top of page

Scratching the Surface of Johnstown

Post-industrial archaeology, January 2017

Back in 1982, Billy Joel had a hit with his song "Allentown":

Well we're living here in Allentown, and they're closing all the factories down
Out in Bethlehem they're killing time, filling out forms, standing in line
Well our fathers fought the Second World War, spent their weekends on the Jersey Shore
Met our mothers in the USO, asked them to dance, danced with them slow
And we're living here in Allentown

But the restlessness was handed down, and it's getting very hard to stay

Well we're waiting here in Allentown, for the Pennsylvania we never found
For the promises our teachers gave, if we worked hard, if we behaved

So the graduations hang on the wall, but they never really helped us at all
No they never taught us what was real, iron and coal, and chromium steel
And we're waiting here in Allentown

But they've taken all the coal from the ground, and the union people crawled away

Every child has a pretty good shot, to get at least as far as their old man got
But something happened on the way to that place, they threw an American flag in our place

Well I'm living here in Allentown, and it's hard to keep a good man down
But I won't be giving up today

And it's getting very hard to stay, and we're living here in Allentown

My friend Richard Boylan adopted it as the theme song of our chase of Norfolk & Western 611 across Virginia in the spring of 1983: Just as Joel honored industrial America by recording a song, we honored it by recording a railroad icon on her original stomping grounds.


In January of 2017, another friend, George Hiotis, and I spent part of a day exploring another Pennsylvania city once known as an American industrial powerhouse, Johnstown.  We had only enough time to see and photograph a very few things, but having seen them, I want to go back.


The phrase "Rust Belt" might just as well have gotten coined to describe Johnstown: From 1920 to 1940, the city boomed, its population peaking at more than 67,000, and about 13,000 people worked in the steel mills; now fewer than 20,000 call Johnstown home, and the last mill in town employs about 100 people.  As related in a previous photo-essay, George and I came into town from the east, through the boroughs of East Conemaugh and Franklin, from which we looked into the vast mostly-empty brownfield where Bethlehem Steel had once turned ore into steel and turned steel into plates, shapes, and railroad cars.  We did not try to photograph any of the devastation but continued west on Pa. 271 along the north side of the Bethlehem site and into Johnstown proper; at the city line, the street name changed from the incongruous Locust Street to the equally incongruous Maple Avenue.  A two-span truss bridge took us over the Little Conemaugh River, which still flows through semi-natural banks here, although realigned from its original course; half a mile west begin the reinforced-concrete banks built during the Depression to channelize the river through town and "prevent" devastating flooding.  Although the 1889 flood deservedly has the dubious honor as the worst, the 1936 flood took 25 lives and did $43 million in damage and provided the impetus for what Wikipedia calls"the most extensive flood control channel improvement project in American history."  The 1977 flood killed 84 in the surrounding areas and did $117 million in damage in Johnstown, where the waters reached six feet deep downtown (channel notwithstanding); once again, though, the steel mills and other industries largely rebuilt, only to succumb one by one to economic forces in the next three decades.


A modern single-span deck bridge got us back across the river again right at the east end of another vast industrial site, this one still at least partially active and amazingly still almost 100% covered with buildings, some of which date to the 19th century.  We did not know anything about the mill at the time, simply gawking at the half-mile of brick wall rising right from the sidewalk.  At the intersection of Clinton Street, Railroad Street, and Church Avenue, we parked and got out to survey the scene: As far as we could tell, that half-mile of wall had only a tiny handful of doorways, most of them right here where the wall took a 30-degree bend.  The view from the bend to the east --

-- and to the west, where the wall leads straight to the heart of downtown:

At the bend, a wide opening had once served as a main pedestrian access; the sign above it reads "DANGER MILL ENTRANCE" and it has two red lights underneath; perhaps they flashed at shift changes, to alert traffic on Clinton Street to the flow of humanity in and out of the mill:

The "iron maiden" turnstiles within the entrance caught my eye: They look very much like the ones that some of the Broadway IRT stations in the Bronx and Manhattan used to have.  I only recall them on the subway exits; one put a token into and passed through an adjoining (and easily-leapt-over) four-arm turnstile to get onto the platform.  The mill's 'stiles must have worked in either direction, with some sort of card-reader allowing entrance: Note the boxes on vertical pipes to the right of side of each.  Obviously long predating modern magnetic-stripe cards and readers, these worked on some principle that I cannot even imagine; if you know, kindly drop me a line.

