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Johnstown's Immigration History

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!

Virtual Tour - "America: Through Immigrant Eyes"

Click here for a quick look at all the Heritage Discovery Center has to offer!

America: Through Immigrant Eyes

The first-floor exhibit of the Frank & Sylvia Pasquerilla Heritage Discovery Center, America: Through Immigrant Eyes, tells a national story in a local context. It captures the imaginations of visitors through its innovative use of interactive media. Rather than simply looking at artifacts, you'll actually experience the sights, sounds and even the smells of immigrants' daily lives, and come away with a more complete understanding of the sacrifices and achievements of these Americans in the making.

As you enter, you'll choose a card with a photo of one of eight immigrant characters, who are fictional composites based on historical facts. You then experience the daily life of that character as you tour the museum. When you plug your card into an exhibit, the exhibit responds as though you are the immigrant character featured on the card.

America: Through Immigrant Eyes focuses on the immigrants who arrived between 1880 through 1914, and the ethnic neighborhoods in which they settled. During this period, immigrants to Johnstown were almost exclusively from Eastern and Southern Europe (see A Brief History of Immigration and Migration to Johnstown for more about Johnstown's immigration history and when various ethnic groups settled here).

Polish immigrants speak through Josef, age 12, a peasant boy, and a 21-year-old Stefan, a migrant farmhand. The Slovaks tell their story through the peasant girl Anna, age 9, and Prokop, a butcher who is 29. Or you may tour with Andrej, a 24-year-old Bohemian farmhand or Katerina, age 30, a goose farmer from Hungary. Then again, you may choose to experience the life of 19-year-old Maria, an Italian peasant, or Mosha, a 36-year-old shopkeeper from Russia.

The story begins in the Old Country, where you'll learn about the countries and conditions the immigrants were leaving. The exhibit then moves to an interactive video display where you can experience what it was like to be questioned at Ellis Island. Nearby, an exhibit room creates the sights and sounds of a busy railroad station where a panoramic video depicts the newcomers disembarking from trains in Johnstown and being reunited with friends and family.  


In "The Neighborhood of 1907," recent immigrants living in tenements discuss pressing topics of their daily lives - if a family's 12-year-old son should go to work in the mines, how to divide a steelworker's meager pay, an accident in the steel mill, or joyful plans for a daughter's wedding. Other audio-visual exhibits depict a bar mitzvah, a Ukrainian wedding, and an Italian funeral. The neighborhood exhibit also includes a butcher shop, a steamship agent's office, a boarding house, an ethnic social club, and a store that was the forerunner to Glosser Brothers Department Store, a Johnstown landmark for many years. 


In addition, interactive exhibits give you a taste of life and work in the steel mills and coal mines. One coal-mining exhibit depicts a mining accident, while another gives you the chance to try working at the picking tables, separating rock from coal. You'll see the flames and sparks in the open-hearth steel furnace exhibit and become bystanders to an argument between management and an immigrant worker expressing his mounting frustration with immigrant working conditions. (See A History of Steel in Johnstown and A History of Coal in Cambria County for more on the histories of these industries). 


One of the concluding elements of the exhibition is the Generations Theater, which features videotaped interviews with the children and grandchildren of Johnstown immigrants. These current and former Johnstown residents talk about how it was for their ancestors to build a life in a new world, and also speak about issues common to the second generation: getting an education, moving out of the settlement neighborhood, and marrying outside one's nationality group. 


The exhibition invites you to share your own story as well through the use of four interactive computers, called "History Jukeboxes." The "jukebox" records your voice and image, then adds the story to the archives for future reference, to be shared with others and to become part of Johnstown's history. 


Second and Fifth Floor Galleries

The second and fifth floor galleries of the Heritage Discovery Center are devoted to temporary and traveling exhibits. See the navigation bar to the left to find out more about what's currently being shown!

