Tag Archives: Pittsburgh history

Iron & Steel: Epilogue


As someone not born or raised here, I’ve always been struck by the split in opinions regarding Andrew Carnegie and his legacy.  Was he an innovative industrialist and role-model philanthropist, or a robber-baron of the worst stripe, more than willing to trod on the backs of his workers?  At the same time, most everyone I’ve met, regardless of where they are on the Carnegie spectrum, are equally proud of and fascinated by the legacy and history of the steel industry in this region.  People are proud of both what their family members may have done or where they worked, and  that they are products of this region regardless of who “their” people were or where they worked; of being Western Pennsylvanians.

As we assembled material for and thought of the structure of the Iron & Steel Heritage Collection, we knew that labor relations and efforts to make/break the unions made up a significant component of the story of Iron and Steel.  From our perspective, this project wasn’t about creating a comprehensive history of the Iron & Steel industry here, but rather what in the library’s collection aided in the telling of that story?

Inevitably conversations, questions and materials drew us to Homestead, Carnegie Steel, and the Homestead Strike of 1892.  In short, Carnegie Steel wanted to reduce labor costs because the price of steel (per gross ton) had fallen from $35 in 1890 to $22 in 1892.  As General Manager of the Homestead Works, Henry Clay Frick had the authority and support of majority owner Carnegie (in Scotland at the time,) to reduce wages and weaken if not break the Amalgamated Association of Iron and Steel Workers.  For its part, the union was not going to consent to wage reductions for its members (300 of the 3800 employees.)  After failing to reach a contract agreement through June 28 (the contract expired June 30th,) Frick ordered a partial lockout of union employees, making it a complete lockout on the 29th.  At that point 3000 workers (of the 3800) voted to strike.  The strike lasted less than a month, produced a bloody showdown with Pinkerton Detectives along the

waterfront, resulting in 10 deaths (seven Pinkertons,) numerous wounded, the call-out of the state militia, and culminated (not as a part of the strike, but timed to it) with the attempted assassination of Frick by Alexander Berkman, an anarchist and the lover of fellow anarchist Emma Goldman – neither of whom had anything to do with steel or steel workers.  The failure of the strike resulted in the eventual dissolution of the AAISW.  Homestead steel-workers wouldn’t organize again until 1937.

In addition to material in the the library’s “regular” collection, much of it non-circulating reference, there are several digital gems in the Iron & Steel Heritage Collection too.  Among them several works published in 1893 almost immediately after the strike ended.

 At the same time – very rapidly in relation to today’s world, the US Congress held hearings on Frick’s use of the Pinkertons,  a controversial and not uncommon tactic during the day and age, and published its contents in February, 1893, less than 8 months after the strike began.    This hearing: Employment of Pinkerton detectives*, was produced by the Committee on the Judiciary of the US House of Representatives.  The appeal of this document – a primary source if ever there was one, are the facts laid out as background information, the transcripts of the various testimonies presented .

From P. 2 of the opening testimony at the hearings.

The compensation of the workmen was to be ascertained by arbitrarily fixing the price of 4 by 4 standard Bessemer steel billets at $25 per ton as the minimum, and asliding scale above that according to the fluctuations in price of steel billets. The market price of these at the time the contract was entered into was $26.50 per ton.The wages paid by the firm of Carnegie. Phipps & Co., at Homestead,ranged from 14 cents per hour for unskilled and common labor, or $1.40 per day of ten hours, to about $280 per month, say of twenty-four or twenty-five days of eight hours each, for labor of the highest skill, there being but one man, however, who earned that sum in a single month.

Among the testimony is this exchange (to have been a fly on the wall) between Rep. Charles J. Boatner Dem. Louisiana and Mr. Frick illustrating the tediousness and positions of those involved in the hearings.

Q. Now, then, Mr. Frick, do I understand you as taking this position,  that here in this county, with a population somewhere near half a million people, in the great State of Pennsylvania, you anticipated that you could not obtain protection for your property rights from the local authorities?

A. That had been our experience heretofore.

Q. Well, I am not asking you about your experience heretofore, but about your belief and conviction upon which you acted in this emergency. This was-the reason you sent for Pinkertons—because you believed that the sheriff of this county could not, or would not, give you protection in your lawful rights, and that he either could not or would not obtain as many men in the county of Allegheny as were necessary to protect you?

