Johnstown, Pennsylvania is known for a few things. One was the Great Flood of 1899, when the South Fork Dam fourteen miles away broke and water as high as twenty one feet filled the valley town, killing 2,209 people.
Another significant event that happened in Johnstown was the filming of the movie Slap Shot in 1976. It sounds almost callous to mention the two events, the making of a movie and the flood that killed over two thousand people, in the same way, but both left their marks on the city.
Slap Shot is thought of as the greatest hockey movie of all time. The dialog is funny, the characters are memorable, and it harkens back to what hockey was then, when the Broad Street Bullies were winning Stanley Cups with their fists. As comical as it was, there was a part of it that was still “real life” for these players.
Slap Shot was released in 1977 to mediocre reviews and didn’t do well at the box office. 1977 was also the last year of the Johnstown Jets, the team the Charlestown Chiefs were based on. They folded along with the NAHL, the league they played in (no relation to the current NAHL, a juniors league). In July of ’77, Johnstown flooded again, with eight and a half feet of water taking over downtown.
Markers on the City Hall building show how high the water was.
The city itself is a beautiful place with lovely people, and it’s slowly falling to ruin. Looking beyond what we see in the movie, let’s take a walk around town.
(Click on any photo to see it larger)
Johnstown has one of the steepest vehicular incline planes in the US (they claim the steepest in the world). It caries cars and people up the hill, connecting it to the city of Westmont, sitting above Johnstown. We will talk about Westmont later.
The top of the inclined plane. Overlooking the city.
The War Memorial lies to the far right, the downtown business district above that, and straight ahead, the mills that made Johnstown what it was.
To the left is Point Stadium, where local school sports teams play, and behind it more industry.
Near the stadium is the Johnstown Flood Museum. After the local hospitals, it’s one of the nicest buildings in town.
But after the stadium, the flood museum, and the many health centers and hospitals, Johnstown shows it’s wear and tear.
Most of the pictures are of houses no longer occupied. No trespassing signs are stapled to plywood windows to limit liability for houses that are crumbling.
This was going on around 8 pm. Some late night demolition.
Sadly, there doesn’t seem to be enough of this going on. I got up early to walk around town.
The lights are not on in these buildings. The windows are reflecting the sun.
This place still looks like it’s in business. The building looked so interesting.
Johnstown is full of churches, but this one, and it’s associated school building, don’t look like they have been in operation for some time.
While these homes and buildings sit empty, nature is trying to reclaim its space. Ivy grows over so many of the dead buildings.
One of the mills runs the length of Clinton St. This was the old entrance to the mill.
There is still work going on in this mill, but I’m not sure what, and it seems to be concentrated in one end.
Continuing up Clinton St and across the river, a garage “For Rent.” Maybe the telephone pole is for rent, because the garage does not look ready.
Coming back to town, the guard shack at the mill truck entrance had a message of inspiration.
At some point, there was a building here.
Inside the old stores next to it.
This was the old candy shop by the War Memorial, the one with hockey memorabilia I popped in to when I was here in 2008. It’s gone.
I asked someone who worked at the sub shop downtown what had happened to the candy store. He said it just closed up, like most businesses around town.
The woman who runs A Piece of Cake downtown (which had one of the best cinnamon rolls I’ve ever had) told me she was proud to have been there two and a half years. “Most places don’t make it two and a half months,” she said. “By the third month, you are being evicted because you can’t pay the rent.”
Across the street from my hotel was Sheer Magic, a local barber shop. This sign was on the front of their door.
More mills and industry as I headed to the Heritage Discovery Center.
The Heritage Discovery Center is a fairly skipable museum dedicated to Johnstown’s past that wasn’t centered on flooding. It mostly covers industry and immigration. It was low on exhibits, although the photography exhibit from inside working and closed steel mills was interesting.
But as soon as you walk out of the building, this is across the street.
Headed back to town, I ran into a local who bought a house and building from the local Knights of Columbus. He took me around inside. His plan is to refurbish it into a bed and breakfast, event room, and restore the six lane manual bowling alley in the basement.
He has his work cut out for him.
More from Johnstown.
At the Hey Day Diner – a most proper name for the downtown restaurant – sits a mini shrine to the Johnstown Jets.
There was a hockey tournament while I was in town, the Slapshot Cup. Hockey bags and hockey players were all over downtown.
Earlier, I mentioned Westmont, the city at the top of the incline, a place not likely to see any flooding. What does it look like?
Quite a bit different from the city that sits below. No plywood, no ivy growing into the bones of buildings. No condemned houses and rubble.
And outside of downtown, several miles away, there are your standard retail areas that cities like this need to survive. There is a mall, but it looks like it is dying. There is an outdoor shopping plaza with Best Buy, Bed Bath and Beyond, and of course, a Walmart. Cities like this don’t exist without a Walmart.
Johnstown is a city that is still figuring out its future. The loss of industry hurt the town deeply. The few days I spent there didn’t make the future look promising, although I know efforts are being made to turn things around.
Hopefully, like Slap Shot, there is still some fight left in the city.