“Forging a Nation: Johnstown Iron & Steel” to open at Heritage Discovery Center

“Forging a Nation: Johnstown Iron & Steel” to open at Heritage Discovery Center

Posted: January 30, 2024 11:21 am

The heyday of big steel in Johnstown is long gone – but its impact on our region’s economy, history and culture is almost impossible to overstate, and steel made here was vital to our nation’s industrial development. Now this history will be preserved and presented for generations to come in a permanent exhibition, “Forging a Nation: Johnstown Iron & Steel” in the Iron & Steel Gallery of the Heritage Discovery Center.

The new exhibition completes the Iron & Steel Gallery, a spectacular three-story space, which opened in 2009 and also features the exhibition “A Steelworker’s Story” and the film “The Mystery of Steel.” “Forging a Nation: Johnstown Iron & Steel,” which is many years in the making, draws extensively from JAHA’s archives and collections, as well as newly-acquired artifacts. The illustrated panels and artifacts tell the history of the industry from the 1700s, from an explanation of why the Johnstown area was suitable for ironmaking all the way through the present.

“The exhibition is essentially a timeline – you walk up a ramp through the three-story gallery, and through the history of the industry,” explained Amy Regan, JAHA’s curator. “It demonstrates just how important Johnstown was in our nation’s industrial history. Many people are surprised to learn that Johnstown had the highest steel production in the nation in the 1870s and was the technological leader in iron and steelmaking at that time, even above Pittsburgh.”

“Museum visitors can expect a first-class movie experience with ‘The Mystery of Steel,’ the original ‘A Steelworker’s Story’ exhibit, and now the new ‘Forging a Nation’ exhibit, which provides a detailed history from the earliest ironmaking in our area to the most modern steelmaking complex in the world in Franklin,” said Tom Leslie, a former steelworker and longtime JAHA volunteer who has been instrumental in assembling and installing the exhibition. “We believe this combination creates one of the finest steel museums in America.”

The dozens of artifacts featured in the exhibition date back to the 1850s, and include items like:

  • A cane presented to John Fulton by Cambria Iron Works Corp. of Engineers from the 1870s, with names of the workers individually carved into it
  • Pre-1889 nails produced by Gautier Steel
  • I-beams from Bethlehem Steel
  • Rail samples from Johnstown’s 3-high rolling mills
  • Mining equipment, including carbide lamps, helmets, and other safety equipment
  • An 1859 “hollow pear” rail from Cambria Iron’s mills
  • Scrip from the Wood & Morrell Company Store
  • A silver vase inscribed “To George Fritz Esq. July 4, 1880,” most likely a going-away gift to Fritz when he left Cambria Iron Company
  • A Slinky toy made by Bethlehem Steel
  • Signage, blueprints, product samples, and many other items from the mills

“As Johnstown moves away from heavy industry, it is important for surviving steelworkers to know that their labors will be remembered for helping to build a company, a city, and a nation,” Leslie said. “Because of the harsh working environment many of our local steelworkers are no longer with us. Their descendants should understand what their parents and grandparents did to provide a better life for their family and community.”

The exhibition describes milestones of the industry locally, including the founding of Cambria Iron; various technological innovations developed in Johnstown; steel strikes of 1919 and 1937; the floods of 1889, 1936, and 1977; 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.

Marcia Kelly, who retired from JAHA in 2020 after a 43-year career with the organization, returned to design the exhibit. JAHA gratefully acknowledges sponsorship from UPMC Health Plan and a grant from the Community Foundation for the Alleghenies, whose support made the exhibition possible.

JAHA members and special guests have been invited to a formal exhibition opening on Sat., Feb. 10. It will begin with short remarks from Patty Carnevali, JAHA president and CEO; Dan Solomon, JAHA board chair; and Tom Leslie. At the opening, JAHA will begin soliciting names and contact information of former steelworkers and others who have a relevant story to tell for an oral history project planned for the summer.

The gallery’s 25-minute film “The Mystery of Steel” tells the story of technological innovations in steel manufacturing that were developed in Johnstown from 1854-1880 through historic photographs, re-enactments and spectacular footage JAHA commissioned Charles Guggenheim to shoot in the local Bethlehem Steel mills before their 1992 closing. The gallery also features the permanent exhibition “A Steelworker’s Story,” which opened in 2015 and includes mill signs, product samples, and steelworkers’ personal effects documenting all four divisions of the Bethlehem Steel Plant in Johnstown – Franklin Works, Gautier Division, Lower Cambria Works, and Rod & Wire Mill, as well as the Conemaugh & Black Lick Railroad.

Admission to the Iron & Steel Gallery is included with admission to the Heritage Discovery Center/Johnstown Children’s Museum, and is free to JAHA members. Docent-led school tours are also available – contact tours@jaha.org for details.

More about the Iron & Steel Gallery