Windber Historic District, WindberBorough, Somerset County, Windber PA 15963

Windber Historic District

Windber Boro, Somerset County, PA

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The Windber Historic District was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1991. Portions of the content on this web page were adapted from a copy of the original nomination document. [1]


The Windber Historic District comprises a large portion of present day Windber Borough, a small portion of Paint Borough, both on the northern edge of Somerset County, and a few houses in Scalp Level Borough in southern Cambria County. The district lies approximately ten miles southeast of Johnstown in the narrow valley of the Big Paint Creek and encompasses most of the grid first laid out by the Berwind-White Coal Mining Company in 1897 and developed by the company and town's residents between 1897 and 1930. Only a small portion of Graham Avenue and an area just to the south of the district now containing a shopping center, Methodist Church, senior citizens high-rise (all built after 1977), and a portion of the redesigned Route 56 Bypass is excluded from this original plan. The district is predominantly residential and vernacular in character, although a number of high-style residential, office, and church buildings are present also. The district consists of 1095 resources, 945 contributing and 150 noncontributing. As seen in many southwestern Pennsylvania coal towns, many of the district's buildings have experienced alterations in recent years. However, the integrity of the streetscapes, of the scale of the houses, and of the original town and lot layout more than compensate for changes brought by flood damage, the addition of aluminum and vinyl siding, and the remodeling of window treatments. The Windber Historic District retains the look and feel of what it historically was, a home for thousands of coal miners and the relatively metropolitan headquarters town of the Berwind-White's important Western Pennsylvania mining operations.

The compact layout of the town and the historic district makes the best use of the narrow, sloping Paint Creek valley. The district stretches northwest to southeast from First through 28th Streets, along the nine named cross avenues (Lincoln, Jefferson, Washington, Jackson, Graham, Somerset, Cambria, Grove, and Park). The district is bounded by the Big Paint Creek and U.S. Route 56 on the south and by the steeply wooded hills rising immediately north of town. The grid narrows on both the west and east ends, in response to the topography of the landscape.

The Windber Historic District reflects Windber's past as a hierarchical, planned community, and captures the town plan developed by Berwind-White engineers in 1897. On the highest ground at the north-center portion of the district are the former houses of company officials and other professionals. Just to the south, centrally located along the main axes of 15th Street and Graham Avenues, are Windber's major commercial, shopping, and transportation buildings, including the company headquarters, company store, major financial institution, and train and streetcar station. Most buildings have been adaptively reused, although the company store is vacant. In the flood plain surrounding these areas are the vernacular, working class houses originally built by the company and located to be within easy access to the surrounding mines. The town is built on a low-scale, with most buildings reaching two stories and only a few reaching three stories in height.

The main axes of Windber and of the historic district run along 15th Street and Graham Avenue, where most of the town's commercial and business activities were and are centered. Four substantial former Berwind-White buildings dominate the area: the corporate headquarters; the main branch of the company's Eureka Department Store; the Windber Trust Company; and the Wilmore Coal Company Office building. The robust, high style buildings, for the most part unaltered, reflect the historic prosperity and importance of Windber and the company.

Berwind-White's three story, buff-colored brick headquarters building stands on the northwest corner of Somerset Avenue, where the valley floor begins to slope gently upward. The Colonial Revival style building, completed in 1903, housed the business offices of Berwind-White's important western Pennsylvania mining operations. Today it functions as the borough's municipal building. To its east is the Classical Revival style, stone block Windber Trust Building (1910), with full-height arched windows and prominent dentiled cornice. The building, now a branch of the U.S. National Bank, continues service as a financial institution. On the southeast corner is the sprawling Eureka Department Store, Windber's largest commercial structure and the business district's historic hub. Originally erected in 1899 as a red brick building with a hipped roof and Palladian style dormer windows, the building was refashioned into its present stucco and wood English Tudor style appearance between 1916 and 1924. The building is presently vacant. Sitting prominently on the Northwest corner of 15th Street and Graham Avenue is the Renaissance Revival style Wilmore Building, formerly the post office and headquarters of the Wilmore Coal Company, an important Berwind-White subsidiary. Currently housing the regional Boy Scouts council and slated to become a National Park Service interpretive center for the regions's coal heritage, the brick-cased building is notable for its prominent entablature, wide frieze, large paired brackets, modillions, and sandstone window sills and water table.

