Old Johnstown

By   Marylellis@aol.com


Johnstown was my home from my birth in 1922 until 1944. During this time the population was in the 60,000's and it was an important steel town and mining center. At night the sky over the steel mills was the color or dull hot coals with intermittent flares of fiery red from the blast furnaces. Almost everything and everyone had a link to the mills or the mines. I attended Union St. Elementary School, Joseph Johns Jr. Hi, and Johnstown High School. Many of my classmates had parents who were immigrants or one generation removed from immigrants from Poland, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Wales, Greece, and many still spoke their native languages in their homes. They had come to Johnstown to work in the mills or mines.

The Great Depression hit in 1929. My father lost his job and we lived in 3 rooms on the 2nd floor of the Duncan Bldg. on Franklin street across from the city park. The first floor was a hot dog restaurant, the first one I had ever seen. The Methodist Episcopal Church was down the street, Glosser Brothers was nearby, and McCrory's and Kresge's five and ten cent stores were close by on Main St.

One summer we lived in a friend's cottage in the woods near Ideal Park, where the Veterans' Bonus Army camped for a while on its way to Washington, D.C. to rally for their bonus rights. The fields and woods were swarming with the campsites and debris of the down-on-their-luck, skinny, ragged, desperate WW1 veterans.

Unable to find work, my Dad rode the rails to Detroit, hoping to find a job at one of the automobile plants, never to return. My mother, now a single mother, got a job at the Tribune newspaper, making $12.00 a week. She rented a 3 room 3rd floor apartment in a building across from the Majestic theater on lower Main Street. The first floor was occupied by a beauty shop and the second floor by a chiropractor. Up Main Street from the theater was the Speicher-Grady drugstore, which had a marble soda fountain with great lemon, cherry, and chocolate cokes, the Fort Stanwyx Hotel, and, later on, the Lee Hospital.

Johnstown had six theaters in the downtown area; The Majestic; the State; The Cambria, across the street from the State; the Embassy; and at the upper end of town, the Ritz and Rialto, both five cent theaters where rats reputedly were sometimes seen in the aisles and under the seats. The Majestic, State, and Cambria often had stage shows before the movies and local talent had a chance to display their ballet, tap dancing, singing, acting, magic tricks, etc. The Cambria brought in big names for their stage shows and I remember Bert Lahr, Joe Penner, and Sally Rand among others. These were also the days when Depression Glass, as it is now called by collectors, was given away at the movies to encourage attendance. Since I always lived downtown, I was an avid movie fan, and if I didn't have ten cents for admission, which was often, I knew how to get in through exit doors or other methods.

When I was 14, the second famous big flood hit Johnstown on March 17, 1936. I was at Jos. Johns Jr. Hi on that day and we were dismissed from school in the early afternoon when the Stonycreek River started flooding the streets. The water rose rapidly and by evening was 14 feet deep in the downtown area. From the roof fronting our apartment, my mother and I watched as cars, lumber, furniture, dogs, anything loose were carried swiftly down the muddy, fast moving water. The electrical plant had been flooded and, as night fell, it was pitch dark except for dim flickers from flashlights and candles at windows and rooftops. We had no flashlight but we did have candles. It was eerie and very frightening , as nothing could be heard but the sound of the water, occasional calls from windows and roofs, and, for a long time, cries of "Help" in the distance. The next morning the water receded as swiftly as it had risen, leaving behind ankle deep mud in the street, houses, and buildings. After many stressful hours, we were finally rescued by the Red Cross, and at last took refuge at my grandmother's home in Cramer. It was weeks before the schools reopened, and until my mother could resume her job at the Tribune. The dank smell of mud permeated our apartment building and many other buildings and houses for years afterward.

I married at 17 and at 22 my husband and our 2 babies moved to Phoenix, Arizona for my husband's health, and later to California and Oregon. But I have always looked on Johnstown as my home. I remember the beautiful setting of mountains, rivers, and valleys; the solid, hard working, responsible inhabitants; the wonderful ethnic diversity of that particular era. In my opinion, Johnstown stands for an important period of American history representing some of the best qualities of American life. I wish that more communities today could say the same.

Marilyn (Miller) Ellis
Keizer, Oregon

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