Going Down The Conemaugh
( Originally Published 1900 )
In the latter part of the eighteenth century there were but two white men living in all this region. The first one there was Thomas Blair, whose cabin was on the mountain at Blair's Gap, where the Port-age Railroad afterwards came over. The other was Michael Maguire, who came along in 1790, and going through the Gap, concluded to settle among the Indians about twelve miles away, at what was afterwards Loretto. These rugged pioneers spent most of their time fighting and watching the Indians and wild beasts, and gathered a few companions around them. Here afterwards came Prince Demetrius Augustine Gallitzin, who left the Russian army in 1792 and visited America, designing to travel. He became a Catholic priest, and liking these mountains, established a mission at Loretto in 1798, spending a fortune in maintaining it, his missionary charge ultimately extending over the whole mountain region. He attracted a population of about three thousand, chiefly Germans and Irish, repeatedly refused the episcopacy, and continued his labors until his death at Loretto in 1840. His remains lie in front of his church, surmounted by a monument, while the centenary of this St. Michael's Church of Loretto was marked in October, 1899, y erecting his bronze statue, the Prelate-Prince Gallitzin being portrayed as he appeared in the Allegheny wilderness, wearing cassock, surplice and a skull-cap in lieu of the beretta, this being his usual head-gear at service. Loretto, named after the city on the Adriatic, was the first nucleus of population in this elevated district, and is about five miles north of the railway. Loretto was the first settlement in this region, but afterwards the coal and iron attracted the Welsh, who came in numbers, and founded the town of Ebensburg, about eleven miles from the railway. They gave their familiar name of Cambria to the county. Here on the mountain side, at an elevation of over two thousand feet, are the Cresson Springs, a noted health resort, with a half-dozen medicinal springs, the chief being an astringent chalybeate and a strong alum.
The route west of the mountain is down the valley of the Conemaugh, in a district underlaid with coal, and having at every village evidence of this industry. The Conemaugh is " the other stream" of the Indians, and winding down its tortuous valley, with coal and iron all about, the railway comes to the settlement of Conemaugh, which spreads into the larger town of Johnstown, the seat of the great Cambria Steel Works. The Conemaugh Valley is a deep canyon, and Conemaugh village was the western ter-minus of the mountain portage, where the canal began. A little flat space about a mile beyond, at the junction of Stony Creek, was in early times an Indian village, then known from its sachem as' Kickenapawling's Old Town." When the white men ventured over the mountain, there came among them a hardy German pioneer named Joseph Jahns, who built a log cabin on the flat in 1791, and from him the cluster of little houses that grew afterwards be-came known as Jahnstown. Then came the Welsh miners and iron-workers, and they set up charcoal furnaces, and soon changed the name to Johnstown. From this humble beginning grew the largest iron and steel establishment in Pennsylvania. Its ores, coal and limestone were originally all dug out of the neighboring ridges, though now it uses Lake Superior ores. The Conemaugh Valley is here enclosed by high hills, and in the centre of the town the railroad is carried across the river on a solid stone bridge with low arches.
This region, on May 31, 1889, was the scene of one of the most appalling disasters of modern times. A deluge of rain for the greater part of two days had fallen upon the Alleghenies, and made great freshets in both the Juniata and the Conemaugh. On the South Fork of the Conemaugh, fifteen miles above Johnstown, is Conemaugh Lake, a reservoir there formed by damming the stream, so that it covered a surface of five hundred acres—the dam, a thousand feet longs being in places one hundred feet high. This had been made as a fishing-ground by a club of Pittsburg anglers. The excessive rains filled the lake, and the weakened dam burst, its twenty millions of tons of waters rushing down the already swollen Conemaugh in a mass a half-mile wide stretching across the valley and forty to fifty feet high, carrying every-thing before it. The lake level was about three hundred feet higher than Johnstown, and every village, tree, house, and the whole railway, with much of the soil and rocks, were carried before the resistless flood to Johnstown, where the mass was stopped by and piled up behind the stone railway bridge, and there caught fire, the resistless flood, to get out, sweeping away nearly the whole town in the valley bottom. This vast calamity destroyed from three to five thousand lives, for no accurate estimate could be ever made, and ten millions of property. It took the flood about seven minutes of actual time to pass over the fifteen miles between the lake and Johnstown, and there was left, after it had passed, a wide bed, like a great Alpine glacial moraine, filled with ponderous masses of sand and stones and wreckage of every description, the resistless torrent being afterwards reduced to a little stream of running water. It required many months to recover from this appalling destruction; but the people went to work with a will and re-built the town, the steel works and the railway, which for a dozen miles down the valley had been completely obliterated. This terrible disaster excited universal sympathy, and a relief fund amounting to nearly $3,000,000 was contributed from all parts of the world.