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Vandergrift Historical Marker
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Name:
Vandergrift

Region:
Laurel Highlands/Southern Alleghenies

County:
Westmoreland

Marker Location:
E. Lawn, Municipal Bldg. Washington Ave.

Dedication Date:
May 17, 1990

Behind the Marker

Photograph of George G. McMurtry, head and shoulders.
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George G. McMurtry, president of the Apollo Iron and Steel Company, circa 1906.
"It is a new thing to begin a town with all these public improvements," bragged the booster brochure Vandergrift Ready. "Here . . . all you have to do is buy your lot and build your house and you own your share of it all."

When lots in Vandergrift went on the market in 1896, George G. McMurtry, president of the Apollo Iron and Steel Company, knew what he wanted: a model town, loyal employees, and a profitable steel mill. McMurtry began the town from scratch and installed water, sewage, paving, and lighting before the first house was built. Loyal employees from the firm's old iron mill in nearby Apollo bought the first lots and built the first houses. And the financial success of new town's steel mill propelled McMurtry into the top management of the United States Steel Corporation.

The chorus of praise Vandergrift received over the years from, among others, reformer markerIda Tarbell, suggests McMurtry largely achieved his dreams. Yet a close inspection reveals how the original vision for the town was transformed as well as whom and what his model town left out.

Postcard of the American Sheet and Tin Plate Co. Mill, Vandergrift, PA, circa 1910.
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Postcard of the American Sheet & Tin Plate Co. Mill, Vandergrift, PA, circa...
Vandergrift took form in the 1890s when the Apollo Iron Company, a mile up the Kiskiminetas River, ran into two serious problems. The company's expanding tin-plate mill, built in 1855, had run out of room. Its early experiments with making steel were promising, but the company lacked space to build a full-scale plant.

Equally serious, the steel experiments provoked a bitter strike and lockout during 1893 - 94. Steel mills required just half the number of skilled rollers - men who guided bars of iron or steel through the rolling trains - and they entirely dispensed with highly skilled iron puddlers, long known as the "aristocrats" of the iron industry for their independent ways. Building an entirely new mill and an entirely new mill town, both free of the skilled workers' markerAmalgamated Association, offered a neat solution. The new town was named for markerJacob Jay Vandergrift, the famed Allegheny River steamboat captain whose fortune was made shipping oil from northeastern Pennsylvania.

Building a successful model town was no simple task. Classic company towns dotted the Pennsylvania countryside, but by the 1890s these were notorious for poor living conditions and high living costs. Pullman, Illinois, the country's best known "model industrial town," suffered through a bitter labor dispute in 1894: Pullman had squeezed its workers by lowering wages in a recession but not house rentals.

In April 1895 George McMurtry sought out Frederick Law Olmsted to design a town with attractive living conditions and where residents would own their houses, not rent them. Olmsted turned over the work to his partner and his son. Olmsted, the designer of New York's Central Park and the landscaping for Chicago's 1893 World's Fair, had never designed a town for workers. His best-known town was the planned suburb of Riverside, Illinois.

One can still see the imprint of upscale Riverside in Olmsted's original plan for Vandergrift, which featured large lots, wide curved streets, an expansive village green to provide "a suitable center of focus," and no less than twenty-nine restrictive covenants. In the Olmsted plan, all houses, which started at a pricey $1,500, had to be approved by a design board. And there was to be no subdividing of lots, no tenement houses, no alley houses, and no high fences or hedges.

Architectural plan for Vandergrift by Olmsted and Eliot, 1896.
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Architectural plan for Vandergrift by Olmsted and Eliot, 1896.
Something of the Olmsted's original plan survives today, sharply modified by George McMurtry's conviction that the new town was not merely a model town but also a business proposition. McMurtry sliced the fifty-foot-wide lots in half, neatly doubling the number of lots and the number of employees who might move in. He trimmed the village green to make more room for his new steel mill. And while he retained their distinctive curved streets, he scrapped the Olmsted's roll call of restrictions. Each property deed included just one: no making or selling of alcohol.

McMurtry stamped the town with one more personal touch: the Olmsted's romantic vision of residents strolling down Chestnut Road or Elderberry Road was altered, as he wrote, so that "patriotism and proper pride of country might be fostered and encouraged." Vandergrift's streets are named after such "statesmen and commanders in American history" as Washington, Franklin, Lafayette, Hamilton, Lincoln, and Custer.

Loyal workers flocked to purchase lots in the newly platted, paved, and watered town of Vandergrift when lots went on sale in 1896. In the first week of sales, they snapped up 276 lots. In six months, the company had sold two-thirds of the town's lots and recovered nearly its entire investment.

Typically, superintendents, older craftsmen, and clerical workers bought the more expensive lots on upper Grant and Washington avenues; younger craftsmen and operatives bought cheaper lots closer to the mill on Farragut and Columbia; while merchants took up lots nearest the mill. Commercial and residential uses mingled. For instance, three men who were replacement rollers during the 1893-94 Apollo lockout -Joseph T. Dogherty, Ardesco Bright Cochran, and John Johnston - bought residential lots on Grant that they later developed into commercial ventures. The company did not allow union members to purchase a plot in town.

Postcard of Columbia Avenue from Sherman, Vandergrift, Pa., circa 1910.
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Postcard of Columbia Avenue from Sherman Street, Vandergrift, PA, circa 1910.
The imperatives of running a large steel mill altered McMurtry's original vision. Unskilled and semiskilled workers from southern and eastern Europe, needed in the steel mill, poured in to new districts surrounding the original core and wrecked the town's image as an exclusively "American" community. Corporate business in New York engaged McMurtry's time and attention after the 1901 U.S. Steel merger absorbed his firm.

Vandergrift became something of a "model" within U.S. Steel, influencing the corporation's new model town of Gary, Indiana and reinforcing its anti-union culture. One union organizer, in Vandergrift to discuss "the question of [union] organization" in July 1909, testified that after he was whacked on the head with a broom handle, and his colleague struck with a knife, "we were then placed on a train with a warning never to return."

Today, you can see the various historical layers of Vandergrift with a walk round its neighborhoods. At the historic center stands the Olmsted-designed core with its curved streets and ample lots. Walk along Sherman in the curve to Franklin and you trace the 850-foot-high land contour the Olmsted's followed. Superintendents and the better-off skilled workers lived in the district's handsome Victorian houses, often taking in a boarder to make ends meet. Olmsted's original village green and park stretched between the Casino and the railroad station.
City street.
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Tree lined street in Vandergrift, PA, circa 1940.


In Vandergrift Heights, built expressly for the company's semi-skilled workers, the square street grid packs in more lots; residents paid just $150 for a lot (one-fifth that in the Olmsted core) but it had only water service. Its street names invoke the giants of American literature. Unskilled laborers, mostly central and eastern European immigrants who could afford nothing else, crammed into tiny plots in East Vandergrift (Morning Sun). For years, a fourteen-foot-tall whitewashed fence, running along the back of Franklin Avenue's lots, kept Morning Sun residents from taking shortcuts through the upper town when walking to the mill.

Vandergrift, like other steel towns experienced prosperous times through the middle decades of the twentieth century. Its residents' houses were freshly painted and their cars were the newest models. But like other steel towns, it suffered in the 1980s. U.S. Steel (then USX Corporation) closed the Vandergrift mill in June 1988. Jobs did not return even when Allegheny-Ludlum reopened the mill for rolling special sheet orders.

Vandergrift's future now relies on its heritage as a historic model town. One certain success has been the saving of the town's Casino, not merely the site of a 600-seat theater, the town's offices, and its public library, but also a crucial element in the original Olmsted plan.
 
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