While George and I worked the angles, only a few cars passed, and perhaps three or four people came and went from the corner store across the street from the mill entrance.  As one senior citizen came out, lottery tickets in hand, George hailed him, asking if he knew anything about the mill.  "Worked there for 26 years," the old man said.  He said the plant still had three rolling mills, 9", 12", and 14", and they made various shapes.  They do this, of course, with steel bilets produced elsewhere, just as they always did, since this mill never had blast furnaces (unlike the erstwhile mill to the east, which turned raw ore into steel).  I could not understand the name of the mill as he pronounced it, but when we later drove by the front, the sign read Gautier Steel Ltd. ("We've 'Gaut' Steel").  Founded as Gautier Iron in Jersey City, N.J., it moved to Johnstown in 1878, later becoming Cambria Iron and then Bethlehem Steel; it became Gautier again after Bethlehem left town in the 1990s.  I recommend the "Our Heritage" page of Gautier's Web site.  Our informant told us that he too had left Johnstown, while still employed by Bethlehem, to work at Bethlehem's Sparrows Point mill, near Baltimore, and he retired from there, with better benefits than he would have had had he remained in Johnstown until retirement.  Nonetheless, he still bought lottery tickets and, more significantly to me, he had about the worst teeth I have ever seen on a human being, each one a small brown nub.  Whatever dental benefits his employment had offered, he had plainly never taken advantage of them, ever.


After he drove away, we made a few more images of the neighborhood, including this one looking up Church Avenue, which cuts across the regular street grid at a slight angle.  The lot lines along it adhere to the grid, thus all of the houses face the street at that odd angle:

Gautier Steel looks like this from the air, even today (Google satellite view):

I need to get in there and look around, somehow!  You can tell the plant got built long before the age of the automobile, since almost no land remained uncovered by buildings -- certainly no place for thousands of workers to park their cars.  The yellow dot marks the intersection where we made our photos; downtown Johnstown lies at the lower left corner; and you can see the former Pennsy main line curving just north of the river.  The Stone Bridge that survived the 1889 flood (and held back the flood debris that then caught fire) crosses the Conemaugh less than half a mile to the west of the road overpass at the left edge of the photo.

Once we had finished documenting Gautier Steel (not truly finished, but at least having scratched the surface), George and I drove farther along the solid brick wall on Clinton Street, toward downtown, turning onto Washington Street at the west end of the mill.  Some of the plant's buildings had huge openings facing the empty railroad tracks there; we could not see anything but darkness inside.  Farther along we passed the city's Public Safety building, which looked like a department store but with arched-doorway truck bays instead of plate-glass windows across the front.  Next door, a much larger five-story building stretched a full city block -- this one almost certainly a former department store, with all of its first-floor windows filled in; Google Maps labels it as the federal courthouse.  The Johnstown Flood Museum across the street looked closed -- we certainly saw no people in the vicinity, nor parked cars in the lot next door or on the street -- but we probably would not have stopped in anyway, since we wanted to get to the Amtrak station, on the north side of the Little Conemaugh less than a thousand feet from the confluence with Stony Creek.  The map of this part of Johnstown looks vaguely congruent with the Point in Pittsburgh, as one river comes in from the east (in this case the Little Conemaugh, rather than the Allegheny), another from the south (Stony Creek, rather than the Monongahela), to become yet a third (the Conemaugh, rather than the Ohio), and in fact Johnstown has its own Point Park.

