I’ve seen several towns that have been able to come back from one or two knockout blows, but none that have come back from as many as Johnstown, PA (population 23,906). I remembered the infamous 1889 Johnstown Flood from my history books but wasn’t aware of the one in 1936 and only vaguely remembered the one in 1977.
The town sits in between steep hills and at the confluence of the Stony Creek and Little Conemaugh River. The first flood was caused by a recreational dam that held back 500 million gallons of water breaking and sending a sixty foot wall of water down through the valley, killing 2,200 people and leveling most of the rapidly growing town that was already one of the largest steel producers in the world. The house at the right is one of the most photographed ones from that flood, of a tree that impaled itself into the John Schultz house (surely a distant relative!).
The town rebuilt.
A large winter snowfall, early spring thaw and 36 straight hours of rain resulted in another major flood in March, 1936 that killed twelve and did over $40 million in property damage.
The town rebuilt.
A freak nine hour thunderstorm that stalled over Johnstown in July, 1977, dumped 11.87 inches of rain. Seven dams above town overflowed, twelve people died and over $300 million in property damage resulted.
Again the town rebuilt.
But even worse than the flood of 1977 was the world economy of the late 70s when cheap imports of steel were devastating the U. S. Steel industry. Johnstown’s two major steel plants, Bethlehem and U. S. Steel, gradually began downsizing throwing over 20,000 people out of work by the mid 80s. Unemployment hit 24%, the highest in the country. The population of the town fell by over 50%, but again Johnstown began to pull itself up from the ashes.
Congressman John Murtha began to try to reposition the community and area as a defense industry cluster. “The Congressman”, as virtually everyone in town called him, went from running a car wash in Johnstown to Congress in 1974 and no one has come close to unseating him ever since.
By adroitly using earmarks, Murtha has helped to get over 2 dozen defense companies to either start up in the town or to move operations to the region. Those companies are today involved in everything from drug intelligence to composite materials to robotics. The 2008 defense-spending bill now before Congress includes 45 earmarks worth $166 million in Murtha’s Congressional district with over ½ of that going to firms in Johnstown.
Murtha’s relentless pursuit of defense earmarks has resulted in the development of a massive defense and health care cluster surrounding Johnstown. Over 4,000 of the 9,700 jobs in the town are in these clusters.
My hope is that Johnstown can develop new uses for the technology that has been developed in the town because of these earmarks. I’m hopeful that new entrepreneurial companies can come out of these 20 some defense companies.
My concern is that the next disaster for the town won’t be a flood but will be when Congressman Murtha, age 73, steps down and the new Congressman doesn’t have the clout of The Congressman