Cambria County was formed in 1804 from parts of Huntingdon and Somerset counties. Topographically, it is part of a ridge and valley formation, bounded by Laurel Hill on the west and Allegheny Mountain on the east. Straddling the Continental Divide, Cambria's streams drain into both the Gulf of Mexico and the Chesapeake Bay. The area's earliest settlers came in three waves in the 1790s: Roman Catholics traveled from Maryland and settled in the area around Loretto; Pennsylvania Germans from Somerset County settled in the Johnstown area; and immigrants from Wales founded Ebensburg and named the area Cambria after the Welsh mountains of that name.
Lumbering, iron, and steel production dominated the county's economy by the mid-nineteenth century. Small-scale coal mining began in Cambria County in the 1840s with the opening of iron furnaces. While most initially used charcoal, needing 150 acres of trees per year, by the 1850s, most furnaces had switched to coke (hard-baked coal) as their fuel source. By the 1920s, Cambria County mines were producing sixteen million tons of coal annually. Johnstown was the headquarters of the Cambria Iron Company after 1852 ( CA16). At its peak, in the 1870s, the company employed over 7,000 people, many of whom were immigrants from southern and eastern Europe. Industrial success prompted the growth of a local dairy industry needed to supply the coal miners and ironworkers. Ebensburg, the county seat, and Johnstown took advantage of the various means of transportation: water, turnpike, canal, and rail. Railroads sparked the growth of summer resorts, allowing heat-exhausted city dwellers to enjoy the cool mountain breezes at sites like Cresson. Today, the county is quartered by major highways: U.S. 22 bisects the county from east to west, and U.S. 219 from north to south.
The demise of coal mining and steel manufacturing caused household income to decline by almost 20 percent between 1980 and 1990. To offset this downturn, the county has embraced tourism by commemorating one of its darkest moments, the Johnstown Flood of 1889, with two museums ( CA14, and in the village of St. Michael), and a memorial at Grandview Cemetery. This has successfully drawn visitors back to the county, where they can enjoy hiking and biking along the Ghost Town Trail ( CA29), Prince Gallitzin State Park on PA 53, and the Allegheny Portage Railroad National Historic Site ( CA8), as well as the Johnstown Heritage Discovery Center in the former Germania Brewery building (1907 and 1995–2001) at 7th and Broad streets in Johnstown, and two of the four locations of the Southern Alleghenies Museum of Art in Johnstown (see CA28) and Loretto (see CA5).
Southeast of Johnstown at the confluence of Paint and Little Paint creeks, artist George Hetzel in 1866 found a place of great natural beauty called Scalp Level. The name derives from the farmers' wish that the local lumbermen would harvest all the local timber, that is, cut the trees to ground (or scalp) level, in order to clear the fields for farming. The following summer Hetzel convinced the entire faculty of the Pittsburgh School of Design to join him there and to immortalize these scenes from nature on canvas. Today, this region west of Windber and straddling the Cambria and Somerset county borders has been strip-mined beyond recognition, but the paintings of the Scalp Level painters preserved in museums and private collections nationwide depict the late-nineteenth-century glories of the territory.
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