Johnstown if--nay, Johnstown was! -- a busy and industrious place. The people of the town were the employees of the Cambria iron and Steel Company, their families, and small storekeepers. There was not one rich man in the town. Three-quarters of the 28,000 people lived in small frame tenement houses on the flats by the river around the works of the Cambria Company. The Cambria Company owns almost all the land, and the business and professional men and the superintendents of the company live on the hills away up from the creeks. The creeks become the Conemaugh river right at the end of the town, near where the big stone Pennsylvania Railroad bridge crosses the river.
The borough of Johnstown was on the south bank of Conemaugh creek, and the east bank of Stony creek; right in the fork. It had only about a third of the population of the place. it had never been incorporated with the surrounding villages and only part of Johnstown, did not wish to have them consolidated into one city.
Conemaugh was the largest village on the creek between the lake and Johnstown. It is often spoken of as part of Johnstown, though its railroad station is two or three miles up the creek from the Johnstown station. The streets of the two towns run into each other, and the space between the two stations is well built up along the creek. Part of the Cambria iron and Steel Company's works are at Conemaugh, and five or six thousand of the workingmen and their families lived there. The business was done in Johnstown borough, where almost all the stores of Johnstown city were.
The works of the Cambria Company were strung along from here down into Johnstown proper. They were slightly isolated to prevent a fire in one spreading to the others, and because there was not much flat land to build on. The Pennsylvania road runs along the river, and works were built beside it.
Between Conemaugh and Johnstown borough was a string of tenements along the river which was called Woodvale. Possible 3000 workmen lived in them. They were slightly built of wood many of them without cellars or stone foundations. There were some substantially built houses in the borough at the fork. here the flats widen out somewhat, and they have been still further increased in extent by the Cambria Company, which filled up part of the creek beds with refuse and the ashes from their works. This narrowed the beds of the creeks. The made land was not far above the water at ordinary times. Even during the ordinary spring floods the waters rose so high that it flowed into the cellars of the tenements, and at times into the works. The natural land was occupied by the business part of the town, where the stores were and the storekeepers had their residences. The borough had a population of about 9000. On the north bank of the river were at third as many more people living in tenements built and owned by the Cambria Company. Further down, below the junction of the two creeks, along both banks of the Conemaugh river, were about 4000 employees of the Cambria Company and their families. The place where they lived was called Cambria or Cambria City. All these villages and boroughs made up what is known as the city of Johnstown.
The Cambria Company employed about 4000 men in its works and mines. Besides these were some railroad shops, planing mills, flour mills, several banks and newspapers. Only the men employed by the Cambria Company and their families lived on the flats and made ground. The Cambria Company owned all this land, and made it a rule not to sell it, but to lease it. the company put rows of two-story frame tenements close together, on their land close to the works, the cheaper class of tenements in solid blocks, to cheapen their construction. The better tenements were separate buildings, with two families to the house. The tenements rented for from $5 to $15 a month, and cost possibly, on the average, $500 to build. They were all of wood, many of them without cellars, and were built as cheaply as possible. The timbers were mostly pine, light and inflammable. It was not an uncommon thing for a fire to break out and to burn one or two rows of tenements. But the different rows were not closely bunched, but were sprinkled around in patches near the separate works, and it was cheaper for the company to rebuild occasionally than to put up brick houses.
Beside owning the flat, the Cambria Company owned the surrounding hills. In one of the hills is limestone, in another coal, and there is iron ore not far away. The company has narrow-gauge roads running from its mines down to the works. The city was at the foot of these three hills, which meet in a double V shape. Conemaugh creek flowing down one and Stony creek flowing down the other. The hills are not so far distant that a man with a rifle on any one could not shoot to either of the others. they are several hundred feet high and so steep that roads run up them by a series of zigzag grades. Few people live on these hills except on a small rise of ground across the river from Johnstown. In some places the company has leased the land for dwelling houses, but it retains the ownership of the land and of the coal, iron and limestone in it. The flats having all been occupied, the company in recent years had put up some tenements of a better class on the north bank of the river, higher up than the flood reached. The business part of the town also was higher up than the works and the tenements of the company.
