Saturday, July 07, 2007

Friday Narrative

Friday's post covering Pennsylvania is a history lesson. Follow along:

Back in the 1800's, water was the key to everything in the US. Cities were located on water for both supply and for commerce; the only way to get a large amount of anything from here to there was by boat. Roads were tedious and slow when they were passable at all, and navigation was simply following signs to the next town when the traveler reached a crossroads. Canal building reached a frenzy just as railroads were starting to be built. Anything beyond the Appalachians was "the West," and Mississippi was the southwest territory. Because water to the west drains into the Gulf of Mexico and into the Atlantic on the east, it was imperative to develop an economical Appalachian crossing to develop the frontier. A long boat trip around Florida and up the Mississippi was the only other option.

North of Johnstown, where the steel industry was in its infancy, an earthen dam was built by the canal company to stockpile water for the Union Canal. The Allegheny Portage railroad was built to connect canals on either side of the mountain range.

The railroads quickly caught up with the canal system, and soon the canal system was abandoned. The dam was purchased and the lake refilled for a resort for wealthy steel barons. When Horseshoe Curve was laid in Altoona, it completed an uninterrupted rail link, and the gateway to the West had finally been breached.

On May 31, 1889, after several days of tropical rain, the South Fork Dam gave way and unleashed 20 million tons of water down a creek bed 14 miles upstream from Johnstown, nestled in a tight valley in the hills. The flood was the greatest disaster of the 19th century and destroyed the booming city, killing over 2,000 people.

We woke in Johnstown, took our bikes down the funicular railway (look it up) and spent some time in the city before heading up to Horseshoe Curve. Threading through the Alleghenies via the old pre-interstate route was breathtaking, and really illustrates the challenges faced by early road-builders. Following Rt. 22 took us into Harrisburg right around rush hour, so from there we cheated and took interstates until hopping on "old 22" to finish the ride home. An hour after I got off the bike for the last time, it rained again.

There will be one more post to sort of tie things up and fit in some observations and pix that didn't make the on-the-fly log. If you haven't figured it out, you can click on the images for full sized versions.

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