Johnstown, Pennsylvania is tucked into a narrow valley in the Allegheny America: Through Immigrant Eyes mountains, in what is known locally as the Laurel Highlands. The city is not a highland at all; its business center lies along the Stonycreek and Conemaugh Rivers, with houses climbing the steep hillsides. There have been many disastrous floods here, the latest in 1977.
While the story of the floods would probably be sufficient reason to visit Johnstown, we chose to visit the Heritage Discovery Center in downtown Johnstown, which tells the story of the European immigrants who came to work in the Pennsylvania coal mines and steel mills.
Each visitor selects a card depicting one of eight Johnstown immigrants. When the visitor slides the card into certain exhibits, the responses are tailored to the personality of that immigrant. For Ellis Island scene example, an animated immigration officer at Ellis Island greets each of the eight somewhat differently.
But the harsh stories are really quite similar. The Johnstown immigrants, representing Italian, Polish, Jewish, Czech, and Slovak ethnicities, were imported low wage workers who were held back at each juncture, forced into unsanitary Johnstown ghettos, and exploited by the bosses of the coal mines or the Crown Steel mills, which were for a short time the largest steel mills in the U.S.
The museum depicts the way of life of the immigrants, who formed communal societies based on their ethnicity and religion, worked hard and saved money, part of which they sent back to "the old country" to help their even more indigent relatives. Each of their efforts to Hand of crushed worker unionize was beaten back, and as other, more modern industrial centers were built, Johnstown itself became less and less prosperous. After World War II, the European workers were partly displaced by low cost black workers imported from the American South. Today Johnstown looks to tourism to supplement its weakening economy.
While we admit we intentionally visited Danville to learn more about our Slovak heritage, we did not realize that Johnstown would also be a magnet for poor Slovaks forced off their farms and oppressed by the nineteenth century Magyarization projects in the Austro-Hungarian empire. In fact we now know that the boom days of American immigration -- 1890 through 1918 -- drew heavily on emigrants from Central and Eastern Europe. The jobs they all took were in heavy industry in the belt of industrial cities that stretched across the Northeast and Great Lakes regions of the U.S.
The museum displays make extensive use of multimedia displays and video projections. The simulation of the Bessemer steel process reminded us of Disneyland, with the pulsating light and vapors of "smoke" swirling around. Telephone receivers provided audio presentations to supplement the well-designed visuals. The effect was to catch up Some immigrants organized strikes the visitor in the lives and emotions of the individual immigrants as they struggled to succeed and eventually, through the generations, become the English-speaking citizens of Johnstown.
We were, of course, reminded of the museum at the Lowell textile mills, where immigrants from the same countries settled around the same time. Their descendants became the English-speaking citizens of Lowell. The theme of both museums was to celebrate America as a melting pot of foreign cultures and ethnicities.
At the very end of the tour of the Johnstown Museum, we were asked to respond to a questionnaire: do we feel the U.S. should have more immigrants? The responses were about 72% yes, which was the way we voted, and frankly, we were surprised at the large percentage who voted no. How selfish and ignorant to close the door that was opened for our ancestors! More to the point, the idea that we can somehow achieve prosperity by building a wall The Johnstown Inclined Plane around our country shows no understanding of global economics; and the idea that we can maintain our world reputation as a bastion of freedom by closing our doors to foreigners shows no appreciation of international politics.
One more little Johnstown surprise awaited us after we left the museum: The Johnstown Inclined Plane advertises itself as the *world's steepest vehicular inclined plane*, a phrase which conveys the spirit of 1891, when it was built, after the Flood of 1889 to carry people living at the top of the hill downtown to work. Now it is a tourist attraction (more attractive in the summer, we are sure, than on a snowy December day) and most impressive.
We feel blessed with our curiosity to study the history of the places we visit, and the time to indulge that curiosity.