A number of other brick commercial and public buildings cluster around these buildings, including the three story brick, Italian Renaissance style Windber Electric Building, built in 1925 at the site of an old hotel; the three story Clement Building and the Leister House Hotel (now the Windber Hotel), both built in 1902 and both distinguished by their formed-metal bracketed cornices; and the utilitarian former train (1916) and streetcar (1917) stations at the small central park at 15th and Graham. The train station is now the town's library, while the streetcar station houses a business office. The park, one of the social hubs of the community, also contains a small gazebo (c.1915).

Historically, the central business district ran along Graham Avenue between approximately 11th and 17th Streets; there was also a pedestrian "Midway" just north of the train station, running diagonally from the intersection of Graham Avenue at 13th Street to 15th Street just below Somerset Avenue. Graham Avenue between roughly 11th and 15th Streets is still extant and relatively intact. Most of the wood and brick buildings date from the period between 1898 and 1910, with the exception of the 1200 block of Graham Avenue, which was rebuilt in 1919 following a fire. The storefronts, many with parapeted roof lines, are set against the sidewalk and unified in function. Anchors include two Windber landmarks, The Arcadia Theatre and the Palace Hotel. The Italian Renaissance style, red brick building Arcadia (1919), built directly across from the small central park, is the only theatre remaining of the four which once occupied a two block area on Graham Avenue. Designed by Philadelphia architect Henry Reinhold, the handsome building's features include second story arched windows, a parapeted roof line, extensive use of sandstone trim, decorative brickwork, and simulated towers. The yellow brick Palace Hotel has excellent integrity, a striking cornice, corner entry, and full-height brick pilasters. The buildings between 15th and 17th Streets were removed as part of urban renewal projects and a rechanneling of the Little Paint Creek in the early 1960s.

The commercial area's integrity has been weakened by the extensive reworking of building facades, by the demolition of some properties, and by the deterioration of others as Windber's economic fortunes lessened. The Midway has suffered the greatest loss of integrity, with most buildings fronting on it altered and many converted to residential use. But the presence of a former hotel building and the storefront character of the properties clearly associates that area with its historic function. Similarly, Graham Avenue still retains the feeling of a commercial area.

Not all commercial activities were confined to the central business district. The Windber Historic District also contains pockets of shops developed by town residents in their neighborhoods. The most intact surrounds a former branch of the Berwind-White Company Store (now a pizza parlor) on Graham Avenue between 19th and 21st Streets, in Windber's Little Italy. A similar pocket developed around the company store on 10th Street just above Jefferson Avenue, but these buildings, like the former ethnic groceries scattered within the working class neighborhoods, have been converted to residential uses. Only their corner entrances and storefront windows hint at their past functions.

On the high ground just north of downtown, where the Paint Creek Valley begins to rise, is the Hill, formerly an exclusive residential area of substantial houses built along Somerset, Cambria, Park, and Grove Avenues between approximately 11th and 17th Streets. The Hill's high-style brick and wood Colonial Revival, Queen Anne, and Bungalow style houses and large, comfortable vernacular residences housed Berwind-White's upper-management personnel, lesser company officials, businessmen, and other professionals. The houses' substantial construction, manicured lawns and sandstone retaining walls, and quiet, tree-lined streets contrast sharply with the smaller, and more densely packed housing stock found throughout the remainder of town.

Berwind-White's most important company officials lived on the Hill, and their houses still anchor the area. The two story, Queen Anne style Cottage or Clubhouse, dating from 1899, sits in a commanding position along Somerset between 15th and 17th Street. Before the trees grew in, the Clubhouse's octagonal turret afforded a view of the entire town. Perhaps the finest example of the Queen Anne style in Windber, the Clubhouse's distinctive details also features multiple cross-gables and dormers, wood shingle wall covering, and a wrap porch with round columns and turned spindles. The Clubhouse housed the Berwinds, Windber's absentee landlords, on their periodic visits to the town. The house of General Manager Thomas Fisher, at the time the highest ranking officer next to the Berwind's, was built on the six acre tract of land above the Clubhouse in 1908. This remarkably well-preserved, stuccoed Colonial Revival style house with marble floors and lush interior trim later housed the chief physician of Windber Hospital. Still further up the hill is the large Dutch Colonial Revival house (1921) of Fisher's successor, company Vice President Edward Newbaker. Nearly unaltered from its original appearance, the Newbaker house features a side-facing gambrel roof with a full-length shed dormer and centered entrance with a pedimented overhang, sidelights, and transom. The three houses are nearly unaltered from their original appearances.

