by Bro. James K. Dreier, P.M.
Freemasonry in Johnstown, PA, originated in 1854 when Cambria Lodge No. 278 was constituted. The founding members of what would evolve into Greater Johnstown Lodge No. 538 were raised to the Sublime Degree of Master Mason in or were members of Cambria Lodge.
Greater Johnstown Lodge No. 538 ultimately traces its history back to 1875. The original application for a Charter is on file in the office of the Grand Lodge of Pennsylvania.
Although not dated, it is signed by Brothers John P. Linton, Jacob M. Campbell, James Williams, James McMillen and William B. Bonackerall, members of Cambria Lodge No. 278. Cambria Lodge recommended the petition on April 13, 1875, and it was also recommended by Bro. Alexander M. Lloyd, District Deputy Grand Master, on May 13, 1875. The petition was presented and read at the Quarterly Communication of the Grand Lodge of Pennsylvania on June 2, 1875 and on June 14, 1875, the Charter was granted.
Johnstown Lodge No. 538, Free and Accepted Masons, was constituted on June 14, 1875, by the District Deputy Grand Master, who was authorized by a warrant issued by Right Worshipful Grand Master Alfred R. Potter. The five Charter Members and their elected Warrant Titles were John P. Linton, Worshipful Master; Jacob M. Campbell, Senior Warden; James Williams, Junior Warden; and William Bonacker, Secretary, as well as James McMillen. These men represented some of the most prominent members of the Johnstown community. Jacob Campbell had served as Colonel of the 54th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry during the Civil War and was brevetted to Brigadier General in May 1865 after which he served four terms in the United States Congress. John P. Linton was a leading lawyer in Johnstown and had served as Lieutenant Colonel of the 54th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry. Brother Linton was an experienced choice for the first Worshipful Master of Johnstown Lodge. He had previously served as Secretary of Cambria Lodge in 1857 and as Worshipful Master of Cambria Lodge for 1859 and 1860. He would serve Johnstown Lodge as Worshipful Master from June to December 1875 and then was reelected as Worshipful Master for a full term in 1876.
Johnstown Lodge initially met on the north-east corner of Clinton and Railroad Streets in downtown Johnstown, most likely Arcade Hall which was then being used by the Independent Order of Odd Fellows (I.O.O.F.). The earliest records of the lodge were unfortunately lost in a fire. By 1876, Johnstown Lodge was meeting on the first Monday of the month in Thomas Hall on Main Street where the Cambria County Transit Authority now stands. In 1884, Johnstown’s first four-story building, Alma Hall, was opened by I.O.O.F. Alma Lodge. All Masonic bodies moved into the building in 1885, renting the fourth floor. Johnstown Lodge also began meeting on the first Thursday of the month at this time.
On May 31, 1889, Johnstown was the scene of one of the worst disasters in U.S. history.
Johnstown sits in a valley at the confluence of the Conemaugh River and the Stony Creek. In the 1830s the South Fork Dam had been built on the Conemaugh River 14 miles above Johnstown to assist canal boat traffic, but the dam had fallen into disrepair with the end of the canal boat era in the 1850s and by 1889 was being used by wealthy Pittsburgh businessmen to create an artificial lake for a private resort. After heavy rains in May 1889, the South Fork Dam failed on the afternoon of May 31. A wall of water rushed down the valley to Johnstown, destroying the city and killing 2,209 people. Alma Hall was one of a handful of buildings to survive the torrent and became a refuge for survivors throughout the horrific night. Six members of Lodge No. 538 perished in the flood: Gasper C. Brinkey (initiated December 26, 1887), Conrad Hoffman (initiated November 22, 1880), John K. Lee, P.M. (initiated November 22, 1875), William H. Overbeck, P.M. (initiated June 23, 1884), Charles. T. Shubert (initiated May 24, 1880), and Edward Thomas (initiated January 25, 1879). Since Alma Hall survived the flood, the Lodge records also survived. During these early years Lodge No. 538 saw a father and son play important roles in the Lodge. George E. Hamilton served as Worshipful Master in 1884 and then as Secretary of the Lodge for 33 years from 1890 to 1921. Kennedy W. Hamilton, Worshipful Master in 1917, succeeded his father as Secretary and served for 22 years from 1922 to 1944.
Into the 20th Century
Freemasonry in Pennsylvania enjoyed a steady growth in the early 20th Century, demanding additional lodges in Johnstown. On December 5, 1917, Right Worshipful Grand Master Louis A. Watres signed a warrant for the creation of Conemaugh Valley Lodge No. 692. Twenty-one brethren were charter members of the lodge under Worshipful Master James N. McKee. On August 24, 1925, 17 Masons met at Franke Pharmacy on Franklin Street to form a fourth lodge in the city. Otto Franke was elected chairman and A. K. Cosgrove suggested the name Sunnehanna. The Grand Lodge of Pennsylvania approved the request for a warrant at the December Quarterly Communication and on December 14, 1925, Sunnehanna Lodge No. 742 was constituted with 24 charter members under Worshipful Master George W. Reese. James E. Parks notably served as Secretary of Sunnehanna Lodge for 45 years, from 1925 until 1970.
Strong family bonds within the Lodge were evident during this period of growth. Two blood brothers served Johnstown Lodge as Worshipful Master—Otto Franke in 1916 and Louis Franke in 1919. In Sunnehanna Lodge another father-and-son combination served as Worshipful Master—Howard M. Picking Sr. in 1928 and 1929 and Howard M. Picking Jr. in 1939. Howard M. Picking, Sr. would be one of the most distinguished Johnstown Masons. He served as District Deputy Grand Master for the 41st Masonic District from 1932 until 1950; the first member of any of the three lodges currently making up Lodge No. 538 to serve in that post.
