Natrona and Vandergrift – Life in “Steelburg”

The mid-19th century was bang in the middle of Industrialization in the United States, and certainly the rise and expansion of factories required a lot more labor than was available. Even after so many years, these towns are still around, albeit many close to ruin. However, if one were to visit these towns, some show significantly less wear and tear than others – Natrona and Vandergrift, two company towns about a half an hour drive away from each other are a prime example of this. Both towns, founded by wealthy industrialists with an aim to provide quick accessibility to the factories for their workers. Both these towns are also situated alongside railroads and rivers (Natrona next to the Allegheny River and Vandergrift next to the Kiskiminetas river), so as to import resources and export goods all across the nation. While there are a good number of similarities in these towns, after a century, there is a significant difference in their fabric. In Fig.1 and Fig.2, one can see that the bracketing of two factories in Natrona, along with a variety of other factors, has resulted in a severe amount of ruin, population loss, and general abandonment of the town. Vandergrift, on the other hand, as seen in Fig. 3 and Fig. 4, has maintained some of its beautiful homes and roads, appearing far more livable than Natrona. It is a true indicator that good urban design principles and methods can play an extremely critical role in the lifespan of a company town, even after a hundred years.

Natrona was a town built in 1850 for the factory workers of Pennsylvania Salt Manufacturing Company, a Philadelphia-based organization investing in chemicals, specifically Lye. Originally with a canal passing through it – created to ensure reliability over the Allegheny River’s low levels of water during the warmer months –  the town got further accustomed to air pollution with the removal of the canal and replacement with the Pennsylvania Railroad, that cuts right through the town and now even resembles a levy that might aid the town during the rainy months. Through Fig. 5 and Fig. 6, one can see the variety in housing available to the residents and employees of the factory, thereby calling it an “unmodeled factory town”. Fig.5 is an odd situation in Natrona, as one would assume the diminutive, high-pitched houses were for regular employees. They were, however, made for the managerial positions in the factory, placed almost adjacent to the factory, possibly in an attempt to observe the daily workings and are surprisingly some of the better kept houses, even to this day. With not much regard of the housing styles being developed or practiced in Pittsburgh, the owners of the Penn Salt factory proposed long brick row houses along several streets in Natrona, a typology known as “The Typical Philadelphia Home”. The owners of Pennsylvania Salt Co. did not choose to stay in Natrona, rather they continued to stay in Philadelphia – all this being telltale signs that a sense of housing hierarchy was missing in Natrona from the start, with a locale so polluted and gloomy that the owners chose to stay away. The main commercial road in Natrona, Center Street, was once aimed at being the center of commercial and civic activity, with a war memorial, a church, and banks. Unfortunately with time, majority of these buildings have been torn down and left as open lots, as seen in Fig. 7. The feeling of a main street is long gone, depicting that the low initial investment and care put into the town resulted in a loss of property and residents in the long run.

Compared to Natrona, Vandergrift, an industrial town built towards the turn of the 20th century for the workers of the Apollo Iron and Steel Company along the , owned by steelmaker George McMurtry and oil shipping captain Jacob Vandergrift. The idea for building a new company town came out of unrest and changes in ownership from the iron and steel mill in Apollo, Pennsylvania. While industry giants were known to claim that their company towns gave a good life for their employees and always fall through on those words – as fairly evident from the Homestead Strike of 1892 – McMurtry was one of the few that stood by and made sure that the workers in his factory had a town that was “better than the best” – aspects still seen to this day, as can be observed in Fig. 8. McMurtry, unlike several of his counterparts, was highly interested in “welfare capitalism”, a concept that aimed at going beyond just paychecks for employees. In fact,  McMurtry’s decisions and effort into creating the town of Vandergrift was so effective that his employees stood with him in breaking down steel mill strikes at the start of the 20th century. This steadfast behavior from McMurtry’s workforce resulted from three main decisions that went into creating his model industrial town.

One of McMurtry’s best decisions, if not the best decision, was to hire the firm of Olmsted, Olmsted and Eliot to design this house. Even though the renowned landscape designer Frederick Law Olmsted was retired at this time, his sons and partner took full charge and worked with McMurtry to see his vision come to fruition. The Olmsted brothers and their peers strongly believed that the environmental consequences of the rapid industrialization in the Southwestern Pennsylvania region were damaging to the urban industrial workers. Put simply, an unfavorable living environment made for unhappy workers. McMurtry, understanding the value of adequate infrastructure, lighting, and ventilation from his frequent trips to England, Germany, and France, came to be on the same wavelength as Olmsted, Olmsted, and Eliot. The design team implemented various planning methods reminiscent of the picturesque enclave, like winding roads, curvilinear landscapes that ran slightly askew of the natural contours for proper sewer drainage, and trees lining the sidewalks (refer to Fig. 9, Fig. 10, and Fig. 11). By fostering these principles and good town planning that would provide appropriate housing to the workers at a subsidized cost, McMurtry attempted to instill loyalty in his workforce at Vandergrift.

The second decision that McMurtry stuck to in his vision for Vandergrift was presenting a skewed version of community involvement in the planning of the town. While this may have been done by McMurtry with ulterior motives, as were the rest of his peers, McMurtry aimed at preventing an oppressive appearance. By calling on his employees to provide “idealized images of landscape”, McMurtry provided his employees with the belief that they were participating in the designing and planning of their town, thereby instilling a great amount of loyalty and faith in their employer, almost demeaning any unionization efforts that attempted to rise in Vandergrift. This was one of the main reasons as to why the workers at Apollo Iron and Steel were used as anti-union forces in strikes against workers in the United States Steel Corporation of 1901.

