At a time of labor unrest in the late nineteenth century, George McMurtry, chairman of Pennsylvania’s Apollo Iron and Steel Company traveled to Europe to explore planned factory villages. Partnering with entrepreneur J. J. Vandergrift, who, an associate of John D. Rockefeller, McMurtry had plans to expand to a new plant on hilly farmland along the Kiskiminetas River. McMurtry envisioned his workers would buy, not rent, their homes as a means of ensuring a committed labor force. In 1895 he requested a visit from Frederick Law Olmsted, Sr., to develop the plan. Since Olmsted, Sr., had essentially retired by then, John Charles Olmsted took the lead.
Olmsted located railroad and factory buildings on flatland by the river, while placing the main business street and residential areas on higher ground above pollution (smoke and sound). He envisioned wide, paved streets for good drainage, ample and deep single-family lots, and small parklets, all curving around the hillside. This curvilinear street pattern carved out what should have been the central core—the village green—with its abutting municipal building, the casino, offset to the northern edge of the town.
This quickly implemented 1896 plan resulted in architecturally varied and individualized Victorian homes along treelined streets, with churches, schools, parks, and independent businesses along Grant Street. Although the intended Olmsted lot sizes were reduced to maximize house sites and roads were narrowed, the well-engineered drainage and paving systems were retained. Lots sold quickly when bidding began. For the lower-paid and foreign-born workers, Vandergrift Heights and East Vandergrift were developed (not by the Olmsted firm) with smaller lots and with fewer amenities. McMurtry’s real estate gamble paid off when, during the labor troubles around 1901, his workers supported him because they liked their modern town. Although the mill ownership and product changed over time; and the community has weathered serious economic challenges, there is a strong sense of pride of place to this day. Vandergrift was listed in the National Register of Historic Places as a Historic District in 1995.