You need not go far in any direction from Johnstown to find a first-class museum. From the Flight 93 Memorial in Shanksville to the Lincoln Highway Experience halfway between Latrobe and Ligonier to the Johnstown Flood Museum, these museums offer educational experiences that are unmatched.
Here are seven you don't want to miss.
Flight 93 National Memorial
The Flight 93 National Memorial is a memorial dedicated to Flight 93’s physical crash site that was part of the terrorist activities on the United States on September 11, 2001. “It was set up and became a national memorial one year and 13 days after September 11, 2001,” public information officer Katie Cordek says. “But the concrete memorial that you see here today took many years to build because it’s a memorial that took donations from all over the United States, all over the world, the National Park Foundation and the families of Flight 93 victims. It’s dedicated to honor the passengers and crew members of Flight 93 and what they did that day.”
Located on a ridge overlooking the crash site, the visitors center includes an exhibit area that allows visitors a self-guided tour through the exhibits to experience the story chronologically. “It starts that morning, September 11, which everyone remembers very clearly. The crystal clear blue sky. It was just an ordinary Tuesday morning,” Cordek recalls.
“There are five different audio-visuals that guests will encounter as they work their way through the exhibit – including news footage from that day, footage of the crash site taken from a helicopter by the state police 45 minutes to an hour after Flight 93 went down and three recorded phone calls that were made from Flight 93 that were left on answering machines.
“There’s the final panel with everyone who was killed on September 11, so it has not only the names of the people who were aboard Flight 93 but also all of those who were on Flight 175 that impacted the north and south towers, the names of all the people who lost their lives in the towers, the people who were on Flight 77 that attacked the Pentagon and all of the people who lost their lives in the Pentagon.”
From the visitors center, people can walk a treelined pathway that circles around to the crash site, which is marked by a 17-ton boulder. A second trail zigzags down to the “Memorial Plaza,” the physical site where the plane went down. “It’s the northern most boundary of the crash site,” Cordek says. “It’s also the final resting place of the passengers and crew members. So few remains were recovered because of the impact of the crash. There are 40 acres that we consider their final resting place that only family members can go to.”
A “Wall of Names” has 40 1,000-pound, marble tablets along the edge of the flight path, and the 40 tablets have each of the names of the crew and passengers alphabetically. “The tablets are separated by a small space symbolizing that they were each individuals and that they each made their own choices aboard Flight 93,” explains Cordek.
The final phase of construction, the “Tower of Voices,” is not yet completed. “It will be at the entrance of the memorial,” Cordek says. “It’s a 93-foot tall musical instrument that will have 40 wind chimes representing each of the 40 passengers and crew members aboard Flight 93. It’s intended to be a landmark feature that welcomes our visitors into the memorial. Whenever the wind blows, the wind chimes will create a living memorial through sound.”
The Jimmy Stewart Museum
The Jimmy Stewart Museum in Indiana covers the life and career of Jimmy Stewart, who was an actor and a World War II military hero who did 26 WWII flying missions. He was born and raised in Indiana. The museum has galleries highlighting his Hollywood career, his WWII military service, his family and his formative years.
Highlights in the museum include four of Stewart’s military uniforms and medals; a western movie costume and the hat he wore in most of his westerns; a fedora hat and memorabilia from the movie Harvey; movie posters and stills from his whole movie career; a booth from the California restaurant where he always sat; his boyhood bedroom with the bed he actually slept in; mementoes from his California office; and a 50-seat 1940s vintage theatre that shows matinees of his movies every day at 1 p.m.
“We have visitors from over 25 different countries and all 50 states,” Executive Director Janie McKirgan says. “The museum attracts 5,000 to 6,000 visitors every year.”
The museum delves into Stewart’s years at school and Princeton and his early Hollywood years. “Obviously, we have a lot on his Hollywood career. He made a lot of movies,” McKirgan says. “He was nominated for an Academy Award and won once for Philadelphia Story. He also got a Lifetime Achievement Award. So we have a lot of history on all of the movies he was in, the actors and actresses he acted with and the directors he worked with. We had an It’s a Wonderful Life special display up with little-known facts behind the scenes about the movie, a model of the Granville house from the movie and a lot of really unique art posters about the movie.”
The Jimmy Stewart Museum’s 25th Anniversary Weekend May 22-25 will offer visitors many wonderful things, including a four-day film festival with four different film showings, special guests, a new museum unveiling and a cake to celebrate Stewart’s birthday of May 20, 1908. The silver anniversary will also include new and updated exhibits; expanded “Military Gallery” and “Hollywood Gallery” exhibits; and added technology and hands-on experiences, including touchscreens. Stewart’s Broadway and television career will be highlighted as well.
A museum store is onsite.