The station dates back to 1916, designed for the Pennsylvania Railroad by Kenneth MacKenzie Murchison, who also designed the Pennsy's Baltimore station as well as the Lackawanna's stations in Buffalo, Scranton, and Hoboken -- real architectural royalty here.  Johnstown's station does not measure up sizewise compared to these others, and its brick exterior does not have the monumentality of the others' cut stone, but it nonetheless has all of the aspirations of its larger siblings: Doric columns, arched windows, and an attic story that recalls New York City's late, lamented Penn Station.  Roughly square, the station's south facade has two columns in front of the doorways that open onto the street, with P E N N S Y L V A N I A in raised metal letters along the frieze under the dentil molding, but the east facade, perpendicular to the tracks and street, has five of the columns under the same lettering, making that the main entrance.  Meanwhile, the tracks fly by on an embankment at least 15 feet high, so the grand building sits rather awkwardly squeezed in between street and embankment.  We found the station undergoing renovation, and while the building has unmistakable grandeur, in its current state I found it almost unremittingly depressing: Two FEMA-trailer-like boxes in the parking lot out front provided the rest room facilities (one had its door wide open on a 30-degree day); the waiting room had a narrow path through it delineated by plywood on the floor and 2x4 railings, so one could not sit on the still-extant but dusty wooden benches; no one occupied the ticket booth, with its bullet-proof glass -- in fact, we saw no one else at all in or near the building; and not a single sign, flyer, or brochure anywhere indicated that trains even stopped here, let alone at what times in which directions.  A couple of temporary tables in the waiting room held the remains of workmen's lunches, and a roll of toilet paper sat on the crest of one of the high benches; I moved it to the seat, just to minimize its presence.  By looking up, though, one could ignore the disrespect shown the space; the herringbone tile in the arched ceiling and one of the pendant lights made for an interestingly abstract image:

The sloping tunnel under the tracks likewise had construction materials scattered around, and a torpedo heater roaring away, whether to keep some recent work from freezing or passengers warm I could not say.  We climbed the stairs to track level, noting the hairy white mold growing on the concrete walls -- perhaps due to the moisture from the torpedo heater.  Someone had chalked graffiti onto the concrete to the effect of "Why does no one have any pride in our city anymore?"  This station had once had two high-level platforms -- the westernmost of any on the whole Pennsy; one served the two eastbound tracks and one served the two westbounds.  Neither high-level platform has survived, nor their canopies, and only a single low-level asphalt strip runs between the northern two tracks, with no canopy at all.  (As elsewhere on the Pittsburgh Division, Conrail ripped out one track here in the 1980s -- in the station area, the inner eastbound one.)  The cracked asphalt of the platform and the peeling paint on the concrete-block stair and elevator towers did not offer reassurance that anyone does indeed take any pride in this place.


We had seen only a few flakes of snow while photographing Gautier Steel, and only a few fell as the head end of an eastbound crude-oil train rolled through the station, but just like on the West Slope earlier in the day, the snow fell harder as the train went by, and as the helpers passed the snow stood out nicely in a 1/25th-of-a-second exposure:

On the far hillside we could see the Johnstown Incline, another Pittsburgh-like feature of the city.  Built to carry vehicles as well as people -- and to serve as an escape route from floods -- the Incline claims status as the steepest vehicular incline in the world, on a 71% grade (35-degree angle); somehow these things always look steeper than their numbers indicate.  The Incline operates eleven months out of the year -- not in January, so even if we had wanted to take the time we could not have ridden.  Yet another item to add to the list for a return visit.  George and I left the train station and continued downstream along the right bank of the Conemaugh, almost immediately passing through one of the arches of the Stone Bridge and then past a series of large old industrial buildings -- still in use, judging by the cars and trucks parked outside, and only middling decrepitude.  As we passed a sign on the side of the road, I realized I needed to stop and photograph it: Standing all by itself, it gave no indication of what sort of project it commemorated, and certainly nothing struck me as having gotten accomplished recently.

