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Museum Buoys Most-Flooded City

June 01, 1986|JON KENNEDY | Kennedy is a San Jose free-lance writer.

JOHNSTOWN, Pa. — Now that its base in iron and steel has largely died out, this industrial center in an Allegheny mountain river gorge is counting on tourism as one of its main hopes of survival.

Having rebuilt after three crippling natural disasters in the past century, America's most-flooded city has put its money where its hope is, investing $3.2 million to restore its main attraction, the Johnstown Inclined Plane.

The city's Flood Museum, devastated in 1977 by the area's most recent major flood, also has been renovated, using some of the creative tenacity that boosters call "the Johnstown spirit."

The surrounding hills abound in spectacular vistas and historic lore, and hospitality has become a watchword.

The Inclined Plane

The Johnstown Inclined Plane is the city's main attraction, an outdoor elevator ride for both automobiles and pedestrian passengers up a 71% grade of 896 1/2 feet. Built in 1891 in the aftermath of the Great Flood that claimed 2,200 lives in May, 1889, it was intended to provide a quick and safe way out of the densely populated valley that was under water more than 20 times in the 19th Century. Johnstown sustained 30 casualties in another major flood in 1936, and 80 lives were lost in the 1977 inundation resulting from a 24-hour downpour.

Horse-drawn carriages and their passengers were the original fares on the Inclined Plane, which was built by Cambria Iron Co., a predecessor of Bethlehem Steel. The plane was a replica of inclined railroads built for the Pennsylvania Canal and considered the engineering marvel of their day almost 60 years earlier.

That "portage railroad" system of the 1830s had been a key to the city's growth at the confluence of Stony Creek and the Conemaugh River. The canal used a series of inclined planes to haul boats over the state's only unnavigable ridge, between what are now Altoona and Johnstown.

The canal's engineers depended on counterbalancing loads assisted by mule power to haul cargo and passenger boats over the Alleghenies. The Johnstown Inclined Plane uses the same counterbalancing principle and a small (400-horsepower) electric motor to lift its two 22-ton cars and their 16-ton undercarriages smoothly up and down the hillside.

Passengers standing at the rear gate of ascending incline cars see the city's tallest office buildings and stores quickly fall away below them, giving a panoramic view of Johnstown and several neighboring communities.

The Flood Museum, housed in the former Carnegie Library in the city center, was restored after the 1977 flood with funds from the sale of books on Johnstown's history. It depicts the 1889 disaster, using artifacts, photographs, reproductions of newspapers and magazines from the period, and a 45-minute audio-visual review.

A mile from the top of the Inclined Plane is Grandview Cemetery on Millcreek Road, where lie 777 unidentified victims of the 1889 disaster.

Broken Spillway

Fourteen miles east of Johnstown, near Southfork, is the broken spillway of Southfork Dam, a National Historic Landmark. Built to feed the headwaters of the Pennsylvania Canal's link between Johnstown and Pittsburgh, after the railroads made the canal obsolete, it was turned into a hunting and fishing resort for Pittsburgh's wealthy 19th-Century industrialists and financiers.

Failure to maintain the dam led to its collapse on May 31, 1889, sending a wall of water cresting as high as 70 feet that wiped out everything in its path downstream.

Near Cresson, off U.S. 22, is the Lemon House National Historic Site, the official commemoration of the Pennsylvania Canal and its portage railroad system.

A few miles north of Cresson is Horseshoe Curve, one of the most-photographed railroad sites in the world. It did for the Pennsylvania Railroad's main line what the inclined planes did for the canal, providing a way for locomotives to pull trains over the Allegheny ridge without using switchbacks.

Railroad buffs love to stand in the center of the curve and watch locomotives round the mountain to their right while cabooses of the same train enter around the pass on their left.

Railroaders Museum

In Altoona, eight miles east, is the Railroaders Museum, a growing collection of railroad engines, cars, tools, mementos and lore occupying part of a site where factories once manufactured and maintained the Pensylvania Railroad's rolling stock.

The estate of millionaire industrialist Charles Schwab (once the personal secretary to Andrew Carnegie and the founder of Cambria Iron) is preserved by St. Francis College at Loretto, eight miles northwest of Cresson.

Prince Gallitzin State Park and Glendale Lake are about 50 miles north of Johnstown between Pennsylvania 36 at Patton and Pennsylvania 53 at Fallentimber. The 1,600-acre lake provides boating, fishing, swimming, picnicking, camping, hiking and other activities all year.

Old Bedford Village, just off the Pennsylvania Turnpike at Bedford, 35 miles south of Johnstown, recalls the era when the Allegheny Mountains were the nation's western frontier.

Places to Stay

Accommodations are plentiful throughout the area and range from campsites to motels, at prices from modest to moderate. Dining is influenced by a cross-section of ethnic traditions--Slavic, Italian, German and Anglo-Saxon--and reflects the hearty meat-and-potatoes appetites of industrial workers.

The most notable exception is the gourmet fare of Erculiani's Grill, tucked away in a tavern in Gallitzin, which has gained a statewide reputation for its endless array of European delicacies, at prices considerably higher than the local average.

Additional information can be obtained from the Cambria County Tourist Council, 711 Edgehill Drive, Johnstown, Pa. 15905.

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