Ford City came into being from the plans of Captain John B. Ford, an industrialist interested in establishing a plate-glass industry. In prior endeavors, Ford had owned and operated, among many things, a river shipping line from which he drew his capital. The site upon which Ford City is located consisted roughly 460 acres broken primarily into three farms owned by Ross, Spencer and Graff families.
Ford’s explorations of the area prior to his land acquisitions had discovered the Allegheny River offered a unique asset in its composition. Besides the obvious advantage of low-cost shipping, the Allegheny River is one of only four gravel- bottom rivers in the world. Characteristics of this type of river was massive deposits of glacial sand, an essential element in the manufacture of glass. Also discovered in the area were huge deposits of natural gas, the fuel source required to fire the immense kilns used to melt the glass’s elements. Having secured his resources, all that Ford required to begin his venture was a very large labor force.
As legends tells, Ford sent agents to glassmaking towns all across Europe. From existing European glass enterprises, his agents quietly recruited experienced glassworkers. Offering a fair day’s wage and affordable housing, Ford’s agents were highly successful in getting the workers Ford needed. They were so successful, in fact, that some towns in Europe were left nearly emptied of male adult glassworkers. An excellent example of this took place in Stolberg, Germany from which Ford recruited a large number of Ford City’s first glass-working immigrants. From Ireland and France, Ford lured away men experienced in supervision of a glassworks. The early recruited foreman were offered an excellent wage and the promise of a house with marble-mantled fireplaces. These early workers also brought with them their various faiths in God, which manifested in many different Catholic churches of Ford City, including Holy Trinity Roman Catholic Church; Christ Prince of Peace; and St. Francis DePaul.
In 1886, Ford City submitted and received its charter from the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. One of the men who delivered the original charter to Harrisburg was Robert Naismith, brother of James Naismith, the inventor of basketball. Previously part of Manor Township, Ford City Borough became one of the fastest-growing boroughs in the United States, gaining over 3,000 in population in only 10 years. Drawing workers and their families from over 35 identifiable European ethnic groups, Ford City became the quintessential example of America’s melting pot. Uniquely, Ford City never experienced racial or ethnic strife- Ford’s glass factory made all men equal.
Through the early 20th century, Ford’s company, Pittsburgh Plate Glass Company (PPG), became the leading manufacturer of glass in the entire world. Producing a better type of glass at a lesser price than its European competitors. PPG’s efficiency and product quality virtually ended the importation of European glass to the United States. As demand increased, the need for more laborers in the Ford City Works factory also increased. The town grew daily.
Through the early part of the 20th century, Ford City prospered. It touched every skyscraper of the United States in the glass that formed the exteriors of the magnificent structures. The common bond was found in the changing of the shifts at PPG and at the Friday-night basketball games. Ford City High School basketball has seemingly prospered the life of the town. Winning the section title was an annual event, and the teams amassed a Western Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic League (WPIAL) record 34 section titles. It used to be said that every garage in every alley in Ford City had a basketball hoop attached to it. Boulder Park became a mecca of summer league basketball, drawing teams from as far away as Pittsburgh and New Castle.
In the early 1970’s, manufacturing changes at PPG caused a relocation of many of the town’s workers. This trend continued for 20 years, with the workforce gradually being reduced or transferred to PPG’s other plants. Finally, in 1992, PPG permanently closed its gates and began the demolition of portions of the Ford City Works, formerly the largest plate-glass factory in the world. As its peak, PPG employed over 4,000 workers. Its loss to Ford City was profound and deeply felt. To this day, the number of pensioned workers from PPG Ford City Works is greater than the total workforces of many of PPG’s existing operating facilities. The loss of PPG was economically devastating to the town, yet its people remained bowed but not broken.
Pennsylvania State Representative (60th) and Ford City native Jeff Pyle