The city of Johnstown is nestled in a beautiful valley surrounded by steep forested hills. The Stoneycreek and Little Conemaugh Rivers come together in our valley to form the Conemaugh which flows west to become the Kiskiminetas, then the Allegheny, and eventually at Pittsburgh, the waters from our valley join the Monongahela to become the Ohio River and finally the mighty Mississippi.
The river names are Indian, and the Johnstown valley was originally settled by Delaware Indians. Thanks to our rivers, our town became an important part of the canal system that over carried travelers across Pennsylvania. We also had abundant iron ore and coal in our mountains, and in the mid 1800’s, Johnstown residents began making steel. Our economy boomed, and we became a community of immigrants and the largest producer of steel rail in the United States.
Our rivers and our steel industry shaped our history. We suffered many terrible floods, from the Great Johnstown Flood of 1889 to the more recent Flood of July 1977. The 1977 disaster led to a massive recovery effort, and a deluge of monies from the federal government. Johnstown’s devastated Central Business District received a lovely new streetscape, as well as many remodeled structures and some striking new buildings.
Unfortunately the flood recovery progress was soon overshadowed by economic disasters. Johnstown’s major steel mills closed and so did our two largest department stores and many other downtown businesses. Our Central Business District, the heart of our city, found itself struggling like many others in our nation’s rust belt.