Prior to the industrialization of Johnstown and its famous iron and steel industries, there was only light settling in an area defined by an agricultural and hunting based economy. One of the first major changes to come to the Johnstown area came with the opening of the Pennsylvania Canal in the 1830s which allowed transportation to be more reliable and efficient through Pennsylvania, simultaneously opening new avenues of settlement.
The railroad system was incorporated in 1852, followed by the establishment of the Altoona Horseshoe Curve in 1854 which opened major rail transportation through Johnstown. The establishment of major railway transportation capabilities truly marked the beginning of major changes in the Johnstown area, evidenced by the closure of the Pennsylvania Canal’s Western Division Canal. Cambria City’s modern story started alongside the economic development of Johnstown thanks to the newly established transportation and trade routes.
Cambria City was originally founded by brothers David and James McConaughy as a response to the growing industry in the Johnstown area, particularly the founding of Cambria Iron Works in 1852 which was the area’s first major venture into the fledgling iron industry. Seeing the opportunity, the McConaughy brothers bought 45-acres of land across the Conemaugh River from Cambria Iron Works, drew the still-noticeable rectangular plots of land for sale, and began selling to employees of Cambria Iron Works and prospective landlords.
Due to its convenient location across the river from the heart of the economic powerhouse that would become Johnstown’s iron and steel industries, Cambria City became the primary center of immigrant populations and acted as an entry point for later waves of immigration into the area. The investment would continue to pay off with the reorganization of Cambria Iron Works into the Cambria Iron Company in 1854, the company that became crucial to not only the economic boom in the Johnstown area, but the international iron industry as a whole.
On May 31st, 1889, Johnstown would be placed on the international stage with the tragedy of the 1889 Flood causing widespread devastation to the area and its people. The story of the flood started at South Fork Dam with the owners of the dam, the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club, a club for wealthy men whose members included such figures as Andrew Carnegie and Henry Frick. Due to the South Fork Club’s willful disregard for public safety and reckless mismanagement of the South Fork Dam in the years leading up to the disaster, the dam broke and unleashed approximately 14 million tons of water, creating a wave roughly 40 feet high that swept through the valley, subsequently hitting Johnstown in the valley below.
The flood’s impact on Johnstown as a whole was immense, however Cambria City was hit particularly hard by the disaster. Nearly all of the buildings between the Conemaugh River and Brallier Place, the alley which runs directly parallel to Cambria City’s primary throughway of Broad Street, were washed away and destroyed. Cambria City also held the highest death rate of the Johnstown area, with one in four of its residents succumbing to death as a result of the flood.
Starting in the 1940s, the effects of urban decay were being seen throughout Johnstown with Cambria City being no exception. From studies done in anticipation of the establishment of an urban development program, issues such as a quarter of the neighborhood’s houses not having running water and an estimated 2,500 of its residents living on 24-acres of land were highlighted as evidence of a renewal being necessary to the further development of the area and its people. Despite these and other findings and appraisals, the 1954 redevelopment mission failed.
Not long after its initial failure, a more in-depth application found success with a total of 3 million dollars being appropriated by state and federal funds for projects in Cambria City. Unfortunately, with the success of the Redevelopment Authority’s proposal came the displacement of many of Cambria City’s residents, business owners, and landlords with a little under half the land (40 properties in total, mostly to the southwest of Broad Street) were purchased and demolished for the building of commercial areas. In present day, businesses such as Senior LIFE, Penelec, and Best Window & Door Company now serve the Cambria City community in the redeveloped area.
Cambria City is a diversified neighborhood anchored with art development and the investment of entrepreneurs in preserving its history and developing businesses to ensure its future. Those working for the betterment of Cambria City include old community members looking for the protection of the unique features of their community, returning community members seeking rejuvenation in the area, and new community members trying to contribute to a place they can call home.
From the saving and restoration of key historic buildings by private business owners such as Stella’s Casimir Cultural Center and the buildings at Emerich Place, to non-profits such as The Bottle Works and the Tulip Bottling Company building as well as the Johnstown Area Heritage Association and the Germania Brewing Co. building, the community seeks to make use of these historic structures and breathe new life into them. All of the work being done across the community shows the mindset in the modern Cambria City: preservation through purpose, which is shown in the many businesses and beautiful artworks for all to enjoy and contribute to, including you! Come visit and see the history being made!
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