Historical Markers
Duquesne Steel Works [Great Depression] Historical Marker
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Duquesne Steel Works [Great Depression]

Pittsburgh Region


Marker Location:
East Grant Ave. and Linden St. (Pa. 837), Duquesne

Dedication Date:
October 12, 1997

Behind the Marker

The Great Depression impacted all corners of the Commonwealth's economy, but it hit Pennsylvania industries particularly hard. Single industry steel towns in the once prosperous Monongahela Valley proved especially vulnerable, since the wages paid by large steel manufacturers supported not just the steel workers and the merchants with whom they did business, but also paid the property taxes that financed most municipal services. As orders for steel dried up, so did employment in steel producing regions across the Commonwealth.

Duquesne Steel Works
The Duquesne Steel Works, circa 1930.
Situated in the center of the Mon Valley, the city of Duquesne was home to the sprawling Duquesne Steel Works, one of United States Steel's major plants. After the Depression struck, Duquesne, like many steel plants, subsisted for a time on back orders, but by early 1931 the mill had filled these and new orders for finished steel of the sort made at Duquesne - billets used in new building construction - had virtually evaporated.

In response, plant managers shut down more and more of the mill's operations. By 1934, less than a quarter of its open hearths were in operation. Elsewhere, the situation was even worse. The Edgar Thomson Works in Braddock, for instance, produced no steel for nearly two years.

Production cutbacks devastated steel worker families and their neighborhoods. By 1934, 29 percent of Duquesne's steelworkers were unemployed. The numbers would in all likelihood have been much higher had it not been for a policy of job sharing, initiated by US Steel President Myron Taylor, which divided available work among the remaining workforce. Working anywhere from a few hours up to one day a week saved some workers from destitution, but it was only a band aid stretched over the mill town's gaping economic wound.

Black and white photograph with a wide view of the houses in the Westmoreland Homesteads.
The federally funded Westmoreland Homesteads, Mt. Pleasant Township, Westmoreland...
The Great Depression also laid bare another harsh reality: the vulnerability of large, single industry towns to economic forces. Outside its sprawling steel mills, Duquesne, for example, had only one other manufacturer, a small factory that at capacity employed only about seventy workers. The situation was not much different in Homestead, Braddock, Clairton, and other steel towns anchored to a single employer.

The collapse of the Pennsylvania steel industry also reverberated into the state's coal fields. The poverty among the "stranded miners" of southwestern Pennsylvania's bituminous coal fields became so dire that the federal government resettled some of them in the experimental, cooperative farming community of markerNorvelt.
Among steelworkers, the impact of the Depression varied by skill level, ethnicity, and race. With no formal contingency plans for handling massive layoffs, plant supervisors tried to give experienced workers at least one pay day every two weeks to maintain their pensions. Other than that, employees could count on little.

African Americans and other unskilled workers tended to bear the brunt of the production slowdowns; most blacks worked in the open hearths, which were the first parts of the plant to be shut down. By contrast, the mills often reassigned skilled workers, most of them white and native born, to different parts of the mill for maintenance or repair work. The competition for what little work remained also intensified animosities between skilled and unskilled, black and white, native born and new immigrants.

From 1930 to 1934, steelworkers and their families turned elsewhere for support. With their own self-help networks pressed far beyond their limits, many African-American and immigrant communities turned to the markerSalvation Army and other private charities. When these soon exhausted their resources, U.S. Steel reluctantly stepped in.

General exterior view of the Library, front.
The Carnegie Free Library of Duquesne, circa 1904.
In the early 1900s, U.S. Steel had made Duquesne a showcase for its well-publicized experiments with "welfare capitalism." Back then, a number of American businesses introduced a variety of programs, including company-sponsored athletic teams, education classes, employee stock ownership, pension plans, accident insurance, housing, and other benefits in part to quiet the public's alarm about workers' long hours and dangerous working conditions. Keeping unions out was often the overriding goal.

The managers at Duquesne and other U.S. Steel mills gave these modest benefits to employees who demonstrated "proper interest" in the company - and took them away from men who joined unions or went on strike. These benefits, however, U.S. Steel suspended after the onset of the Great Depression.

Early in 1932, the superintendent of the Duquesne Works announced that U.S. Steel would provide relief for unemployed steelworkers, a measure that helped reduce the Salvation Army's local case load by 60 percent. The blessing was decidedly mixed, as workers soon found out, for U.S. Steel made them pay for their relief in the form of deferred loans. Even weekly food baskets, which the company distributed from its plant headquarters, were counted, so that laid-off workers could repay the cost once steady employment returned. U.S. Steel also barred its employees from applying for direct county relief, in an effort to maintain workers' dependence on the company.

The resistance of both U.S. Steel and Duquesne's elected officials to outside relief continued well into the New Deal. In the early 1930s, the town government closed ranks with the mill and barred union organizers from holding meetings. Workers understood that "if you'd even so much as mentioned the word ‘union' around the plant, you got fired."

Neighboring Homestead brought this violation of the constitutionally protected right of assembly to national attention when in July 1933 the town burgess refused to permit Secretary of Labor markerFrances Perkins to meet with steel workers on public property. In 1935 the Pittsburgh Civil LIberties Committee marker launched a campaign to open closed steel towns to free speech.

The Duquesne city council also rejected all but a few small Works Progress Administration projects. It was not until 1938, after residents voted out of office the Republicans who had long run the town, that the city began seeing its share of federal money. Elmer Malloy, Duquesne's newly elected Democratic mayor, estimated that the city had passed up $600,000 worth of WPA money in 1936 alone.

Brandishing a new attitude and a new political affiliation, Duquesne, like other mill towns, joined the political revolution that was sweeping Democrats into office across the Commonwealth and the nation. The city belatedly initiated a variety of public works projects which helped put men back to work and upgraded the city's decaying infrastructure.

In the 1930s Duquesne's workers also joined in the economic revolution that witnessed the unionization of the American steel, automobile, and other major industries. Duquesne did not experience the dramatic strikes and lockouts which occurred in places such as Flint, Michigan. But its unskilled workers were active in the "rank and file" union movement of the early 1930s and the marker Steel Workers Organizing Committee's (SWOC) efforts to win union recognition from US Steel. This occurred in Duquesne in May, 1942, when the SWOC became the sole bargaining agent for the company.

To learn more about the history of the Duquesne Steel Works click markerhere.
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