machinery, etc. These two iron enterprises contributed of themselves to make Johnstown an iron centre, and to give employment to its flat-boats. The flat-boating traffic flourished until the Pennsylvania Canal was opened from Pittsburg to Johnstown, in 1830, when it was abandoned.

The furnace was fitfully operated for half a century. Being badly located, and supplied only with bog-ores, it was never prosperous, financially ruining many successive owners. After a serious flood in Stony Creek the forge at Johnstown was removed to the north bank of the Conemaugh, in what is the present borough of Millvale. Its last owner was Peter Levprgood, who ceased operations in 1825. All these iron enterprises were operated by water-power.

In 1830 the population of Johnstown and its immediate vicinity probably amounted to three thousand persons, some of whom had been drawn to the place by the building of the canal, which commenced at Johnstown in 1828 or 1829. Intercourse with other parts of the State had previously been established by means of country roads which connected with the northern turnpike, passing through Huntingdon and Blairsville, and with the southern turnpike, passing through Bedford and Greensburg. But neither through its flat-boats on the Conemaugh nor its turnpike connections did Johnstown, down to 1830, give promise of ever becoming a place of any considerable commercial or manufacturing importance. Its residents at this time were still chiefly Pennsylvania Germans, the new-comers brought by the canal being of other blood. A few of the early residents of the town after 1800 were Scotch-Irish and Welsh.

With the completion of the Pennsylvania Canal to Johnstown in 1830, and of the Portage Railroad to Hollidaysburg in 1833, the whole character of the town suddenly changed. Canal-boating and railroading took the place of flat-boating; the Pennsylvania German element ceased to predominate in the make-up of the population; communications with other parts of the State and with other States became more frequent; homespun clothing was thenceforward not so generally worn; the town at once lost nearly all its pioneer characteristics. In the boating season, from March to December, it became a very busy place, and in the winter its streets were made lively with the jingling of the sleigh-bells of the idle boatmen and other employees of the various transportation companies. The building of new boats and of railroad cars went on all the year round. In the increase of population which accompanied the augmented business of the town, the farmers found more frequent occasion to pay it a visit, and more farms were opened up and more saw-mills were built.

Between 1830 and 1840 the population of Johnstown and its vicinity probably doubled. But there was a limit to the expansion of the boating and railroad interests of the place, and its population would not have increased very rapidly after 1840 but for the revival of its iron industry soon after that year. In 1841 four enterprising citizens of Johnstown-Messrs. George S. King, David Stewart, John K. Shryock, and William L. Shryock-built Cambria Furnace, on Laurel Eun, four miles west of Johnstown. It was followed by Millcreek Furnace, four miles south of Johnstown, built by John Bell & Co., in 1845; Benscreek Furnace, three miles south of Johnstown, built by George S. King & Co., in 1846; and by Mount Vernon Furnace, at Johnstown, built by Peter Levergood & Co., in 1846, but soon afterwards owned and operated by Linton & Galbreath.

Several other furnaces were built not far from Johnstown in the decade from 1840 to 1850. All the furnaces referred to were operated with charcoal, and all were long ago abandoned. All drew their supplies in whole or in part from Johnstown, and several of them shipped their pig-iron from the banks of the canal at that place. The starting up of so many furnaces at and near Johnstown added greatly to its activity and increased its population.

In 1852, Mr. King obtained a charter for the organization of the Cambria Iron Company, for the purpose of erecting works at Johnstown for the manufacture of iron rails for railroad tracks, and in 1853 this enterprise was fairly started, the erection of the necessary buildings being then undertaken in some green fields just west of Johnstown which had previously been owned by Jacob Levergood. The company had previously become the owner of four of the neighboring furnaces and of thousands of acres of iron ore, coal, and wood lands belonging to those furnaces.

In the same year (1852) in which Mr. King obtained his charter for the organization of the Cambria Iron Company, the Pennsylvania .Railroad was completed from Philadelphia to Pittsburg. In 1857 the canals and railroads of the State of Pennsylvania between Philadelphia and Pittsburg passed into the ownership of the Pennsylvania Eailroad Company and were soon afterwards abandoned.

It was a great event in the history of Johnstown when the erection of the Cambria Iron-Works was undertaken. We need not follow the history of these works to the time of the flood. It is enough to say that their establishment at once gave a fresh and a bounding impulse to the growth and prosperity of the town of Johnstown and its suburbs and sister boroughs. After 1855, when the usual financial difficulties of a great enterprise were ended, these communities all grew steadily and prospered abundantly down to the dreadful 31st of May, 1889, when both growth and prosperity were suddenly and cruelly arrested by a flood of waters such as the world has seldom known.

During the period intervening between the commencement of work in the erection of the Cambria Iron-Works in 1853 and the 31st of May, 1889, the population of Johnstown and its vicinity more than doubled, until at the time last mentioned it amounted, as has been stated, to fully thirty thousand persons. This increase in population was greatly promoted by the addition of the extensive works of the Johnson Company.

It will be seen that Johnstown has had three periods of development, each occupying nearly the same period of time. The first was the pioneer and flat-boating period, extending from about 1800 to 1830; the second was the canal period, extending from 1830 to 1857; and the third was the period covered by the extensive and beneficent operations of the Cambria Iron Company, which operations were interrupted, but were soon resumed again in all their former extent and variety. From first to last Johnstown has been an iron town.

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