Education: Heritage Discovery Center

Johnstown Area Heritage Association

How Johnstown Made its Living, Part 2

Engraving of early mill buildings with smoke rising against a backdrop of hills

Cambria Iron Company in 1854, soon after it was built. Notice the train running between the mill and the river and another on the bridge. The black smoke coming from the mill and the trains is from burning coal.

The Age of Rails, Coal, and Steel

Not long after the canal was finished, a huge transportation revolution started that would permanently change the entire nation, not just Johnstown.

The Pennsylvania Railroad (PRR) followed the route of the canal, so Johnstown was still an important transportation hub. It soon became much more important to the railroad than just being a stop along the tracks.


Finally getting the railroad over the mountains to connect Philadelphia and Pittsburgh in 1852 was just the beginning. Soon a web of rails covered the whole state. In 1850 Pennsylvania had about 2700 miles of railroad tracks. In 1910 that number had grown to 12,000 miles of track! The Pennsylvania Railroad employed more people in Pennsylvania than any other company.

Railroads brought raw materials like timber, coal, and iron ore to factories. Then they would take the products of the factories, like lumber, oil, steel, and machines and deliver them all over the United States.

Railroads had their own boomtowns, too. The Pennsylvania Railroad created the town of Altoona at the base of the mountains. It built huge workshops there to repair its trains.

The Pennsylvania Railroad was not the only railroad in the state. The Baltimore and Ohio also came through Johnstown. But the "Pennsy" (the PRR's nickname) had more miles of track in Pennsylvania than all the others put together, plus it carried passengers and freight all over the eastern United States. In fact, the Pennsy became the largest railroad in the United States!

As powerful and important as railroads were, they couldn't survive without at least two other big industries. Railroads needed lots of steel to make tracks and build trains. They needed thousands of tons of coal to run steam locomotives. And of course, they needed freight to ship!


It is no coincidence that the Cambria Iron Company started in 1852, the same year that the Pennsylvania Railroad crossed the mountains to connect the state. As we've seen, making iron involves moving heavy loads of raw materials and shipping finished products too heavy for wagons. Building a mill by a railroad solved those problems.

Black and white photo of workers taking a break in front of the mill
Workers at the Cambria Iron rolling mill lean against a stack of steel rails soon to become more railroad track. This photo was taken in 1870 when Cambria Iron made more steel rails than any iron maker in the United States.

While the railroad was solving problems for Cambria Iron, the iron maker was solving problems for the railroad, too. The PRR was made of iron: iron tracks and iron engines made railroads possible. The small iron furnaces out in the woods could never make enough pig iron to supply the fast-growing railroads! New ways of making large batches of iron were needed. Cambria Iron was a pioneer in making huge quantities of iron, and later steel.

Railroads started out using iron rails. But iron sometimes bent or twisted under the weight of moving trains. When that happened, trains came off the rails (derailed), a very dangerous accident. Steel was much stronger, so it didn't bend or twist under the heavy trains. But in the 1850-60s, skilled ironworkers and blacksmiths only made steel in small batches for knife blades and other small tools. Steel was much too expensive for rails.

A Pennsylvanian named William Kelly invented a way to make steel in big batches. He figured out that blowing air through the molten iron, superheated it. When it glowed white-hot, the impurities in the iron were burned away. In 1857 Kelly built his "Kelly Converter" at the Cambria Iron Works in Johnstown. In 1861 Cambria produced the first American-made steel rails! By 1876 the Cambria Iron Company was the nation’s leading steel producer. In 1876 the competition heated up.

In England, Henry Bessemer worked on the same idea as Kelly. His machine, the Bessemer converter, caught the eye of Andrew Carnegie, who worked for the Pennsylvania Railroad. Carnegie decided to bring the Bessemer steel process to Pittsburgh. In 1876 he hired Cambria Iron's steel master, Bill Jones, to build a huge Bessemer steel plant in Braddock outside Pittsburgh.

The railroads were growing so fast that they bought all the steel rails both Cambria and Carnegie could make. Rails weren't the only steel product the fast-developing United States needed. Steel replaced wood and stone in bridges, buildings, ships and boats. Steel built the steam engines that powered the country's factories. Steel barbed wire, like that made by Cambria Iron's Gautier Wire Works, tamed the "wild, wild west" by making long fences inexpensive and easy to set up.

The steel mills ran 24 hours a day, seven days a week, both to keep up with demand and to keep the furnaces going. If they were allowed to go cold, it took days for them to get hot enough again to melt iron ore. Cambria Iron and Steel Company (as it was now named) kept building new factories up and down the Conemaugh Valley. Even the Great Johnstown Flood of 1889 did not stop steel production for very long. Then, in 1901, the PRR started replacing its wooden freight cars with steel cars. They needed thousands of the new cars, so Cambria built a special "car shop" that could make 40 huge railroad cars a day.

Steel mills filled the Conemaugh Valley for miles! This 1905 shows just one blast furnace (number 7) and the ore yard where the iron ore was stored to feed it day and night.

By 1900, all of Pennsylvania's steel mills together made half of the nation's steel -- more than any other state. Bethlehem Steel, one of eastern Pennsylvania's steel companies, bought Cambria Iron and Steel in 1923. This was the same decade that Johnstown's population reached its peak as a result of the steel boom. In 1880, the Johnstown area's population was 15,000. In the 1920s it peaked at over 65,000 where it stayed for 30 years.


