Johnstown's Children's Museum focuses on town's industrial heritage


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JOHNSTOWN -- Pennsylvania is already home to eight children's museums or workshops that invite youngsters to learn while they play.

In this city famed for its deadly floods of 1889, 1936 and 1977, the Johnstown Children's Museum offers youngsters ages 4 through 10 a chance to learn about this community's industrial heritage, geology, indigenous plants and material culture. It opened June 14 inside the Frank & Sylvia Pasquerilla Discovery Heritage Center, the former Germania Brewery.

The first room of the 7,500-square-foot museum focuses on geology, water, plumbing, fish and acid rain. At a scale model of a dam that breaks, youngsters can turn a switch and watch the water level rise, causing the dam to break and flood the town below. It's a deft re-creation of the infamous flood of May 31, 1889, that killed 2,209 people when the South Fork Dam broke.

If you go

The Johnstown Children's Museum, 201 Sixth Ave., 1-814-539-1889; www.jaha.org.

Admission: $7 for adults, $6 for seniors, $5 for children ages 3 to 18, free for children under 3. Includes admission to all other exhibitions in the Discovery Center plus the Johnstown Flood Museum and the Wagner-Ritter House Museum. Hours: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily and until 7 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays through Labor Day.

The Johnstown Children's Museum, 201 Sixth Ave., 1-814-539-1889; www.jaha.org.

Admission: $7 for adults, $6 for seniors, $5 for children ages 3 to 18, free for children under 3. Includes admission to all other exhibitions in the Discovery Center plus the Johnstown Flood Museum and the Wagner-Ritter House Museum. Hours: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily and until 7 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays through Labor Day.

Another exhibit, "The Hills Are in Your Hands," helps children understand how water erosion creates mountains and valleys. Children can push or pull levers to raise mountains or lower valleys.

In Johnstown's Westmont neighborhood, set atop Yoder Hill, there was a huge coal mine that fueled the city's Bethlehem Steel plant, which stretched over 12 miles and made steel around the clock for more than 75 years. To feel a little like the men who worked there, children can don a miner's hat with a light, pick up a plastic shovel and hang up their tag on a chit board before entering the mine for work. On their way in, they meet talking rocks, such as pyrite, known as fool's gold.

"I'm a troublemaker in old mines," the rock says, adding that it contributes to acid mine drainage.

Once inside, children slip down a curved slide into a padded car packed with lumps of synthetic coal. It's the kind of experience that 5-year-olds can enjoy for at least an hour.

Parents love the fact that they can sit and drink coffee in a reception area at the start of the museum and still keep an eye on their youngsters through porthole windows in a wall. If they want to join in the fun, they can.

The coal slide has been "adult-tested and -approved," joked Shelley Johansson, marketing and communications director for the Johnstown Area Heritage Association, which operates the Discovery Center, Johnstown Flood Museum and Wagner-Ritter House Museum.

Two exhibits are especially likely to captivate youngsters. The first invites them to choose an outfit using a touch screen and see the figure they have dressed come walking out on a projection screen. Children can don a similar outfit and stroll a lighted runway.

The second exhibit features a Mix-Master that allows youngsters to press various buttons to mix sounds from home, nature and work into their own custom-made cacophony. Each button features a picture that denotes a different sound.

"This is for all the young Charles Iveses," said Richard Burkert, executive director of the heritage association, referring to the American composer.

In the general store, children can buy house paint, candles, glassware, cocoa or cat food and then decide what to do with any leftover money.

Before children enter a steel mill, a male steelworker named Joel Henry appears on a TV screen and says his nickname is "Mooseburger."

"Some of the stuff we grab in the mill is hot as a frying pan. You ever been inside a volcano?" Mr. Henry asks.

After some brief instruction from Mooseburger, children don an apron, safety glasses, a hard hat and gloves. Inside the mill, children can pretend to be the boss and also use a telephone to talk to workers in the mine.

There's a rooftop garden filled with native plants that are in bloom this summer as well as a telescope that offers excellent views of the Cambria City neighborhood.

Once you and your children have explored the museum, there's still time for a treat. On the museum's first floor is Galliker's Cafe, which has 1950s-style stainless-steel soda fountains and serves ice cream, pizza and sandwiches.


Marylynne Pitz can be reached at mpitz@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1648.


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