Education: Heritage Discovery Center

Johnstown Area Heritage Association

How Johnstown Made its Living

black and white drawing of Johnstown in 1840

Engraving of Johnstown as it looked in 1840. The Pennsylvania Mainline Canal basin can be seen to the left of the tree.

At the Beginning

Joseph Johns Settles Conemaugh Old Town

In 1794, when Joseph Schantz (Johns) settled down to build a village between the Little Conemaugh and Stoneycreek Rivers, he had no way of knowing the tremendous changes that would happen to his town in the next 200 years! The place was called "Conemaugh Old Town," the name of the old Indian trading village that used to be there.

He hoped it would become the county seat, which would attract craftspeople and other tradespeople. After Ebensburg became the seat of Cambria County instead, Joseph Johns moved on and sold his village to Peter Levergood in 1807.

Levergood's village stayed small. Most of the very few settlers in Cambria County started farms on whatever land they could buy that wasn't too steep for farming. Land flat enough for farming was scarce around Conemaugh Old Town, so Peter Levergood's town remained a small village -- a mountain trading post -- until the 1830s.


In 1800 at least 90% of all Pennsylvanians farmed. In the eastern part of the state, the farms were successful enough that farmers were able to produce much more than they needed. They shipped their "surplus" to towns and cities and sold it there to craftspeople who didn't farm.

Black and white photo of narrow dirt road through the woods, showing wagon ruts

A typical road during the 1800s: narrow, dirt, and rutted with wagon wheel tracks.

The farms in these remote mountain areas were much different, "subsistence" farms. A single family owned and ran the farms and worked the land hard just to feed themselves. They were almost completely self-sufficient -- everything they ate or wore, they grew, gathered, or made themselves. Or they did without. They did not have much surplus, if any, to sell.

Farms grew many different crops, including wheat, corn, vegetables, and fruit, and raised chickens, sheep, milk cows, and beef cattle. Lumber from the trees on the farm turned into log houses with hand-made furniture. Wool from the sheep and flax grown in the fields was spun into yarn and knitted or woven into fabric. It was hard work and all of it was down by muscle power, either human or animal.

At first farmers didn't have much extra ("surplus") to sell. As soon as possible, though, successful farmers tried to grow more than they needed and used the surplus to buy things. The few things farmers couldn't make themselves, they bought from the other 10% of residents who didn't farm.

Most non-farmers in the early 1800s made their living as craftspeople or merchants (a very few others were lawyers, ministers, doctors, and other professionals).

Crafts and trades

Making some things required special tools and skills that farmers didn't have. Professional craftspeople spent many years as "apprentices" learning from a "master" how to turn raw materials into useful objects. A farmer could put up a log house and make simple furniture with an ax, saw, chisels, and other simple tools. But it took special training and tools to make wooden storage barrels like a "cooper" did. Other specialized woodworkers had their own jobs: turners made bowls, rolling pins, and spindles on a lathe; carpenters framed houses; cabinetmakers made fine furniture; cartwrights and wheelwrights made wagons and their wheels.

The miller was especially important to farmers. Gristmills ground corn and wheat into meal and flour, taking some of the grain in payment. Then they could sell the flour to other craftspeople who also weren't farmers.

Other skilled craftworkers included blacksmiths, potters, and glassblowers. Blacksmiths forged knives, pots and pans, nails, horseshoes, and other practical tools out of "pig iron" they bought from the local ironmaster.

To be near transportation and customers to buy their products, most craftspeople settled in towns. If a town's transportation wasn't good, it probably didn't attract many craftspeople. Until about 1830, that was the situation in Conemaugh Old Town.


Whatever products they couldn't buy from local craftspeople, merchants imported from other places, like Philadelphia or Baltimore, to sell in stores (retail merchants) or directly to other businesses (wholesale merchants).

Transportation was still a big problem, though! Merchants faced one huge challenge getting products to sell from the East: The Allegheny Mountains. Like farm labor, travel on land used just one power source: muscles, either human or animal. Muscles get tired and have to rest. They can only go so fast. Horses or oxen pulling a Conestoga wagon traveled at a walk, about 3 ½ - 4 miles an hour, about 15-20 miles per day. The dirt roads turned to mud in the spring. Wagons sank into ruts up to their axels. The roads were choked with dust in the summer. Even in the winter and fall, a teamster hauling freight across the state from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh in a wagon took three weeks!

Passenger travel was a little speedier. Stagecoaches went faster (6 miles per hour) by carrying less weight and changing horse teams every 12-15 miles. They traveled about 50 miles in one day or six days to cross the state. Passengers got out and walked up long hills and pushed if the wheels got stuck in the mud! At the end of the day, stagecoaches stopped at inns and taverns where passengers ate and spent the night.

