Cambria County: Coming Full Circle

County Feature is a series of articles on each county in Pennsylvania and its history.

Located in the highlands of west­-central Pennsylvania and amidst forbidding mountains – the Allegheny escarpment and the Laurel Ridge standing sentinel on its eastern and western borders­ – the territory that would become Cambria County was not easily accessible to early Pennsylvanians. Migrants bound westward during the second half of the eighteenth century avoided its intimidat­ing terrain and, instead, following Forbes Road which lies to the south, hurried on to the Allegheny and Monongahela valleys and the forks of the Ohio River. While a broad band of settlements took root and developed in southwest­ern Pennsylvania, the highlands to the east remained, as they had been for centuries, the domain of the Indian.

The native residents of the region were members of the Shawnee and Delaware tribes who subsisted by hunting, fishing, trapping and fur trading. They, too, were migrants who, for the most part, ranged freely through the area, rather than settling at a specific site. A notable exception was the Indian village of Connemach Old Town, which existed for a time in or near present-day Johns­town and was ruled in the early 1730s by Shawnee Chief Okowelah. It was apparently abandoned well before the American Revolution.

A widely-known and much used Indian trail, the Kittan­ning Path, crossed the north­ern portion of the county from east to west, linking the Indian villages of Frankstown in Blair County and Kittanning on the Allegheny River. Over its well-worn trace strode not only Indians but missionaries, fur traders, and, in the fall of 1756, during the French and Indian War, Col. John Armstrong and a band of three hundred volunteers on a mission to destroy the Indian village of Kittanning. Earlier, John Hart, a German trader licensed in 1744 and one of the first white men in the area, passed through regularly. He habitually camped at a favorite spot just west of Carrolltown which is marked today by a stone monument and known locally as “Hart’s Sleeping Place.”

Between 1769 and 1774, the first white settlers of record appeared in the area, brothers Samuel and Solomon Adams and their sister Rachel, accom­panied by assorted relatives and family friends. Arriving from Berks County, they settled in present-day Johns­town but amid precarious circumstances. Targets of recurring Indian attacks, they were forced to repeatedly flee to the safety o.f Fort Bedford or Fort Ligonier. On one occasion, both Samuel and Rachel were killed by the Indians, and others in the tiny band were taken captive. Yet Solomon and the survivors returned and remained. Several Cambria County placenames – Adams Township, Solomon’s Run and Rachel’s Hill-bear testi­mony to their presence and their perseverance. However, the general settlement of the county did not begin until the final dozen years of the eighteenth century when three very distinct groups of settlers began arriving.

In late summer of 1788, seventy-one year old Capt. Michael McGuire, a Revolu­tionary War veteran, led members of his family and other prospective settlers from Taneytown, Maryland, to Frankstown, ascended the Kittanning Path to Clearfield Creek, and then, turning south, followed the stream to present-day Loretto where the brave party built cabins and wintered. McGuire’s Settlement, as it was then known, became the first community in northeastern Cambria County. While McGuire, as principal landowner, undoubtedly intended to improve his personal fortunes, he was also a devout Catholic intent upon escaping the religious turmoil and discriminatory legislation that had threatened him in his native Maryland. Others, largely Irish and German, came in swelling numbers and settled in a broad arc sweep- – ing north and west across the county to the Indiana County line. When Russian prince­-priest Demetrius Gallitzin, the renowned Apostle of the Alleghenies, arrived to begin his long ministry and celebrated Mass on Christmas Eve in 1799 (in a church freshly built in Loretto on land donated by McGuire), the Catholic character of the northern Cambria region was firmly fixed.

Meanwhile, in 1794, an Amish farmer of Swiss origins arrived with his family in southern Cambria, built a cabin at the confluence of the Stonycreek and the Little Conemaugh rivers, and began clearing land. Six years later on his sizable tract, Joseph Schantz (Johns) laid out a town consisting of “141 lots, 10 streets, 16 alleys and 1 market square.” He called the new community Conemaugh Old Town, a name later changed to Johnstown in his honor.

Two years after Johns’s arrival, the third important group of migrants, the Welsh, entered the area. In the fall of 1796, the Rev. Rees Lloyd and a band of about eleven families arrived from Philadel­phia, and settled several miles southwest of McGuire’s Settle­ment at present-day Ebens­burg. The following year, a second group of slightly larger size and led by the Rev. Morgan John Rhees settled west of Ebensburg at a place they christened Beula.