Note that after "Barack Obama, President of the United States", someone had written in by hand "of whatever".  It seemed an apt if cryptic commentary.

We passed through a gate and into a neighborhood; evidently the whole street from as far back as the Stone Bridge had once had restricted access, through the plant property.  The river curved to the west, and the railroad tracks between the street and the river fanned out in to a small yard, empty of cars; one track climbed to a truss bridge spanning the concrete-lined river.  Channeling my inner David Plowden, I stopped us again here so I could document the bridge from various vantage points:

With close to a 350-foot span, this bridge has a remarkably deep truss, perhaps 60 feet in the center; it seems likely, in steel country, that very heavy trains crossed it once, and may yet.  On the far side of the river, Norfolk Southern freights passed in both directions on the main line.

We went up river a little farther, passing the main shops of the Conemaugh & Black Lick Railroad, an erstwhile Bethlehem Steel railroad (and the owner of the truss bridge), then crossed the river on Laurel Avenue, driving up that thoroughfare as far as the stately Tudor-style Greater Johnstown Middle School; on Garfield Street where we turned around, the American Carpatho-Russian Christ the Saviour Cathedral caught our eye -- gold domes and mosaics and a well-tended yard.  Elsewhere in town we had passed at least two enormous churches with banners reading -- evidence of closure and an attempt at reuse.  Hardly surprising in a city that has lost 70% of its population since World War II.


We recrossed the river, then turned downstream again.  Just over a mile on, the river wound to the west, then southwest, and then northwest again, and we left the city entirely behind as the valley narrowed to allow for nothing more than a railroad line and a highway on each side of the river.  Turning around at the city's sewage treatment facility, we slowly drove back, looking for a vantage to photograph the main line on the opposite bank.  Where we found one, George got out of the car and walked up and down along the guardrail; in low morning or evening light, the location would have promise, but under solid overcast it did not.


Retracing our path back toward downtown on Iron Street, we saw a view between houses that looked intriguing, so we turned down an alley and up Canal Place.  The backs of the houses here looked even worse than their fronts: Although some showed evidence of owners who care, others looked one stiff breeze away from falling right over, to come to rest in the trash and junk in the back yards.  Parking next to the least abandoned-looking vehicles, George and I waded through the weeds, looking for a clear view of the river and the Cambria City neighborhood beyond.  The Church of SS. Casimir & Emerich dominated the view -- one of the Steeples Project's success stories, it turns out, soon to open as the Casimir Cultural Center; you can listen to its bells here.

​It had gotten on towards 3 o'clock, and we had not yet eaten lunch, so we crossed the 4th Avenue Bridge, focused on reaching the Sheetz that we had seen from Canal Place.  Although we did not photograph it, the bridge itself deserves a word: A 250-foot truss, it has horizontal top and bottom chords -- perfectly normal -- but the roadway deck slopes down from end to end at a significant angle, entering the truss almost halfway up its height and leaving close to the bottom.  I've never seen anything like it.


At the Sheetz, George and I made our choices at the touchscreens.  In common with so many places that have food preparation going and lots of soda coolers, the sound volume indoors struck me as almost deafening -- certainly not a pleasant work environment.  At the register, I handed the clerk my receipt, and as I did so I noticed the number on it: 001.  "Thank you, Sheetz," I said to her, "you always make me feel like number one."  She laughed, and felt like I had done my good deed for the day, bringing a moment of levity to a Sheetz clerk.


We drove back through town, and I ate most of my burger and fries parked on the side of the street at the east end of the Gautier mill while George looked for a vantage point to photograph the NS main line across the river as it would around the hillside east of the station; here too, any photo would require low sun, a resource in short supply this gray day, so we did not linger.  By dusk we had reached Altoona, coming down the mountain on Route 22 as NS freights worked their way westbound on the hillside above us, heading toward Horseshoe Curve.  And 36 hours after leaving Bloomsburg we had returned, another satisfying weekend along the tracks behind us.  Where shall we go next?

bottom of page