Minersville Historic District
The Minersville Historic District was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1995. Portions of the content on this web page were adapted from a copy of the original nomination document.  Adaptation copyright © 2008, The Gombach Group.
The Minersville Historic District is a largely intact neighborhood of company built houses, privately built working class housing, several former commercial buildings and an ethnic club building. The district is approximately one quarter mile west of the Lower Works and one mile west of Johnstown's central business district. To the south of the district is the Conemaugh River, the Blacklick Railroad tracks and a narrow parking area at the west end of Iron Street. The steep slopes of Benshoff Hill lie to the north. A large un-utilized lot outside the district on the north side of Benshoff Street is the site of the former neighborhood school. To the east is Hinckston Run, a tributary of the Conemaugh and across it lies the former Lower Cambria Iron Works. To the west is a wooded area with a few scattered homes. Neighborhood streets are arranged in a modified grid pattern, with Honan and Iron Streets meeting at roughly a right angle and shorter streets extending from them. Several former mixed use residential/commercial buildings, today all residential, are located on Iron Street. The ca. 1913 Polish National Alliance building is built in the center of the district. Homes are one and one-half to three story wood frame buildings. Former commercial buildings are two to three story brick or frame structures. Buildings are overwhelmingly vernacular in form with architectural style the exception rather than the rule. Although buildings were built earlier, ca. 1880 is the oldest building date stated, based on architectural style. Construction sprees most likely occurred in the years following the Great Johnstown Flood of 1889 and around the turn of the century when the mills were expanding. The Minersville Historic District is composed of 93 buildings. Buildings are constructed close to the sidewalk and neighboring structures, characteristic of Johnstown's once crowded mill neighborhoods. Current use includes 92 residences and one fraternal club. The 92 residences are composed of 28 company built homes and 64 privately built, some originally with mixed commercial and residential uses. While the majority of homes are designed for single family living, nearly half are used as two family houses.
The major component of the district is the cluster of company houses built by the Cambria Iron Company during the 1880s, each in an identical vernacular design. Of these, 26 line both sides of Iron Street, while two additional homes are located on Benshoff Street. The majority are closely spaced with uniform setbacks, forming a repetitive roof line pattern on several blocks of Iron Street. Minersville's company-built double houses have a vernacular design seen nowhere else in Johnstown. All are wood frame construction, one and one-half stories with central gables, porches and raised basements. Decorative round headed attic windows survive on some of the houses.
The house at 203-205 Iron Street is one of the most intact company houses, with original elements including the two by two bay fenestration pattern, wood siding, central chimney, and a small round headed 4 pane attic window in the front gable. Another example at 248-250 Iron Street retains an original two-story porch. Two company houses, separate from the Iron Street group, are located at 149-151 and 145-147 Benshoff Street. These two houses are largely intact but poorly maintained.
The present-day Gomulka residence, 256-258 Iron Street, illustrates a well preserved company house interior. The original kitchen was in the front section of the basement, with two rooms on the first floor, two bedrooms on the second floor and a small attic. There was an outdoor privy. Later, the kitchen was moved to the first floor and indoor plumbing installed with a bathroom in the basement. Originally, small coal stoves were centrally located on both the basement and first floors (vented into a small center chimney) and a small coal shed (non-extant) was built near the street. Later, a coal furnace was installed in the basement with radiators in each room. More recently, a gas furnace replaced the coal furnace. There are operable transom windows above both the front and rear entry doors for flow-through ventilation. A raised basement on the downhill side offers additional living and storage space. First floor entry is via stairs and a masonry walk around the building to a rear door. Besides the two story porch (over the exposed basement and first floor) there is a rear one story shed roof porch with turned posts and balusters.
A second important residential group is the district's privately constructed housing stock, which is more varied in form than the company houses. These mostly vernacular two to three story wood frame buildings are larger than the company houses. They are mostly 3 to 4 bays wide with predominantly front gable roofs and fewer numbers with side and cross gables. Two to three story front porches are common, as are raised basements and asphalt, vinyl and aluminum siding. About one quarter retain original clapboard siding. Decorative sawn ornament, where it survives, is found in window trim, porch and cornice eaves.
Several of these homes stand out as architecturally distinguished. The ca. 1880 single family house at 159 Iron Street is a Second Empire style dwelling. It features a mansard roof, dormers, and eaves brackets. The 1895 house at 169 Iron Street is adorned with a high style Victorian front porch on an otherwise vernacular 2-story dwelling. The porch consists of turned posts, machined details and curvilinear brackets.
More representative of privately financed homes are the district's many vernacular examples. The dwelling at 182 Benshoff Street is two and one-half stories tall with clapboard siding, a two story porch, some original ornamental window caps and roof returns. The triplex at 172-174 112 Canal Alley has three separate front doors accessed from a large front porch, original paneled doors with transoms, clapboard siding, two over two double hung windows and some original door and window trim. A third home is the Dennis Roach House, 215-217 Honan Avenue. This duplex has all original windows with decorative wood trim, clapboard sheathing, small eaves brackets, and the standard two story porch over a raised basement.
