For a town so thoroughly defined by its disasters, Johnstown has a remarkably productive and optimistic history. The city developed in a steep valley where the Little Conemaugh River joins Stony Creek to form the Conemaugh River proper. The topography lends itself to flooding, and Johnstown has been inundated numerous times. Between 1881 and 1889 alone, the city was flooded seven times. On May 31, 1889, when the dam across the South Fork of the Little Conemaugh River failed and sent twenty million tons of water crashing down the narrow valley into Johnstown, 2,209 people died, and only a handful of buildings were left standing. The engineers of the Pennsylvania Railroad earned fame when the only bridge left standing in the flood's path was of their design. It was also the first large, stone, arched bridge they had constructed west of the Susquehanna. Downstream from Johnstown's confluence, the bridge caught and held the massive piles of debris without collapsing. The town rebuilt and continued to prosper because of the many iron industries based here, especially the largest, the Cambria Iron Company ( CA16). Its Lower Works are located slightly to the west of the city center and stretch more than a mile along the north bank of the Conemaugh. The multitude of churches in the town reflects both the devotion of people well acquainted with disasters as well as the rich ethnic stew of residents created by the importation of workers for the coal, iron, and steel industries.
The main urban areas lie in a triangle of land just upstream from the confluence of the Little Conemaugh River and Stony Creek. In 1916, the Johnstown City Planning Commission hired a team of architects to develop a comprehensive plan for the city, which they published the following year. Henry Hornbostel, George Wild, and Johnstown architect Victor A. Rigaumont constructed a detailed plan based on Beaux-Arts principles, some of which was implemented. Designs for both the Washington Street and Napoleon Street bridges were realized, as was the scheme to restructure the flow of traffic through the use of one-way streets. A proposed major thorough-fare on the south bank of Stony Creek was instead routed along PA 56 on the north bank. The plan's suggestion of a riverside park was not realized.
Johnstown was hit hard by the industrial decline of the mid-twentieth century, and the population declined almost 60 percent between 1930 and 1990. However, infused with money from the state government and rejuvenated by a bustling tourism industry, the city is reviving. The Cambria City Heritage Discovery Center highlights the life of ethnic workers at the ironworks. The University of Pittsburgh Medical Center has expanded, the Crown American Corporation ( CA20) has maintained a downtown presence, and heavy industry has returned to the Cambria Iron Company site ( CA16).
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