Education: Heritage Discovery Center

Johnstown Area Heritage Association
Primary Source: Photo Gallery

Historic Cambria City Walking Tour Guide

Cambria City National Historic District

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These photographs, which were taken in modern Cambria City (from 2004-2006), contain many clues that reveal how its earlier immigrant residents lived. As you walk through the streets or browse through the photos, look for ways ethnic groups banded together to make a life in their new home: traditions, events, organizations, or places to help new immigrants feel like they belonged. Then look for clues to how today's residents keep their heritage alive -- and how they've moved on.

Click on the images below to view a larger image. To help you see as much as possible from these photographs, use the tool "Reading a Photograph."

Cambria City is one of the oldest immigrant workers neighborhoods in Johnstown.  Established in 1853 across the Conemaugh River from the Cambria Iron Works, the small ten-block community became the final destination for successive waves of German, Irish, Slovak, Croatian, Hungarian, Polish and other immigrant groups coming to work in the mills, mines, and coking ovens in western Pennsylvania.

Over the period 1850 to 1910, thousands of immigrants came, many through pre-arranged channels set up by company or steamship agents on both continents.  They settled in Cambria City in housing patterns established by immigrants who came before them, most renting rooms in homes or small hotels and boarding houses. They established social clubs and societies to preserve their culture and language. From those, they built their own churches in Old World styles and conducted services in Old World languages and customs.  Generation after generation were married in their parish churches and buried in their parish cemeteries.

Today the Cambria City National Historic District stands as a vibrant illustration of the strong cultural and religious ties that bound together a community of workers through the transitions of the Industrial Revolution.  Its mosaic of active churches, buildings, and single and double houses reminds us of the connections between past and present. 

This Walking Tour Guide encourages visitors to meander slowly through Cambria City and reflect on the cultural heritage it represents.

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Map of Cambria City

1-4 St. Columba’s Roman Catholic Church (1914)

Corner of Tenth Avenue and Broad Street.

St. Columba’s includes four historic structures along Tenth Avenue between Broad Street and Chestnut. The first church building, St. Columba’s I (3), was constructed on the corner of Tenth Avenue and Chestnut Street in 1888 to serve the English-speaking community of lower Johnstown, at that time predominantly but not exclusively made up of Irish immigrants. It was designed to serve as both church and school for the parish until the permanent church was built on the corner of Broad Street and Tenth Avenue. It was one of the few structures in Cambria City to withstand the Great Flood of 1889 and served as a morgue and relief station for survivors.

The Convent (4), built in 1900 to house the nuns who served the St. Columba school, is no longer standing. The Rectory (2) was constructed behind the church facing Broad Street between 1888 and 1890, leaving the corner lot open for the construction of the permanent church.

Finally, the current church, St. Columba’s II (1), was constructed 1913-1914 next to the Rectory. It has a cruciform exterior (in the shape of a cross) and was built in the Lombard-Romanesque style. It has an imposing four-story Italian-style octagonal bell tower on its west side. Its south entrance is flanked by large columns holding statues of Saints Peter and Paul. Its stained glass windows commemorate Irish Saints Bridget and Patrick. The beautiful mural over the altar was painted by F. B. Lieftucher in 1919. The church was designed by Pittsburgh architect John T. Cornes (1876-1922), who also designed St. Mary’s (22-23). The parish is named for the Irish Saint Columcille (Columba) from the 6th century.

5. Greiner House (circa 1890)

Corner of Ninth Avenue and Chestnut Street.

Albrecht Greiner was a German stonemason who arrived in Cambria City about 1882. He built this house shortly after the Flood of 1889.

6. Hungarian Reformed Church (1902)

Corner of Ninth Avenue and Chestnut Street.

Hungarian workers from the Cambria Iron Company who lived in Cambria City formed a congregation in 1896 and worshipped at St. John’s United Church of Christ in Johnstown. In 1901 they built their own church, which was dedicated the next year. The building immediately behind the church along 9th Avenue originally housed the Board of Home Missions of the Reformed Church. In 1980, the congregation merged with the Windber Hungarian Reformed Church and the bells from the Windber Church, as well as its cornerstone, are displayed behind the church.

8. Wass House (circa 1892)

813 Chestnut Street.

Grey and light grey. John Wass, a miner, and his family immigrated to Cambria City from Germany about 1869, living in rental housing along Power Street. His son, also named John, and his wife Eva purchased this property and built this house on 1891. Census records from 1900 indicate the Wasses had five children and took in at least one boarder in this house. They were parishioners of Immaculate Conception Church. The house passed to the third generation of the Wass family before it was sold to Andrew Migas, a Slovakian steelworker, in 1938.

Additional Houses on Chestnut Street

9. St. Rochus Croatian Catholic Church (1901)

Corner of Chestnut Street & 8th Avenue

Corner of Eighth Avenue and Chestnut Street. The St. Rochus Society was founded in 1894, splitting off from the St. Stephen’s congregation and building their own church in 1908, and constructed a school building and convent (“Hrvatska Skol Svroka”) next to the church at 719 Chestnut in 1912-1913. More recently a small rectory was built behind the church along Eighth Avenue.

First Catholic Slovak Band Building

716 Chestnut Street

One of many ethnic bands in Johnstown, the First Catholic Slovak Band organized itself in1891. Later it moved into this building on Chestnut Street.

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