Several current residential structures have also had commercial tenants over the years. The ca. 1880 James P. Burns House, 173 Iron Street, once the Arlington Hotel, is an example of the Second Empire style. It features a mansard roof, dormers and decorative window trim. The massive ten bay brick Harrigan-Sturver Building is Minersville's largest structure. Built in 1911, it has two ground level storefronts and apartments on the upper floors. Although the storefronts are vacated today, there have been no major changes to the building, with the storefronts retaining original decorative cornices and large plate glass windows. The ca. 1895 former City Hotel, located at 144-146 Iron Street, is a vernacular three story residential structure with a raised basement, two-story porch and aluminum siding. The only exclusively nonresidential structure in the district today is the ca. 1913 Polish National Alliance building, 153 Benshoff Street. Centrally located and visible from most of Minersville, the PNA is a local meeting place as well as a club for members. This vernacular rectangular wood frame building has a hip roof, asphalt siding, and a rear entrance accessible from McCauley Place.
A number of historic homes in the neighborhood have been unsympathetically altered by homeowners in the spirit of upgrading and modernizing their dwellings. Fortunately, many of these alterations are reversible and together do not destroy the character of the neighborhood. Typical alterations include enclosing porches, installing vinyl siding, and closing off doors or windows. Buildings which retain their overall form and appearance despite such alterations are classified as contributing: for example the home at 189 Iron Street has replacement windows and one of the front doors (of this double house) replaced with a window. The home at 162 Benshoff Street has had the front porch enclosed. The dwelling at 208-210 Honan Avenue has had vinyl siding installed.
The district contains 8 noncontributing buildings. Consisting of 7% of the total building stock, they do not threaten the district's integrity. In each case a combination of major alterations have robbed the building of most of its historic integrity. One such building is 163 Benshoff Street, with an enclosed porch, synthetic siding and the entry door relocated from the front to the side of the dwelling. Another is 154 Benshoff Street, a two story house with raised basement, vinyl siding, altered window openings and new window units, and a modern one story addition.
Despite building alterations and demolitions which have reduced overall building density, Minersville is one of Johnstown's most significant historic neighborhoods. The quality of the surviving building stock, combined with the neighborhood's hillside setting with views of both the river and the sprawling former Cambria Lower Works, preserve the historic ambiance of this ethnic working class neighborhood. The essential historic character of Minersville, with its connections to the mill and Johnstown's ethnic community, remains vital and intact today.
The Minersville Historic District is historically significant in the areas of industry, ethnic heritage and architecture for the period 1881 to 1945. It is significant for its association with the Cambria Iron (today BRW Steel's) Lower Works and the multi-layered ethnic heritage of the population. The district is also significant as a notable concentration of vernacular dwellings, including company-built housing. Cambria Iron Works became one of the nation's leading iron producers by the 1870s and directed immigrant workers to Minersville where it built scores of company houses. Minersville immigrants in the later half of the nineteenth century were mainly of northern European descent. After the turn of the century, they were replaced by natives of south and east central Europe. Minersville was developed both by Cambria Iron and private builders, the former constructing identical rows of small houses, while they later built a variety of residential and commercial structures. Minersville's 28 company-built houses is the largest concentration in the City of Johnstown. The district's period of significance begins in 1881, when Cambria Iron began building company houses there, and the end date 1945 is the approximate date after which construction halted in the district.
The land on which Minersville is built was purchased by Thomas Afflick in 1765. Eli Benshoff purchased the land nearly a century later, laying out lots for residential development. The Pennsylvania Main Line Canal was routed along the Conemaugh River in 1831 along what is now the southern border of Minersville. The canal route was supplanted by the Pennsylvania Railroad in the 1850s, furnishing transportation for the Cambria Iron Company. Transportation developments benefited the growth of Cambria Iron, eventually leading to the development of a major ethnic enclave in Minersville.
In 1859, Minersville was incorporated as the second ward of Millville. By that time the first ward, a neighborhood east of the mill, had already been developed by Cambria Iron with a number of company houses. Minersville, named in recognition of resident miners who worked mines north over Benshoff Hill, grew more slowly. The first indication of Minersville's importance as a home for company workers was in 1881, when Cambria Iron began building company houses there. Minersville emerged after the 1889 Johnstown Flood as one of the few neighborhoods unscathed by the disaster, because of its hillside location. Following the flood, Minersville consolidated with a group of municipalities, including the Borough of Johnstown, and became the 14th ward in the City of Johnstown. Only a year after consolidation, in 1890, Minersville's population reached 1,180.