The third decision that McMurtry aimed to inculcate in his model town of Vandergrift was learning from the lessons of the then notoriously famous industrial town of Pullman, IL. Designed by Solon Beman and Nathan Barrett in 1880 for the workers of industrialist George Pullman’s Pullman Palace Car Company, it came to be a model for “everything that was evil with big businesses”. The town of Pullman did manage to satisfy the needs of the worker at the time – George Pullman himself stated that his town aimed to keep his men “clean, contented, sober, educated, and happy” through the provisions of various amenities in the town such as hotels, churches, and a market hall, not to mention indoor plumbing, gas, and sewers. However, with the financial crisis of 1893, the desire for Pullman cars dropped drastically, leading to a huge cut in workers wages, so radical that a lot of workers were not able to pay the fixed rent for the houses they were living in. It was either moving or revolting, of which the latter was pursued, resulting in one of the largest national labor strikes of the 19th century. McMurtry, in an attempt to provide only the best for his workers, took lessons in worker home ownership from his visits to French and German industrial towns that offered several benefits to employees that could result in a productive and loyal workforce. Firstly, by providing ownership, workers felt a sense of pride and encouragement in their homes. Secondly, by making fixed investments in housing, workers were able to make financial commitments  to their new hometown. Thirdly, McMurtry further aided his worker’s rent issues by offering low-interest loans for housing – a practice borrowed from Andrew Carnegie’s works at Munhall.  Lastly, with the help of Olmsted, Olmsted, and Eliot, McMurtry saw to it that his new town had an appealing visage with infrastructural improvements when necessary.

Despite the demeanor of the model industrial town, there were flaws to Vandergrift, such as the dispute over the Village Green that resulted in the souring of the relationship between the designers and McMurtry, and the need for more rental housing due to the difficulty in housing low-income and immigrant workers. However, one of the most unfortunate faults of Vandergrift came in the form of a residential alternative for mainly immigrant workers, called Morning Sun (seen in Fig. 12). Located East of Vandergrift, right on the floodplain, this was clearly undesirable land for anyone to reside in. Immigrant workers had no choice in the matter, if they wanted a job at Apollo Iron and Steel. It was highly evident that not much care and thought went into Morning Sun in comparison to Vandergrift, as the former had no running water or sewers at the time, and the housing type mainly consisted of shanties lined up along seven unpaved paths. There was a horrendous amount of disassociation that came from Vandergrift towards Morning Sun, that to prevent residents from one to walk through the other, Vandergrift erected a fourteen-foot-high white- washed fence between the two settlements, clearly separating the two and indicating a difference in affluence between the two towns.

As we can see that no industry town was perfect and a great deal of these flaws seem to come from the lackadaisical attitude from the industry owners, it is evident even to this day – almost one hundred and fifty years later – that Vandergrift is a far more appealing town to reside in, compared to Vandergrift – the quality of care put into home, landscape, and planning made a world of a difference. Industrial towns were mostly aimed at providing workers with a residence close enough to their workplace to save time. For a lot of industry towns – Natrona included – a lot of oversight in the long run led to a run-down, almost dying appearance of a town. Vandergrift, on the other hand, with the prominent work of the Olmsted brothers, provided not only appealing homes, but a smorgasbord of amenities and benefits that boosted worker productivity, happiness, and consequently their loyalty to their employer – strengthening relations between boss and subordinate.


Fig. 1 (left) and Fig. 2 (right):  One can see through these images of housing in Natrona that the town appears to now be in a dilapidated state, with very few residents making their way outdoors, an environment that is tarnished by the bracketing factories and the loud vehicles that enter and exit it frequently.

Fig. 3 (left) and Fig. 4 (right): Compared to Natrona, Vandergrift seems like walking into a town one would assume took lessons from a romantic garden, with its greenery, quaint homes, and winding streets.  


Fig. 5: High-pitched houses with board and batten siding that came to be known as “pigeon homes”. These homes were surprisingly intended for the management positions of the Penn Salt Company – an odd choice given that it was right in front of the factory, a location that might be deemed unlivable.


Fig. 6: Traditional brick row housing that seemed to be the most prevalent in Natrona at the time. This kind of housing was typical of Philadelphia, where the Penn Salt Company originated from.


Fig. 7: What once aimed to be a thriving commercial and cultural center of Natrona now lays barren with several lots empty and unused, losing the vitality of a usual town center.


Fig. 8: An intersection in Vandergrift that still maintains some of the winding streets and impressive facades from the time the town was built.

Fig. 9 (above), Fig. 10 (bottom left), and Fig. 11 (bottom right): These images show the various landscape and planning implementations by Olmsted, Olmsted, and Eliot still prevalent today – Fig. 9 and Fig. 10 show the variety in housing style and size, while Fig. 11 shows an example of a winding residential street.


Fig. 12: The location of various residential alternatives for the workers of Apollo Iron and Steel. Low-income workers were targeted to reside in Vandergrift Heights, whereas immigrant workers were targeted to stay in Morning Sun.


Works Cited

Casper, Amanda. “Row Houses.” Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia. 2013. Accessed October 02, 2018.

Mosher, Anne E. “”Something Better Than the Best”: Industrial Restructuring, George McMurtry and the Creation of the Model Industrial Town of Vandergrift, Pennsylvania, 1883-1901.” Annals of the Association of American Geographers 85, no. 1 (March 1995): 84-107.

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