For the longest time I kept my interest in the Homestead Strike of 1892 secret. Why? Because I didn’t want to run the risk of giving away any part of the book I was working on at the time. Now it’s five years later and that work-in-progress has been shelved for a very long time. It was a combination of “it could happen” and actual history, with some very familiar names related to Pittsburgh – indeed all of Pennsylvanian – history. As time wore on, the idea of putting a book like that out in the world became too intimidating and, much like an old, rusty, falling apart locomotive, I scrapped it. Both things you hate to do, but it was necessary. Maybe I’ll revisit it when I have some completed works under my belt. Not today.
Today we’re going to take a look at one of the most pivotal, historic moments in Pittsburgh history. This strike was just as significant, if not more-so, as the Anthracite Coal Strike of 1902, which occurred a mere decade before. The history is long, and many books have been written on the subject. I, myself, own several of them. Depending on who you ask, this event could be called either a “strike” or a “riot.” Let’s take a look at it now.
Dubbed one of the most violent strikes in American history, rumblings of a strike began a month earlier, when members of the Amalgamated Association of Iron and Steel Workers (often referred to as simply the Amalgamated Association), wanted to negotiate better pay and better hours. They were a group within other laborers at the Homestead Steel Works, owned by Andrew Carnegie but operated by Henry Clay Frick.
The AA’s membership was concentrated in ironworks west of the Allegheny Mountains. The union negotiated national uniform wage scales on an annual basis; helped regulate working hours, workload levels and work speeds; and helped improve working conditions. It also acted as a hiring hall, helping employers find scarce puddlers and rollers.source – Wikipedia
The steel works, having already seen prior strikes (the strike of 1889, for example), was a huge source of income for Pittsburgh residents. At the height of production at this particular plant, Carnegie Steel employed up to 12,000 individuals in various positions. “The company was formed in 1892 and was subsequently sold in 1901 in one of the largest business transactions of the early 20th century, to become the major component of U.S. Steel. The sale made Carnegie one of the richest men in history.”
But “rich” doesn’t necessarily mean he knew how to treat workers. This is often the source of much debate amongst those who know the histories of Carnegie and Frick, as the two men did not see eye to eye on the subject. And friction between the two men that would fester itself at the height of the Homestead Strike. The Amalgamated Association, after several failed negotiations with Frick himself, decided to go on strike on July 1st, 1892.
While Andrew Carnegie was willing to negotiate – as the previous strike by the steelworkers was successful with him – Henry Clay Frick was unwilling to give those under him any wiggle room.
For its part, the AA saw substantial gains after the 1889 strike. Membership doubled, and the local union treasury had a balance of $146,000. The Homestead union grew belligerent, and relationships between workers and managers became tense.source – Wikipedia
Even though the Strike of 1892 had better organization and representation, the union represented only a small portion of those employed at the steelworks. When an agreement couldn’t be reached between the parties involved, they went on strike on July 1st, 1892. In fact, just days before Frick had actually barred them from entering specific sections of the plant for their shifts and hired non-union workers to replace them.
Carnegie’s mighty steel industry was not immune to the downturn. In 1890, the price of rolled-steel products started to decline, dropping from $35 a gross ton to $22 early in 1892.source – PBS
In retaliation, the strikers wanted to make sure nobody else could work, either. They mobilized townspeople to their cause, and encouraged the press to write on both sides of the issue. By the time things “came to blows,” Homestead had been dubbed “Fort Frick,” with all the fortifications he was actively erecting around the plant to keep the union out.
On the second day of the strike, July 2, 1892, all striking members of the Amalgamated Association were fired. This move by Frick would lead to the inevitable confrontation and events that took place in the early morning hours of July 6th. In the days leading up to the strike, the tension in the air was felt by all, even those not involved with either party, and as so many knew about the pending conflict, many townspeople and members of the media flocked to the hill across the river from Homestead to witness the event.