In 1880, Minersville's population was 50% foreign born, compared to 40% for Johnstown proper, with Irish and Welsh groups dominating. Cambria Iron directly procured workers from abroad until the practice was outlawed by Congress in 1885. After that, the company sent workers after they arrived to "foreign colonies," neighborhoods nearest to one of its many plants. Fearing labor and ethic troubles, Cambria Iron discouraged the segregating of specific ethnic groups into separate neighborhoods. Eastern Europeans became the largest populations in Minersville after the turn of the century. These were principally Polish, Ukrainians and Rysyns (Slavs from the Carpathian region of the Austro-Hungarian Empire). This transition from northern to eastern European immigrants is demonstrated in the story of the Denis Roach House, 215-217 Honan Avenue. Roach emigrated from Ireland in 1877, purchased the property in 1885, and rented half of his house to another family. He sold the home to Michael Ondrejik in 1925.
To house the first wave of immigrant workers, Cambria Iron Company financed sixteen company houses in Minersville in 1881 and additional numbers in 1889, built by Hoover and Hughes contracting company. By 1911 Cambria Iron Company recorded owning thirty-seven houses in the neighborhood. Each unit had five rooms, running water, and a privy on the lot, renting for $5.40 a month. Today there are twenty-eight of these surviving company houses. Cambria Iron began selling off the houses in the 1910s, a process completed by Bethlehem Steel Company in the 1940s.
Several privately built hotel and boarding houses existed in Minersville before the turn of the century in part to accommodate more transient single workers who could not afford an apartment or home ownership. The Arlington Hotel (James P. Burns House) at 173 Iron Street is one of the oldest establishments, a combined hotel/saloon which provided lodging and a place for workers to quench their thirst after a long turn at the mill. A second is the ca 1895 City Hotel at 144-146 Iron Street, which alternated as a private dwelling over the years.
After the turn of the century, Minersville remained one of Johnstown's fastest growing neighborhoods, growing to 2,149 residents by 1905. The brick 3-story 1911 Harrigan-Sturver Building, a mixed use investment property, was built just outside the mill gates, at 134-136 Iron Street. It is more substantial than earlier commercial buildings and combined upper floor apartments with two ground floor stores housing local merchants.
Privately financed residential construction outnumbers company built houses by a ratio of three to one. The residential stock is composed of double and single houses erected for large families. Often rooms in private homes were rented out to single male workers. The Harrington Family purchased the 1891 McCreary House the year after it was built. They stayed in the home for twenty-three years and raised eleven children there. After 1930, when the population began to decline and families outnumbered single workers, some converted doubles into single homes. The residences at 161 Benshoff Street and 217 Iron Street are two examples. After 1945, the former City Hotel, at 144-146 Iron Street, was converted into a private home.
Minersville features more existing company-built homes than any other neighborhood within the city. In the Cambria City Historic District, another ethnic enclave across the Little Conemaugh River from Minersville, Cambria Iron built some company housing before the 1889 Johnstown Flood. The numbers are unknown and by 1892 all the homes had been demolished or sold off. Millville, located east of the Cambria Iron Works, was the location of densely packed company houses as early as 1854. This entire neighborhood was razed in urban renewal programs in the recent years.
Useful contrasts can be made with company houses built in the Old Conemaugh Borough neighborhood, where workers were employed at the Gautier Division of the Cambria Iron Company. At least twenty-four homes were built there between 1878 and 1883, of which nineteen survive today. Each is a two and one-half story double, larger than Minersville's one and one-half story houses. They are concentrated in rows on two streets and some have been converted into single homes. A very different company neighborhood is Westmont, a suburb of Johnstown and the only one of the group not linked with a particular mill site. It is also the most diverse housing group of all. Established and financed by Cambria Iron as a home for workers following the 1889 Johnstown Flood, it includes both company double and singles, with a small group of larger 7 room singles set aside for management. Minersville's houses, all identical one and one-half story doubles with 4 rooms in each unit, are among the smallest in the City. They are the largest surviving group and one of the best preserved in the City today.
After 1930, Minersville ceased growing in population. The Great Depression limited mobility of families and after 1945 people began moving out. No new buildings, with the exception of one ranch style house, were built in Minersville after 1945. Typical alterations to homes made by families who stayed in the neighborhood are new siding, enclosed porches and converting doubles into single family homes.
Despite the loss of some houses and commercial buildings, Minersville retains the physical character of a company-promoted working class neighborhood. Descendants of various immigrant groups recall a multi-layered ethnic mix which contributed to the development of Minersville. The PNA Club thrives today, a vital link to the past. The well maintained vernacular houses and former commercial buildings stand alongside rows of uniform company houses — one of Minersville's most significant legacies. Here the company and the lives of the immigrants came together in a very enduring way. This historic ambiance is preserved today, adjacent the Lower Mill gates and overlooking the sprawling Lower Works.
Morawska, Ewa. For Bread with Butter: Life Worlds of East Central Europeans in Johnstown. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1985.
Wallace, E. Kim, ed. The Character of a Steel Mill City: Four Historic Neighborhoods of Johnstown. PA. Washington: National Park Service, 1989.