Historical Markers
Cambria City Historical Marker
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Cambria City

Laurel Highlands/Southern Alleghenies


Marker Location:
418 Broad St., Johnstown

Dedication Date:
September 1, 1994

Behind the Marker

Map showing 1889 flood path from South Fork to Johnstown.
Map of Johnstown, Conemaugh, and Cambria City, 1889.
"The iron ore on the Laurel Hill [over Johnstown] is only waiting for means of transportation to be conveyed to the rich coal basins below, where also limestone is to be had in quantity . . .. Certainly capitalists could hardly find a more eligible situation for starting mammoth furnaces on the largest scale," noted the state's assistant engineer, one markerJohn Roebling, in the 1840s. His prophecy came true. Veins of iron ore, coal, and limestone actually frame an 1853 map of the Cambria Iron Company's new mill in markerJohnstown. There, Cambria Iron built "mammoth furnaces" for making iron and steel. Worker-residents of Cambria City were shoehorned into the flat flood plain between the Conemaugh River and the Pennsylvania Railroad's tracks, downstream from the town of Johnstown and opposite the Cambria mill.

Cambria Iron and Steel Works, Johnstown, Pa.
Cambria Iron and Steel Works, Johnstown, PA, circa 1880.
Some of Cambria City's residents found work in Johnstown's cigar factories, distilleries, breweries, and bottling plants, or the region's coal mines. Most, however, tromped over the Conemaugh River Bridge to the Cambria Iron Works. There the toughest jobs were in the coke works. Forking 40,000 pounds of coke to fill a railroad car paid $1.65 in 1910. A modest step up was tending one of the six giant blast furnaces that smelted iron ore, coke and limestone into molten pig iron. The best jobs were in the rolling mills and steel plant. Cambria was forever proud of being a pioneer in markerrolling rails and in the markerBessemer steel industry In the early 1870s it was briefly the largest steel plant in the country.

It was also in the 1870s that Cambria Iron hired its first immigrants from eastern and central Europe, procured as contract labor from a New York agency. Additional immigrants, mostly Slavic and Magyar, soon arrived to fill the company's swelling labor needs. The company directed most of them, on arrival, to Cambria City. Some settled in Minersville, "surrounded by huge piles of refuse from the furnace," as a report from the early 1880s, described it. Sanitary conditions, even in company tenements, as the same report described, left much to be desired: "Outside privies built upon vaults, and prominently exposed to the view of the passerby, are located near the houses. The drainage is surface, there being no escape for slops and other waste matter."
Damage at the Cambria Iron Works, Johnstown, PA, 1889.

The disastrous markerJohnstown flood of May 31, 1889 inundated low-lying Cambria City. A wall of water twenty-five feet high carrying at least 1,000 dead bodies, hundreds of wood-frame houses, fifty barrels of whiskey, several dozen box cars, numerous horses and sundry wreckage sloshed over the river's flood plain. It carried away at least two-thirds of Cambria City's houses and left along its main street an immense pile of rock and mud Cambria Iron, a bit higher on the opposite bank, fared slightly better. "The [steel plant] yard . . . is the most desolate place here," stated one first-hand account. "The iron works were great, high brick buildings, with steep iron roofs. The ends of these buildings were smashed in, and the roofs bend over where the flood struck them, in a curve."

Almost before the floodwaters had receded, Cambria Iron declared that the mill and the city would be rebuilt in full. The company owned around 800 houses that it rented to workers - so long as they abided by the company's rules. In addition to housing, the company ran the largest and most comprehensive general store in the area. "In case of illness the company physician was called in and his fees paid in orders on the store," according to the Philadelphia Record in 1891. "When there was a wedding or a christening, the company clergyman performed the ceremony."

Tenement row Cambria City.
Cambria City steel mill worker housing, circa 1900.
In the 1870s, immigrants from Wales, Ireland, and Germany already were one-quarter of the city of Johnstown's population. In 1880, when immigrants constituted 40 percent of Johnstown, they made up 85 percent of Cambria City. By 1910, immigrants and their families accounted for more than three-quarters of Johnstown. That year, only 2 percent of the resident immigrants lived outside the "foreign colonies" (as the Census phrased it) of Cambria City, Minersville, Prospect, and Conemaugh. Newcomers hailed from all the countries of eastern and southern Europe. The city of Johnstown peaked at 67,000 residents in 1920. From then on, as Cambria's prominence in steel slipped, the town experienced an early deindustrialization.

Butcher shop workers and shoppers pose outside of two Cambria City butcher shops. Each shop served different ethnic groups.
Butcher shop, Cambria City, circa 1900.
Today, churches still reveal the vibrant diversity of immigrant life and culture. Diverse Catholics found ready communities. Saint Columba's Roman Catholic Church (Tenth Ave. and Broad St.) was home to the Irish; its original building served as a relief station and morgue for the 1889 flood victims. Saint Emerich's (Sixth Ave. and Chestnut) was the Hungarian community's second Catholic church. Saint Casimir's (500-511 Power St.) had its origins as a Polish lodge; coal mining accidents that killed forty adult male lodge members delayed the building of the Romanesque church. With its twin five-story bell towers, Saint Stephen's (Fourth Ave. and Chestnut St.) was home to the largest Slovakian Catholic community in the country. Saint Rochus (Eighth Ave. and Chestnut St.) formed around a Croatian community, which built a church, school and convent. German Catholics went to Immaculate Conception Church (Third Ave. and Broad St.), home of the oldest parish in Cambria City.

Children Ukrainian Ballet Dancers
Ukrainian Ballet Dancers of St. Peter and Paul's Orthodox Church, Johnstown,...
Others besides Roman Catholics also formed tight-knit communities. Saint Mary's Byzantine Catholic Church (401-413 Power St.) was founded by Ruthenians; the typically Byzantine church building is shaped as an equal-sided Greek cross, with a large dome and elaborate brickwork. Saint George's Serbian Orthodox Church (300 Chestnut) was built in 1911 as Saint Mary's Syrian Orthodox Church. The Hungarian Reformed Church (Ninth Ave and Chestnut St.) was built in 1901. Holy Cross Evangelical Lutheran Church (711 Chestnut) formed a congregation in 1914, which held services only in Slovak for many years.

Cambria City was never very large, bounded by the river and steep wooded slopes. Some 2,500 people lived on just twenty-four acres. By the 1940s, many of the old company houses were in a state of decay. One-quarter of the neighborhood's houses lacked running water; their residents still used outhouses. Urban renewal in the 1950s and 1960s demolished the homes and businesses south of Broad Street. Today the Heritage Discovery Center in the old Germania Brewery anchors the National Historic District ten blocks long and three blocks wide. Johnstown's population is roughly half the size of the booming steel mill town in its heyday.
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