Juniata Terrace: A lesson in history

The small borough of Juniata Terrace, once a close-knit company town, faces a long recovery from one of the most massive fires in recent Mifflin County memory. At least 22 landmark rowhouses were destroyed or severely damaged Thursday night on Terrace Boulevard.

The devastation parallels another historic fire, not so very far away from the blaze in the Terrace.

The long rows of brick townhomes in Juniata Terrace were built by the British Crown Rayon Company in 1923-24, for its workers. The company was eventually bought by the American Viscose Corp., a leading manufacturer of rayon. There were 250 homes.

Those who were able to secure steady jobs at the plant flocked to the neighborhood, many from Pennsylvania coal towns where many people were unemployed due to faltering mines. The 15-cents-an-hour wage at the Viscose couldn’t be beat.

The newcomers were met with new luxuries on the Terrace – electricity and running water. The new residents of Juniata Terrace moved into homes with running water, electricity and plumbing. The company also hired a plumber, electrician and painter to maintain the homes. Only workers at the Viscose were allowed to rent the houses.

All of the homes were the same, except the end houses, which were a little bigger. They were made out of brick and included three bedrooms and a bathroom upstairs, with a living room and kitchen/dining room downstairs, plus a front porch, a small back yard and a basement.

Rent was $1 a week. The rental fee included maintenance and annual wallpapering and painting, resulting in the same “green and cream” color scheme still prevalent on many of the rowhouses today.

Oldtimers remembered playing football, hopscotch and jacks, and many children spent time on the river, and rode their sleds down Tank Hill.

It was a time when the milkman delivered milk by horse and wagon, and a man delivered coal to heat the homes.

The Viscose also built a school, which served students through seventh grade. The Mifflin County School District closed Juniata Terrace School in 1976 and sold the building to the borough for $1.

The original Lewistown Christian and Missionary Alliance Church in Juniata Terrace was built in the 1950s.

That was also in that decade that the American Viscose Corp. gave up its landlord status, allowing residents of Juniata Terrace to purchase their own homes for $2,800.

A small grocery store -Wilson’s Meats and Grocery -has served the Terrace since it was purchased by Melvin Wilson in 1965. The store was originally built by the Viscose as a grocery on one side and a drug store/soda fountain on the other side.

Juniata Terrace was incorporated as a borough in 1967.

The flood of 1972 marked a turning point in Juniata Terrace’s history. The Viscose closed, leaving some 800 people unemployed.

Over the years, the population of Juniata Terrace changed somewhat and the neighborhood is also home to renters and younger families.

Not too far from Juniata Terrace, a few miles down Route 333, more commonly known as the Hawstone Road, is the site where another massive fire leveled a portion of a company town years ago.

On Tuesday, July 10, 1962, a fire truck responded to a call behind the Haws Refractory, and stopped at a hydrant in the village built by the company for its workers.

One of the firemen noticed that a house in the neighborhood was on fire. While information about the first small fire was lost in history, it was the second fire that people still remember today.

The fire, reportedly started by children playing with matches, engulfed 21 homes, three vacant houses and the Christian and Missionary Alliance Church, and left more than 70 people in 13 families homeless. In addition, sparks were carried by a stiff wind across the Juniata River, igniting a blaze on Shade Mountain in the Lewistown Narrows.

A lack of water in the area forced the fire companies to haul water from as far away as The Viscose, and hoses were run across the tracks of the Pennsylvania Railroad and into the river, which stopped rail traffic until the hoses could be laid underneath the tracks.

Another obstacle confronting the firemen was intense heat. It was so hot that it charred highway guard rails stored in a shelter some 100 feet from the fire.

There were no lives lost during the fire at Hawstone, however, several firefighters were treated for forehead burns received from overheated helmets, and one escaped serious injury when the back of his coat became engulfed in flames. Other firemen pulled the jacket from his body and doused him with a pumper hose.

Sources: Sue Caldwell’s story in “Juniata Valley Neighborhoods” special edition published in 1995; Susie Kozar’s story in “Art and Architecture of the Juniata Valley” special edition, published in 2005; Megan Bollinger’s story on the retirement of longtime Mayor Marvin Lantz, published in December 2009; stories by Missi Bair and Elaine Siddons in “Connections to Sentinel Towns Volume 1.”