By 1800, the west-central highlands were firmly – and finally – settled, but travel remained enormously diffi­cult, and the need for a con­veniently located seat of government became increas­ingly apparent. In response, the state legislature officially created Cambria County on March 26, 1804, carving it almost entirely out of Somer­set and Huntingdon counties. Its name, the contribution of the Rev. Rhees, is the ancient Celtic designation for Wales, which he and others asserted it resembled. The following year, Ebensburg was named the county seat. although much to the chagrin of Rhees, who had lobbied arduously to obtain the honor for Beula. Already rent by internal dissension, Beula declined rapidly and was eventually abandoned. Today, a small cemetery alone marks the site.

The story of Cambria County’s growth and develop­ment is inextricably interwo­ven with the saga of the evolution of transportation in America. In the early decades, the unyielding terrain and few roads – some hardly more than footpaths in places – left the county without easy access to the outside world.

Population growth was agonizingly slow. The approx­imately one thousand residents in 1800 grew to slightly more than three thousand twenty years later and to only seven thousand in 1830, nearly sixty years after the arrival of the Adams brothers. By 1830, the adjoining counties of Bedford, Somerset, and Indiana boasted populations of 24,613, 17,741 and 14,281 respectively. In fact, of the fourteen counties of southwestern Pennsylvania, Cambria was, in 1830, by far the least populated and had less than half as many people as the next smallest, Indiana.

An exceedingly local economy prevailed, dominated by agriculture and lumbering. The majority of residents engaged in subsistence farming and raising livestock. Others pursued farm-related occupations as tanners, distillers and blacksmiths. Some found employment in the grist, saw and carding mills that eventually sprung up. Few would ever foresee the county’s future as one of the great industrial centers of the nation.

By the second quarter of the nineteenth century, the winds of change began to blow across the county and with mounting intensity. New York’s Erie Canal posed a profound threat to the economy of Pennsylvania generally and to that of Phila­delphia in particular, because it was cheaper to ship goods to (and from) Pittsburgh and the mid west via the port of New York and the Erie Canal than through Philadelphia and across Pennsylvania. New York would soon control the entire midwest trade. Responding to the challenge, Pennsylvania’s legislature in February 1826 authorized construction of the Pennsyl­vania Works, a vast and sprawling network of canals and railroads. The Main Line, centerpiece of the system, would run from Philadelphia and Pittsburgh and from it, several branches thrust north­ward to Easton, Pottsville, Williamsport and Erie would link these and major interior cities.

Construction of the Main Line began officially on JuJy 4, 1826, and sections, as completed, were opened to traffic. The final section, the Allegheny Portage Railroad from Hollidaysburg through Cambria County to Johns­town, was completed in 1834. With its official opening in March, Pennsylvania claimed, for the first time in its history, a single transportation system stretching from the eastern to the western borders of the state.

The Allegheny Portage Railroad, largely within the borders of Cambria County, was undoubtedly the most remarkable feature of the system. Cambria’s terrain posed the most difficult engineering problems encoun­tered in the entire project. A canal was simply impossible. Instead, an elaborate railroad system was contrived to connect the canal basin in Hollidaysburg with one in Johnstown.

The portage was thirty-six miles long and overcame a total rise and fall of twenty­-five hundred feet. Among its most spectacular features were the nine hundred foot long Staple Bend Tunnel east of Johnstown, the nation’s first railroad tunnel, and the Conemaugh Viaduct, an eighty foot span which carried the road across the Little Conemaugh River. Less spectacular, but peculiar to visitors, was a canal boat constructed of two or more watertight sections which were capable of being trans­ported individually by railroad car and reassembled at the end of the portage.

The Allegheny Portage Railroad served the needs of Cambria’s residents for twenty-three years and consti­tuted an enormous advance, particularly in the shipment of bulk cargoes. But it possessed serious deficiencies: accidents and breakdowns were common; heavy winter snows buried the right-of-way and deep frosts spread the tracks; spring thaws washed out whole sections. The system required constant mainte­nance, and “improvements” were made regularly to elimi­nate problems. Both were expensive, and, despite the heavy volume of traffic, the system was a steady drain upon the state treasury.

By mid-century, develop­ments were stirring that would result in the demise of the Allegheny Portage Railroad and, indeed, of most of the State Works. Technolog­ical innovations in railroading had significantly transformed the industry and ignited a frenzy of railroad construction throughout the northeast. When, on February 15, 1854, the final link of the Pennsyl­vania Railroad, from Altoona to Johnstown, was opened to regular traffic, the fate of the older system was sealed. Under the weight of cheaper and more efficient competi­tion, its traffic steadily declined. in 1857, the system was offered at public auction by the state, purchased by the Pennsylvania Railroad Company, and shut down within three months. Its closing marked the end of an extraordinary experiment but a crucial step forward in the development of adequate transport in Cambria County.

