Johnstown Floats New Attractions to Lure Tourists

By Stoneback, Diane | Tribune-Review/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, June 8, 2008 | Go to article overview

Johnstown Floats New Attractions to Lure Tourists


Stoneback, Diane, Tribune-Review/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review


JOHNSTOWN -- Row after row of unmarked graves in Johnstown's Grandview Cemetery -- more than 700 -- are stark testimony to one of the most darkly ironic moments in American history.

The unidentified people buried here, and the remainder of the 2,209 victims who perished in the Johnstown Flood of May 31, 1889, spent their last full day on Earth observing Memorial Day.

What happened in Johnstown 119 years ago still is the nation's worst dam disaster and was the largest single day's loss of civilian life until the tragedy of Sept. 11, 2001.

When news of the devastation caused by a 40-foot-high wall of water roaring through the city first reached the outside world, the headlines captured worldwide attention.

Today, the stories of that tragedy, told in-depth by the Johnstown Flood National Memorial and the Johnstown Flood Museum, still are the "hooks" that draw visitors to Johnstown, a town of 24,000 that's about 90 minutes southeast of Pittsburgh.

They offer dramatic stories of havoc, human suffering and heroism caused by the flood, of the greed and callousness that helped pave the way for the South Fork Dam break and the careless development that would add to the speed of the water thundering toward the city that day.

But there's much more to experience in Johnstown. Explore beyond the basic "flood" attractions, and you'll find both harsh and heartwarming stories about the trials European immigrants faced when they flocked here to make new lives. In fact, give it some thought, and you'll realize visiting Johnstown is a memorable way to learn more about this country's industrial revolution and the people who fed its fires.

The American Red Cross' peacetime relief efforts in Johnstown really helped launch it as a key provider of assistance for communities and their citizens. Clara Barton, its 67-year-old founder, spent nearly five months in town directing the work of caring for victims and housing them in shelters.

You'll also find that a trip to Johnstown has the makings of an affordable, friendly and educational family vacation where an overnight stay won't break the budget, parking the car for an hour costs a buck and admission costs for its key attractions total $10 per adult and $4 or less for children, depending on their ages.

Even when you add in the cost of a round-trip ride on the Inclined Plane (a turn-of-the-century, elevator-style attraction that moves people and vehicles up and down the steep Yoder Hill), the adult total cost is $14 and the kid price is $6.50 or less (depending on their age).

Part of Johnstown's comeback -- after the floods that earned it the moniker of "The Flood City" and its other major disaster, which was the closing of the Bethlehem Steel mills -- is based on tourism. New attractions are being added and attractive hotel packages have been created to draw visitors to the city that, admittedly, still shows ample reddish-brown traces of its rust-belt heritage.

The city's Heritage Discovery Center provides a fascinating look at the lives and backgrounds of the European immigrants who arrived at Johnstown's railroad station in search of the American dream. It's opening two new attractions this summer.

The first is the "Mystery of Steel" exhibit, which opens Saturday, with a three-floor gallery of photos. They provide a detailed picture of the industry that made and shaped Johnstown, from the beginnings of the Cambria Iron Co. in 1852 through 1992, when Bethlehem Steel Corp. closed the Johnstown plants. By the end of 2008, a theater will open at the base of the three-story gallery, enabling visitors to "feel the heat" and hear the sounds inside the steel mills.

The second is the new Children's Museum, with many hands-on experiences for children ages 3 to 10. Expected to open in late July or early August, the museum will enable children to splash in water while learning how to build a dam and get the sensations of venturing inside a steel mill and a coal mine like those riddling the Johnstown area.

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