Preserving the Tangible Remnants of Our Great Industrial Past

Joseph Hensel

Joseph Hensel

Growing up in the Coal and steel region of Southwest Pennsylvania, Joseph Hensel had collected industrial memorabilia before he could drive.  As his young friends were breaking the windows in the abandoned facilities they played in, Joseph, marveled at the architecture and history, picked up rusty artifacts and took them home.  Later, as a Westinghouse Sales Representative, he saw historic artifacts in the old steel mills, coal mines, power plants, and industrial facilities he called on.  He recognized the age of the plants and the tide of labor-intensive jobs being shipped out of the country.  As he sold new equipment to the facilities, he salvaged what he could, if the plant principals would humor his nostalgia.  He complimented his huge collection with finds at auctions and demolition sites. After 18 years with Westinghouse, Joseph left his job to create and sell assemblage art from his repurposed industrial artifacts. He sells at galleries and juried art shows around the northeast and the Midwest.

assemblage art

In 2014, Joseph purchased the rights to salvage wood foundry patterns and other artifacts from the United States Steel facility in Johnstown Pennsylvania.  In 2016, Joseph was shown the drawing vault by the Chief Engineer at the plant.  They entered through bank vault style steel doors, into the fireproof brick room, containing three corridors of flat files, stacked 8 feet high.  In them, was a collection of hand drawn mechanical, railroad, and architectural drawings, that span 130 years.  Industrial American history on “paper”. The drawings were ink on vellum, or pencil on mylar.  The subjects of the drawings were fabricated into rail cars and track, buildings, and industrial equipment, right here in Johnstown, Pa.

The earliest drawings were from the first inhabitant of the plant, Johnson Traction Co., in 1883. They manufactured railroad track, frogs, and switching equipment.  Here, they also developed the Johnstown and Stony Creek Railroad trolley lines.  Some of the drawings from the 1800s depicted the layout of right-of-ways through city streets and farms, and were complimented with legal documents for some.  Likewise, maps depicting coal rights under properties of well-known Johnstown residents such as VonLunen and Suppes are noted.  Demonstrating the reach of Johnstown companies, drawings also depict trolley lines in Cuba in 1930, with accompanying photos of the Engineers installing the track, with palm trees in the background. The company morphed into Lorain Steel Co./Illinois Steel, a division of Federal Steel, in 1898.  Those companies were absorbed into United States Steel in 1901.  The Carnegie Steel Company, The Illinois Steel Company, and The Lorain Steel Company, were consolidated to form the Carnegie Illinois Steel Corporation, in 1935. The drawings had accumulated as the ownership of the plant changed hands.  The drafting department plans created in Johnstown Pennsylvania were then fabricated at the plant and used in sister United States Steel facilities, both nationwide and worldwide.  The drawings legends’ detail which USS plants or customers’ facilities the products where to be used.  Many of the drawing’s renderings were shipped to customers locations such as Cuba, Iran, Mexico, South America, and Europe.

drawing sent to Mexico

Joseph bought the salvage rights to the drawings, and for the next year, he moved the drawings to his studio.  He then deconstructed the wood and metal flat files that housed the drawings, and lowered them from the second floor, for transport to his studio at the 1936 Forest Park Club, where he reconstructed them and replaced the drawings. Joseph Hensel is up-cycling these drawings into framed originals, assemblage art, and illuminated collage.  The same care will be taken to maintain the original integrity of the drawing, as he affords the foundry patterns and other artifacts when repurposing. Joseph is pleased to celebrate the accomplishments of Americans by preserving the tangible remnants of our great industrial past, and making them available for the future.

Learn More About My Work

The Tribune Democrat – Historic steel mill art pieces on display downtown

Bo Moore – 12/15/2022 Radio Interview

104.5 FM Radio Interview