At some time during your school years, you probably learned about the Johnstown Pennsylvania Flood, one of the worst natural disasters in United States history. However, your recollections from your early school days may have long faded. Riding the Path of the Flood can be a fun way to learn about this massive flood that devastated an entire city.
But before getting into riding the Path of the Flood in Johnstown a refresher on why the Johnstown Flood is historically significant is probably in order.
A Brief History of the Johnstown Flood
Between 1838 and 1853, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania constructed the South Fork Dam, a massive structure obstructing the South Fork Conemaugh River just south of the town of South Fork. The dam produced Lake Conemaugh a reservoir whose original purpose was to supply water to a system of canals intended for transporting freight between Pittsburgh and Philadelphia.
But the state abandoned the project and sold it to the Pennsylvania Railroad who sold it to a group of wealthy businessmen from Pittsburgh in 1881. Those tycoons, including Andrew Carnegie and Andrew Mellon, converted the property into the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club.
Lake Conemaugh was the centerpiece of the property and hunting cottages dotted the shoreline but by this time the dam had begun to fall into disrepair. The property’s previous owners had removed three cast iron discharge pipes that had allowed a controlled release of water. The dam would often spring leaks which were patched with mostly straw and mud causing concern.
The club owners knew that the dam would eventually fail but they believed it would outlive them.
But on the morning of May 31, 1889, after days of heavy rain, alarmed that the reservoir had raised two feet overnight, the club’s president, Elias Unger ordered a last-ditch effort to secure the dam and dispatched a telegraph warning that a breach was imminent.
At approximately, 3 pm that day the South Fork Dam gave way dumping 20 million tons of water into the valley below in under 45 minutes. The wall of water took out two small towns, hundreds of freight cars, and a dozen passenger train cars before the debris-filled torrent struck the Stone Bridge on the edge of downtown Johnstown. Though the bridge held the deluge of water destroyed the entire town in under 10 minutes.
By the time it was over more than 2200 people were dead or simply lost. 777 people were never identified. May 31, 1889, has become known as Black Friday.
The flood became the first major disaster relief effort by the American Red Cross.
Travel the Path of the Flood by Bike
The Path of the Flood is flanked on either end by the two best places to learn about the deadly flood: The Johnstown Flood Memorial and the Johnstown Flood Museum. It’s not necessary to visit both but start your ride at one or the other and visit first. Which you choose will determine if you will be starting in Johnstown or South Fork.
The Path of the Flood as the name implies follows the South Fork Conemaugh River which was the path of least resistance when the dam at the South Fork Fishing and Hunt Club burst.
The full Path of the Flood is a roughly 12-mile (depending on what site you look at) out-and-back trail beginning (or terminating based on which way you are traveling) at the site of the original South Fork Dam on the property of the Johnstown Flood Memorial. The trail follows the route through the valley and along the South Fork Conemaugh River. It winds through wooded areas and fields as well as through the small towns once devasted by the flood and then finally finds its way down into the city of Johnstown.
This route offers a varied terrain including challenging sections of trail, public roads, and gravel trails. Parts of this trail cover a segment of the larger Johnstown Greenway trail and include the popular Staple Bend Tunnel Trail. The Path of the Flood Trail is also part of the September 11th National Memorial Trail connecting the 9/11, Flight 93, and Pentagon Memorials. The larger trails designation was signed into law by President Biden on October 13, 2021.
Note: Shared public roads are narrow and many do not have a shoulder area.
The Staple Bend Tunnel Trail
The Staple Bend Tunnel Trail is the most heavily traveled and popular 4-mile section of trail. It spans the distance between Mineral Point and East Conemaugh. From Mineral Point it is two miles to the tunnel. This section of gravel trail consisting of asphalt, ballast, and crushed stone follows the old rail bed of the Allegheny Portage Railroad.
Along the trail, you will find interpretive signage and photographs. You will also see large stones inlaid in the ground. These are early RR ties from before the use of wood ties. Additionally, picnic tables dot the path.
The tunnel is part of the Allegheny Portage Railroad National Historic Site operated by the National Park Service. It is 900 feet long which is a good distance but light can be seen from all points in the tunnel. However, it is recommended that cyclist dismount and walk their bike through the passageway as it can be disorienting. I rode through without a light and it does get quite dark in the middle. Use your judgment.
If you are traveling from Mineral Point, the section of trail between the tunnel and East Conemaugh has a steep descent just before town. I mention it because if you continue on you will be faced with a hefty but short climb on your return trip. If you are headed in the opposite direction you will still encounter this but sometimes it’s better to face these things at the beginning of your ride (IMO). If my memory serves me correctly, it is a 12% grade for less than a ¼ mile. Otherwise, this segment is a fairly easy ride. Certainly suited to most people’s ability.
Trailheads and Parking for the Path of the Flood with coordinates
Stineman Trailhead (129 Ragers Hill Rd., South Fork, 40.376416, -78.835169) is located west of the site of the South Fork Dam not far from the National Johnstown Flood Memorial. If you are visiting the memorial you will find public restrooms there.
Bealtown/Stineman (312 Maple Street, South Fork,)
Ehrenfeld Ball Park (31 Mt. Carmel Drive, South Fork, 40.370622, -78.777596)
Mainline Memorial Park (524 2nd Street, South Fork, 40.370649, -78.7847076)
Fifficktown (602 Portage Street, South Fork, 40.368407, -78.791958)
Staple Bend Tunnel Park (National Park Service) (1156 Beech Hill Road, Johnstown, 40.376246, -78.835681) – here you will find about 10 to 12 parking spaces and full public restroom facilities. This is the ideal place to park to ride the Staple Bend Tunnel Trail.
