Vandergrift – the history

… an American Original
Vandergrift, PA
Westmoreland County

Founded in 1895, Vandergrift was the first successful planned industrial town designed to be sold to its workers. George McMurtry, president of the Apollo Iron & Steel Co., Apollo, Pa., needed to expand his successful galvanized steel operations. Beset with labor problems and unable to acquire additional land, he selected a 650-acre farm site a few miles downstream on the Kiskiminetas River, some forty miles from Pittsburgh. He than approached the designer of the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, Frederick Law Olmsted, to design a town that would be “something better than the best.” The result was Vandergrift, (named for Capt. J.J. Vandergrift, a director of the steel company) a town with gently curving streets that follow the natural slope of the hills. Everything was made ready in advance: The steel mill was built. The streets were graded, utilities were installed (including water, natural gas, electric lines, and sewer lines). Streets and sidewalks were paved, trees were planted, and street lights were erected. Finally, free lots and half the cost of construction were offered to the churches. Then, when everything was in readiness, the building lots were offered for sale to the workers so that they could build their own homes. In 1895, this was a unique idea in America–that a company would build a town entirely in advance and then turn over its control to the workers.

The town’s success came swiftly. Soon the mill became the world’s largest rolling mill, hundreds of private homes were built, the population swelled to 11,000, and a delegation from the British Parliament came to study its success. In 1904, when a model of the town was displayed at the St. Louis World’s Fair, the town’s design won two gold medals. (as shown)

In 1915, Vandergrift merged with Vandergrift Heights, and in 1957 West Vandergrift was annexed. In 1988, the steel mill was purchased by Allegheny Ludlum Corporation, specialty steel makers, and is a “state of the art” mill today. Nearly a century after its founding, the town remains eighty to ninety percent intact, its Queen Ann & Victorian homes architectural treasures ideal for restoration, its awareness of its unique heritage growing, and its outlook for the second century optimistic. The town is now listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Click here for a 1895 map of Vandergrift.

The Founder, 1838-1915
George Gibson McMurtry was born near Belfast, Northern Ireland. Orphaned at an early age, he was raised on a farm by an uncle. He tried farming and the army before coming to America to better his life.

He drifted from city to city, finally arriving in Detroit almost penniless, where he found work. He began his career in the steel business with the Jones & Laughlin Steel Company in Chicago and was transferred to Pittsburgh. After serving as a Major in the Union Cavalry during the Civil War, he became associated with the Volta Galvanizing Company. He was made president of their operation in Apollo, Pa., called the Apollo Iron & Steel Co. The company prospered and McMurtry became a significant shareholder. Lacking room to expand the plant, he convinced company directors to build a new mill and town on farmland downriver from Apollo. For ideas, he visited industrial villages in France, Germany, and Russia. He hired Frederick Law Olmsted to design his new town, where workers would be healthy and happy. His dream included clean water, parks, a cultural center and comfortable homes for his workers. Vandergrift stands as a lasting tribute to McMurtry’s dream.

The Designer, 1822-1903
The spirit of Frederick Law Olmsted, the famed landscape designer who worked in partnership with nature, is evident in Vandergrift’s natural layout–in its curved, tree-lined streets, in its parklets, and in its wide mall leading from the old railroad station to the historic Casino town hall.

In 1895, Olmsted’s firm designed Vandergrift near the end of his disguished career, which began with his design of New York City’s Central Park. His many landscape achievements include the grounds of the U.S. Capitol, the campus of Stanford University, the Biltmore Estate and city parks from Boston to San Francisco. His master plan for the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair helped bring him to the attention of Vandergrift’s founder, George McMurtry.

Numerous plans and historic photos of Vandergrift are preserved in Olmsted’s studio–a national historic site–in Brookline, MA, operated by the National Park Service.

For more information about Olmsted, see the Life of Frederick Law Olmsted at the University of Connecticut.
The information on this page is based on documents published through grants from Allegheny Ludlum, Kiski Area Historical Society, Vandergrift Area Business and Professional Association, and Victorian Vandergrift Museum & Historical Society with some design and graphic art by Artmedia.