Also found on the Hill are the Queen Anne style former homes of the Superintendent and Assistant Superintendent of Mines (1902 and 1905, respectively); the town's oldest building (1868), the two-story frame farmhouse of David Shaffer, the farmer whose land developed into Windber (now functioning as the Windber Museum); and the Bungalows and Colonial Revival houses of other professionals. Windber's only Classical Revival style house, the 45-room McNeal mansion (1909), is at Cambria Avenue and 13th Street. One of the finest examples of the Classical Revival style in the area, the brick residence features full-height porches supported by massive triple columns with Ionic capitals, semi-circular porches on either side of the full-height portico, second story curved galleries, and third floor walkouts. Surrounding it on Cambria and Somerset between 12th and 15th are more modest but still impressive Queen Anne and Colonial Revival style and influenced buildings, and a number of Protestant denomination churches, including the Tudor Revival style First Presbyterian church (1929) at 11th and Somerset, which anchors the Hill's West end.

The remainder of the Windber Historic District is defined by the working class houses and Catholic churches of Windber's ethnic community. In these areas surrounding the commercial area and the Hill the dominant streetscapes are of densely packed, two story, three and four bay, balloon frame, vernacular houses with weatherboard siding and stone foundations. The only variation between the houses is the roof type, which are either side-gabled, front-gabled, or hipped. In contrast to the pattern found in most coal towns, the majority of the houses are detached rather than semi-detached. The houses generally had six rooms, with the living and dining room on the first floor, the kitchen in the ell, and three bedrooms above. Originally painted white with black trim, Berwind-White's colors, today they sport materials, colors, and finishes varying with the individual owner's tastes. The very earliest houses (1897) did not have rear ells or front porches, although the company or individual tenants began adding them by 1900. Today, nearly all have front porches, and rear ells have been expanded to accommodate indoor bathrooms and other modifications, but the majority of front facades retain their three bay, two story appearance.

A limited number of houses in the working class areas deviate from this dominant pattern. There are scattered examples of front-facing ells and T-shaped houses, Folk examples of Foursquares, and a number of small Bungalows, particularly on Bedford Street/Graham Avenue west of approximately 9th Avenue. But the overall feeling is of uniformity in housing type and materials of construction.

Most worker housing sits slightly set back from the street near the front of deep (50' x 150') lots with few trees, and with narrow alleys in the rear acting as firebreaks. Exceptions occur on the western end of Graham Avenue, where the houses abut the sidewalk; on the houses extending linearly along Railroad and 17th Streets in the northern part of the district, where the houses abut the sidewalk and the lots are not as deep; and east of 23rd Street along Cambria Avenue, where the lots are not quite so deep due to the steepness of the surrounding terrain.

The integrity of the worker areas is strong despite some changes to elements of Windber's historic appearance. Today, houses are individually remodeled in a wide variety of ways, with asphalt and asbestos shingles, and aluminum and vinyl siding mixed in with the clapboard. The chicken coops, picket fences and large gardens which once characterized the worker sections are no longer evident. But the historic scale, massing, and size of the houses have changed little. Most facades remain true to their two-story, three-bay constructions, and demolition has been very limited, despite major floods in 1936 and 1977. Streetscapes retain the historic appearance and feeling, with houses resting uniformly near the street. The historic association as a coal worker community is strong.

Churches also play an important role in defining Windber and the historic district. From a distance, St. John Cantius on Graham Avenue dominates Windber's skyline. The Gothic Revival style church, completed in 1913, has twin spires, decorative brickwork with sandstone accents, and a dominant center rose window. Illuminated by night, the churches spires are visible for miles around. Other prominent churches include the Romanesque Revival style St. Mary's Byzantine Church (1926), designed by noted Johnstown architect Walter Myton, with its distinctive mottled tapestry brick, cut Indiana limestone, and domed central and paired side towers; the Gothic Revival style St. Maria Magyar Church (1919); and the Gothic Revival Brethren Church (1924).

