From the 1860s until the 1990s, the powerful, industrial sound of metal striking metal – minute after minute, hour after hour, day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year, decade after decade – sounded throughout the blacksmith shop by the Conemaugh River in Johnstown.
Work done there was an integral part of operations for Cambria Iron Co., Cambria Steel Co., and then Bethlehem Steel Corp., as they played major roles in the development of the hard-working, blue-collar town.
The sounds stopped, though, when Bethlehem ceased operations.
Now, for a quarter-century, the octagon-shaped brick structure has sat silent – thousands of square feet of empty space, often chilled with bitter cold winter air, as opposed to the raw heat produced in a blacksmith shop.
But the striking metal-on-metal sound is about to return.
Recently, the property owners, Johnstown Redevelopment Authority, signed an agreement with a group from New York state to operate a metal arts school at the facility, built in 1864, that is part of a complex designated a National Historic Landmark.
Classes, including the first one tentatively scheduled for late February, will originally be held in the neighboring pattern shop before the necessary work is done to get the blacksmith shop prepared.
“As somebody who’s interested in forging and blacksmithing, clearly there’s lots of interest in history there, too, so to be a part of such an influential city in modern steelmaking – back in the day – is really exciting,” said Patrick Quinn, head blacksmith and forging program coordinator for the school that plans to rebrand its name – to create a local identity – when it relocates to Johnstown.
A brief two-hour, intergenerational meeting occurred inside the blacksmith shop on Friday.
Quinn, along with another representative from the school – jewelry and metalsmithing studio coordinator Dan Neville – met with Thomas Smith and Daniel Sojak, who both worked at the shop from the 1970s until its closing in 1992.
“I’m glad they’re going to open it up,” Smith said. “I can say, as long as I’m here, ‘I used to work there.’ ”
The production, of course, will be much different.
The old blacksmith shop – a “heavy and hot” environment, as described by Sojak – was used to make parts for the steel mills.
In the school, the equipment – from anvils to mechanical hammers – will be used as creative tools for both local folks looking to experiment with a new craft to world-class artists honing their skills.
The school, located in New York, currently operates short classes – no longer than a week – but plans to include longer workshops after the move.
More than 275 students are expected to take classes at the school in 2018.
“We have a full line of workshops – from beginner topics all the way through advanced – everything from toolmaking to decorative forged objects and lots of traditional joinery techniques and things like that,” Quinn said.
“We have visiting artists line up throughout the year that teach more advanced topics, like power hammer work and stuff that involves a lot more joinery or forging bigger material.”
Mark Pasquerilla, a JRA member, thinks the school “could be one of the preeminent efforts in blacksmithing in the country.”
New York-based Center for Metal Arts, a nonprofit organization that hosts blacksmithing and metalsmithing workshops for beginners and expert artists, gave a presentation Wednesday to the Johnstown Redevelopment Authority in the hopes of relocating to the city’s Cambria Iron Works site.
There are five industrial hammers on site. Quinn expects some to be operational soon, but getting the 10-ton hammer, owned by the Smithsonian Institution and leased to the JRA, will be a five-to-10-year project.
“I’ve got a pretty good sense of the four or five hammers in there, which ones can be run quicker than others,” Quinn said.
“There’s always a certain amount of refurbishment that has to happen when you want to turn on a machine that hasn’t been run for 20 or 15 years. But a few of the hammers look to me like – once you get the air to them, clean them up, make sure all the valves and everything are in good condition – they’re ready to go.”
Along with creating art, those involved in the project also expect to pay homage to the shop’s and city’s industrial past.
“I think there’s a big tradition in blacksmithing with making your own tools,” Neville said. “A lot of things that we use aren’t really available to buy. We have the tools here to make everything we need.
“More than just art and craft, we’re also toolmakers.”
There are probably about 1,000 vacant properties in Johnstown, many of which – like the blacksmith shop – are steeped in history.
Finding uses for them has been challenging, especially considering the city’s decades of economic and population decline.
More than 50 people learned Saturday how the Johnstown region became the power it was during the days when coal and steel reigned.
“How you preserve industrial buildings, like locomotives, you don’t let them sit and rust, you use them,” Johnstown Area Heritage Association CEO Richard Burkert said. “Our idea was not to turn this into a museum. Certainly, we want to restore it back to its historic appearance. What’s really significant here is to use it as a blacksmith shop. That’s how you preserve the equipment. You preserve the building. I think that’s what is really interesting.”
Several organizations worked together to make the school project happen. Community Foundation for the Alleghenies provided a $70,000 grant to help with relocation costs. Kathleen Sheehan Ortel, president and CEO of Johnstown’s Korns Galvanizing Co. Inc., helped develop a business and financial plan.
Bringing in the school is part of JRA’s overall plan to find new uses for the former Bethlehem properties on Iron Street.
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“We do the best that we can, on this end, to bring these buildings back into re-use,” Melissa Komar, the authority’s executive director, said. “The best way to preserve history is to utilize history. And we feel, as the authority, that this is a very positive movement towards that.”
JRA also wants to prevent the same kind of loss that has occurred with countless other historic buildings in the area. “I didn’t want to see this go down the tubes,” David Fatula, a former machinist with Bethlehem, said. “I’d hate to see them come in here, like they did to the machine shop.
“They destroyed the equipment in that machine shop because nobody would take it. It was kind of old. They just pulled it out of the ground, threw it in the garbage, threw it in a railroad car, burned it up for scrap. This stuff, here, you’re not going to make this anymore.”