“Visitors are surprised at how many items, mementoes and costumes we have,” McKirgan says. “They’re shocked at what we have packed in this museum and what a little hidden treasure it is.”
Johnstown Area Heritage Association’s Discovery Center
Johnstown’s industrial past and its rural life is well illustrated and preserved at the Johnstown Area Heritage Association’s Discovery Center.
“We wanted to preserve the community as much as possible and use it as a source for information,” President and CEO Richard Burkert says.
“We found this five-story warehouse that was originally Germania Brewery and was used for wide purposes over the years when planning the Discovery Center,” Burkert explains.
One of the most popular exhibits is called “America Through Immigrant Eyes.” “It focuses on the Southern and Central European immigrants who came here from the 1880s to the early 1920s and really became the backbone of the steel and coal industries here,” Burkert continues. “It made Johnstown and Western Pennsylvania one of the most productive industrial areas in the world.”
The “Iron and Steel Gallery” is another favorite of visitors. Included is a virtual tour of the Bethlehem Steel Mill, which closed in 1992. “I hired a filmmaker who, in 70-millimeter Panavision, documented all sections of the steel mill,” Burkert says. “The result was a multi-media experience called ‘The Mystery of Steel.’ Johnstown in the mid- to late-19th century was the Silicon Valley of steel.”
Another exhibit is “The Sound of Johnstown,” an MP3 recording in which there are sounds of a steel mill or a railroad or natural sounds like crickets or a whistling teapot. “Johnstown: Where We Work” is about all of the occupations from history to the present in Johnstown.
A big part of the Discovery Center is the Johnstown Children’s Museum. “A lot of themes are science, art, dinosaurs, geography, weather systems, you name it,” Burkert says. “We have a toy coal mine in which children can mine coal, crawl through tunnels and then slide down into a coal car. There’s interactive media about the steel workers and coal miners. We just put in a new section called ‘Career Corner.’ It’s themed on jobs yesterday and today. We have costumes, equipment and a microscope. We’re the only children’s museum between Pittsburgh and Harrisburg.”
Another Discovery Center highlight is a bar that was the West End Polish Citizen’s Club, which was recreated. “We have a liquor license, and people can rent the space,” Burkert says. “We also have an education center for meetings, lectures, book signings and other events plus a company store.”
Lincoln Highway Experience
The Lincoln Highway Experience tells the story of America’s first road across America that was completed in 1913. The road goes all the way from New York City, right at Times Square, to San Francisco. “Even though there’s a lot of buzz about Route 66, the Lincoln Highway is actually twice as long and 10 years older,” Executive Director Olga Herbert says.
The museum offers information about the Lincoln Highway from both the local and national viewpoints.
When visitors first enter the museum, they are given an audio wand. There are 16 stops in the museum, and that is how the story of the Lincoln Highway is told, with visitors moving from one area of the building to another. “At each stop, they tap the wand and then put it to their ear to listen to scripts that I wrote about what they’re looking at,” Herbert says. “When we created the museum, I felt that most of today’s visitors really don’t want to stand there and read paragraph after paragraph. So this is a way to deliver interesting information. Each stop has a different theme. Most of the 16 stops are about the 200 miles in our six-county region – Westmoreland, Somerset, Bedford, Fulton, Franklin and Adams. That stretch is called the Lincoln Highway Heritage Corridor.”
The first stop is located in the lobby. “It covers the Lincoln Highway route in Pennsylvania,” Herbert says. “We have large photographs of different sites across Pennsylvania that were taken in 1999 by a professional photographer. We have 42 of these photos framed in the lobby.”
Exhibit number four gives visitors a chance to actually ride a stationary Cannondale Bicycle. “If they keep pedaling,” Herbert says, “they’ll generate the electricity to light up the Lincoln Highway route on a wall map that would take them all the way from New York City to San Francisco. The bike is rigged up by an electrician to generate electricity and light up every time a revolution is made. If you pedal and you don’t stop – you don’t have to go fast – you will start to see each light light up on the wall map. I called every state that it goes through – 13 states – and asked them what they’re most proud about, what they want visitors to know about their state, and whatever they told me, I have it in a box in that state on the wall map. You can also hear the recording of what the person said.”
Other exhibits include a restored 1938 diner, a redone filling station with four gas pumps from the early 1900s, a 1937 Packard car and a tourist cabin. All were located off the Lincoln Highway.
Quecreek Mine Rescue Site
In July 2002, nine coal miners were rescued from an abandoned mine that was inundated with water. After three and a half days of drilling, pumping and working feverishly against all odds, each of the nine miners was pulled to the surface by what turned out to be a very iconic rescue capsule.
The Quecreek Mine Rescue Site in Somerset has an educational visitors center and several exhibits honoring the rescue. “When motor coach groups arrive, we do about a 40-minute PowerPoint presentation,” Executive Director Bill Arnold says. “Then we allow visitors time to go out to the actual rescue site and go through the main exhibit hall of the educational visitors center. It generally takes about an hour and a half for a complete tour.”