In the fifty years following the completion of the Pennsyl­vania Railroad’s Main Line, several local roads were constructed in the county which tied the outlying communities into the Pennsyl­vania system. Gradually, Cambria acquired an extensive intra-county transportation system and an efficient and reliable link with the outside world.

The transportation revolu­tion, initiated with the construction of the Allegheny Portage Railroad and which achieved maturity in the “Pennsy,” greatly transformed Cambria County. Nature had bestowed the area with bountiful mineral resources, most notably massive bitumi­nous coal deposits and more modest, but important, beds of iron ore. Now, and for the first time, entrepreneurs could think seriously of exploiting them, thanks to the improve­ments in transportation which ushered the county into the industrial age and dramatically altered the fabric and quality of life within it.

Commercial coal mining probably began in 1825 when two brothers, Matthew and Michael Myers, opened a mine west of the town of Lilly and shipped their coal east by pack horse to neighboring Blair County. Fifteen years later the federal census listed only forty-one working miners in the county, most of them in the Lilly area. During the next sixty years, however, the bituminous industry experi­enced explosive growth. By the first decade of the twentieth century, Cambria boasted the largest concentra­tion of working bituminous mines of any county in the Commonwealth. Their annual output of more than ten million tons ranked Cambria fourth among Pennsylvania’s counties and amounted to between three and four percent of the total national production! Most of Cambria’s coal at that time was hauled by the Pennsylvania Railroad and sold in the eastern market which included New York and Boston.

Paralleling the development of bituminous coal mining in the county was the rise of the titan iron and steel industry. The legacy began in 1841 when several iron furnaces were constructed, mostly in or near Johnstown, which produced a growing volume of pig iron for the Pittsburgh market. In 1852, George S. King and Dr. Peter Shoenber­ger, partners in four of the Johnstown-area furnaces, reorganized their operations and, with outside investors, established the Cambria Iron Company. They constructed a huge rolling mill and two years later began rolling iron rails which were quickly acclaimed for their superior quality. By the eve of the Civil War, Cambria Iron’s weekly rail production frequently exceeded that of any other mill in the nation.

In subsequent years, the company passed through a tangled series of reorganiza­tions, repeatedly expanded its line of products and grew enormously. It acquired a well-deserved reputation for experimentation and innovation, pioneered both the Bessemer and Open Hearth processes of steel making and, in August 1867, produced the first steel rails ever rolled on order in the United States. By the early 1900s, it was one of the nation’s leading steel firms and Cambria County’s primary employer with a local work force of more than sixteen thousand employees. In 1922, it was acquired by Bethlehem Steel Corporation, the nation’s second largest steel firm. Bethlehem’s chair­man was Charles M. Schwab, world-famous and himself a son of Cambria County, if not by birth then by his upbringing in Loretto and his educa­tion at Saint Francis College.

Responding to the stimulus of rapid industrial develop­ment, Cambria’s population grew dramatically: its seven thousand residents of 1830 more than doubled by 1850 and doubled again by 1870. The federal census of 1900 registered, for the first time, a six figure population of more than one hundred thousand persons. Continued economic growth and employment opportunities pushed the population figure to a record high of two hundred thousand residents by 1940.

As significant as the dramatic increase in population was its evolving character. In 1840, most Cambrians were from western Europe or traced their ancestry to that region. However, the great migration between the Civil War and World War I was rooted in southern and eastern Europe. Italian, Greek, Polish, Czech, Slovak.Croatian, Russian and Jewish immigrants poured in to the county seeking employ­ment in the mills and mines. Southern blacks, also in pursuit of opportunity,and sometimes actively recruited by employers, arrived in increasing numbers after 1914. By the early twenties, three thousand resided in the county. Cambria had become, in its remarkable ethnic and racial diversity, America in miniature.

The newcomers clung to relatives, friends and country­men for support and encour­agement, as well as to the customs and traditions of the “old country” for a sense of identity. Johnstown, in partic­ular, gradually evolved as a striking mosaic of ethnic and racial neighborhoods.

Life was hard. Old residents frequently resented the more recent arrivals and openly exhibited their contempt for them. In 1923, Johnstown Mayor Joseph Cauffiel, in a remarkable display of overt bigotry, expressed his wish that “every negro who has lived here less than seven years … pack up his belongings and get out.” Historic ethnic grievances, originating abroad, were also perpetuated. Too, wages were low, hours long and the work dangerous. Accidents in both mill and mine were regarded as inevitable, giving rise to the notion that life itself was cheap. However, disasters of extraordinary magnitude occasionally shattered the mood of resignation and plunged the entire county into mourning. The Rolling Mill Mine, Johnstown, explosion on July 1O, 1902, killed one hundred and twelve men; the Reilly No. l, Spangler, disaster of November 6, 1922, took seventy-nine lives; and the Sonman Mine, Portage, explo­sion of July 15, 1940, claimed sixty-three of the eighty-four employed. Lesser disasters occurred with depressing regularity.

