My Birthday Stay in Historic Johnstown, PA

Masks. The ‘rona. Life. And 2020. Things aren’t exactly normal, but that doesn’t mean we can’t still make things happen in this new decade. This includes changing vacation plans which were supposed to happen back in June of this year.

A weekend at the Library of Congress was to kick off a summer of historical tours and help me reboot my works in progress. Honestly? I haven’t felt that reboot, yet. These past two months or so I’ve filled with reading (both fiction and nonfiction), buying too many journals, and merely thinking about writing.

When the idea to visit Johnstown, Pennsylvania for my birthday popped up, my mind’s wheels turned again. I know, I know. My entire writing career shouldn’t revolve around what I can or cannot do. But the general consensus within the online writing community is many of us were in a summer writing slump.

Okay. Onward to bigger and brighter things.

The history of Johnstown, Pennsylvania is one of industry moguls, geography, tragedy, and a perfect storm of events that led to The Great Flood of 1889. The number of casualties rivaled the number of lives lost on September 11th, 2001. Visit the following links to read more about the Pennsylvanian tragedy that rocked the Victorian world:

As I complete this post, we’re now nearly two months removed from the event. Some details have become covered in dust, as though they’ve sat under my bed for weeks. But let’s brush them off and see what I can remember!

Wednesday, September 23rd

My mother and I arrived at our AirBNB in the early afternoon, half an hour before our allotted check-in time. Down winding, unfamiliar roads we went, and suburbia quickly transitioned to woods. Deep, thick woods. We missed our turn but eventually made our way to the right spot. Thankfully, our hostess was perfectly fine with our early arrival.

After checking in we drove about town, checking out shops, cafes and the like. Johnstown, as historical as it is, is an interesting mix of eras, country and city. Multiple churches dot the compact valley, and two rivers diverge from a third. Trains, buses and roadways interweave in an intricate dance, lasting from dawn to dusk.

Museums, landmarks and the like educate visitors on The Great Flood. A memorial stands on the site of the old club, and those willing to make the trek up to it can see why the sight was chosen for such a club.

Mom and I ended our evening drive on Johnstown’s main street, at a not-so-historical Subway for dinner. A short time later my sister and her family arrived.

The home in which we stayed once belonged to our host’s father. A rather peculiar addition it had, with ceilings barely six feet in height. If my father had gone, he wouldn’t have been able to properly stand in the kitchen or dining area. Another oddity was my room – it had no door! And no hinges for a door. So if you’re into communal living, this would be the place for you. I, for one, missed having privacy for a few days.

Pictured: my brother-in-law, niece and nephew atop the hill

Thursday, September 24th

After playing games late into the evening Wednesday, the morning of Thursday, Sept. 24th was spent sleeping in and taking our time waking up. We didn’t head out until early afternoon. The night before we’d decided to ascend the “The Steepest Incline in the World: The Johnstown Incline Plane.”

Perched atop the the steepest slopes in the valley, the dizzying view from the top rivals that of the overlooks on Pittsburgh’s own Mount Washington.

A behemothic American flag, (at that time secured at half mast for SCOTUS Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg), flies on the tallest point of the plane’s hill. While familiar with Pittsburgh’s Duquesne and The Mon Inclines, Johnstown’s is different. It carries pedestrians, cycles and motor vehicles!

This incline also offered a view of the inner workings from inside their small gift shop. During this sleepy weekend getaway, not many locals were out and about, so we had the whole incline area to ourselves.

A meal at the highly recommended Boulevard Grill followed our incline adventures. Only two groups ate on the enclosed patio on the side of the restaurant, and the first group were nearly finished by the time we sat down to a very late lunch. What we all ate for our meals isn’t clear in my memory, but I do remember I had sweet potato fries and a steak wrap. From there we found a few small antique shops (I purchased an cream-colored teapot with gold details), and an old timey toy store with an owner readying his shelves for Christmas.

Friday, September 25th

On Friday we did something our mom wanted to do – tour historical sights around Johnstown. This included the Flood Museum, the Gentlemen’s Club and what was left of the dam itself. Even with Johnstown as depressed as it is, you cannot deny the natural beauty of the valley. One can see why the likes of Frick, Carnegie and Phipps would want to go there to get away from smog-filled Pittsburgh.

In the top center photo, where my sister, niece and nephew are reading an informational placard, that entire area was the lake. And where my sister is sitting in the grass with my niece, that was once the top of the dam. A dam with flawed maintenance from the very beginning.

Johnstown has both such a sad and intriguing history that we couldn’t help but visit. Many floods happened even before The Great Flood which nearly destroyed them all. All my life I’ve lived on high ground, and I still can’t wrap my mind around why anyone would choose to live in a notorious floodplain.

In a half suburban, half country city like Johnstown, it’s “curb appeal” and industrial draw is what makes it appealing even today. It’s not, however, without its own social and economic issues.

Saturday, September 26th

Not much happened at all on Saturday morning. Check-out time was 10:00 AM, and we were ready to go home. Mom and I stumbled upon a Saturday-only flea market halfway home, and we wandered its many rooms and aisles for at least two hours.

And, wouldn’t you know? My sister/family showed up right when we were leaving!

Mom and I headed back out, and once we reached the outskirts of Monroeville, PA, we stopped for lunch at an Applebees.

And, wouldn’t you know? My sister and family pulled in behind us!

Great minds think alike, I suppose!

With bellies full of food, minds filled with history, and hearts full of family togetherness, we made it home around 5 PM on a Saturday evening.

And, wouldn’t you know?

We all live on the same street.

It’s as though our little pod never left home to begin with.

And that, my friends, is really all this birthday girl ever really wanted – time with her little pod for her 35th birthday.

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