Transportation problems = manufacturing opportunities

black and white photo of stone furnace, woman in dress standing in front
The ruins of an old iron furnace at Millcreek. Even though this photograph was taken over 100 years ago, the furnace hadn't been used in such a long time that trees are growing out of its top! The woman standing in front of the furnace helps show its size. Compare its size with some the later blast furnaces at Cambria Iron and Steel.

The transportation problems had some benefits, too. The high cost of bringing goods from the East encouraged western Pennsylvania towns to manufacture  for themselves. Heavy or breakable products like iron or glass were cheaper  to make here, because they were very expensive to ship across the mountains.

Ironmasters built their tall stone furnaces out in the country to be close to large supplies of wood to make into charcoal fuel that burned hot enough to melt iron ore and limestone. When the molten iron was ready, it flowed out into a row of molds that looked like piglets nursing. The iron bars of "pig iron" were sold to blacksmiths to be reheated and hammered into "wrought iron" tools.

When the supply of wood ran out, they moved their furnaces further into the forests. You can still see one of the iron furnaces from this era at Vintondale: The Eliza Furnace, right on the Ghost Town Trail. Furnaces like these produced small batches of iron, just enough to keep local blacksmiths supplied.

Canal Days

Travel on water was, and still is, much easier, and therefore, much cheaper, than land travel. Unlike traveling on roads, floating on water was friction-free -- that is, if the boat was traveling the same direction as the current. Traveling against the current using only muscle power (all that was available in the early 1800s before steamboats) was a lot of work!

Unfortunately for Johnstown, its rivers were shallow, swift, and rocky -- not the best water roadways. But help was on the way!

Pennsylvania Mainline Canal

Black and white photo of flat canal boats in a still pool of water

Canal boats docked in the canal basin (pool) in Johnstown.

In the late 1700s and early 1800s, business people were frustrated with the condition of the roads and the fact that rivers didn't go everywhere (and they had the nasty habits of flooding in the spring, drying up in the summer, and freezing in the winter!). They started thinking about a solution that would combine the best of roads with the best of waterways: making a river go wherever they needed it to go and make sure it always had enough water in it. Canals did just that, usually by connecting two natural waterways.

Canals are like small artificial rivers dug by workers to be just the right size. They were narrow and not very deep, just enough for two narrow, flat-bottomed canal boats to pass each other. Instead of humans rowing or poling the boats, like on the rivers, mules pulled the boats along by walking on the towpath.

When the land rose or fell, natural rivers have waterfalls or rapids. Canals changed water height using machinery called "locks." On one side of the lock, the water is high. On the other side it is low. When a boat came to a lock, it would be "locked" inside by two gates. Then the water inside the lock would be raised or lowered to the next level. A gate opened to let the boat continue at the new water level. No waterfall!

Canals seemed like a great solution, but would they work in Pennsylvania? Water wouldn't defy gravity and climb those steep mountains! In 1826 Pennsylvanians decided to try. They planned on building the daring Pennsylvania Mainline Canal to connect the canals in the east to the Ohio River system in the west -- over the mountains!

Constructing a canal across Pennsylvania required some amazing building feats. There were tunnels, bridges over the canal, and even bridges of water, called aqueducts, that carried the canal across valleys or rivers.

Allegheny Portage Railroad

The Pennsylvania Mainline followed rivers to weave its way through the mountains in the middle of the state and hills in the west. But one big obstacle remained: How could they make water flow uphill over the Allegheny Mountain ridge between Hollidaysburg and Johnstown? They invented an amazing 37-mile system called the Allegheny Portage Railroad.

They built steep "inclined planes" tracks with cars that cables pulled up and down. When a canal boat reached the mountain, it was loaded onto a car and hauled up the incline. It traveled on the level for a while until it came to the next incline. When it reached the top, the boat went through a tunnel, then was lowered in the same way down the other side of the mountain. There was a total of ten inclines -- five on each side of the mountain. The last incline on the western side landed canal boats in Johnstown.

When the Portage Railroad was finally finished in 1834, the bumpy three-week wagon trip from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh took only 12 days of smooth sailing. Unfortunately, trying to make water defy gravity was not very economical. The Pennsylvania Mainline Canal never made as much money as the Erie Canal in New York and other flatland canals. It was a great tourist attraction, though! Many visitors traveled the Pennsylvania Mainline just to ride the Portage Railway!

Most importantly for Johnstown (as Conemaugh Old Town was now known), it became an important transportation link. Travelers on the canal might stay overnight or buy a meal. Canal workers moved into town to settle, so craftspeople and businesses moved in to sell to them. By 1835 Johnstown's businesses included a drugstore, a newspaper, a church, and a distillery. By 1840, the town and nearby settlements had a population of 3,000.

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