Stories from PA History
Making Steel
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Making Steel
Chapter 1: Masters and Men

Formal portrait of Andrew Carnegie standing and leaning on the back of a leather chair.
Andrew Carnegie, by B. L. H. Dabbs, 1896.
Even in his own time, markerAndrew Carnegie was larger than life. His life story embodied Horatio Alger's best-selling books about poor boys who made their way from "rags to riches." A poor Scottish immigrant and son of a struggling handloom weaver, Carnegie came to Pittsburgh and climbed to the pinnacle of American industry through effort, energy, and a bit of luck.

When his steel company in 1901 merged into U.S. Steel, the nation's first billion-dollar corporation, banker J.P. Morgan shook his hand with enthusiasm: "Mr. Carnegie, I want to congratulate you on being the richest man in the world!"

Where did this fantastic sum of money come from? How did Carnegie and his marker fellow steel "masters" build the steel industry that once dominated the world? How did they see - and treat - the many thousands of men who worked in their mills? What became of the industry and the people and communities who for generations depended upon it for their own grab at the American dream? These questions and more are all part of the history of steel in Pennsylvania.

Edgar Thomson Works, in Braddock, Pennsylvania.
The Edgar Thomson Steel Works, by William Rau, Braddock, PA, 1891.
Carnegie was exceptional among American industrialists in that not a penny of his wealth came from his family. His father's threadbare poverty shaped Carnegie's own humble beginnings, including his first job in a textile factory at $1.20 a week.

Outside the immediate Carnegie orbit, however, not one of the 360 iron and steel manufacturers in turn-of-the-century Pittsburgh shared his immigrant rags-to-riches life story. Carnegie's industrial peers were typically second- or third-generation Americans from business or professional families.

Two parts of the Horatio Alger formula for success - luck and pluck - materialized for Carnegie in the person of Thomas A. Scott, the western division superintendent for the Pennsylvania Railroad (PRR). Carnegie's luck was landing a job as a telegraph messenger boy in Pittsburgh.
His pluck was in quickly learning to read telegraph messages by ear, directly from the clicking instruments. "I have very easy times, and I may say I have no master," he confided to a family friend.

In 1853 Carnegie launched his business career at age eighteen as "Mr. Scott's Andy." The railroad had recently opened through-service across the state from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh, and Scott needed a bright, energetic, and ambitious personal assistant. Carnegie was it. Through his varied railroad experiences in the next decade, Carnegie learned about, helped run, and invested in numerous schemes for telegraphs, railroad sleeping cars, bridges, and iron and steel mills including markerFreedom Iron.
Oil on canvas of Henry Frick.
Henry Clay Frick, by Sir Gerald Festus Kelly, 1924.

For the next quarter century, as his steel empire grew into the world's largest, Carnegie drove his managers and his workers at a marker furious and dangerous pace. Relentless cost cutting, ceaseless technical innovation, and tight-fisted labor policies were the rule, making it all the more curious that in 1886 Carnegie published two remarkable essays in Forum magazine - just before and after the Haymarket riot in Chicago - that placed him firmly on the side of workers, unions, and enlightened labor policies. "The right of the working man to combine and to form trade-unions is . . . sacred," he affirmed, "and it must be sooner or later conceded."

Two years later, in the midst of a strike at the Edgar Thomson works, Carnegie went out to hear workers' grievances. One man began, somewhat nervously, "Mr. Carnegie, take my job, for instance -" But Carnegie quickly corrected him, to great laughter and applause, "Mr. Carnegie takes no man's job."

Image of the coal barges and the haze of the skyline produced by smoke.
Junction of the Allegheny and Monongahela Rivers, circa 1890.
Carnegie's fine lines about workers meeting employers with "dignity" and on "equal terms" made most of his fellow steel masters' eyes roll. The eyes of markerHenry Clay Frick, Andrew Carnegie's most important new partner, must have spun silly. "He was a man of blood and iron . . . [who] cared not a penny whether his underlings loved him or hated him," wrote one biographer. Coal from Frick's mine holdings in the Connellsville district of southwestern Pennsylvania made the country's best markercoke used in iron and steel making.