In normal times the river is but a few hundred feet wide. The bottom is stony. The current is so fast that there is little deposit along the bank. It is navigable at no time, though in the spring a good canoeist might go down it if he could steer clear of the rocks. In the summer the volume of water diminishes so much that a boy with a pair of rubber boots can wade across without getting his feet wet, and there have been times when a good jumper could cross the river on the dry stones. Below Johnstown, after Stony creek has joined the Conemaugh creek, the volume of water increases, but the Conemaugh throughout its whole length is nothing but a mountain stream, dry in the summer and roaring in the spring, It runs down into the Kiskiminitas river and into the Allegheny river, and then on to Pittsburgh. It is over 100 miles from Johnstown to Pittsburgh following the windings of the river, twice as far as the straight line.
Johnstown was one of the busiest towns of its size in the State. Its tonnage over the Pennsylvania and Baltimore and Ohio roads was larger than the tonnage of many cities three times the size. The Iron and Steel Company is one of the largest iron and steel corporations in the world. It had its main rolling mills, Bessemer steel works, and wire works in Johnstown, though it also has works in other places, and owns ore and coal mines and leases in the South, in Michigan, and in Spain, besides its Pennsylvania works. It had in Johnstown and the surrounding villages 4000 or 5000 men usually at work. In flush times it has employed more than 6000. So important was the town from a railroad point of view that the Baltimore and Ohio ran a branch from Rockwood, on its main line to Pittsburgh, up to Johnstown, forty-five miles. it was one of the main freight stations on the Pennsylvania road though the passenger business was so small in proportion that some express trains do not stop there. The Pennsylvania road recently put up a large brick station, which was one of the few brick buildings on the flats. Some of the Cambria Company's offices were also of brick, and there was a brick lodging house for young in the employ of the company. The Pennsylvania road had repair shops there, which employed a few hundred men, and the Baltimore and Ohio had some smaller shops.
Johnstown had several Catholic and Presbyterian, Methodist, Baptist and Lutheran churches. It had several daily and weekly papers. The chief were the Tribune, the Democrat, and the Freie Presse.
The Cambria Iron Works, the great industry of Johnstown, originated in a few widely separated charcoal furnaces built by pioneer iron workers in the early years of the century. As early as 1803 General Arthur St. Clair engaged in the iron business, and erected the Hermitage furnace about sixteen miles from the present site of Johnstown. IN 1809 the working of ores was begun near Johnstown. These were primitive furnaces, where charcoal was the only fuel employed, and the raw material and product were transported entirely on wagons, but they marked the beginning of the manufacture of iron in this country. The Cambria Iron Company was chartered under the general law in 1852, for the operation of four old-fashioned charcoal furnaces in and near Johnstown, which was then a village of 1300 inhabitants, to which the Pennsylvania railroad had just been extended. In 1853 the construction of four coke furnaces was begun, but it was two years before the first was finished. England was then shipping rails into this country under a low duty, and the iron industry here was struggling for existence. The company at Johnstown was aided by a number of Philadelphia merchants, but was unable to continue in business, and suspended in 1854. At a meeting of the creditors in Philadelphia soon afterward a committee was appointed, with Daniel J. Morrell as chairman, to visit the works at Johnstown and recommend the best means, if any, to save themselves from loss. In his report, Mr. Morrell strongly urged the Philadelphia creditors to invest more money and continue the business. They did so, and Matthew Newkirk was made President of the company. The company again failed in 1855, and Mr. Morrell then associated a number of gentlemen with him, and formed the firm of Wood, Morrell & Co., leasing the works for seven years. The year 1856 was one of great financial depression, and 1857 was worse, and, as a further discouragement, the large furnace was destroyed by fire in June, 1857. In one week, however, the works were in operation again, and a brick building was soon constructed. When the war came, and with it the Morrell tariff of 1861, a broader field was opened up, and in 1862 the present company was formed.
