Iron & Steel Gallery

New in 2024 - Forging a Nation: Johnstown Iron & Steel!

The Iron & Steel Gallery is a spectacular 3-story gallery that evokes the feeling of an industrial space. It was added to the Heritage Discovery Center in 2009, during the second phase of the building’s renovation. Today it includes three major attractions:

  • “Forging a Nation: Johnstown Iron & Steel” exhibition is new in 2024 and showcases the history of steel and related industries in Johnstown from the 1700s through the present.
  • “The Mystery of Steel” film, which premiered in 2009, is shown in a theater at the bottom of the 3-story gallery and documents Johnstown’s role in the early steel industry, 1854-1880.
  • “A Steelworker’s Story” exhibition opened in 2015 and includes signs, product samples, and personal effects from steelworkers.

Read more about each element of the gallery below.

"Forging a Nation: Johnstown Iron & Steel" exhibition

The permanent exhibition “Forging a Nation” is essentially a timeline that winds its way up the three-story ramp in the Iron & Steel Gallery. It traces the story of steel in Johnstown from its earliest days in the 1700s, beginning with explanation of why the area was suitable for steelmaking, through the present using interpretive panels, historic photography, and artifacts.

It describes milestones like the founding of Cambria Iron, various technological innovations developed in Johnstown, steel strikes of 1919 and 1937, the heyday of Bethlehem Steel, World Wars I and II, and the decline of the industry here. A great deal of coal mining history is included in the exhibition, as coal mining was integral to the steel industry.

We gratefully acknowledge UPMC Health Plan and the Community Foundation for the Alleghenies, whose support was instrumental in the creation of this exhibition.

Visit Johnstown produced a video preview of the exhibition, seen below:

"The Mystery of Steel"

“The Mystery of Steel,” a 25-minute film that documents Johnstown’s role in the early steel industry, premiered in 2009 and is shown in a theater at the bottom of the 3-story gallery. It includes historic photographs, re-enactments and spectacular high-definition footage JAHA commissioned Charles Guggenheim to shoot in the local Bethlehem Steel mills before their 1992 closing. The theater is equipped with strategically-placed infrared heaters and low-resolution speakers, so that visitors will feel the heat and rumble of a working steel mill as they view the film.

The film focuses on the period of 1854-1880, and tells the story of some of the key technological innovations developed in Johnstown. David McCullough, the Pulitzer Prize-winning historian and author of The Johnstown Flood wrote, “There is no question about the importance of the old Cambria Iron Works. The age of steel in America can fairly be said to have begun there.”

Permanent seating for the theater was installed in January 2010 — pews from the now-closed St. Joseph’s Catholic Church of Johnstown, which was located on Railroad Street, by the Gautier mills.

"A Steelworker's Story"

In February 2015, a new portion of the exhibition, “A Steelworker’s Story,” opened in the gallery. Guest curator Tom Leslie (pictured above), who worked in the mill from 1974-1992, collected the items in the exhibition, which include signs, product samples, and personal effects such as safety glasses and lunchboxes. The artifacts document all four divisions of the Bethlehem Steel Johnstown Plant — Franklin Works, Gautier Division, Lower Cambria Works, and Rod & Wire Mill. The Conemaugh & Black Lick Railroad division is also included. Photos courtesy of Park Cover.

Below, Tom gives a virtual tour of the exhibition.

We gratefully acknowledge UPMC Health Plan for their support of “A Steelworker’s Story.”