Franklin Park (142 Staple Bend Tunnel Trl., Johnstown, 40.350424, -78.874408)There are ballfields and the Melvina Gustkey Memorial Park is adjacent to Franklin Park. I have not been able to confirm that there are restroom facilities here but since it appears that they hold events I suspect there are accommodations and ample parking.
Johnstown Flood Museum (304 Washington St, Johnstown, 40.3278°N 78.9208°W) – You will find a large public parking lot across the bridge at Walnut Street and William Penn Avenue.
Local Bike Shops
Fat Jimmy’s Cycles & Fitness (formerly City Cycle Supply), 3217 Elton Road, Johnstown, (814) 266-9641 – A full-service bike shop offering sales and repairs.
Hope Cyclery 647 Railroad St, Johnstown, Pa 15901 Johnstown, (814) 955-0500 – Full-service bike shop and “community-based bicycle space.” Closed Sunday and Monday.
United Cycling, 1909 Bedford Street Front, Johnstown, (814) 656-4103, In-town local bike shop.
Johnstown Flood National Memorial VS the Johnstown Flood Museum
There are two primary places where you can get a deeper understanding of the events that lead up to the tragedy: The Johnstown Flood Memorial and the Johnstown Flood Museum. It would be easy to think that the Memorial and the Museum are one and the same. But you’d be mistaken.
Both will provide you with historical context and a better understanding of the cause of the deadly flood but they highlight the flood and its impact on the city from different perspectives.
Johnstown Flood Memorial
Located at what was once the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club, an exclusive club for the well-to-do of the time and the origin of the natural disaster, the Johnstown Flood Memorial (733 Lake Rd, South Fork) is part of the National Parks Service. Within the Visitor Center, there are displays related to the flood. Here you will watch a film that reviews the history and the cause of the flood.
Additionally, you can watch a working model that shows the path of the flood and a timeline of the events.
Outside you can walk the property that was once the fishing and hunting club. There is no longer a lake but you can easily see what would have been the reservoir. The only original building on the property is that of the club’s caretaker. But walking the trails on the property you can view some of the remnants of hunting cottages.
The view is stunning and you can easily see why it was the desired location for a retreat.
The Johnstown Flood Museum
Located in downtown Johnstown, the Johnstown Flood Museum (304 Washington St, Johnstown) is similar to the memorial in that you will watch a film about the history of the flood. There is also a model showing the path of the flood almost identical to the one at the memorial.
The film shown here is as much about the events that happened after the flood as it is about the events leading up to the flood. It covers the work of the American Red Cross, in its first natural disaster effort to assist the city following the flood. And it tells the story of a town coming together and rebounding from this massive tragedy.
Additionally, here you can tour one of the original Oklahoma Houses as they were called. These were the temporary homes brought in to house people displaced by the flood.
The museum was my preferred exhibit. It showcases the resilience of the people of Johnstown and therefore I found it to be more hopeful and uplifting than the Memorial. This of course is my perspective and a personal preference. Both are amazing in their own way and either one will provide you with a full history.
Other Impactful Sites related to the Johnstown Flood
The Grandview Cemetary and the Plot of the Unknowns (801 Millcreek Rd, Johnstown) might be the most impactful experience related to the Johnstown Flood. It’s a place I think everyone should visit. But I will warn you that it is heartwrenching.
The Grandview Cemetery is the main cemetery for the city of Johnstown. That was true in 1889 and still is today. One section of the cemetery is dedicated to the 777 people lost in the flood who were never identified. There is a headstone for each.
And as heartbreaking as that is, I found it even sadder to walk around and see the plots where it appeared that the entire family had been killed except one member whose headstone had a later date. The survivors’ guilt must have been unbearable. It made me wonder how many committed suicide or died indirectly as a result of the flood.
Point Park at the Stone Bridge
The Stone Bridge (100 Washington St, Johnstown) survived the flood and today there is a small park that looks out over the river and the Bridge. It’s a pretty place to stop and enjoy the view or have a picnic lunch but after learning about the flood it is also a place to reflect and consider what might have happened had the bridge not held on that fateful night.
Where to Stay, Eat and Grab a Coffee in Johnstown
Balance (415 Main St, Johnstown) is a lovely casual restaurant with an industrial feel and offers a unique menu and delightful staff. Balance is more than a name, it’s a philosophy and guiding principle for Owner, Amanda Artim. Brussels sprout fans must try the Lemon Parm Brussels and add the bacon. Delicious!!
Asiago’s Tuscan Italian Restaurant (709 Edgehill Dr, Johnstown) – This is a wonderful upscale restaurant with an amazing view looking out over the city of Johnstown. Asiago serves traditional Italian dishes and offers scrumptious seasonal specials such as butternut squash ravioli. Finish off your meal with the Made to Order Doughnuts.
Flood City Cafe (137 Clinton St. Johnstown) – a cool trendy industrial cafe serving salads, sandwiches, and caffeinated beverages. In addition to serving great food and beverage Flood City Cafe also offers open mic nights and other live entertainment.
Holiday Inn Downtown Johnstown, (250 Market St., Johnstown) – This centrally mid-range hotel located downtown is within walking distance of the business district, attractions, shopping, and restaurants. It is safe and clean and the staff is welcoming and accommodating.