In addition, the second floor gallery may be rented for private parties, wedding receptions, business workshops, dinners or any kind of special event. Click here to find out more about facility rentals, including catering and setup options.

Iron & Steel Gallery

New! The Iron & Steel Gallery is a spectacular three-story gallery devoted to the story of the steel industry. Currently a photography exhibit, "Steel: Made In Pennsylvania," is displayed. On June 15, 2009, we premiered a multimedia film presentation, "The Mystery of Steel," in the gallery's theater. Visit the Iron & Steel Gallery page on this website for more about this exciting new part of the Heritage Discovery Center.

Man of Steel

The "Man of Steel" was created by steelworkers Charles Zilch, Dennis Waltz, Larry Ramach and Robert Scarsella in 1989. Originally, the project was a lark, imitating the work of sculptor James Wolfe, who was then creating a series of sculptures in Johnstown. Mounted on the remains of the "H" blast furnace in the Franklin Mills, the 12-foot sculpture soon took on a much larger meaning, representing the struggles and triumphs of local steelworkers.

"Look at him again! There is no doubt that he presents a most ragged figure. He is not pleasing to the eye. He has been devastated by flood, ravaged by recession and depression. He has survived the threat and rumor of plant closing. He has endured. Truly he must be Man of Steel," Zilch wrote in a Bethlehem Steel Corporation newsletter dated June 1989.

Zilch passed away in April 2003 of cancer believed to be caused by exposure to toxic levels of asbestos and manganese while on the job. One of his dying wishes was that the "Man of Steel" statue be salvaged and moved to the Heritage Discovery Center. Through the efforts of his family, his wish was realized in October 2003, and today the statue stands outside the Heritage Discovery Center.

History of the Building

In 1907 a large brewery was built in the Cambria City section of Johnstown for the Germania Brewery Company, a local Johnstown brewery. Several brick buildings ringing an interior courtyard were constructed on Sixth Avenue. The tallest building stood five stories and contained the brew house, malting mill, keg dispensary and beer cellars. The bottling plant was located next to the two story brewery office, and a two story brick building housing the cooperage and warehouse stood next to the J.W. Walters Lumber Yard at the end of the courtyard.


The Germania Brewery operated until 1919 when, with the advent of Prohibition, the company sold the building and its equipment to Louis Zang for $38,000. Shortly after, Zang sold the property to the Ferguson Packing Company, for one dollar.

The property passed through several hands before the Cambria County Sheriff seized the property in 1930. Finally, in 1946, the Morris Electric Supply Company acquired the buildings. This business continued until 1970 when it became the Morris Paper Company.

The Johnstown Area Heritage Association purchased the buildings in 1993. The building was identified as the new home for the Heritage Discovery Center because it was an important historic industrial structure tied to the culture of Cambria City, a classic ethnic working class neighborhood that is listed as a National Historic District. After a renovation (see photo), the buildings were opened as the Heritage Discovery Center in 2001. This renovation included the first two floors of the building

In 2008-2009, Phase II of the building's development was completed, and the third, fourth and fifth floors of the building were renovated. New amenities in the Heritage Discovery Center include the Johnstown Children's Museum, the Ethnic Social Club, Galliker's Cafe, and Iron & Steel Gallery.

"America: Through Immigrant Eyes" is just one of the attractions in the Heritage Discovery Center. The Johnstown Children's Museum opened on the third floor in 2009. Other new facilities include the seasonally-open Galliker's Cafe, and the Iron & Steel Gallery featuring the "Mystery of Steel" multimedia presentation. Plan to see them all on your visit!

Further Visitor Information

JAHA encourages you to visit the Johnstown Discovery Network and Visitor Resources section of this Web site for information about the Johnstown Discovery Network, a linked system of attractions (including the Heritage Discovery Center) and historic districts within a mile of downtown Johnstown. You'll also find information about other attractions in the area, touring routes, maps, accommodations, A Walking Tour of Cambria City and much more.