Another important building complex found in the working class area is the Windber Hospital, consisting of a remodeled but contributing Colonial Revival style building (c.1905); the adjacent Hermanie Hall, a contributing nursing school built circa 1923; and two non-contributing buildings, the Medical Arts Building (1974), and the three story critical care unit (1979). The hospital building retains its slate hipped roof and dentiled cornices, although some of the original detailing is obscured by an entrance added circa 1930. Hermanie Hall has double shoulder end chimneys, pedimented dormers, pent gables, modillioned cornices, multi-light window sash topped with keystones, a slate roof, and brick quoining. Across the street is the large Queen Anne style house built for the hospital's administrator in 1915.

Windber contains comparatively few noncontributing resources for a district of its size. The original Berwind-White layout and streetscape remain largely intact, with most new construction occurring on the borough's outskirts, outside the historic district. Alterations, especially to historic building materials, and demolition have taken their toll in some areas, most notably in the central business district, where a good deal of the historic feeling and association have been lost. But changes in the remainder of town have not been as dramatic. Noncontributing resources are more scattered outside the central business district and rarely have a significant negative impact. This is particularly true in the working class areas, where integrity of feeling, association, size and scale remain strong despite vinyl and aluminum siding and alteration to window treatments. The streetscapes and three bay, two story original appearance remains unaltered. On the Hill, changes have been even more limited. New building material compromises a few houses, as do additions; but, for the most part, there is strong integrity of scale, massing, materials, and streetscapes. The Windber Historic District retains its feeling and past association as a coal mining community and metropolitan headquarters town.


The Windber Historic District is significant in the areas of industry, community planning and development, social history, ethnic heritage, and architecture. The historic district is associated with the Berwind-White Coal Mining Company and through it with the important Pennsylvania bituminous coal mining industry. Berwind-White, one of the nation's preeminent independent producers of coal, designed and built the model community of Windber beginning in 1897 to oversee its important western Pennsylvania mining operations. The historic district captures the town's carefully planned hierarchical design, which advertised the company and the town to the public, facilitated business operations, and reinforced the company's dominance and control. Architecturally, the town's size and planned nature, the extent of high-style buildings, and the size and quality of the worker housing makes Windber unique to the area. But the social control Berwind-White exerted in Windber was a typical part of mining towns in the region, as was the unrest which the company's economic, social, and political dominance sparked among the town's residents. As in the surrounding mining towns, a large number of those residents were southern and eastern European miners and their families, who established ethnic communities centered around churches and fraternal organizations which remain to this day. The immigrant enclaves typically became centers for labor unrest and union agitation. In Windber, strikes protesting the company's control erupted in both 1906 and 1922, although the situation remained largely unchanged until the New Deal. Thus, during the period of significance from 1897 to 1940 Windber, as captured by the historic district, was both a unique example of a planned headquarters town and a typical western Pennsylvania coal mining community.

Windber's development began in 1892-1893 when a Berwind-White subsidiary, the Wilmore Coal Company, purchased 30,000 acres of coal rich lands in northern Somerset and southern Cambria counties. The area was long known to be rich in the ore, but transportation from the steep, hilly terrain was difficult. Berwind-White remedied the situation in 1897 with the help of the Pennsylvania Railroad, building a rail line connecting the area to the Pennsylvania's branch line at St. Michael, 12 miles away. With the link to market assured, Berwind-White opened its first Windber area mine; twelve more would follow by 1910.

The mine openings initiated a coal mining boom in the area, and secured for Berwind-White coal empire status. The company would grow into the nation's largest independent producer of coal, largely on the strength of the rich Windber area mines. They were the company's most productive between 1902 and 1916, contributing 72% or more of its total output, and as much as 90% in the peak years of 1911 to 1914. Their output of nearly four million tons per year accounted for nearly half of Somerset county's coal output between the turn of the century and the 1920s. Within Pennsylvania, only "captive" coal companies affiliated with steel corporations regularly out produced Berwind-White during those years. Less productive after 1922, the Windber mines nevertheless still occupied an important place in the company's extensive operations for two dozen more years.

To oversee this important western Pennsylvania mining operation, Berwind-White designed the regional headquarters town of Windber, a transposition of "Berwind." Another subsidiary, the Windber Lumber Company, began building the first block of rental houses in 1897, the year the rail line was completed. Berwind-White's "metropolis of Somerset County" grew rapidly, exploding from just a few dozen residents in 1897 to a population of 5,000 by 1900, the year of incorporation, before peaking at 9,500 in 1920.

