Historical Markers
Henry Clay Frick [Bituminous Coal] Historical Marker
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Henry Clay Frick [Bituminous Coal]

Pittsburgh Region


Marker Location:
437 Grant St., Frick Bldg., Pittsburgh

Dedication Date:
December 10, 1946

Behind the Marker

Henry C. Frick  Engraving
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Henry C. Frick, circa 1892.
Henry Clay Frick dominated the coke industry during the late nineteenth century, first as head of his own company, and then as a partner with markerAndrew Carnegie. [He and Carnegie also integrated coke and steel production. His dominance of the coke industry contrasted with the fragmented ownership of bituminous coal mines in western Pennsylvania and more closely resembled the oligarchic control that a handful of railroads exercised over anthracite mining in eastern Pennsylvania (see the markerDanville-Pottsville Railroad marker essay in the Anthracite story).

A huge coke arch stretches across the width of a street. On the top of the arch is a sign that reads: HCFC Co. People are standing under and to either side of the arch, as well as along the city street. Directly underneath the center of the arch, a young boy kneels with his arms around his dog's neck. Banners and flags hang from the buildings. To the right of the photograph are vendors and a large barrel that reads "ice water". Almost every man on the street wears a suit and a hat. In the background of the image, on the opposite side of the arch one can see two wagons and horses harnessed.
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Coke Arch constructed by the H.C.Frick Coal Company, Connellsville, PA, 1906....
Coke manufacture in southwestern Pennsylvania was divided among numerous, small operations in 1870. Frick soon transformed the coke industry and his fortunes. About 1870, while working in his grandfather's store in Westmoreland County, young Frick remarked, "I see no reason why I should not become a millionaire during my lifetime." He observed that iron furnaces needed coke produced from local coal, and he determined to make his fortune in the coke industry. He, two relatives, and a friend formed a company in 1871 to produce coke for iron foundries and blast furnaces. The firm started small, purchasing 123 acres of coal land and fifty ovens in Fayette County.

By 1873 the firm, renamed Frick and Company, operated 200 beehivemarkercoke ovens or about five percent of the total ovens in the Pittsburgh coal seam (see markerFirst Mining of Pittsburgh Coal. Then the 1873 Panic hit, depressing coke sales greatly and threatening to put Frick and Company out of business.
Image of workers and the coke ovens.
Coke ovens owned by the Henry Clay Frick Coke Company, Mount Pleasant, PA,...
Astute and determined, Frick pursued customers for his coke unceasingly.

In 1876, as demand for coke began to recover from the economic depression, Frick starting buying up coke ovens, and in 1879 purchased coal land in Morewood, Westmoreland County to build another 500 ovens. By his thirtieth birthday in 1879, he reached his goal of becoming a millionaire. Continuing his acquisitions, in 1883 he reached another milestone, ownership of more than one third of the coke ovens in the Connellsville district of the Pittsburgh seam. He owned far more than his nearest competitor, and had established himself as "The Coke King."

Frick's growing dominance of the coke industry made him an attractive partner for Andrew Carnegie, who led the enormous expansion of the iron and steel industry in the Pittsburgh region. In 1881 Frick was already selling more of his coke to Carnegie's iron furnaces than to any other customer. Carnegie decided, "We must attach this young man Frick to our concern. He has great ability and great energy. Moreover, he has the coke-and we need it."
Illustration from Harper's Weekly depicting the Homestead Strike of 1892. Shows Pinkertons, escorted by armed union men, leaving the barges after surrendering. Engraving by W.P. Synder after a photograph by Dabbs.
Color engraving of the Homestead Strike, Harper's Weekly, 1892.

In 1882 Carnegie and his associates bought shares of the newly formed H.C. Frick Coke Company, and by autumn 1883 they owned a majority share. This partnership benefited Frick and the Carnegie associates in several ways. The Carnegies obtained coke at a lower price than they could from other suppliers, reducing their steel production costs and raising profits.
Image depicting scenes from the battle of Homestead, as it progressed.
"Great Battle of Homestead. Defeat and Capture of the Pinkerton Invaders, July...

They also gained Frick's astute managerial abilities and determination. Frick rose to the top management of the Carnegie Steel Company, serving as president or chairman from 1889 to 1900. Frick gained capital with which he continued purchasing coal lands and coke ovens in the Pittsburgh seam. By 1900 H. C. Frick Coke Company controlled nearly 15,000 coke ovens, or about half of the coke ovens in southwestern Pennsylvania.

But Frick's partnership with Carnegie was a double-edged sword. When Frick became a minority owner, Carnegie became the key decision maker in H.C. Frick Coke Company. Conflict between Frick and Carnegie grew over time. Frick, who disdained workers in his drive for profits and expansion, bluntly refused to allow a pay raise during an 1887 strike by coke workers. Carnegie and his associates, who wanted a continuous supply of coke for their iron and steel mills, overruled Frick and forced him to grant the raise, a decision that Frick always resented.

Burning barges at the Homestead Works of Carnegie Steel, on the Mongahela River, during the 1892 steel strike.
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Burning Pinkerton barge on the Mongahela River, Homestead, PA., July 7, 1892.
Frick gained notoriety during the 1891 marker Morewood Massacre in which his deputies fired on striking coke workers, killing seven. Relations between Frick and Carnegie deteriorated further during the 1892 markerHomestead strike in which Frick fomented a deadly battle with striking steel workers. Finally, Carnegie expelled Frick from the steel company in 1900.

Frick's dominance of the coke industry contrasted sharply with the diffuse ownership of bituminous mines. During the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, coal-mining companies varied in size from small "country bank" mines to huge firms; however, most coal companies were small and locally owned.

In 1919, 1,348 companies employed on average thirteen workers and mined less than 25,000 tons annually. At the other end of the scale, twenty firms averaged 2,400 workers and each extracted over one million tons annually. But not even the largest firms dominated the bituminous coal industry. An observer of the industry wrote in 1925 that operators were "a heterogeneous, unorganized, infinitely diverse, and hotly competing aggregate."

Entrepreneurs found it fairly easy to enter coal mining. They had a ready supply of coal spread across an area almost twice the size of New Jersey, and they needed a small amount of capital to open a mine. Large firms were unable to keep new operators from entering the fields, and they could not drive out the many existing, small and medium-size companies. Firms' sporadic efforts to voluntarily limit production and fix prices mostly failed.

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