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History of Steel in Johnstown
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The Frank & Sylvia Pasquerilla Heritage Discovery Center, part of the Johnstown Discovery Network, is a community center that contains several attractions: the "America: Through Immigrant Eyes" exhibit; the Johnstown Children's Museum; the Iron & Steel Gallery; and two additional galleries. It also houses the Galliker's Cafe and the 4th Floor Ethnic Social Club. The HDC is operated by the Johnstown Area Heritage Association (JAHA). Welcome!

History of Steelmaking in Johnstown

Founded in 1852, the Cambria Iron Company of Johnstown made an important contribution to American industrialism - it is considered one of the greatest of the early modern iron and steel works. Forerunner of Bethlehem Steel Company, United States Steel Corporation, and other late 19th and 20th century steel companies, the Cambria plant became a model for the industry. In the late 1800s Johnstown attracted the best and brightest minds in the industry, notably William Kelly, George and John Fritz, Daniel J. Morrell, Robert W. Hunt, William R. Jones, and Alexander Holley. These men advanced iron and steel technology through invention and industrial design in Johnstown, work which was widely copied by other iron and steel companies. This enormous contribution signaled the end of America's reliance on British-produced rails and allowed the expansion of the nation's railroad network.

Before Cambria's founding in 1852, only a very few small-scale blast furnaces and foundries existed in Johnstown. At that time, Johnstown and its suburbs had a population of about 5,150. But the city was blessed with abundant deposits of iron ore, coal, wood, a water supply. With the arrival of the Pennsylvania Railroad in 1854, Johnstown became an ideal location for the Cambria Iron Works. After a few difficult years the company took off, and by 1858 it had become one of the nation's largest producers of rails. As the mill grew, thousands of immigrants, many from Southern and Eastern Europe, came to Johnstown to work in the steel mills and coal mines, and many settled next to the mill in the area of Johnstown still known as Cambria City. By 1890, Johnstown's population had increased to 30,114.

In the 1880s, the company added an open-hearth steelmaking facility, but was becoming less important nationally as other steelmakers in Pittsburgh, Chicago, and Cleveland gained prominence. The 1889 flood did comparatively little damage to the Lower Works of the Cambria Iron Company, although the Gautier Works, located in Woodvale, was completely destroyed. In 1898, the Cambria Iron Works was reorganized and renamed the Cambria Steel Company, and built a new, modern steel mill in Franklin Borough, east of Johnstown. The Franklin mill included blast furnaces, a steel railroad car department and open hearths. The company slowly rebuilt the Gautier Works to produce wire fencing, plows and other steel products for the agriculture industry. A wire plant was also built in the Morrellville neighborhood.

The Midvale Steel & Ordnance Company of Nicetown, Pennsylvania bought the Cambria Steel Company in 1916, selling it to the Bethlehem Steel Company in 1923. A major reorganization and modernization of the Johnstown facilities ensued, and parts of the Lower Works were retired altogether. Other Johnstown plants were enlarged, and company prospered - in 1973, 11,800 workers were employed. But that year, Bethlehem decided to significantly cut its Johnstown operations for a variety of reasons, including aging facilities, lack of access to transportation, and difficulty in complying with environmental regulations. Damage caused by the 1977 flood didn't help matters, and by 1982 only 2,100 workers were left. The Johnstown plants of Bethlehem Steel Corporation were closed in 1992.

In 1988, Johnstown was identified as one of two sites having the most intact structures dating from the nation's earliest steel companies. The Cambria Ironworks was listed as a National Historic Landmark by the National Park Service in 1989, and remains the only American steel mill to have received this designation.

Although the heyday of steel in Johnstown is long gone, the city holds a well-earned place in steelmaking history. It was the site of several major technological innovations that were copied throughout the nation and the world, including early use of the Bessemer process for refining steel and many new methods of heating, handling and rolling steel.

Today, the Johnstown Area Heritage Association interprets the story of the immigrants who came to work in the mills and the mines through the Heritage Discovery Center's permanent exhibit, "America: Through Immigrant Eyes." The second phase of the Heritage Discovery Center will include a theater showing a film about steelmaking in Johnstown, using high-definition footage captured before the plants closed in 1992. JAHA is also working to conserve the 1864 Blacksmith Shop, the most historically significant building remaining in the Cambria Iron & Steel National Historic Landmark, with the long-term goal of opening it as a working shop and visitor experience.

Sources include: Sharon A. Brown, "Historic Resource Study: Cambria Iron Company," published by the National Park Service for the America's Industrial Heritage Project.

To learn more about the steel industry in Johnstown, visit the Iron & Steel Gallery at the Heritage Discovery Center, which opened on May 31, 2008.
Further reading on this site

  • The education home page of the Heritage Discovery Center -- This section features a wide variety of primary and secondary sources on themes related to the museum, including Johnstown's steelmaking history. Included are: image galleries of immigrants at work and with their families, the steel industry, coal mines, Ellis Island, downtown Johnstown, and more; original letters to and from immigrants; period maps of Johnstown; census data showing immigration trends; transcripts of interviews with immigrants and their descendants; and more. Intended primarily for educators and students, the three educational "threads" contain information useful to general researchers as well -- the "Student Resources" links are a good place to start, or use this site's search function to locate relevant resources.

  • A Brief History of Immigration and Migration to Johnstown -- This brief essay outlines the immigration patterns of Johnstown; many immigrants came to the area to work in steel mills and coal mines.

  • A Walking Tour of Cambria City -- Part of the Visitor Resources section of this site, this walking tour gives more information on historic buildings still standing in the Cambria City area of Johnstown, near the steel mills.

  • A History of Coal in Cambria County -- This brief essay outlines the rise of Cambria County's coal industry, which closely paralleled the fortunes of the steel industry.