As one historian notes, Windber was "a conscious creation of company officials who knew rather precisely what type of town they wanted" (Beik: 41). Windber, designed and built as a headquarters town, was considerably larger and better planned than the surrounding coal mining "patch" towns. The streets were wider and paved within a few years of the town's founding, and sewers installed. Housing, particularly worker housing, was larger and better built. Metropolitan in comparison to its rural surroundings, Windber served as the commercial area, business district, post office, center of worship, and seat of government for Berwind-White's surrounding mine settlements.

Windber's layout facilitated business operations and reinforced the notion of company dominance. The wide, grid-patterned streets utilized the narrow valley to its best advantage, as the historic district demonstrates. The company's high-style business offices, trust company, and main Eureka Department store were centrally located between 15th and 17th Streets and Graham and Somerset Avenues. The passenger train station, streetcar station, and commercial district radiated west from there along Graham Avenue to approximately 11th Street. Company management's high-style Queen Anne and Colonial Revival houses sat on higher ground above the office buildings and commercial district, in a figurative display of power and control mirroring the town's reality. Other professionals joined Berwind-White management on the Hill, a seven block area along Somerset, Cambria, and Park Avenues overlooking the rest of the town. The modest, company built worker houses were arranged around branches of the company store in the flat portions of town surrounding the Hill, providing ready access to the 13 area mines and symbolic oversight by the town's leaders.

Windber's hierarchical layout is a common feature of the region's coal mining towns. Mining companies established towns and built company housing to attract workers to what were generally isolated mine sites. The company, as the chief economic power and the largest landowner, remained the dominant player, a fact reflected in the gradations and arrangement of the housing. Management officials, like those in Windber, tended to live in larger, detached, sometimes high-style houses overlooking the town or mine site. Workers resided in smaller, more quickly constructed, more densely packed houses situated on lower ground. Company houses were nearly always rented, as a means of controlling the work force; workers could be evicted on as little as 10 days notice.

Windber shared these characteristics. But the town, built as a showcase community, and the Windber Historic District is architecturally unique in the region because of the extent of the high-style architecture, and the size and quality of the worker housing. For example, surrounding patches such as Berwind-White's Mine 40 (Cambria County) and Mine 35 (Somerset County), and Merchant Coal's Boswell (Somerset County) present more typical pictures of coal mining towns. Miners occupied small, two bay, company built and rented doubles, densely packed and sitting on the front of narrow deep lots. The narrow roads, initially, were unpaved. Many of the houses in Mine 35 were (and are) of plank construction, while the houses in Mine 40 are balloon frame with thin weatherboard siding. Management officials lived in larger detached houses of similar style on high ground above the rest of the town. In the Berwind-White patch towns, there are no high-style houses; in Boswell, there are only a few, the residences of the mine superintendent, two other company officials, and a banker.

The architecture in the model community of Windber, by contrast, reflected Berwind-White's desire to create "an industrial center worthy of outside attention" (Mulrooney: 53). Management officials and other professionals lived in high-style and more modest Queen Anne, Colonial Revival, and Bungalow style houses in numbers and concentrations unknown in the patch towns of the region. Many houses have spacious yards, shade trees, and stone retaining walls which present a more attractive appearance than was found in most of the region's coal communities. Commercial buildings like the Italianate style Wilmore Coal Building and Palace Theatre, the Colonial Revival style Berwind-White headquarters building, the Classical Revival Windber Trust Company, and the Tudor Revival style Eureka Department store visibly illustrated Berwind-White's success and prosperity to the outside world.

The style and construction of Windber's worker housing reinforced the image of Windber as a model community. Berwind-White built very few double houses within the town, the norm for miner housing, opting instead for predominantly detached, three bay, wood frame, weatherboard sided houses. The balloon-frame structures, marketed by the company not as simply worker accommodations but rather as "homes for participants in the 'Great Enterprise'" of extracting coal, were more solidly built than the houses in the surrounding patches. The units were also setback slightly from the wide, paved streets, creating a greater sense of space and a more attractive appearance.