The years following the close of the war brought about an unprecedented revival in railroad building. In 1864 there were but 33,908 miles of railroad in the United States, while in 1874 there were 72,741 miles, or more than double. There was a great demand for English steel rails, which advanced to $170 per ton. congress imposed a duty of $28 a ton on foreign rails, and encouraged American manufacturers to go into the business. The Cambria company begin the erection of Bessemer steel works in 1869, and sold the first steel rails in 1871, at $104 a ton. The had 700 dwelling houses, rented to employees. The works and rolling mills of the company were situated upon what was originally a river flat, where the valley of the Conemaugh expanded somewhat, just below Johnstown, and now part of Millville. The Johnstown furnaces, nos. 1, 2, 3 and 4, formed one complete plant, with stacks 75 feet high and 16 feet in diameter at the base. Steam was generated in forty boilers fired by furnace gas, for eight vertical, direct-acting blowing engines. nos. 5 and 6 blast furnaces formed together a second plant, with stacks 75 feet high and 19 feet in diameter. The Bessemer plant was the sixth started in the United States (July, 1871). The main building was 102 feet in width by 165 feet in length. The cupolas were six in number. blast was supplied from eight Baker rotary pressure blowers, driven by engines 16 x 24 inches at 110 revolutions per minute. The Bessemer works were supplied with steam by a battery of twenty-one tubular boilers. The best average, although not the very highest work done in the Bessemer department, was 103 heats of 8.5 tons each for each twenty-four hours. The best weekly record reached 4847 tons of ingots, and the best monthly record 20,304 tons. The best daily output was 900 tons of ingots. All grades of steel were made in the converters, from the softest wire and bridge stock to spring stock. The open-hearth building, 120x155 feet, containing three Pernot revolving hearth furnaces of fifteen tons capacity each, supplied with natural gas. The rolling mill was 100 feet in width by 1900 feet in length, and contained a 24-inch train of two stands of three-high rolls, and a ten-ton traveling crane for changing rolls. The product of the mill was 80,000 pounds per turn. The bolt and nut works produced 1000 kegs of finished track bolts per month, besides machine bolts. The capacity of the axle shop was 100 finished steel axles per day. The "Gautier steel department" consisted of a brick building 200 x 500 feet, where the wire was annealed, drawn and finished; a brick warehouse 373 x 43 feet, many shops, offices, etc.; the barb-wire mill, 50 x 250 feet, where the celebrated Cambria link barb wire was made, and the main merchant mill, 725 x 250 feet. These mills produced wire, shafting, springs, plough-shares, rake and harrow teeth, and other kinds of agricultural implement steel. In 1887 they produced 50,000 tons of this material, which was marketed mainly in the Western States. Grouped with the principal mills thus described were the foundries, pattern and other shops, draughting offices and time offices, etc., all structures of a firm and substantial character.
The company operated about thirty-five miles of railroad tracks, employing in this service twenty-four locomotives, and owned 1500 cars. To the large bodies of mountain land connected with the old charcoal furnaces additions have been made of ores and coking coals, and the company now owns in fee simple 54,423 acres of mineral lands. It has 600 beehive coke ovens in the Connellsville district, and the coal producing capacity of the mines in Pennsylvania owned by the company is 815,000 tons per year.
In continuation of the policy of Daniel J. Morrell,
the Cambria Iron Company has done a great deal for its employees. The Cambria
Library was erected by the iron Company and presented to the town. The
building was 43 x 68.5 feet, and contained a library of 6914 volumes. It
contained a large and valuable collection of reports of the United States
and the State, and it is feared that they have been greatly damaged. the
Cambria Mutual Benefit Association is composed of employees of the company,
and is supported by it. The employees receive benefits when sick or injured,
and in case of death their families are provided for. The Board of Directors
of this association also controls the Cambria Hospital, which was erected
by the Iron Company in 1866, on Prospect Hill, in the northern part of
the town. The company also maintained a club house, and a store which was
patronized by others, as well as by its employees.