Johnstown Lodge had its greatest growth during the periods immediately following World War I and World War II. In 1920, Johnstown Lodge initiated 87 members; the highest yearly total of initiated members ever. That year, Worshipful Master Irwin W. Penrod and his officers averaged over 7 degree conferrals per month. In 1946 and 1947, 69 and 68 members, respectively, were initiated. By contrast, during the Depression and the construction of Johnstown’s Masonic Temple, only one person sought admission to Johnstown Lodge.
While there had been only two lodges in Johnstown when Alma Hall opened in 1884, by 1925 there were four Blue Lodges as well as Portage Royal Arch Chapter No. 195 and Oriental Commandery No. 61, Knights Templar. The growing fraternity required a building of its own. The Masonic bodies thus formed a Temple Association for the purpose of “erecting and maintaining in the City of Johnstown, Pennsylvania, a Masonic Temple or building for the use of said Masonic bodies and such other distinctively Masonic bodies as may hereafter be organized and located in said City.” In June 1923, the association purchased a site for the temple along Valley Pike and Linton Streets for $73,000. J. C. Fulton and Sons were hired as architects in May 1927. The Temple Association approved construction of the temple in November 1929, just as the U.S. descended into the Great Depression. Unlike many other projects of the time, the Brethren continued undeterred in the building’s construction, with the general contract awarded to the Wilson Construction Company. The total of all contacts for construction of the temple was $220,029. The cornerstone was laid in a Masonic ceremony presided over by Right Worshipful Grand Master William S. Snyder on November 14, 1931.
After meeting in Alma Hall for 49 years, Johnstown Lodge moved into the Masonic Temple in 1934. Johnstown Lodge’s first meeting in the new temple occurred on December 6, 1934, with Edwin Lucas serving as Worshipful Master. The Depression, however, had caught up to the Lodges. Only one of the two planned meeting halls was complete when the Temple opened and the Blue Lodges met in the York Rite room throughout the 1930s and 1940s. Furthermore, construction of the Masonic Temple had put the Temple Association, supported by the Masonic bodies, in dire financial straits. The remainder of the 1930s saw Johnstown Lodge and the other Masonic bodies work to keep the Masonic Temple solvent by organizing members into a corps to serve banquets. The officers of Johnstown Lodge, led by Worship Master Ralph R. Willet, decided to assist the Temple Association by hosting a Christmas Party in December 1936. The event was a success and in January 1937 the members of the four Blue Lodges formed the Good Cheer Club to organize events to help the Temple Association. Brother Willet was named the first President of the Good Cheer Club. After World War II, economic prosperity returned and attention could be focused on the uncompleted Blue Lodge room. On October 20, 1948, Right Worshipful Grand Master George H. Deike helped Worshipful Master Chester E. McDonald open the Egyptian-inspired Blue Lodge Room. In the 1970s and 1980s Johnstown suffered economically as the steel mills and coal mines that supported the region for over 100 years shut down. These economic struggles coincided with a period of declining interest in fraternal societies in American society at large. Johnstown could no longer support four Masonic lodges. Resulting from its inability to acquire qualified officers to fill the various Lodge stations and positions, Conemaugh Valley Lodge No. 692 sought merger with, and was accepted by Johnstown Lodge. On December 27, 1991, the two lodges merged creating Johnstown-Conemaugh Lodge No. 538. On December 27, 1996, for the same reasons, Sunnehanna Lodge No. 742 merged with Lodge No. 538, creating the present Greater Johnstown Lodge No. 538.
Present and Future
As Greater Johnstown Lodge journeys through the 21st Century, it confronts the challenges of an aging and decreasing membership coupled with increasing financial expenses. Greater Johnstown Lodge has met those challenges by continuing to attract good men into the Fraternity. In 2004, 2005, and 2016, Greater Johnstown Lodge participated in the “Man to Mason” one day classes held at the Jaffa Shrine in Altoona, PA. Greater Johnstown Lodge also has set a high standard for degree work by participating in the 41st Masonic District School of Instruction.
Much of the hard dedication to degree perfection culminated on June 30, 2007, when under Dispensation from the Grand Lodge of Pennsylvania and the Grand Lodge of Virginia, Worshipful Master William J. Huston and his officers conferred the Master Masons degree at the George Washington Masonic Memorial in Washington, D.C. Greater Johnstown Lodge enjoys a rich Masonic heritage to learn from and enjoy. May the Grand Architect of the Universe grant the officers and members of Greater Johnstown Lodge No. 538 the wisdom, perseverance and vision of their forefathers to guide this Lodge into a great future.
Blue Lodge Distinctions
Greater Johnstown Lodge No. 538 has had several of its members serve in high capacities in Pennsylvania Masonry. Seven members of the three lodges merged to create Greater Johnstown Lodge have served as District Deputy Grand Masters for the 41st Masonic Jurisdiction: Howard M. Picking (Sunnehanna Lodge) from 1932 to 1950; Orland A. Kipp (Johnstown Lodge) from 1954 to 1964; Fred D. Saintz (Johnstown Lodge) from 1984 to 1993; Robert S. Havers, Sr.(Johnstown-Conemaugh Lodge) from 1994 to 1998, John D. Ream (Greater Johnstown Lodge) from 2003 to 2009; William J. Huston (Greater Johnstown Lodge) from 2010 to 2015; and Alvin E. Just since 2016.
James K. Thompson, Worshipful Master of Johnstown Lodge in 1970, served the Grand Lodge as Grand Lodge Instructor of the Ritualistic Work from 1984 to 1995. Serving locally as Principals for the 41 Masonic School of Instruction have been Conrad Ruckser from 1934 to 1957; William M. Lauf from 1958 to 1965; William J. Huston from 2006 to 2009, and David Blackner from 2010 to present.