When George Hetzel made his last visit in the late 1890s, the Stonycreek watershed was still quite rural. The exception was Johnstown (21,805 residents in 1890 and 35,936 a decade later), its growing population a tribute to political consolidation and the success of the Cambria Iron Company. In contrast, Berlin, the watershed's next largest settlement, had about 900 residents in 1890, followed by Stoystown (291) and Jennertown (now Jennerstown) (95).
Despite the distinctly rural character of the watershed, significant changes were underway near the turn of the century. Accessibility was improving. Agriculture was becoming more market oriented. Rural iron furnaces had closed, victims of technological innovations that made them obsolete and economically unviable. Although agriculture, logging and charcoal production had reduced the forest cover, a great deal of it was still undisturbed, especially in upland areas. Streams and rivers still ran clear, and the fishing was said to be good.
Until the 1890s, most visible changes to the watershed were the result of clearing the forests for agriculture. Two centuries of human impact on the area's woods and waters—through farming, mining, iron making, charcoal production and logging—cannot be ignored. However, their consequences paled in contrast to what was about to occur, as the region plunged headlong into the industrial era.
The industrial era began abruptly in the Stonycreek watershed, commencing in 1897 with the simultaneous arrival of large scale coal mining and equally industrial-scale logging, milling and planing operations. Although agriculture remained important, coal mining in particular altered the area's economic base, stimulated population growth through immigration, and significantly transformed the character and appearance of the landscape. Improved accessibility was key to these changes.
Johnstown had been an important stop between Philadelphia and Pittsburgh since the opening of the Allegheny Portage Raiload in 1834. It was even more efficiently connected once the portage and rail system was replaced with continuous rail track in 1854, the Pennsylvania Railroad's "Main Line." Beyond Johnstown, however, the rest of the Stonycreek watershed remained in comparative isolation. This situation was somewhat remediated in 1881, when the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad laid track for the Somerset & Cambria Railroad, thus connecting Johnstown and Somerset for the first time by rail. The line followed the general path of the Stonycreek River, providing access for settlements like Friedens, Stoystown and Hollsopple. The Somerset and Cambria RR line linked with an existing B&O spur line from Somerset to Rockwood (the Somerset and Mineral Point Railroad), which in turn connected with the B&O in Cumberland, MD. Berlin linked south to the B&O by a separate line.
Johnstown's tragic 1889 flood ended the northern Stonycreek's isolation when the failed dam at South Fork created an access point south to the Stonycreek watershed. During the next two years, the South Fork Railroad built a spur line through the bed of the former Lake Conemaugh, connecting mines in Dunlo to the Pennsylvania Railroad. This line was extended south in 1897 to Berwind-White Coal Mining Company's new model town, Windber, under construction near Scalp Level, where for several years company agents had been busy buying up land and mineral rights.
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