Even nature seemed to conspire against the residents. Winters were long and cold and accompanied by heavy snows and treacherous condi­tions. Spring thaws and summer storms often wrought flooding in the county’s deep hollows and valleys. The Johnstown area was particu­larly vulnerable; the story of the Great Flood of May 31, 1889, is world famous. The flood, perhaps the most spectacular and destructive natural disaster in American history, took more than twenty-two hundred lives and devastated the entire valley. Yet it was unique only in its awesome dimensions; floods had occurred previously and they would again.

Rapid industrialization and mass immigration fomented a harsh animosity between workers and employers. Wages, hours and working conditions were determined unilaterally by employers and, since workers were plentiful and their options few, all were exploitative. Many of the mining communities were company towns where every aspect of existence was severely monitored and regulated. Johnstown, although not formally a company town, was so dominated by the Cambria Iron Company and its successors that it actually was one. Consequently, resentment, resistance and bitter labor­-management conflict became a part of the socio-economic order.

Inevitably, the nationwide movement following the Civil War to unionize workers affected Cambria County’s miners and steelworkers. Organizing efforts. neverthe­less, encountered almost insurmountable obstacles. The business community, led by Cambria Iron’s Daniel J. Morrell, his Bethlehem Steel successors and the indepen­dent coal operators – with the active support of local political leaders and most of the press – waged a bitter and unrelenting campaign to crush the movement. Even though the area was convulsed by recurring and often violent strikes and lockouts beginning in the 1870s and continuing well into the present century, most failed. Johnstown eventually acquired its reputa­tion as a non-union citadel.

It was not until the World War II era that the situation changed, and then in response to national, rather than to local developments. The enactment by Congress in 1937 of the National Labor Relations (Wagner) Act, recognizing the right of labor to organize and bargain collectively , and the enthusiastic support of Pres. franklin D. Roosevelt breathed new life into the labor movement across the nation. Although local leaders bitterly resisted and retreated grudgingly, the new climate slowly engulfed them Bv war’s end, the United Steel­workers of America had successfully unionized Johns­town’s mills, the United Mine Workers of America had organized most of the county’s mines and unions became commonplace through much of the area economy. There followed a period of reason­able stability and relative order.

The recent past, however, has visited new problems upon the county. Coal is no longer the nation’s chid energy source, and Cambria’s aging smokestack industries are no longer competitive Consequently, its mills have sharply curtailed production, many mines arc idle and unemployment consistently exceeds the national average. Young people depart the area regularly, lured by the greater economic opportunities elsewhere. Since 1940, the population of the county had declined, slowly but steadily, and stands at slightly more than 180,000. Responding to the new situation, business, civic, educational and labor leaders, invoking the county’s long history of adversity confronted and overcome, urge an aggressive campaign to attract a diversified mix of new businesses and to stimu­late tourism in the area. A necessary condition to success, they reason, is easy access to and from the area. The solution they propose is the construction of a modern, limited-access, east-west highway through the count, (U.S. 22). Also regarded as crucial arc comparable improvements to north-south highways U.S. 219 and U.S. 220, linking the county with the Pennsylvania Turnpike to the south and with Interstate 80 to the north. Thus, once again, the development of an efficient transportation system is perceived as the key to progress. The cycle has come full circle. Michael McGuire, Rev. Rees Lloyd and Joseph Johns would understand.


For Further Reading

Caldwell, J. A. Illustrated Historical Combination Atlas of Cambria County, Pennsylvania. Philadelphia: Atlas Publishing Co., 1890.

McCullough, David C. The Johnstown Flood. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1968.

Storey, Henry W. History of Cambria County Pennsylvania, 3 vols. New York. The Lewis Publishing Co., 1907.

Williams, Gwyn A. The Search for Beulah Land: The Welsh and the American Revolution. London: Croom Helm Ltd, 1980.


John F. Coleman, who received his bachelor’s and master’s of arts degrees from Boston College, was awarded his doctorate in history by the Pennsylvania State University. A professor of history at St. Francis College, Loretto, he has served as president of the Cambria County Historical Society, headquartered in Ebensburg, since 1981. He is the author of The Disruption of the Pennsylvania Democracy, 1848-1860, as well as articles and reviews addressing aspects of Pennsylvania politics. The author wishes to publicly acknowledge the excellent research assistance of Betty Mulhollen, former curator of the county historical society.