Disastrous Floods and the Demise of Steel in Johnstown by Pat Farabaugh

Book Review presents reviews of recent publications on Pennsylvania subjects by noted scholars, historians and journalists.

Disastrous Floods and the Demise of Steel in Johnstown
by Pat Farabaugh
The History Press, 187 pp., paperback $21.99

Those with an interest in Pennsylvania history and natural disasters will never want for more in the examination of the Johnstown Flood and its aftermath. Farabaugh’s study condenses the standard story of Johnstown’s floods while engaging a parallel narrative of the decline of its steel industry. The author argues a symbiotic relationship exists between the floods and the fortunes of the area’s major employer. The steel industry stands resilient through the floods of 1889 and 1936 but fails to survive the 1977 event.

This is not solely a story of town and industry or natural disaster. While running the parallel narratives of flood and steel, Farabaugh draws a picture of community development — from the town’s founding through municipal consolidation. The reader is provided a glimpse into the organization of the town and the large shadow that Bethlehem Steel casts over the community. As in other Pennsylvania towns, steel is king in Johnstown. Consequently, the work aligns clearly with the corporation and city leaders whose allegiances they received. This is most evident when Farabaugh lays the primary fault for the demise of steel in Johnstown at the feet of the steelworkers and the USWA. Although this is a simplified view, anecdotal evidence in other studies of industrial decline across the country echo this misplaced animus — often the result of cleverly crafted public relations campaigns of the company abandoning the community from which it profited for so many years.

The author’s vignettes of places and people, most notably Bethlehem Steel president Charles Schwab, add unexpected color to the typically dry examination of corporate decision-making. Furthermore, the images contained within these pages showcase the Johnstown Area Heritage Association’s extensive holdings, underscoring the devastation experienced by the residents of Johnstown through natural disaster and industrial decline.

Jeanine Mazak-Kahne
Indiana University of Pennsylvania