But if living conditions as manifested in the architecture were better in Windber than in the surrounding patch towns, the social control exercised by Berwind-White was similar. Coal towns like Windber were stratified communities where the company, as the largest land owner and employer, dominated the town and in large measure determined its economic, social, and political character. As Margaret Mulrooney points out in her study of southwestern Pennsylvania coal towns, this created certain unique problems, even in Windber, chief among them the denial of civil liberties (Mulrooney: 25). Berwind-White exerted control directly through its monopoly over housing and jobs, the use of company spies, and the suppression of union activity, and indirectly through dominance of the government and press, and restrictive covenants in deeds. The situation created tension between the company and the town's residents, particularly among Windber's large ethnic work force, which sought to establish independent communities free from the company's control. These ethnic communities became the center for union agitation in Windber and elsewhere, which erupted in major strikes in Windber and the region in 1906 and 1922.

Berwind-White controlled Windber by monopolizing land ownership, housing, jobs, and dominating commercial activities and borough politics. Between 1897 and 1916 the company established the major institutions and important buildings in town, including its imposing Colonial Revival-style headquarter building; the flagship company store, the Eureka Department Store, and other branches near the various mine sites; the bank, trust company, and building and loan; the "clubhouse" where high-ranking absentee company officers stayed the dozen times they visited the town per year; the old and the new passenger and freight stations; the electric company, water and power authority; the publishing company; the park association; and the Windber Hospital. The company also built thousands of housing units for workers, most of which were rented. In politics, Berwind-White officials or company-supported candidates held all important elected positions. The political situation remained unchanged until the advent of the New Deal in the 1930s.

Direct and indirect measures reinforced the company's controls. For example, company advertisements and the potential economic opportunities in booming Windber lured many merchants, who established shops along Graham Avenue. Business independence was restricted, however, by rental and purchase agreements limiting land use, and Berwind-White's control over the transportation facilities, the utilities, and the press. A short-lived independent business association and newspaper were quickly suppressed by the company. In addition, miners were expected to patronize the Eureka stores, which boasted the slogan "Dealers in Everything," despite their higher prices. Naturally, the company's control was not absolute; shopping options existed in town, and the city of Johnstown was only a ten mile streetcar ride away. But company spies often questioned or followed workers who shopped outside the company stores; the next day they frequently found identical goods from the Eureka Department store on their doorstep, and their accounts charged. These situations created friction between the company, residents and merchants until the 1930s, when unionization and the widespread use of the private automobile changed the context in which the town existed.

Many of the controls were directed at the immigrant workers who occupied Berwind-White's company-built and rented houses. The composition of that work force followed a pattern typical for the area. To open the Windber mines, Berwind-White initially imported English, Welsh, and American-born miners, many transferred from company operations in Centre and Clearfield Counties. As the town developed and grew, mine foremen and officials, the growing professional class, and most merchants still came predominantly from these ethnic groups. In the mines, however, immigrants from eastern and southern Europe quickly replaced the older immigrants. The newcomers needed little experience in coal mining to operate Berwind-White's modern, mechanized extraction equipment. By 1910, 69% of Windber's population was either foreign born or of foreign parentage, with four ethnic groups predominating (in descending order): Slovaks, Italians, Magyars, and Poles. The Census Bureau, however, identified as many as 25 different ethnic derivations as living in Windber or the surrounding area. The influx continued until a rebirth of nativism and subsequent passage of national immigration restrictions after 1924 severed the pipeline, causing Berwind-White to rely increasingly on American-born workers and the sons of current miners.

Company promises of ready housing, steady work, and ethnic fellowship enticed the predominantly young, male, married, and Catholic immigrants to Windber. In and out migration was prolific; most new immigrants considered their stays in the new world as temporary, or came in advance of their families hoping to secure funds to bring them to America. New arrivals quickly replaced those who left to pursue employment opportunities elsewhere or to escape Berwind-White's control and staunch anti-unionism. Generally the new immigrants worked manual labor jobs in and around the mines or in trades such as blacksmithing, stone cutting, masonry, shoemaking, and barbering. Immigrant women ran boarding houses, worked in domestic service, or filled the few retail clerical positions available in town; some went to larger nearby communities like Johnstown or Pittsburgh to find work and spouses.

New arrivals generally rented company houses, or boarded with kin or people of the same nationality, creating small ethnic enclaves through a process of self-selection. Blankets and temporary partitions subdivided the crowded houses; most mining families averaged between two and six boarders. Despite this, Windber's ethnic population was not rigidly segregated. Even Windber's most cohesive neighborhoods like the Swedish area on Stockholm Avenue or "Little Italy" between 21st and 23rd Streets were interspersed with large number of Eastern Europeans.

