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Windber

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The Windber area mines, owned and operated by the Philadelphia-based Berwind-White Coal Company, produced nearly 90 percent of the company's Pennsylvania coal, which it sold primarily to ocean-going steamship lines. With a population of over 10,000, the borough of Windber was the company's model town. It was laid out in 1897 by Heber Denman, a Berwind-White employee, to serve as the company's regional headquarters and as a commercial center for the eleven smaller mining settlements in the Wilmore Basin, a coal-rich region straddling the Somerset and Cambria county line.

Between 1900 and 1920, the company hired thousands of unskilled immigrant workers, mostly Slovaks, Magyars, Poles, and Italians. They worked for low wages and without union membership. Skilled workers and “company men” were almost exclusively American, English, or Scots-Irish. The company maintained strict control over almost every aspect of the residents' lives, employing most of the town's men and owning the land, company store, bank, newspaper, and utilities, and it subsidized the Windber Presbyterian Church and the Windber Park Association. But the company also encouraged outside businesses to open along Graham Avenue, and encouraged residents to purchase their own homes along the borough's tree-lined streets. Houses for the miners were small, five-room, balloon-frame, two-story buildings with electricity but without plumbing. The occupants were allowed some flexibility in the plan, such as the location of the exterior door, but their choices were limited. A few tenements, known as the “Hungarian Quarters,” were built using the vertical-plank method, as on the Blough farmhouse ( SO8). The more elaborate managers' houses were designed by company engineers using designs from pattern books.

By their size and design, Windber's buildings are role models for other coal towns. They include the Windber Borough Building (1902) at 1409 Somerset Avenue, formerly the company headquarters; Ameriserv Financial, formerly the Windber National Bank (c. 1910; 1501 Somerset Avenue); and the Railroad Station (1916; 1401 Graham Avenue). Philadelphia architect Henry L. Reinhold Jr. designed several buildings, including the Tudor Revival Eureka Department Store (c. 1899) at 15th Street and Somerset Avenue and the Windber Electric building of 1925 at 509 15th Street. The ethnic makeup of the town is most easily read in its numerous churches. Two of the four major churches retain their earlier ethnic affiliations: St. John Cantius Church (1913; 607 Graham Avenue) served the Irish and, later, the Polish communities. St. Mary's Greek Catholic church (1919, Walter J. Myton; Somerset Avenue and 7th Street) was built by the Slavic community. J. C. Fulton and Son designed two Protestant churches: the First Lutheran church (c. 1920; Somerset Avenue and 10th Street), and the First Presbyterian Church (c. 1929; 1101 Somerset Avenue).

A series of labor strikes and union problems in the 1920s and 1930s weakened the Berwind-White Coal Company. Union issues, combined with an unfavorable market, gradually caused the company to stop mining between 1949 and 1962. Berwind-White sold the company-owned houses, and sold the Eureka department store to new owners in 1969. When the company pulled out, it devastated the area economically. Windber is recovering, as people who moved away are now coming back to spend their retirement years. Two signs of this are the restoration in 1990 of the Arcadia Theater (1919–1921, Henry L. Reinhold and Ralph Land; 1418 Graham Avenue), and the adaptive reuse of the former Post Office and Wilmore Coal Company offices (1913) as the Windber Coal Heritage Center (501 15th Street), creating an exhibition center dedicated to the area's history and the miners who shaped it. A second museum resides in the frame, two-story farmhouse (c. 1869; 601 15th Street) that belonged to David J. Shaffer, with double-decker porches on the front and rear elevations.

Writing Credits

Author: 
Lu Donnelly et al.

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