Travel: Pennsylvania’s Laurel Highlands, Part Two

Spring Break Road Trip Time: Part Two

Our entire family loves road trips that explore history and nature. In 2018 we decided to explore Pennsylvania’s Laurel Highlands over spring break. The Laurel Highlands are a beautiful mountainous area in western Pennsylvania not far from Pittsburgh. This area is full of fascinating history and gorgeous scenery–from the waterfalls of Ohiopyle State Park, to Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater and the ingenious Allegheny Portage Railroad to the resilient city of Johnstown.

In this part, we’ll check out the city of Johnstown and the Johnstown Flood National Memorial. (In Part One of this 2 part blog series, we explored Ohiopyle State Park, Fallingwater, and the Allegheny Portage Railroad National Historic Site.)

 

Johnstown and Johnstown Flood National Memorial

Johnstown PA
Johnstown is located in a beautiful valley.

Johnstown is a city that won’t quit. Nicknamed “flood city,” it’s seen its share of devastation, both in devastating flooding and the declining American manufacturing industry. You can see how hard Johnstown is trying to make its downtown vibrant with art and cultural opportunities. Since I love a good underdog story, I now have a soft spot for this scrappy city.

Johnstown PA
View of the mountains around Johnstown from the roof of the Heritage Discovery Center.

Johnstown Flood Museum

The Johnstown Flood Museum chronicles the horrible events around the Johnstown Flood of 1889; to add to the tragedy of the lives lost, the entire disaster was completely preventable. At its root lies a cautionary tale of irresponsible wealth and environmental neglect that should still resonate with us today.

Johnstown Flood Museum
The Johnstown Flood Museum (Image: JAHA)

Though it’s not an expansive museum, the exhibits are thoughtful and invite you to reflect on the experiences of those present. The back wall of the museum recreates the sheer size of the debris field left by the flood. One of the smallest and most poignant artifacts is a tiny bottle containing the flood waters.

Johnstown Flood Museum
L: The rear wall recreates the towering debris field after the flood. R: A tiny bottle contains flood waters from 1889.

Our tour guide was passionate about Johnstown history and walked us through the events leading up to the flood with the help of a lighted topographical map. He spoke about his own experiences surviving a later flood in the 1970’s. We then made our way upstairs to an auditorium to view an Oscar-winning documentary on the tragedy.

1889 Johnstown Flood
The aftermath of the 1889 Johnstown flood (Image: Visit Johnstown)

 

Johnstown Flood National Memorial

The Johnstown Flood National Memorial is a beautiful and lonely feeling site. In addition to the visitor’s center operated by the National Park Service (NPS), there is helpful signage around the park and walking trails to the former South Fork dam area.

Johnstown Flood National Historic Site
Visitors to the Johnstown Flood visitors center look down at the source of the 1889 destruction.

Even years after this tragedy, it’s stirring to think of the over 2000 lives that were needlessly lost. As the NPS website states, “The story of the Johnstown Flood reminds us all, ‘…that we must leave nothing undone for the preservation and protection of our brother men.'”

Johnstown Flood National Memorial Site
What was once a playground for the wealthy turned deadly disaster is now a peaceful hillside and valley.

 

Johnstown Children’s Museum

Part of the Johnstown Area Heritage Association, along with the Johnstown Flood Museum, the Johnstown Children’s Museum, is located within the Heritage Discovery Center. After the challenging weather we experienced over the week, our kids had a great time running around the place. The exhibits are designed to make the area history and geography meaningful to children, including a waterways room, model incline, coal mine, steel mill, and more.

Johnstown Children's Museum
L: Ready to take part in the steel mill exhibit. R: They even made coal mining understandable for kids.

What’s Cooking in Johnstown?

Some of the best meals of our trip were in Johnstown and, in my opinion, the friendly folks and warm atmosphere made the food taste even better. Johnstown may be a small city, but they’re all about big flavors.

Flood City Cafe

We enjoyed Flood City Cafe so much, we went back twice! Their breakfast sandwiches were delicious and their coffee out of this world. I enjoyed a fabulous latte that included cinnamon and honey–just the thing for a chilly and rainy day.

Flood City Cafe
L: My delicious cinnamon and honey latte. R: Looking down at the cafe’s main level.

PRESS Bistro

My parents were kind enough to watch our kids for the evening, so my husband and I headed to PRESS Bistro for dinner. Sometimes finding a place for a vegan to enjoy a meal out can be a challenge, but PRESS Bistro delivered, with a plethora of meat substitutions including jackfruit, tofu, mushrooms, cauliflower, and Brussels sprouts.

We started with their loaded hummus plate and then each of us savored a bowl of hot and funky ramen–mine was the duck and his was the veggie. PRESS Bistro sources many of its ingredients locally, including herbs and other botanicals for their housemate infusions. Best of all was the friendly and informative staff.

PRESS Bistro Johnstown
PRESS Bistro made our evening delicious. (Image: PRESS Bistro)

Our Laurel Highlands Spring Break

We had such a great time in Johnstown, we’ve encouraged friends to definitely visit if they are in the area or looking to experience more local history. Pennsylvania may not be a typical spring break destination, but everyone in our family appreciated its natural beauty, fascination history, and friendly people. I should also add that our running joke on this trip was that “Pennsylvania is closed for the winter”; some of the destinations we intended to visit like the Johnstown Inclined Plane and Johnstown Flood National Memorial visitor’s center were only open seasonally. So confirm site statuses before you go, but do go–there is truly something for everyone in the Laurel Highlands.

Thank you for reading my Part Two of my 2 part series on Pennsylvania’s Laurel Highlands. Click here to read Part One.

What historic sites have you enjoyed visiting? Please leave a comment.

Want to read more about fun places to learn about and visit? Check out my posts on Travel: Red Caboose MotelTravel: Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad National Historic Park, and Travel: An Evening in Savannah.

Visit my Events Calendar to see upcoming classes, trips, and events.

If you like what I do here, please follow my blog, comment on my posts, and share them on social media–I’d greatly appreciate it. Thanks!

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