History of the water supply of Johnstown, Pa.
From: History of Cambria County, Pennsylvania
By: John E. Gable
Historical Publishing Company
Topeka-Indianapolis, 1926


In the matter of water supply, for both household and industrial purposes, Johnstown relies upon private ownership and service, as it does for electric light and power, lighting and fuel gas, street railway transportation and all other public utilities. From the official records of the earlier days as well as from the files of the Johnstown Tribune, may be gathered the story of many efforts to arouse community spirit and public enterprise to attempt adequate water supply, but each time private initiative was compelled to enter the field alone and finance the public needs.

No doubt there were many reasons for this peculiarity of Johnstown and Johnstown people. In the first place, there was water aplenty. Joseph Johns had planted the town at the confluence of two fine mountain streams and those two, in turn, were fed by scores of brooks and rivulets, while in the bottom lands there was no difficulty in securing fine domestic supplies from shallow wells. Then too, Johnstown was then, as it still is today, a group of small municipalities or towns instead of one town, and one can hardly discover anywhere in the past a trace of the modern "metropolitan district" or "Greater Johnstown" community idea. Apparently no one dreamed of a community so large, and of such industrial character, that water supply and distribution would become a gigantic problem. The development of a real community spirit was retarded, also, by the kindly paternalism of the early industrial leaders. There was but the one extensive and permanent industry. Further retardation was inevitable in the circumstances which brought successive groups of European nationals to Johnstown who were bound to settle in colonies and slow to become factors in the civic affairs of the community.

Mr. Frank C. Howard, secretary and treasurer of the Johnstown Water Company, in a recent review of the history of Johnstown's water supply, says that those most active in organizing the business were Daniel J. Morrell, Dr. John Lowman, George Fritz, James McMillen, Cyrus Elder, James Williams, George W. Osborn, Jacob Fend, John Crouse and General Jacob M. Campbell. A charter, granted by special act of Assembly while Cyrus L. Pershing was a member of the legislature, and approved by Governor Andrew G. Curtin, was received April 11, 1866. Daniel J. Morrell was president of the new company; Judge James Potts, secretary; Howard J. Roberts, treasurer, and Jacob M. Campbell, Jacob Fend, John P. Pringle, Dr. John Lowman and George W. Osborn were directors.

Wildcat and Laurel runs, draining 18 square miles of Rager Mountain watershed into the Conemaugh several miles below the town, was first used, a 16 inch and 12 inch main being laid a distance of 18,000 feet to the intersection of Main and Market streets. General Campbell was the first to put the water into his home, on Walnut Street, where the First Presbyterian Church now stands, and a fire hydrant was installed at City Hall July 4, 1868. It was not long until water supply in times of drought became uncertain, or failed completely. In 1875 surveys were made of the Little Conemaugh River, east of Johnstown, a dam was built and a 20 inch pipe line laid 25,550 feet to the Cambria blast furnaces. Back of this project, finished in 1877, was a water shed area of 180 square miles.

Rapid increases in population soon made it necessary to augment the domestic supply. This time the engineers climbed into the Laurel Ridge south of the Conemaugh River, bought lands owned by Thankful St. Clair, surveyed Mill Run and constructed St. Clair dam with a reservoir of 15,000,000 gallons capacity, a 12 inch pipe being laid to Main and Walnut streets and the water, fresh from the mountain, turned into the line in October, 1879. The water shed area was about five square miles.

Johnstown now had about 15,000 acres of water shed for its domestic water supply, augmented by 115,000 acres of Little Conemaugh water shed. It began to be apparent that here was a problem, even though the town lay in one of the best watered sections of the country. The water company had not finished one project before others became necessary.

A reservoir of greater capacity than St. Clair and Laurel Run combined was planned on Millereek Run, the lands being owned by the Cambria Iron Company and later taken over by the water company. In 1884 the first Mill Creek reservoir, 32,000,000 gallons capacity, was completed.

A 20 inch pipe line was laid 21,450 feet into the Eighth Ward, and from there by 16 inch main through the Seventh Ward on Homer Street to Adams Street, where it joined the distributing system, and by 12 inch main through the Eighth Ward by Franklin Street to South Street. The town felt that now it surely had enough water. But the town grew and the water requirements of Cambria Steel Company expanded.

This time, said the water company, ample provision would be made to take care of all future needs, for both manufacturing and domestic use, from the same unfailing source, the Stonycreek. They would go up the stream far enough to find water good enough to be potable and in sufficient volume to keep the mills going at all seasons. In 1887-1888 surveys were made and a small dam and intake were constructed a short distance above Border Station, with a 36 inch water line connecting at Ferndale with the 20 inch Milicreek line. Above Border the Stonycreek water shed area was 430 square miles, or about 275,000 acres, half the area of a good sized county. The plan was adequate for about 10 years. Then Cambria Steel needed still more water and the Border line was cut off from the Millcreek line at Ferndale and extended to the furnaces, giving the line a total length of 41,334 feet. Stonycreek water went to manufacturing and the Laurel Run, St Clair and Millcreek waters to domestic supply.

