Heritage Discovery Center opening permanent exhibition on iron, steel

Feb. 8—JOHNSTOWN, Pa. — The days of big steel in Johnstown are gone, but its impact and history will be celebrated in this permanent showcase.

The exhibition "Forging a Nation: Johnstown Iron & Steel" will open Saturday in the Iron & Steel Gallery of the Heritage Discovery Center, 201 Sixth Ave. in the Cambria City section of Johnstown.

The display will complete the Iron & Steel Gallery, a three-story space that opened in 2009 and also features the exhibition "A Steelworker's Story" and the film "The Mystery of Steel."

"Forging a Nation: Johnstown Iron & Steel" draws extensively from Johnstown Area Heritage Association's archives and collections, as well as newly acquired artifacts.

The illustrated panels and artifacts tell the history of the industry from the 1700s, from an explanation of why the Johnstown area was suitable for ironmaking through the present.

Amy Regan, JAHA's curator, said the exhibition is essentially a timeline, walking up a ramp through the gallery and through the history of the industry.

"It demonstrates just how important Johnstown was in our nation's industrial history," she said. "Many people are surprised to learn that Johnstown had the highest steel production in the nation in the 1870s and was the technological leader in iron and steelmaking at that time, even above Pittsburgh."

The dozens of artifacts featured in the exhibition date back to the 1850s, and include items such as a cane presented to John Fulton by Cambria Iron Works Corp. of Engineers from the 1870s, with names of the workers individually carved into it; pre-1889 nails produced by Gautier Steel; I-beams from Bethlehem Steel; rail samples from Johnstown's 3-high rolling mills; mining equipment, including carbide lamps, helmets and other safety equipment; an 1859 "hollow pear" rail from Cambria Iron's mills; scrip from the Wood & Morrell Co. Store; a silver vase inscribed "To George Fritz Esq. July 4, 1880," most likely a going-away gift to Fritz when he left Cambria Iron Co.; a Slinky toy made by Bethlehem Steel; and signage, blueprints, product samples and many other items from the mills.

"Museum visitors can expect a first-class movie experience with 'The Mystery of Steel,' the original 'A Steelworker's Story' exhibit and now the new 'Forging a Nation' exhibit, which provides a detailed history from the earliest ironmaking in our area to the most modern steelmaking complex in the world in Franklin," said Tom Leslie, a former steelworker and longtime JAHA volunteer who has been instrumental in assembling and installing the exhibition. "We believe this combination creates one of the finest steel museums in America."

The exhibit, which was designed by retired JAHA employee Marcia Kelly, describes milestones of the industry locally, including the founding of Cambria Iron Company, various technological innovations developed in Johnstown, steel strikes of 1919 and 1937, the floods of 1889, 1936 and 1977, the heyday of Bethlehem Steel, World Wars I and II and the decline of the industry in Johnstown. Coal mining history also is included in the exhibition, as coal mining was integral to the steel industry.

Leslie said as Johnstown moves away from heavy industry, it is important for surviving steelworkers to know that their labors will be remembered for helping to build a company, a city and a nation.

"Because of the harsh working environment many of our local steelworkers are no longer with us," he said. "Their descendants should understand what their parents and grandparents did to provide a better life for their family and community."

An invite-only exhibition opening will be held Feb. 10. At the event, JAHA will begin soliciting names and contact information of former steelworkers and others who have relevant stories to tell for an oral history project planned for the summer.

A sponsorship from UPMC Health Plan and a grant from the Community Foundation for the Alleghenies made the exhibition possible.

Admission is included with admission to the Heritage Discovery Center and is free to JAHA members. Docent-led school tours are available by contacting tours@jaha.org.

For more information, visit www.jaha.org.