Beginning in the early 1880s, the Carnegie firms bankrolled marker Frick's expanding enterprises to secure a reliable supply. Frick's coke ensured that Carnegie's steel empire remained in Pittsburgh, even after 1887 when Carnegie himself took up residence in New York and Scotland.

General view of the town with idled mills and strikers on the lookout
A view of the idled Homestead Steel Works at Homestead and the town, with strikers...
Frick wrote no fancy articles about harmony between labor and capital, for Connellsville coke masters had few subtle thoughts on the topic. "The battle must be fought out, no matter how long it takes," Frick heard from a fellow coke man during one labor dispute, "The men . . . must be whipped if we want any peace hereafter."

The very day of the 1891 markerMorewood Massacre, after his armed deputies had gunned down striking coke workers, Frick told the president of Illinois Steel, rather chillingly, "This will likely have a good effect on the riotous element up there." As the conflict dragged on, and it proved difficult to evict striking workers from company housing, Frick snarled: "I would throw those huns out of the houses the moment their time is up, without any ceremony."

National notoriety rained down on Frick and Carnegie with the violent markerHomestead Strike. "Homestead" instantly became a charged symbol for labor activists, and remains so today. markerHomestead victims

Oil on canvas of Charles M. Schwab [seated] and E.C. Grace. [standing]
Charles M. Schwab and E.C. Grace, by Frank O. Salisbury.
The "Battle of Homestead" on July 6, 1892, was a marker dramatic and deadly confrontation. On one side stood the three hundred well-armed Pinkertons hired by Frick and Carnegie to land strikebreakers at the mill. Opposing them were several thousand organized workers who fought off the Pinkertons and for a time controlled the town and even the Carnegie mill. Yet the moment of marker workers' control ended with the arrival of the state militia.

After five months, Frick and Carnegie defeated the strike and crushed the union; thus passed the last, best chance for unionism in steel, in labor's memory, for four long decades. In the decades that followed 1892, the recurrent public criticism about Homestead never bothered Frick, but it did take its toll on Carnegie. He publicly censured markerFrick's handling of the strike, which hastened their eventual falling out.

An image of Schwab at the steel plant sits above the caption which reads, Charles M. Schwab, Director of the emergency Fleet Corporation says, "I want everyone in the yards to understand that when we succeed in building these ships, the credit will belong to the men who actually built them. I want all of the men in the shipyards to feel that they are working with me, not for me."
"Are You Working with Schwab?" Emergency Fleet Corporation poster, 1918.
After the 1892 strike, the task of restoring the Homestead mills to health fell to markerCharles Schwab. A Carnegie protégé, marker Schwab had risen quickly through the ranks including successful tours of duty at the Edgar Thomson and Homestead mills. In the wake of the strike, Schwab moved into the Homestead mill grounds and didn't leave for four months, making a heartfelt effort to meet the men on their level and repair the damage of the strike.

Successful at Homestead, Schwab rose straight to the pinnacle of the industry, becoming president of Carnegie Steel in 1897 and the founding president of U.S. Steel in 1901. Schwab, however, never fit with the staid corporate culture of U.S. Steel, whose investment bankers favored orderly profit-making over dramatic and often disruptive innovation. Forced out of the presidency, Schwab cashed in his stock holdings and in 1904 purchased a controlling share of markerBethlehem Steel. There, continuing his mentor's legacy of entrepreneurship, he built Bethlehem into the country's second-largest steel maker.

In 1919, with the deaths of Frick and Carnegie, Schwab emerged as a senior statesman for steel. He rather coolly recalled Frick: "He seemed to lavish on art all the passion that he might have bestowed on human beings." But at a memorial service at the Carnegie Music Hall in Pittsburgh, Schwab warmly hailed Carnegie as "my old, my beloved, my greatest friend - indeed, my father." None of these men, truly believing themselves masters of the universe, survived into the union era.
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