Doubt came as to whether stream flow, with the small quantities of water impounded, were sufficient for Johnstown. Attention was again given to Millereek, where it was determined that a second reservoir, three fourths of a mile above the first one, should be constructed, and in 1898-1900 this was done, the storage capacity of the new dam being close to one hundred million gallons. The company bonded its plant and sold the bonds locally to finance the new reservoir and the 36 inch pipe line to the Cambria works. The water company officers felt that they had at last been able to assure adequate water supply for years to come, and that although it had been unable to make this great improvement out of earnings, and had gone heavily into debt, its troubles in the matter of seeking sources of supply were about over.

Happily, Johnstown proved it had just begun to grow in population and steel demonstrated that the nineties were only the beginning of the expansion of that industry.

As Johnstown and its water needs grew, however, the surrounding territory also changed rapidly in character, affecting natural pure water in volume and in value. The Little Conemaugh and the Stonycreek became polluted from coal mines and, the latter especially, by sewage. The Conemaugh was no longer desirable for all industrial purposes. The Stonycreek was unsafe for domestic use. And the era of water treatment by filtration or other methods, mechanical or chemical, had not yet reached Johnstown. Water sheds were largely denuded of their original stands of timber, with dwindling springs and streams, erosions, floods and protracted periods of low water as a consequence. As the areas of mined out coal lands on the watersheds increased, larger volumes of water found their way from the surface into the workings and thus helped dry up or pollute the streams. The impounding of much larger quantities of water for domestic use and the finding of new and larger supplies for industry, out of the path of pollution, became imperative.

Dalton Run stream, on the Laurel Ridge watershed beyond Millcreek, was taken and in 1903-1904 a reservoir of 132,000,000 gallons capacity was built, 16 inch and 20 inch pipe lines connecting with the mains at Benscreek. That was a great addition to the available domestic supply, but pollution of main streams was now so great that Johnstown's industries were compelled to rely a great deal on waters from the mountain stream reservoirs. Forced off of the Little Conemaugh, Cambria Steel Company turned to the Salt Lick stream at Mineral Point. Salt Lick, coming down through the California Woods region, drains an area of about 12 square miles There were then few homes and no towns on the stream and its branches above the site of the dam, which was constructed to impound 900,000,000 gallons of water. Since then much of the timber has been cut out, population on the watershed has increased, the Southern Cambria Street Railway Company's line between Ebensburg and Johnstown follows the course of the stream for miles and extensions of old coal workings and proposed opening of new workings carry a threat of still further depletion of water.

Cambria Steel Company, steadily developing the capacity of its mills, and on the look out for more water for manufacturing purposes, came to the opinion that changing conditions and changing laws rendered it advisable to separate the control of water for industrial purposes from the business of supplying domestic needs. The Manufacturer's Water Company was organized, controlled entirely by Cambria Steel Company. The first undertaking was to build Hinckston Run dam with a reservoir of 1,000,000,000 gallons capacity, the water being carried to the Cambria works by a 36 inch main. Then Cambria went out to find an unpolluted branch of the Stonycreek, as it had left the Little Conemaugh to take the waters of Salt Lick. From this developed the great Quemahoning reservoir, in Somerset County, constructed in 1911-1914, with an impounding capacity of 11,000,000,000 gallons. At that time it was the largest work of hydraulic construction in the eastern part of the United States. The great reservoir filled up slowly. Fish life developed amazingly and Quemahoning promised to become as notable for its bass as for its scenic beauties and its economic value to Johnstown's greatest industry. The water main from the dam to the works is 73,100 feet of 66 inch pipe. The water, supporting aquatic life, seemed to be of excellent quality for all industrial purposes and good enough to supplement the domestic supply in periods of drought or other emergencies. The gigantic pipe line and gravity assured ample water at high pressure for protection of the whole community against fire.

The little old Laurel Run reservoir having become obsolete, the water company turned back to that water shed and, going up stream a little farther, built a reservoir of about 1,000,000 gallons capacity, impounding almost the entire flow of the stream. For some years the Johnstown Water Company desired to use the waters of the north fork of Benscreek, of the same character as the excellent supplies from Millcreek and Dalton. The site for a dam, near Centennial Church, was located and the waters of the stream condemned in 1902. In 1910 a 24 inch pipe line was laid from the north fork to the Dalton Run pipe line and several times the stream flow of the north fork was used. The World War and much litigation over water rights, however, delayed construction of the reservoir until recently, when work was begun to impound about 900,000,000 gallons of water.