Windber's immigrants, like other immigrant miners in the region, sought to sustain traditions and foster a sense of identity independent of the company by forming separate communities centered around national Catholic parishes, ethnic fraternal organizations, and small groceries and taverns. Between 1897 and 1921, Windber's miners began four such Roman Catholic parishes, which remain important in the community today: St. John Cantius (Polish, 1899), Saints Cyril and Methodius (Slovak, 1905), St. Anthony's (Italian, 1905), and St. Mary's Roman Catholic (Magyar, 1920). In addition, there was an English-speaking parish (Holy Child Jesus), two Greek-rite, Slovak Lutheran, and Hungarian Reformed churches.

The fraternal organizations often pre-dated the churches. Fraternals served a variety of functions, including providing death and sickness insurance benefits, perpetuating native languages and culture, sponsoring social occasions such as dances and dramatic events, and promoting American citizenship. The churches and fraternal organizations also became rallying places for clandestine union activity, the most direct challenge to company control. Some fraternals begun during this early period and still present in Windber today include the Polish Falcons; the Abruzzi Lodge; the Sons of Italy, the Slovak Workingmen's Beneficial Society; the Russian Educational Society, and the Hungarian Club.

The groceries catered to the particular tastes and needs each ethnic group. They grew up on Graham Avenue, particularly in Little Italy, in converted houses on street corners in the residential areas, and surrounding the branches of the company store. Their presence indicate a working class culture separate from Berwind-White.

Berwind-White, recognizing the potential challenge which these institutions could pose to its authority, took steps to limit their independence. The company generally donated or sold the lots for the buildings, but it retained mineral rights and perpetual control over the property's use through restricted covenants in the deeds. The latter was primarily designed to prevent union meetings. Priests not supporting Berwind-White from the pulpit faced dismissal. Less coercive measures included additional charitable contributions and the presence of loyal ethnic foremen, contractors, and bankers on the boards of directors of the churches and fraternals, thus insuring that the company's opinions were well represented.

In and around the mines staunchly anti-union Berwind-White deliberately integrated work gangs to restrict the rise of class consciousness and union sentiment. For the same reason, the company and its major stockholders paternalistically supported churches and schools, built playgrounds, organized or sponsored theatrical, athletic and recreation events, and constructed the Arcadia Theatre, Windber's major entertainment center, and the Windber Hospital (the latter with donations from the miners). Such measures, it believed, would keep the workers content and satisfied. During times of increased union agitation in Windber and the surrounding region the company frequently responded with preemptive pay increases, which nevertheless still did not equal the rate paid at surrounding union mines. More coercive steps included evicting from company houses and blacklisting miners suspected of union activities or sympathies.

Despite these measures, two major strikes challenging Berwind-White's control erupted in Windber, in 1906 and 1922, respectively; neither won the Berwind-White miners permanent gains. In April 1906, 3000 of 5000 nonunion Windber miners joined a United Mine Workers of America (UMWA)-sponsored national coal strike, protesting the company's refusal to recognize the union, employ checkweighmen to verify miner tonnage output (the source of pay), grant the eight hour day worked at union mines, or pay for "deadwork," time occupied at necessary non-mining activities, such as shoring up ceilings. When a general wage increase did not quell discontent, Berwind-White answered with private detectives, extra police, court injunctions, and evictions. On April 16 tragedy struck when sheriff's deputies opened fire on peaceful demonstrators milling outside of the jail, killing five people, including a 10-year old boy, and wounding 17. The "Windber Massacre" brought mounted state police to the town, and sentiment to end the strike. The UMWA settlement reached in June, however, excluded the nonunion Berwind-White miners. Discharges, blacklisting, and significant out migration followed in Windber, although the population was quickly replenished by new arrivals seeking jobs.

The same scenario repeated on a magnified scale in 1922. The UMWA struck nationally on April 1, 1922, and asked the nonunion western Pennsylvania forces to join them. Much to their surprise, Somerset County miners struck en masse five days later. Windber area miners shut down Berwind-White's operations completely, protesting the company's refusal to recognize the union or agree to checkweighmen, imposition of a 40% wage cut since 1921, and reclassification of some work as deadwork. When Berwind-White offered only to rescind the wage cut the miners organized three UMWA locals, the first in Windber's history.