Early settlers found coal in Johnstown's hills in 1825. Right away they began using this black rock that burns for heating and cooking. But getting the coal from the ground was not easy. Many times it was easier just to burn wood instead. That's what the early iron furnaces did, in the form of charcoal, which burned hotter than wood.

The steam engines that came on the scene in the early 1800s used tons of wood and coal to do their work. Luckily, steam engines also helped miners dig deeper for coal and bring coal out of the mines. Larger steam locomotives delivered the coal to customers (and burned a lot of coal themselves!). Coal mining and railroads grew up together.

Black and white photo of coal cars underneath coal tipple
Steel railroad cars pull right under a coal tipple to be loaded. The tracks going into the tipple at the top bring the much smaller coal cars straight from the mine.

Pennsylvania has two kinds of coal. Eastern Pennsylvania has almost all the anthracite coal ("hard coal") in the United States.  Western Pennsylvania's coal is more common. It is called "soft coal" or bituminous. It is much smokier when it burns than anthracite. It also leaves behind much more cinder (just like a wood fire leaves ashes behind).

Bituminous also doesn't burn as hot as anthracite, which was a problem in making steel. Someone discovered that baking coal in a special oven, then cooling it quickly with water, made it burn hotter. This baked coal -- the coal version of charcoal -- is called "coke." Beehive-shaped coke ovens lined up in long rows near the mines.

Coke was just what Cambria Iron needed when it started ironmaking in 1852. To make sure it had enough, it opened its own mine, the Rolling Mill Mine, in 1856. The mine helped make sure they always had a supply of coke, even if other coal companies raised prices or went out of business. Later, it built its own huge coking furnaces that made coke faster than beehive ovens right next to their factories.

To keep up with the rapid growth of its two big customers, railroads and steel, coal mining boomed. In 1899, Cambria and Somerset Counties had 137 mines, which produced 10,694,627 tons of coal and employed 14,873 workers (imagine all of that coal piled up, if there were no railroads to carry it away!).

In 1900 the mines modernized to increase their production even more. Machines replaced picks; motors replaced mules for hauling cars of coal out of the mines. Ventilation fans pulled in fresh air and sucked out dangerous gasses. Still mining was a very dangerous occupation. Just two years later in 1902 an explosion killed 112 miners at the Rolling Mill Mine.

Industries fuel each other

Railroads, steel, and coal came together at just the right time for Johnstown and the rest of Pennsylvania in the late 1800s. Though they were each powerful industries, they needed each other. Taking just one out of this partnership would bring them all down.

Railroads needed…
…Steel for rails, train wheels, cars, bridges;
…Coal as fuel to run the trains and as one of its biggest customers.

Steel companies needed…
… Railroads to bring iron ore, coal and coke, limestone to them; to send steel products to their customers; as their biggest customer for steel;
… Coal to run the furnaces to make steel.

Coal companies needed…
…Steel as its main customer;
…Railroads as customers and to help them reach their markets in the cities and mills

Black and white photo of trains carrying carloads of coal and limestone with blast furnace and mill in background
This photo of Cambria Iron and Steels blast furnace #8 taken in 1906 shows how closely trains, coal, and steel worked together!

Decline of steel and coal

Suddenly (at least it seemed sudden at the time), in the 1980s, things started going very wrong in the heavy industries that had made Pennsylvania strong. The steel and coal industries were in trouble. Businesses weren't ordering Pennsylvania steel anymore. They could get cheaper steel from other states and countries with more modern factories.

No one realized it at the time, but the problems had started many years before. During the war, southern and western states had built brand new steel mills. Other countries rebuilt all new factories after the war. All the "new" technologies the Pennsylvania steel mills had invested in years ago weren't new anymore. It would cost too much and take too long to replace them with new equipment.

Coal was no longer king. To clean up the air, natural gas or oil instead of coal was heating houses in most of the state. Nuclear plants, rather than coal, were making one-third of the state's electricity now.

Looking back at the timeline of Johnstown's history, it seems easy to see big changes coming, at least in transportation:

Faster than anyone dreamed, the mines and mills closed, too. Instead of smoke and fire lighting up the night, there was quiet. Thousands of workers lost their jobs. Where else could they go?

In 1973, Bethlehem Steel employed 11,800 workers. Less than ten years later, they only employed 2,100. Ten years after that Bethlehem Steel Corporation went out of business completely, not just in Johnstown, but everywhere.

Blackand white photo of mean in work clothes walking out of plant gate
Steelworkers leaving Bethlehem Steel mill for the last time in 1988.

Some workers trained for new jobs. Some moved to other states to find jobs. Other jobs suffered too. Who could buy at the stores if they didn't have jobs? How could restaurants stay in business if half of their customers move a way? When the 1977 Flood hit Johnstown, some businesses weren't able to recover from both economic damage and flood damage. It was a very hard time for everyone.

The Future

Joseph Johns never imagined the canal and Portage Railway, and moved away from Johnstown before they made it a prosperous town. Canal workers surely thought they were doomed when the railroad came to town. But Johnstown hadn't even made its first steel when the Canal and Portage Railway went out of business. Certainly no one thought Johnstown could rebuild after the Great Johnstown Flood of 1889.

But Johnstowners survived each of these changes and thrived afterwards. Those ancestors are great inspiration as Johnstown goes through its latest changes. What will the future be like? That's one question you can help decide!

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