Historical Markers
Henry Clay Frick [birthplace] Historical Marker
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Henry Clay Frick [birthplace]

Laurel Highlands/Southern Alleghenies


Marker Location:
PA 819 at SR 3089 (old US 119) N end of Scottdale

Dedication Date:
December 10, 1947

Behind the Marker

Oil on canvas of Henry Frick.
Henry Clay Frick, by Sir Gerald Festus Kelly, 1924.
On a Sunday afternoon walk during the summer of 1881 markerAndrew Carnegie the hard-charging owner of the most aggressive steel company in America, had a sudden inspiration: "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." Thus began one of the great sagas in American business.

For nearly two decades, until their falling-out in 1900, Frick and Carnegie together would build an immense business empire. Then, for nearly two decades until their deaths in 1919, the two men would be the bitterest of enemies.

General view of the coke ovens and men loading coke into cars.
Connellsville's beehive ovens
Looking back, markerConnellsville coke and markerPittsburgh steel might seem an inevitable match. Steel begins with iron, and iron begins with iron ore and a carbon-rich fuel.

For many decades Pennsylvania's ironmakers had used charcoal to transform iron ore into metallic iron. Then from 1855 to 1875, hard anthracite coal, plentiful in the state's northeast corner, smelted most of the nation's iron. Finally, soft bituminous coal from western Pennsylvania took over as the chief ironmaking fuel. While anthracite could be charged directly into an ironmaking furnace, bituminous coal needed to be baked to rid it of its unwanted gases, oils, and tars. The resulting product was coke.

The first markercoke oven in the Connellsville district was scarce a decade old at the time of Henry Clay Frick's birth in 1849. Even as a child growing up on a farm south of Mount Pleasant, Clay Frick showed, as a biographer put it, "a kind of inner strength and inflexibility of purpose." Frick's father was a struggling farmer with impossible dreams of becoming a painter. The boy, instead, looked up to his maternal grandfather, Abraham Overholt.

In 1800 Overholt had moved from the Philadelphia area to Westmoreland County, establishing a prosperous household fifteen miles south of Greenberg. There, most famously, he built a prominent distillery known for "Old Overholt" brand of rye whiskey. He also raised livestock, erected flourmills, and mined local coal.

Snowy scene of the Henry Clay Frick Birthplace.
Henry Clay Frick was born in this house in West Overton, PA, in 1849.
The extended Overholt family helped young Clay Frick achieve his ambitions. At the district school his teacher was Henry Overholt. At age sixteen he lived with his uncle, Christian Overholt, president of the First National Bank in Mount Pleasant, then briefly attended college in Columbus, Ohio.

He returned to the country home, clerked at his uncle's general store while living in his grandfather's mansion, worked briefly in Pittsburgh as a store salesmen, and then for some years kept books for his grandfather's enterprise. Clay Frick was present when his grandfather, the district's wealthiest man, died at age seventy.

At age twenty-two, Frick entered the coke business, buying 123 acres of coal lands with his Overholt cousins and soon securing a $10,000 loan from the Pittsburgh banker Thomas Mellon, a family friend. Frick's direct request for a second loan prompted the bank to report favorably, "lands good, ovens well built; manager on job all day, keeps books evenings . . . knows his business down to the ground." Within two years, by 1873, Frick and Company owned 400 acres of coal lands and 200 beehive ovens for making coke.

In 1879 three notable events signaled that Henry Clay Frick was a rising force in the region. Already controlling 853 coke ovens, Frick bought up several farms to form the markerMorewood property. There, he planned an additional 500 ovens for his growing coke empire. Frick then brought to Morewood the first immigrant workers from eastern and southern Europe, described by a visiting Pittsburgh Dispatch reporter as "a convenient lever to the operator's hand, wherewith he regulates the more demanding spirit of his other laborers." Finally, on his birthday in December, Frick examined his account books, smiled with satisfaction, and bought himself a fresh five-cent Havana cigar to celebrate.

Genuine Connellsville coke engraving
"Genuine Connellsville Coke," H. C. Frick Coke Company lithograph, circa 1880.
At age thirty, he had made his first million dollars. The marriage between steel and coke, if inevitable, was also star-crossed. Early on, Chicago-area steel companies took a dominant share in the South West Coal and Coke Company that owned the Morewood property. Frick managed but did not control the company. Both Chicago and Pittsburgh steelmakers clamored for a regular supply of Connellsville coke for their mills.

In 1882 the Carnegie partners took an 11.25 percent share in the newly formed H. C. Frick Coke Company; at first Clay Frick's personal share in the $2 million company was about three times marker larger than their share

By 1887, however, the Carnegie partners were in a position to insist on an uninterrupted supply of coke. Since they owned three-quarters of his company, Frick had no choice but to increase his coke workers' wages and avoid a strike.

Frick's relations with Carnegie steadily deteriorated, through the markerHomestead strike of 1892 that brought Frick national notoriety, until his ejection from the Carnegie partnership in 1900. Until his death in 1919, Frick remained an important force in U.S. Steel, Pittsburgh real estate markerFrick office and the country's railroads.
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