The company countered with strikebreakers, extra police, court injunctions limiting the miners' ability to picket, and waves of evictions from company houses in late May and again in August, affecting thousands of people. In addition, the Eureka stores suspended credit and called in accounts. In response, home owning miners took in what strikers they could; the UMWA district office sent many away to other mining communities and established tent colonies outside of two area mines. After August the UMWA district office constructed barracks and rented any usable space, including chicken coops and barns. Many miners spent the harsh winter of 1922-23 living outside.

The national strike was settled in August but Windber miners were once again excluded from the settlement, the victims of a power struggle between UMWA forces led by John L. Lewis and local supporters loyal to District President John Brophy. Windber miners, however, remained on strike at Berwind-White for another 12 months. Their waning enthusiasm revived in November 1922 when New York City Mayor John Hylan and other city officials agreed to travel to Windber to assess the miners' living and working conditions. Company President Edward J. Berwind had used his position as a director of New York's Interborough Rapid Transit system to obtain the city's lucrative coal contract, but blamed the high price charged to the subway on the strike and high wages. The striking miners hoped the Hylan Committee's visit would reveal the true living conditions in Windber and force a favorable end to the dispute.

Initially Berwind-White agreed to support the investigation, provided it was kept secret. When the Hylan Committee refused the company publicly blasted the investigation, had spies follow the investigators, open their mail, and ransack their hotel rooms. The Committee's conclusion, that "the living and working conditions of the miners employed in the Berwind-White Coal Mining Company's mines were worse than the conditions of slaves prior to the Civil War" received wide publicity, shattering the myth of the company's model community, but led to no subsequent reforms.

The Windber miners, with their funds depleted, called off the strike in August 1923, 17 months after it began. The miners had won little. Wages were raised slightly, but they still worked longer hours for less pay than their unionized counterparts, and, most importantly, the open shop remained. To curb dissent, Berwind-White opened a night training school for employees and welcomed back many of the striking miners, who were more efficient workers than the strikebreakers. But not until the New Deal and the National Industrial Recovery Act was the union permanently readmitted to the Windber-area mines, ending the company's absolute control over the workplace.

The 1922 strike ended the boom years in the coal industry and at Berwind-White's Windber area mines. Business revived somewhat after the 1922 strike, but the mid- and late-1920s saw the end of steady work and plentiful jobs. Berwind-White fell victim to mine depletion and industry-wide problems like overproduction, competition from alternative fuels, and the passage of immigration restrictions. The Windber mines still remained important to the company through the World War II years, but to a lesser degree than before.

In the 1930s, Berwind-White entered a period of transition which would last several decades. The company began selling off its Pennsylvania and West Virginia mines, and pursuing non-coal related ventures such as industrial and health care products, real estate, and the extraction of other natural resources. As coal operations diminished, so did the prominence and prosperity of Windber and the surrounding communities. In 1950 the company began selling the company houses and other property holdings. By 1960 most of the housing had been converted to private ownership. The company closed its last Windber-area mine in 1962.

Today, Windber supports some light manufacturing and health care-related industries, but it is no longer the headquarters of a thriving western Pennsylvania coal mining operation. Windber's decline has been less severe than that of many of the surrounding coal towns due to the presence of employment opportunities and its proximity to Johnstown. The town remains attractive, and with its commercial district, attractive company buildings, large houses and miners' homes, churches and fraternal buildings, evokes the time when it was a key component in Berwind-White's coal empire, and a significant town in the Pennsylvania bituminous coal industry.


Mildred A. Beik, The Miners of Windber: Class, Ethnicity, and the Labor Movement in a Pennsylvania Coal Town, 1890s-1930s (Northern Illinois University: Unpublished Ph.D. Manuscript, 1989).

Margaret A. Mulrooney, A Legacy of Coal: The Coal Towns of Southwestern Pennsylvania (Washington, D.C.: HABS/HAER, 1989). 1-29, 51-90.

Frank Paul Alcamo, The Windber Story: A Twentieth Century Model Pennsylvania Coal Town (Windber, PA: Privately printed, 1983), 76-83, 129, 154-161, 205-245.

Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps (The Windber Museum and the Pennsylvania State University).

  1. Kuncio, Gerald M., Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, Windber Historic District, nomination document, 1991, National Park Service, National Register of Historic Places, Washington, D.C.

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