The Wild Cat and Laurel Run project, first to be developed, gave rise to lively argument, it is told. The dams were located several miles down stream from the town. Street corner groups held that the whole scheme was a pipe dream, or a trick to get money somehow. The water, they contended, would not run "up hill" to town. The stream in that watershed rise high on Ranger Mountain. Some sources are almost as far north as where the William Penn Highway crosses the mountain between Indiana and Cambria counties. Hinkston Run is a little farther east and Salt Lick still farther, coming down from the center of the county. Millcreek water shed is now almost suburban in character. Millcreek, Dalton and North Fork are shorter streams than those from the north. The Blacklick, once a magnificent stream, is polluted throughout its lower reaches. The Little Conemaugh is no longer fit for use, nor the South Fork except at its headwaters.

Yet Johnstown is much better provided for in this respect than are many other cities of this state. The storage capacity of the domestic reservoirs was 1,274,000,000 gallons and even in 1922, the year of greatest shortage, the consequences in this city were not serious. With the North Fork reservoir in use, this capacity has been increased to 2,800,000,000 gallons. The Manufacturers' Water Company has a storage capacity of 12,000,000,000 gallons, not for domestic use. Serving about 85,000 people, the Johnstown Water Company uses an average of 8,000,000 gallons daily. It is able to impound about sufficient water for a year's supply. Cambria plants, on the other hand, when running at capacity, require about 130,000,000 gallons of water daily. About three months' supply can be impounded.

Johnstown Water Company, with six pumping stations, is able to serve all sections of the city and much of the high suburban section. Recent development of home sites in the Geistown section and on other high areas present new problems. A magnificent water supply, not readily polluted by industrial or coal waste or sewage, is still available on the upper waters of Shade Creek, in the Ogletown region. Some co-operation of Johnstown Water Company, Manufacturers' Water Company and Berwind-White Coal Mining Company water interests has been discussed to bring about construction of a large reservoir and long distance pipe lines to take care of some of the high area suburban sections of Johnstown and to reinforce the supplies for the lower sections of the city and for the industries.

Johnstown and all of Cambria County, with a large part of Somerset County in the Stonycreek water shed, are intensely interested in the general plan being worked out by the state to survey and classify streams and in the more specific problem of what to do to correct the effects of coal mine pollution. The state is undertaking to determine what streams or parts of streams are pure and are to be kept pure; what streams are polluted but only to such degree that they may be redeemed; and what streams, under present industrial and economic conditions, are hopelessly polluted.

Quemahoning reservoir was a striking illustration of the water problem in the western Pennsylvania coal mining and heavy manufacturing centers. Its owner is a tremendous user of water in a principal industry. It was also, and still is, a principal polluter of public waters by waste from its plants and works and at the same time it was, and is, one of the principal producers of coal from workings which underlain miles of surface lands and discharge great quantities of sulphur into the streams. It went into the Quemahoning water shed to get away from sulphur, industrial wastes and sewage. It is still relatively free from sewage and from manufacturing plant acids. But it has the mine water, by natural drainage from mine openings on headwaters.

A great court battle, resulting finally in the compulsory shutting down and sealing of a number of mines on Indian Creek, in the Youghiogheny River water shed, where coal and railroad interests clashed over water pollution from mines, was waged on principles of law in some respects very much different from the Quemahoning situation. The owners of the Indian Creek waters were the only source of supply of water for domestic use to thousands of people, while the owners of Quemahoning are not purveyors of water for domestic consumption. Johnstown is more interested in the intensive study of the situation to develop an economical method of making mine waters useable and harmless. In any event, Johnstown still boasts a fine water supply, with natural resources still undeveloped at no great distance from the city.

Water supply is an interesting problem in nearly every other section of Cambria County. Not all the towns are built in the valleys. Gallitzin is near the top of the Allegheny Mountain where the Pennsylvania Railroad enters the county after the climb around the Horseshoe Curve and up the eastern slope. Ebensburg held to the idea of setting a court house upon a hill. Carrolltown's church spire is a landmark visible for many miles.

From Gallitzin the waters divide to flow east into the Juniata, north into the west branch of the Susquehanna and west and south by the Conemaugh, Kiskiminetas and Allegheny rivers to the Ohio, the Mississippi and the Gulf of Mexico. But nearly everywhere there is coal and the waters carry its washings.

Measured service, by meter, has brought about a marked reduction in the per capita domestic consumption of water in the districts served by the Johnstown Water Company. The meter system was introduced in 1912. The water company then was supplying 10,500,000 gallons daily in the city. In the mid year of 1926 about 90 per cent of the service was metered. Population of the city and the area served had grown. Yet there was a saving of about 1,000,000 gallons a day in consumption. In the period covering the threatening shortage of 1922, about 65 per cent of the service was metered. A deficiency of rainfall extending over many months caused some concern in 1926 as to domestic supply and turned the waterways of Johnstown into ugly open sewers.

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