johnstown, pennsylvania

May 11 – Mornings are for coffee, and this one is no different, except this time we’ve got a Tim Horton’s across the parking lot from our hotel. We’ve got a lot of Tim Horton’s in our future when we get up to Canada, but I’m surprised to see this Canadian coffee chain down here in the States. I mention my surprise at finding a Timmy’s here in Columbus to the young woman at the desk of the Red Roof Inn, and she fills me in: Ohio, for some unknown reason, is the pulse of the American Dream. What Ohioans want, so wants the country. If you’re a politician, go to Ohio; a thumbs up here is a sign you are on the way to the Washington; a thumbs down, you might as well pack up your bags and skulk on home. If you’re a business, come to Ohio for a test run – if Ohioans love your stuff, you’re made in the shade and you can start dreaming of franchises; but if you can’t make it in Ohio, you can’t make it anywhere. I’m voting for Timmy’s; so is Justin.

We’re back on I-70, and soon enough the landscape begins to tell us we’re leaving the Midwest and are in the East. Signs along the road tell us we’re in Amish country, and soon the wasteland look to our world of the past few days gives way to verdant trees and lush countryside. We say goodbye to I-70 in New Stanton, Pennsylvania, and head off through the byways to Johnstown, the last of which takes us through the picturesque town of Ligonier, made more so by our arrival late afternoon on high school prom day. Girls in their pretty dresses and their beaux decked out in tuxes getting their prom pictures taken in the town square cupola. Spring has sprung.

From Ligonier, it’s on to Johnstown and a couple of days off the road with my good friend and fellow Van fan Dan Murray. Dan is a prime example of you can go home again. Born and raised in Johnstown, he headed off to seek his fortune in the newspaper business, but in these declining days of hard copy news, Dan took an early retirement and returned to his hometown. In its heyday in the early 1900s, Johnstown boasted a population of 75,00, a bustling city thriving on the steel industry, and the main player in town, Cambria Iron Company, played a big part in the town’s prosperity. In the 1860s, it was the leading producer of steel in the country, supplying much of the demand in the west for barbed wire. But the town is best remembered for the “Great Flood” in 1889. Nestled in a valley, at the confluence of the Stonycreek and the Little Conemaugh rivers, Johnstown was subjected to annual floods, but this one was a biggie. Heavy rains caused a dam 14 miles upriver to burst, and the subsequent flooding and fires that ravaged through the city left more than 2,200 people dead in its wake. The city recovered and continued its prosperity, only to be hit by another major flood in 1936, at the height of the Great Depression. Answering a plea for federal aid, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt authorized the US Army Corps of Engineers to come in and build a canal system made from concrete and steel that promised to fix the flooding problem permanently. Only it didn’t. In 1977, Johnstown was hit with another huge flood that submerged the city streets under several feet of water.

The small plaque about two feet above Dan’s head marks the high water mark of the 1977 flood

It wasn’t the Great Flood, but it was enough to put a stamp on the declining days of the town, which was already suffering from a decline in the steel industry. The population today sits at about 20,000 and any signs of prosperity are well-hidden behind empty storefronts and empty streets on a Saturday afternoon.

No visit to Johnstown is complete without a ride on the Inclined Plane, an 896.5-foot funicular and the world’s steepest vehicular inclined plane. Built in 1891, a few years after the Great Flood, its purpose was to connect the downtown area in the valley with the newly created residential area up the mountain on higher ground. It was a huge success in terms of opening up the residential suburbs, allowing workers at the booming steel mills easy access to and from work. During the floods of ’36 and ’77, it surely saved the lives of many, who were able to evacuate to higher ground. The entrance at the top of the funicular provides a panoramic view of the town below …


And at the bottom, you can see just how steep the incline is …

The three of us wandered through the quiet streets to the center of town, stopping in at Em’s Subshop for coffee before heading across the street to the town square for some people watching.

Tonight is prom night in Johnstown, and the town green is the perfect photo op …

She’s not going to the prom, but she makes for great street art

Back to the Incline Plane and up the hill, next stop was the grocery store to pick up fixins for dinner. Dan the chef prepared a feast, and with the addition of a blueberry pie his mom brought over, we sat down to a meal fit for kings and queens, hot off the grill.

From the table to the couch, we caught the end of Game 7 of the NHL Eastern Conference semifinal series, with the New York Rangers defeating the Washington Capitals 2-1. Next up, the Eastern Conference finals, the Rangers vs. the New Jersey Devils. I’ve got my money on the Devils – you’ve gotta love their goaltender, the fabulous Martin Brodeur. At 40 years old, still one of the best goaltenders in the league. I have no interest in the Rangers. Actually, I don’t have much interest in hockey these days, but a lot of people do, so I’m bound to catch a few games leading up to the Stanley Cup in the weeks ahead.

And from hockey to music, we’ve got the rest of the evening, in a reprise of last night, to sit back and relax, with Dan the DJ spinning a caledonia lineup of Van for us. Both Bridget and I have been thirsting for some new Van since the Ireland shows back in February, and we get to feast tonight. He’s brought new life to “I’m Not Feeling It Anymore” from Hymns To The Silence and he just keeps on giving on “It’s All In The Game” with its enticing “No Plan B” ending. Kick off your shoes and relax the night away.


A self-professed live music junkie, Shannon is the author of
Astral Weeks Live: A Fan’s Notes, a book about her year on the road attending singer Van Morrison’s epic live performances of his widely acclaimed album Astral Weeks. To find out more about the book or to order a copy signed by the author, click here.

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