The rescue capsule is the crown jewel of the artifacts housed in the museum. “People still remember that capsule bringing the nearly frozen, soaking wet miners to the surface,” Arnold says. “One of the most fascinating exhibits is an extensive 12-foot-long timeline that has a plethora of information about the rescue from the time the accident happened to a minute-by-minute account of the 80 hours during the rescue of what was going on on the surface and in the mine. It has several audio components and videos to it.”
Another one of the epochal exhibits is the very well-remembered blue shirt that Mark Schweiker, the governor at the time, was wearing for those three days. “He really didn’t plan on being here for three days,” Arnold recalls, “so he didn’t bring a change of clothes, so he was wearing the same shirt for three days.”
Individual tours are available as well. “People can do a self-guided tour, and the presentation that they get is very much one-one-one with our staff,” Arnold says. “It’s more question-and-answer.”
At Fort Ligonier, visitors learn about the people of Fort Ligonier and explore why they were here, what their daily lives were like and the many challenges they faced during the fort’s era from 1758 to 1766.
The “History Gallery” tells the story of Fort Ligonier through the museum’s unique collection of archeological artifacts excavated from the site. The gallery combines good old-fashioned dress-up and technology to learn about colonial history. “In one area of the gallery, children can try on a soldier’s uniform and crawl in a tent,” Julie Donovan, director of marketing and public relations, says. “Then, around the corner, any visitor can use technology to learn about General John Forbes’ great victory. We worked with the Johnstown-based Concurrent Technologies Corporation to develop an innovative app that uses augmented reality and avatars to vividly bring the dramatic General Forbes diorama to life with a smartphone or tablet. When visitors hold their personal devices up to the diorama, they see an animated rendering that shows Fort Duquesne (Fort Pitt) intact, then as it explodes. Following the blast, an avatar of General Forbes appears that explains the 1758 campaign that finally captured the French fort at what today is Point State Park in Pittsburgh.”
While Fort Ligonier’s priceless art and “French and Indian War Collection” attract visitors from around the world, it is the “George Washington Gallery” that attracts the most visitors. “The Washington Gallery includes the Washington-Lafayette Pistols, the ‘Remarks,’ George Washington’s 11-page memoirs of his time on the western frontier and the new Chas Fagan painting ‘Flash Point,’ which depicts Washington’s famous ‘Friendly Fire Incident,’” Donovan says. “The fact that George Washington was here at Fort Ligonier and visitors can see his own handwriting about the experience is quite moving.”
The museum also includes “The World Ablaze,” an introduction to the Seven Years’ War, considered to be the very first world war that involved nearly every major power in Europe. A war for empire primarily between Great Britain and France and their associated allies, fighting spread around the globe to include Europe, Africa, Asia, North and South America, the West Indies and as far away as the Philippines.
The “Arthur St. Clair Parlor” honors Arthur St. Clair, who was considered to be a founding father. He was involved in every major event that shaped the nation, from military service in the French and Indian War and the American Revolution to political posts in the new United States government.
In the “Archeology & Reconstruction Gallery,” visitors discover the important archeological finds at Fort Ligonier and how they informed the reconstruction of the fort to within mere inches of where it originally stood.
The Museum Store offers a wide variety of gifts and souvenirs.
Johnstown Flood Museum
On May 31, 1889, a neglected dam and a phenomenal storm led to a catastrophe in which 2,209 people died. It was the infamous Johnstown Flood and the story is told through the Johnstown Flood Museum. The crown jewel of the museum is the Academy Award-winning film it produced, “The Johnstown Flood,” that tells the story of the infamous flood that engulfed Johnstown and the town’s triumphant recovery. A century after the flood, in 1989, the film, which was directed by Charles Guggenheim, won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Short Subject.
“We hit it out of the park with that film,” Burkert says. “The movie is really powerful.”
A subdivision of the Johnstown Area Heritage Association’s Discovery Center, the Johnstown Flood Museum dates back to 1973 when it opened. “In 1989 we were able to slowly restore the building and put in real high-quality exhibits,” says Burkert. “After struggling along for years, we were finally able to do major upgrades on the building and the exhibits.
“We have traditional exhibits with objects. We have relics from the flood. There’s an amazing legacy of photography from the flood. There were 200 commercial photographers who came here. There’s a sound- and light-animated map that shows the route of the flood.”
According to Burkert, the Johnstown Flood is a shocking story. “It’s one of the biggest scandals of the late 19th century because the dam that broke wasn’t repaired correctly. It’s the biggest news story of that period. It’s just a dramatic story,” he says. “It’s one of the worst disasters in American history as far as loss of life. One-third of the bodies were never found.”