Education: Heritage Discovery Center

Johnstown Area Heritage Association
Primary Source: Photo Gallery

Coal and Steel Company Towns

Taking Care or Taking Hostage?

In the late 1800s, Cambria Iron, and later Cambria Steel, grew so quickly that it seemed to always need to hire new workers. Many immigrated to Johnstown from Europe just to find work in the mills.

Finding places for all the newcomers to live was a challenge. Single men often lived in boarding houses run by another millworker's wife. Families were more of a challenge. Property owners didn't want to rent to low-wage-earners who might not be able to pay the rent.

The company solved the problem by building inexpensive housing for millworkers to rent close to the mills. Why weren't they worried about low-paid workers not paying their rent? Because they could deduct the rent from their paychecks! The houses were close together to save space in the crowded city neighborhoods.

Coal companies also had to build houses for their workers, but for different reasons. Mines had to be built where the coal was, which was usually in rural areas, often in the "middle of nowhere." Even if the miners could afford to buy or rent, there weren't any houses for miles around!  The coal company had to build a whole town for its workers. In the "patch towns," as they were called, houses, schools, and churches were built right next to the mine. The company even built a store for employees. That could be a mixed blessing.


  • What were some of the advantages of living in a company town? What were some of the disadvantages?
  • What were the advantages and disadvantages for the company?

The song "Sixteen Tons" about being a coal miner, has the chorus:

You load sixteen tons, and what do you get?
Another day older and deeper in debt!
Saint Peter, don't you call me, 'coz I can't go --
I owe my soul to the company store!

  • How does this miner feel about his job? Why doesn't he feel like he's getting ahead? What does it mean to "owe my soul to the company store"?
  • What happens to coal patch towns when the coal was "mined out"?
  • What towns nearby got their start as coal patches? Why were they able to keep going after the coal company left?

Visit the Ghostown Trail run by the Cambria and Indiana County Trail Association.

Walking or riding a bike along the Ghostown Trail takes you over the path of the railroad that connected a string of coal mines and their patch towns. Dilltown, Vintondale, and Nanty Glo still exist, but many others are completely gone, swallowed up by the woods. Besides markers showing the location of these ex-towns, huge piles of waste coal (called "boney piles) and the remnants of many mining buildings and artifacts line the trail.

Riding a bike along the track is a great way to imagine life in a coal town. Some areas look more like a moonscape than a part of rural western Pennsylvania! What damage did old mining methods do to the environment? If you go, be sure to stop at Vintondale and see the exciting "brownfields" project that is cleaning up the damage while telling the history of mining coal. You'll also see the Eliza Furnace, where iron was made back before the days of steel in Johnstown.

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."

Steel Company Housing


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