The Stonycreek River was, for decades, a foul-smelling, polluted waterway that left behind a brownish-orange stain on the rocks, dirt, protective manmade walls and people it touched.
It was a symbol of a dying Rust Belt community, contaminated by the acid-mine drainage from the coal mines that once helped make Johnstown and the surrounding towns in western Pennsylvania counties thrive.
But now, thanks to remediation work done by nonprofit organizations, such as the Conemaugh Valley Conservancy and Stonycreek-Conemaugh River Improvement Project, along with businesses and government agencies, the river is clean enough for recreation.
And, during lazy, sunny, summer weekends, dozens of floaters can be seen riding bright orange Coal Tubin' tubes on the Stonycreek, which was named the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources' 2012 River of the Year.
“We started back in the late-1980s to begin the process that has turned the Stonycreek from a net acidic river into a net alkaline river and increased the productivity, fishery, aquatic life and eco-tourism opportunities to the point that it's now a destination point for not just local – but for visiting – anglers and boating enthusiasts as well,” said Somerset Conservation District manager Len Lichvar, a longtime leader in the effort the clean up the river.
“Certainly everybody that has been involved in that effort, along the way, should take pride in that because, back in the day, when we first started, we were told repeatedly it would never happen," Lichvar said. "We fortunately, for everybody's benefit, proved them wrong.”
Nowadays, thousands of individuals every year paddle canoes and kayaks, participate in the annual Stonycreek Rendezvous hosted by the Benscreek Canoe Club, and ride tubes from the Quemahoning Reservoir to the Point – a spot in downtown Johnstown where the Stonycreek meets with the Little Conemaugh to form the Conemaugh, which flows west to join the Allegheny River near Pittsburgh.
Paddlers and tube-riders go past Greenhouse Park and Greater Johnstown Senior High School, through the heart of the city, near historic Sargent's Stadium at the Point, alongside old Bethlehem Steel properties, around the perimeter of Cambria City and then through the scenic Conemaugh Gap, which is touted as the deepest gorge east of the Mississippi River.
The rivers have developed into an integral part of the overall outdoor recreation identity being promoted in the Johnstown area, along with miles of hiking and biking trails, cross-country skiing, camping, fishing and hunting.
“We like to bill Johnstown as kind of like the 'Lost City' for outdoor recreation, completely overlooked,” said Chad Gontkovic, co-owner of Coal Tubin', which rents tubes for riders to use on the Stonycreek. “Now we're just starting to let the world in, let the world see what actually exists here.
"It all comes down to we're utilizing what our forefathers have given us. Coal and steel built an urban infrastructure in a really, really rugged and inhospitable environment. It gives us an advantage globally to have all of this outdoor recreation five minutes from urban amenities. I think that's our ace up our sleeve here.”
The outdoor enthusiasts support the local economy by paying for lodging, food, equipment and entertainment.
Lisa Rager, executive director of the Greater Johnstown/Cambria County Convention & Visitors Bureau, said a concrete money figure cannot be given to show the impact. But she said: “One of the things that I've learned over the years is that when somebody comes into the area from somewhere else to do a specific activity that they're interested in, they actually spend a few hours doing that specific activity and they spend more time doing the secondary activities afterward.”
That would include dining and shopping.
“That's where it's important for the community to continue to work to capitalize on that," Rager said. "While they're here, you want to make sure you have what they're looking for. That's where your true economic impact comes from – the spending that's generated after they're doing their primary activity.”
The increased local interest is a microcosm of the growing statewide trend in the popularity of paddlesports. In 2013, the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources sold 12,131 launch permits, which did not include watercraft already registered with the Pennsylvania Fish & Boat Commission, such as outboards. Steady increases occurred every year with 26,220 being sold in 2017.
Meanwhile, the Fish & Boat Commission sold 1,524 launch permits for unpowered crafts, such as kayaks, canoes and stand-up paddleboards, bringing in $15,240 of revenue, during 2002. Those numbers expanded to 117,632 permits and $1,832,712 revenue in 2018.
The commission has already sold 116,136 permits, generating $2,133,602, so far this year.
“Each year, it's going up by almost literally leaps and bounds,” Terry Brady, DCNR press secretary, said. “It's a reflection of the popularity of personal watercraft or personally powered watercraft if you will.”
But Lichvar said some uncertainty exists about the Stonycreek River's ability to remain an economic driver for outdoor recreation.
The passive treatment systems installed do not actually eliminate the acid-mine drainage. They simply treat the water. But the filters are reaching their life expectancies with three systems on the Stonycreek “failing,” Lichvar said.
“Unless that changes, that river will return to what it was 25 years ago,” said Lichvar, whose conservation district is legally responsible for maintaining the systems, but without, in his opinion, having adequate governmental funding.
Lichvar thinks work on the river has, for the time being, stalled.
“The Stonycreek River is nowhere near where it needs to be,” Lichvar said. “It hasn't improved significantly for the last 12 years even though there's a great deal of room for improvement. We confirmed that with a reassessment we did here at the conservation district and that the Conemaugh Valley Conservancy did on their Kiski-Conemaugh River watershed report back in 2017. So we've been on a holding pattern. That's been frustrating.”