As workers built barricades on shore, the Pinkertons cut rifle ports in the sides of their barges. Meanwhile, news of the battle had reached nearby Pittsburgh. By 6am more than 5,000 curious spectators lined the riverbanks.source – PBS
Three hundred Pinkerton agents assembled on the Davis Island Dam on the Ohio River about five miles below Pittsburgh at 10:30 p.m. on the night of July 5, 1892. They were given Winchester rifles, placed on two specially-equipped barges and towed upriver They were also given badges which read “Watchman, Carnegie Company, Limited”. Many had been hired out of lodging houses at $2.50 per day and were unaware of what their assignment was in Homestead.source – Wikipedia
A little on the Pinkertons before we continue. The organization, originally known as the National Detective Agency formed by Scottish immigrant Allan Pinkerton, was mostly hired out to act as “strongly armed men” by the time of the strike. His work was more related to investigation and private eye activities. He was so successful at his craft that he soon became well recognized in both Scotland and the United States:
In March 1861, Pinkerton’s work on a railway robbery brought to light a plot to kill Abraham Lincoln at Baltimore en route to his Presidential inauguration, which was foiled as a result. After the outbreak of the American Civil War later that year, Lincoln appointed Pinkerton as head of the Union Intelligence Service. His agents often worked undercover as Confederates to gather intelligence, and Pinkerton himself undertook a number of missions posing as a Confederate Army Major.source – Undiscovered Scotland
This was not what Allan Pinkerton envisioned his agency be used for (Pinkerton died in 1884), but over time the Pinkertons would eventually become the standard for future police forces in Pennsylvania. In 1892, these Pinkerton men were hired essentially to be “strikebreakers” for Frick.
The efforts of these hired men were immediately stymied by multiple individuals, and a horseman on land rode ahead to warn the strikers that the Pinkertons were on their way. The confrontation began before 8:00 AM, and shots were exchanged multiple times throughout the morning. The following quote, surprisingly from Wikipedia, explains the events perfectly:
More experienced agents were barely able to stop the new recruits from abandoning the ships and swimming away. Intermittent gunfire from both sides continued throughout the morning. When the tug attempted to retrieve the barges at 10:50 a.m., gunfire drove it off. More than 300 riflemen positioned themselves on the high ground and kept a steady stream of fire on the barges. Just before noon, a sniper shot and killed another Pinkerton agent. A Pinkerton agent on one of the barges was A.L. Wells, a Bennett Medical College student, who had joined the “expedition” to earn enough money during the summer months. During the fighting, he played a vital role and attended to the injured on the bargesource – Wikipedia
The events of the day lasted twelve hours, and neither side were without casualties and injuries. While these events were ongoing, leaders from both parties worked to stop the armed conflict, and around 5:00 PM both sides gave up arms, agreeing to a cease fire.
On July 7th the state stepped in, with their own forces. “More than 4,000 soldiers surrounded the plant. Within 20 minutes they had displaced the picketers; by 10:00 a.m., company officials were back in their offices. Another 2,000 troops camped on the high ground overlooking the city.” In the weeks following the initial confrontation with the Pinkertons, Homestead was essentially “occupied” by state troops-men, was under martial law, and it only ended after an attempted assassination of Frick himself. However, this assassination attempt was conducted by someone completely unrelated, who saw this as an opportunity to make a name for himself.
In the months that followed the Homestead Strike of 1892, the union and Carnegie Steel Company would see many lawsuits. By October 1892 the state militia was no longer needed or necessary, as support for the strikers fizzled after the events of July 6th. The strike was seen as a failure by the Amalgamated Association, and rightfully so. As honorable as their intentions may have been at the beginning, even with the organization efforts, it still ended in bloodshed. The organization managed to survive until the 1930s.
In 1999 the Bost Building in downtown Homestead, AA headquarters throughout the strike, was designated a National Historic Landmark. It is used as a museum devoted not only to the strike, but also the steel industry in the Pittsburgh area. A railroad bridge over the Monongahela River near the site of the battle is named Pinkerton’s Landing Bridge in honor of the dead. Two sites were each designated with a Pennsylvania state historical marker: the site where Pinkerton attempted to land, and the two adjoining cemeteries of St. Mary’s and Homestead where are buried the remains of six of the seven Carnegie Steel Company workers that were killed. The Pinkerton landing site was also named a Pittsburgh History and Landmarks Foundation Historic Landmarksource – Wikipedia
The Homestead Steel Works – now a modern day shopping center – was once the pride and joy of Andrew Carnegie. All that remains is a small historical site to the plant, and its towering smokestacks. While I, personally, wish some part other than the smokestacks could’ve remained as part of a museum, the facilities would’ve been far too old (original buildings were constructed in 1881) by this day and age. Just think about what’s left of the Carrie Blast Furnaces.
Many in Homestead were affected by the events of the strike of 1892. And, while unsuccessful in its purpose, it provided valuable lessons for all involved, indeed valuable lessons for those of us living today.