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Learning from the Past in Johnstown, Pennsylvania


As a native Pennsylvanian, I've traveled all over this vast state, but somehow Johnstown has escaped my radar, so I decided to check that area off my list just a few weeks ago. What I came back with was a newfound knowledge of history after visiting the Wagner-Ritter House, the Johnstown Flood Museum, and the Johnstown Heritage Discovery Center.

When my husband and I first arrived, we decided to get our bearings by taking a stroll around the downtown area. I can't say there's much there in the way of shopping, but a walk around Central Park is an enjoyable way to learn more about the history of the area.

20220808_135608The Central Park Fountain

The park was designated as a public space by Johnstown founder Joseph Johns when the area was chartered in 1800. In 1872, all buildings were cleared from the area and a formal public park was laid out, with an ornate fountain as the centerpiece. Approximately 100 trees were planted there, only to be wiped out by the catastrophic flood in 1889. The fountain above is said to approximate the original.

After the flood, the site was buried under eight feet of water and debris. Within days, however, it was transformed into a tent city inhabited by 6,000 laborers and 580 members of the 14th Pennsylvania Regiment who helped clear the area.

20220808_135902A memorial to the town father Joseph Johns erected in 1913 by the Johnstown citizens of German descent.

Additional structures in the park include a war memorial, a gazebo, a memorial to the flood victims, a firefighters memorial bell and a memorial to the veterans of the Civil War.

20220808_135530Central Park Gazebo

20220808_135742This old fire bell was moved from a fire station to Central Park

warsA memorial commemorating the Wars of the United States.

The Wagner-Ritter House and Gardens

20220809_102801The exterior of the Wagner-Ritter House at 418 Broad Street

The next stop on our excursion was The Wagner-Ritter House, which Johnstown maintains to celebrate the life of the average immigrant working family working in the "shadow of the mills." The home was occupied for more than 130 years from the 1860s to the 1990s by three generations of a steelworker's family.

Before the tour commences, the public is encouraged to read about the residents of the house in the adjacent visitors' center, where large, wall-mounted boards offer background information on those who lived there.

Wagner was an immigrant, laborer, husband and father who worked in the steel mills of the Cambria company and his house was built in the 1860s. The four-room home eventually grew to seven rooms sometime during the births of the Wagner's 13 children. Their daughter Anna later went on to marry a Ritter and her family later lived in the house. Visitors can learn quite a bit about Anna, who lived from 1866 to 1968 and witnessed a dizzying array of technological changes during the course of her 102-year-old lifetime.

Guide Mackenzie Croyle was a wealth of information as we proceeded from room to room as she explained how simply the German family lived, their dedication to their Catholic faith and how their house changed over time. Croyle was extremely thorough, covering even small details down to the plank framing and layers of wallpaper that changed over time.

Our guide, Makenzie Croyle describes one of the most important rooms in the house—the kitchen.

One of the more intriguing items I spotted hanging on the wall of the house was what our guide described as a "last rites kit." I couldn't help but wonder how many times it had been used. I guess that will remain a mystery.

20220809_112939Last rites kit.

20220809_113400 (1)Stairs blocked by a wood partition lead to a child's bedroom upstairs.

During the summer of 1991 and 1992, the Johnstown Area Heritage Association sponsored an archeological dig in the backyard of the Wagner-Ritter House. With the help of more than 70 volunteers under the direction of professional archeologists, the project yielded over 20,000 artifacts, some of which were mere shards of glass. Others were larger objects like toys and glassware used by the family. The majority of the items found were related to the Wagner brothers' soda factory.

What's notable about those finds is that the project revealed a variety of soda closures to keep the "fizz" in. The excavators also discovered that they used recycled bottles too; some came from as far as Florida. Guests will be able to view the artifacts in the rear of the visitors center after they take the tour of the garden, which replicates what the owners may have grown there. Today, the crops are donated to a local food pantry.

20220809_120048A raised-bed garden not unlike what the Wagners would have cultivated.

If you schedule a tour, be prepared to spend about an hour and 15 minutes with the guide at the site where questions are encouraged!
The Wagner-Ritter House and Garden is open for pre-booked, guided tours on Tuesdays, Wednesday, Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays. Order your tickets by clicking on this link.

The World's Steepest Inclined Plane

A shot of the world's steepest inclined plane.

Did you know that the world's steepest vehicular inclined plane exists in Johnstown? It can carry passengers and automobiles up or down a slope with a grade of 71.9 percent and was completed in 1891 after the tragic flood of 1889 to serve as an escape route from floods in the valley. While visiting, I learned that the plane served its purpose twice so far in its history--in 1936 and then again in 1977.

I have to say that I was rather disappointed to be unable to ride it during our visit. I learned later that renovations began in February of 2022 and are slated to be completed in the spring of 2023.

Asiago's Italian Restaurant

The view from our table at Asiago's restaurant
Situated above the Johnstown Incline Plane is Asiago's restaurant, which deserves its own subhead for the view alone, although the food wasn't bad either. I recommend the lobster ravioli with the basil cream sauce.

asiagoLobster Ravioli with Basil Cream Sauce

In addition to the lobster ravioli, Asiagos Tuscan Italian Restaurant offers Italian classics like Veal Parmiagiana, Lasagna, Five-Cheese Ravioli, Chicken Marsala and more. If you make reservations and prefer a window seat, be sure to let them know in advance.

