It was raining heavily the morning I drove into Johnstown, Pennsylvania, which gave me pause as I drove down the steep gorge where, 128 years ago, 20 million tons of water breached the South Fork dam, gathered force as it surged 14 miles down Little Conemaugh Creek, and hit the city at 40 miles per hour. Ten minutes later, Johnstown was gone.
Once America’s leading steel producer, Johnstown rebuilt itself in a year, and endured two more major floods in 1936 and 1977. But its legendary ability to bounce back from disaster seemed to run out when the steel industry collapsed for good in the 1990s, and the former home of 13,000 steel jobs became one of America’s “seven fastest shrinking cities.”
Johnstown was the first place I visited last summer where people talked personally about the “war on coal,” talked as if they were under siege from federal regulations and the EPA. In November voted overwhelmingly for Donald Trump, despite the Democratic Party’s still-significant edge in voter registration, a phenomenon that occurred throughout western Pennsylvania.
Last week, Jackie Kulback, the CFO of the city’s remaining steel company and chair of the Republican Party, was in a good mood. The company is doing very well, she said, and a new coalmine opened two weeks ago, with 2-3 more slated to open in the next two years. The new mine provides about 100 jobs. “We’ve been so depressed here for so long,” she said, “that even one new job makes me happy.”
Trump remains very popular here among people who dislike “liberals” and distrust “the media. “I don’t listen to the news any more,” Kulback told me. “They’re not giving him a chance.”
I read often that, on issue after issue, Trump is abandoning his base. I don’t get that sentiment here. They believe he is turning the tide in the war on coal and making America great again.