Historical Markers
Johnstown [Steel] Historical Marker
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Johnstown [Steel]

Laurel Highlands/Southern Alleghenies


Marker Location:
William Penn Ave. (ST 3037) at N city line

Dedication Date:
October 1, 1947

Behind the Marker

Honorable Daniel Johnson Morrell of Pa.
Daniel Johnson Morrell, circa 1870.
Although Johnstown was named for an early German settler, it might better have been named for steel boss Daniel J. Morrell. For it was Morrell who transformed this small river town in the Allegheny foothills into a major iron and steel center.

Morrell was president of the town's water company, the gas company, two of its banks, and a nearby railroad, as well as a two-term Congressman, a leading figure in the state's Republican party, and, for thirty years undisputed boss of its principal employer, Cambria Iron. Naturally he lived in the town's most luxurious house, its shady lawn with greenhouses and outbuildings taking up a full block on Main Street.

For decades the hills of western Pennsylvania had been dotted with small iron furnaces and forges, beginning with the pioneering markerAlliance Furnace, which worked up the local coal, iron ore, and limestone into tradable iron goods. "Capitalists could hardly find a more eligible situation for starting mammoth furnaces on the largest scale" in Johnstown, noted the state's assistant engineer, one markerJohn Roebling in the 1840s.
A view of Johnstown, from the top of the Inclined Plane at Westmont, by William H. Rau. In the center of the scene is Johnstown Passenger station and The Cambria Iron Works, which later became Bethlehem Steel is at the far left.
A view of Johnstown, from the top of the Inclined Plane at Westmont, by William...

In the early 1850s Morrell arrived in Johnstown, sent on a repair mission by the Philadelphia money-men who were backing Cambria Iron. The Philadelphians liked Johnstown as a superbly situated hub of transport.

Situated at the "head of navigation" on the Conemaugh River, from Johnstown one might float a flatboat downstream to Pittsburgh and from there downriver to New Orleans or by barge and boat to the headwaters of the Ohio River, by canal to Cleveland, and by the Erie Canal all the way to New York City. (Just a few years earlier, in July 1848, a twelve-year-old markerAndrew Carnegie and his family arrived at Pittsburgh from New York on this route.) Johnstown was also where the markerAllegheny Portage Railroad came bumping over the mountains. In 1852 the Pennsylvania Railroad finally established through service from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh, with a convenient station in Johnstown.

Head and shoulders portrait of Captain William R. Jones.
Captain William R. Jones, circa 1885.
It was, indeed, an ideal site for "mammoth furnaces on the largest scale" -only Cambria was losing money. Morrell affected a dramatic turnaround at Cambria. He hired the brilliant engineer markerJohn Fritz who installed a novel "three-high" rail mill that reduced backbreaking labor while boosting rail production.(Fritz later went on to an outstanding career at markerBethlehem Iron.)

In 1867, Cambria's rolling mills made the markerfirst steel rails "for a regular commercial order." Morrell also financed William Kelly's promising, if ultimately inconclusive markersteelmaking experiments. In 1871 Cambria Iron built a state-of-the-art Bessemer steel plant directed by Captain William Jones. Morrell made a serious blunder, though, when he failed to give Jones a well-deserved promotion, and Jones instead took a job marker Andrew Carnegie had dangled before him. Cambria lost not just Jones himself but his crack crew of Bessemer workers as well.

Morrell fashioned Johnstown into a classic company town, in which Cambria Iron really did own the show. Cambria bought thousands of acres surrounding the town, mostly coal properties. It owned the local coke works that fueled its furnaces and the Gautier Steel mill that made its steel into rods, barbed wire, and agricultural implements. The company also built 800 frame houses for its workers, established a company store, built a school, hospital, and library, and in numerous ways structured the life and times of the town.

In 1874, after the company crushed a strike in its coal mines, Cambria issued rules stating that any union man "shall be promptly and finally discharged." Immigrants by the trainload filled up markerCambria City and other worker districts.

Men and boy wire drawers pose with their tools outside a wire factory.
Cambria Steel Company, circa 1890.
In the early 1880s, Morrell joined the elite South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club, which built a handsome clubhouse high up in the mountains on Lake Conemaugh. There a select number of Pittsburgh's leading figures, including Andrew Carnegie, markerHenry Clay Frick, Philander Knox, and Andrew Mellon, having paid a membership fee of $800, enjoyed the mountains' cool air and the lake's fine fishing.
30 acres of debris piled against the stone bridge. Cambria Iron Works is visible behind the bridge.
Debris left behind by the Johnston flood, with the Cambria Iron Works visible...

Andrew Carnegie liked the area so well that he had a summerhouse built in Cresson, a dozen or so miles - upstream - at the very crest of the Alleghenies. To enlarge the lake for their imported bass, the clubmen built a seventy-five-foot tall earthen dam. Morrell and other townspeople were concerned about the integrity of the dam, and for good reason. It failed on May 31, 1889, sending an immense wave of water down the valley and killing more than 2,000 people. Cambria City, the low-lying neighborhood where many workers lived, was utterly devastated.

The great markerJohnstown flood made the town famous, but it was the fortunes of Cambria Iron that built Johnstown before the flood, and quickly rebuilt it after. Having let slip its early technology lead, however, Cambria Iron never fully recovered its former greatness.

In the 1920s, when the town's population peaked at 67,000, Bethlehem Steel bought the Cambria mills. Its decline as a steel center began somewhat earlier than other steel mill towns. Johnstown suffered through urban renewal in the 1950s and 1960s, but more recently has embraced its heritage as a steel mill town. Its Cambria City neighborhood is a full-fledged National Historic District.
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