A. Yes, sir.

Q. That is the condition of things, is it, in the county of Allegheny?

A. I think that has been pretty well demonstrated since that riot on the 6th.

Q. Do you know what became of the arms which were furnished these parties?

A. Only what I have heard.

Q. These men were massed at a town in Ohio?

A. At Ashtabula, where the roads east and west join and come this way.

Q. They were brought down the river and taken up by boat?

A. They were brought to Youngstown and delivered by the Lake Shore road at Youngstown to the Pennsylvania Company’s lines, and by them brought to Bellvue station below Pittsburg on the Fort Wayne road, near Davis Island dam on the Ohio River.

Q. The citizens of this county are generally law abiding citizens, are they not?

A. Yes, sir.

I think any of you should avail yourselves of the opportunity to read and capture  moments in Pittsburg and American History from the participants and actors themselves.

*The investigating committee was officially the: Select Committee to Investigate and Report to the Senate the Facts in Relation to the employment for Private Purposes of Armed Bodies or Men, or Detectives, in Connection with Differences between Workmen and Employers.

– Richard


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Pittsburgh Stories

My most recent contribution to the First Floor – New & Featured‘s website is a book list, Share the History – Stories Set in Pittsburgh’s Past. Inspiration for this list of novels came from a book I received as a gift, From These Hills, From These Valleys: Selected Fiction About Western Pennsylvania. In addition to novel excerpts, From These Hills contains a short story by Willa Cather, who wrote six short stories set in Pittsburgh.

Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, Carl Van Vechten collection,   reproduction number LC-USZ62-42538 DLC

Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, Carl Van Vechten collection

At age 22, Cather moved from Lincoln, Nebraska to Pittsburgh. She arrived in June, 1896. The Carnegie Library and Music Hall had opened one year before. The Pittsburgh Symphony was established a few months before Cather began her ten year residence in the Steel City. She was thrilled to attend Pittsburgh’s theatres, opera, and symphony, and not long after beginning her first Pittsburgh position as assistant editor for Home Journal, Cather was also hired as part-time drama critic for the Pittsburgh Leader.

Collected in various volumes of her work, her Pittsburgh stories shine with local color in the form of recognizable buildings and neighborhoods, and people who share characteristics of her friends and acquaintances — familiar folks, though not stereotypes. 

No single volume contains all six stories. Each title below is followed by the collection in which it can be found.

  • Double Birthday (First published in Forum, February 1929.) Uncle Valentine and Other Stories: Willa Cather’s Uncollected Short Fiction, 1915-1929 Concerning a clandestine bottle of wine from the Judge’s cellar, and the birthday celebration for a nephew and an uncle who share names as well as birthdays. Set in the 1920s, when desirable neighborhoods (as exemplified by the Judge’s house on Squirrel Hill) are located away from the city center, killing the friendly intimacy of older neighborhoods, such as the South Side, where “the Alberts” live uphill from Carson Street. 
  • A Gold Slipper  Vintage Cather A Pittsburgh coal baron, who describes himself as a “hard-headed business man,” with his cultured wife attends a concert in which he has no interest .
  • The Namesake (First published in McClure’s, March 1907.) Willa Cather’s Collected Short Fiction, 1892-1912 Cather explores the question of what makes an artist American. An expatriate sculptor returns to Pennsylvania from Rome to care for his aunt, the sister of his namesake. In learning about his uncle, who died at age sixteen in the Civil War, he claims the meaning of his name, ties to his family, and discovers a passion for national traditions. 
  • Paul’s Case  Five Stories,  Great Short Works of Willa Cather and Willa Cather’s Collected Short Fiction, 1892-1912 Portrays a sensitive youth at odds with a repressive society, whose enemy is the emotionally and aesthetically bankrupt middle-class world devoted to the gods of money and respectability.
  • The Professor’s Commencement  Willa Cather’s Collected Short Fiction, 1892-1912 (First published in New England Magazine in June 1902.) Set in the lower Hill District. On the day of his retirement, a high school teacher remembers early in his career, when “the desire had come upon him to bring some message of repose and peace to the youth of this work-driven, joyless people, to cry the name of beauty so loud that the roar of the mills could not drown it.”
  • Uncle Valentine (First published in Woman’s Home Companion, February 1925.)  Uncle Valentine and Other Stories: Willa Cather’s Uncollected Short Fiction, 1915-1929 and Great Short Works of Willa Cather. Inspired by Cather’s friendship with the composer Ethelbert Nevin, who she met in Pittsburgh.

– Julie


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