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Johnstown City

Johnstown City Hall is located at 209 Watson Street, Johnstown PA 15905; phone: 814-536-3433.


Selected text, below, was adapted from: Wallace, Kim E., City of Johnstown Written Historical and Descriptive Data, 1989, Historic American Buildings Survey [HABS PA-5669], National Park Service HABS/HAER, Washington DC. Adaptation copyright © The Gombach Group.

The City of Johnstown is located in the Laurel Highlands section of the Allegheny Mountains of western Pennsylvania. It lies at the steep, narrow, Y-shaped intersection of three river valleys — the Little Conemaugh, the Stony Creek, and the Conemaugh. This location and topography have provided both the source and the limits of Johnstown's growth. In the nineteenth century the decision to route a canal, and later a railroad, along the contours of the river valleys compensated for the town's isolation in the otherwise difficult western Pennsylvania terrain and in the hinterlands of the distant population centers of Pittsburgh and Philadelphia. Perhaps even more important were the coal and iron ore yielded by the local terrain. The combination of transportation and natural resources supported the rapid growth of a local iron- and steel-making industry dominated by one company—Cambria Iron, later purchased by the Bethlehem Steel Company. The steel mills in turn supported the steady growth of Johnstown and surrounding communities.

In the twentieth century Johnstown again began to feel its isolation and provincialism. Local coal and iron ores were not of sufficient quality to meet the higher standards of the steel industry. The railroad, once the company's primary customer as well as shipper, lost its role as the country's most important transportation system. The decline of the basic steel industry in the postindustrial economy was dramatically evident in Johnstown in the 1970s when unemployment rose to over 20 percent, and Bethlehem Steel considered closing its Johnstown plants. Efforts to attract new businesses to the area echo the rhetoric of previous city boosters who had to contend with Johnstown's reputation as a dirty and noisy steel town prone to life-threatening floods.

Johnstown itself was a beautiful town in my boyhood days [1830s-1840]. Its surrounding hills were covered with dense forests down to the very margins of the streams which then bounded it on nearly all sides. . . . There were many apple orchards which had been planted by Joseph Johns and the Pennsylvania Germans who were its first settlers, and many sycamores and other native trees were still standing. How large the public square and the reservation at the lower end of Main Street were in those days! There were many log houses, reminders of the pioneers, and a few brick houses. Every house had a garden attached to it, and there were lilacs, hollyhocks, sunflowers, and other old-fashioned flowers everywhere. [1]

In James M. Swank's lifetime the population of Johnstown increased from a few hundred to over 20,000 and the town became host to one of the largest producers of iron and steel in the country. Understandably, he viewed the village of his youth with some nostalgia, yet as president of the American Iron and Steel Association for thirty-eight years, Swank was a fully assenting participant in the industrial transformation of his boyhood home. Swank's memories of an innocent pastoral community obscure the fact that, like many other towns in western Pennsylvania, Johnstown was laid out and founded as a speculative venture.

Its founder and would-be developer was Joseph Schantz, whose name was anglicized to Johns. He immigrated from Switzerland to Philadelphia in 1769 and made a living farming in eastern Pennsylvania before moving to Somerset County in 1784. Here, on the flood-plain at the confluence of Stony Creek and Little Conemaugh River, he began farming and, in 1800, laid out the town he called Conemaugh after an Indian village that was supposed to have occupied the site. Like other speculators, he hoped to profit not only from the sale of lots but from the increased opportunities for trade and commerce that would result from a concentrated population. To insure the successful establishment of a permanent town, these speculators maneuvered and negotiated to have their holdings designated as the governmental seat of newly formed counties.[2]

Johns's town was situated in the section of Somerset County that was partitioned off in 1804 to form Cambria County. Clearly, Johns had foreseen this move four years earlier and meant to guarantee Conemaugh's future by seeing it named the new county seat. But his influence was insufficient to compensate for the town's location at the southern end of the county, away from the more important turnpike to the north. Ebensburg became the county seat and this failure is given as the reason for Johns's removal in 1807 to a farm near Davidsville in Somerset County where he died eight years later. Johns's town changed hands several times but did grow slowly, by 1820 accumulating a population of 200. In 1831 the town was officially incorporated and in 1834 the citizenry honored its founder by changing the name from Conemaugh to Johnstown.[3]

  1. James M. Swank to Calvin C. Hayes, September 21, 1909, in James M. Swank, "Recollections of Early Johnstown," in his Cambria County Pioneers, (Philadelphia, 1910). 45. Calvin C. Hayes replaced David Beale as pastor of the Presbyterian congregation in Johnstown in May 1891. Nathan Daniel Shape, "A History of Johnstown and the Great Flood of 1889: A Study of Disaster and Rehabilitation," dissertation. University of Pittsburgh, 1940.
  2. R. Eugene Harper, "Town Development Western Pennsylvania," The Western Pennsylvania Historical Magazine 71 (Jan. 1988>, 3-26.
  3. Shappee, 23-4, 103-4
**Information is curated from a variety of sources and, while deemed reliable, is not guaranteed.
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