Learning about a Tragedy at the Johnstown Flood Museum

20220809_130348The Johnstown Flood Museum is housed in a former public library

Before visiting the Flood Museum, I knew little about the 1889 Johnstown Flood. I do know that Pennsylvanians are STILL paying the Johnstown Flood tax on liquor, but Johnstown doesn't see a penny of that money anymore. It was established to rebuild the area and when the project was deemed done, legislators voted to keep it intact, even raising it twice over the years. Are you wondering where that money goes? I can tell you that it gets funneled into the Pennsylvania general fund.

20220809_130912A representation of the debris that swept through communities

I was also unaware that the South Fork Hunting and Fishing Club played a prominent part in the tragedy. Before taking the tour of the museum, we were encouraged to watch a 20-minute movie which explains it very well.

Members of the secretive and secluded club included wealthy industrialists like Henry Clay Frick, Andrew Mellon and Andrew Carnegie, to name a few. The club purchased an old dam and reservoir from entrepreneur Benjamin Ruff who envisioned a summer retreat in the hills above Johnstown. Over the years the dam had been neglected and, according to the Johnstown Heritage Association (JAHA), not much was done to rectify that situation, other than patching leaks with mud and straw. To add insult to injury, the club decided to make modifications which were, in hindsight, considered dangerous.

One of the modifications cited by the JAHA included installing fish screens across the spillway to keep prized game fish from escaping. This had the unfortunate effect of capturing debris and preventing the spillway from draining off the lake’s overflow. The club also lowered the dam by a few feet in order to make it possible for two carriages to pass at the same time, so the dam was only about four feet higher than the spillway. Finally, they never reinstalled the drainage pipes so that the reservoir could be drained.

When the rains came on May 30 and 31st, 1889, the spillway couldn't keep up and the dam burst releasing 20 million tons of water on the communities downstream. The aftermath is well worth reading at the JAHA website:

In addition to detailing the history of the flood, the Flood Museum tells stories of journalists reporting on the tragedy, the families devastated by the disaster and how Hollywood capitalized on it with sensationalistic movies and more.

Some statistics learned while at the museum:

  • 2,209 people died.
  • The destruction of Johnstown took 10 minutes.
  • 396 children under the age of 10 died.
  • 568 children lost one, or both parents.
  • The force of the flood swepts several locomotives weighing 170,000 pounds as far as 4,800 feet.
  • Bodies were found as far away as Cincinnatti, Ohio as late as 1906.

Because of the heavy rains, the damn contained 20,000,000 tons of water before it broke. This is the equivalent of the volume of water that goes over Niagara Falls in 36 minutes

The tour of The Flood Museum was both sobering and enlightening and reminds me of that old saying by George Santayana, who said, "Those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it."

We later visited Grandview Cemetery in Johnstown where nearly 800 unidentified victims of the flood were laid to rest.


Flood victims in Grandview Cemetery.

The Heritage Discovery Center

The Heritage Discovery Center was a brewery in the early 1900s
The final leg of the trip included a visit to the Heritage Discovery Center located in a 1907 building which once was home to the Germania Brewery.

The tour leads visitors on a journey to discover how immigrants made their way to the Johnstown area and the professions they undertook. Each person is given a card with an immigrants name on it and instructed to stop periodically and wave the card beneath a barcode to learn their chosen immigrants fate at various steps of the way.

I was quite surprised when I was learned my card would follow Prokop Kalina! Kalina is my maiden name and I was excited until I was told these were "composite" immigrants. I thought for a moment I may have found a distant relative.

As we made our way through the museum, we encountered immigration officials who stopped some and waved on others. As we continued, we learned more about how these people lived, raised families and made their livlihoods in their new surroundings.

The ultimate fate of Prokop Kalina? He became a butcher, which is interesting because the other part of my name is Metzger--which means butcher in German.

When we finished that tour, we continued onto the third floor that housed the Johnstown Children's Museum, which was quite extensive and interactive and may warrant its own article in a magazine at a later date. Kids could try on clothing, shop at a supermarket and engage in a variety of fun, yet educational pursuits.


20220810_104550Children can shop for goods at the general store.

20220810_104758An exhibit where children can crawl through the "mines" before taking a ride on a sliding board.

20220810_104957The Children's Center features interactive, educational exhibits

After we finished the tour in the main building, the guide suggested we visit a separate building called The Center for Metal Arts, which contained an extensive collection of artifacts pertaining to steel forging and manufacturing.
20220810_110333Steel production artifacts on display at the Iron & Steel Gallery
Visitors can view a short movie called "The Mystery of Steel," which plays on a 30-foot wide screen on the bottom floor of the gallery and includes historic photography and film shot in Johnstown before Bethlehem Steel closed its local mills in the 1990s. Vibration inducers beneath the seats and heat projectors allow audiences to feel like they're in an actual working mill. To learn more about this area of the center, I suggest watching this presentation put together by JAHA.

Well that's about it for my Johnstown trip to destinations that can be enjoyed no matter what the weather is outside. I hope these few ideas will help you get started in your sightseeing journey should you decide to visit the area.


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Learned quite a bit about the Johnstown Flood and Frick's role in the disaster when I did a TG story on the Frick Museum in Pittsburgh.  A sad tale of his desire of wanting to be with the upper crust circle of the rich at the time.  Thanks for the superb photos and story Stephanie.

George G

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