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Local Historian Discusses Pittsburgh's River Of Steel.

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Rivers Of Steel: Pittsburgh's Man Made Volcano

A Story Of How One  American Region Pushed The World Into The Age Of Steel

Rivers Of Steel Worker Handles Melted Iron [Courtesy/Ian Hapsias]

Molten rivers of iron and steel have flowed through the industrial district of Pittsburgh for more than 140 years. Blast furnaces created the incredible heat needed to melt the metal. The mills were filled with local and migrant workers who built the United States steel industry and many of its iconic structures with their hard labor.

The steel forged here was used to build American buildings, rails, and industry, a point of pride that still resounds in these streets. The Empire State Building, for instance, the tallest building in the world in 1931, was built from this steel. The Gateway Arch in St. Louis contains Pittsburgh steel, as well.

Pride flowed through these steel-making streets as swiftly as the molten metal from the tremendous industrial furnaces. This was the perennial heart of the American heavy metal industry, but also the heart of the struggle for worker's rights in the late 19th and early 20th century.

"For me I look at it as a privilege to help connect our visitors with their own heritage," said Corinne Bechtel, director of tourism for the Rivers of Steel National Heritage Area. ''We have many visitors whose ancestors worked in iron and steel. Oftentimes it is an emotional experience as they learn what it was like for their ancestors to work in the mills."

So what was it like for steel workers a hundred years ago? 

Workers would put on what safety clothing they could scrap together, often wearing leathers underneath wet burlap, to protect themselves from the extreme ambient heat of 300-400 degrees. The temperature of the molten steel reached 2,200 to 2,400 degrees coming out of those furnaces and flowing down to the molds.

“Essentially what they are is man-made volcanoes,” said Ron Baraff, the director of historic resources and facilities at Rivers of Steel. Innovations in safety were slow to come, and full head protection wasn’t regularly seen in the mills until the 1950s. In the height of corporate control over these mills, workers were expected to show up 6 days a week for 12 hours a day, and every other Sunday to work a 24-hour shift.

Historical Photo Of River Of Steel Workers [Courtesy/Rivers Of Steel National Heritage Area]
Historical Photo Of Homestead Steel Works [Courtesy/Rivers Of Steel National Heritage Area]]

It was dangerous work in extreme heat – and for that matter, it still is. In such conditions were forged the bonds of hardcore union that made it possible for the line workers to pose a significant threat to the industrial giants who ran the mills with a ruthless eye toward profit.

The tension would reach a melting point in the summer of 1892, with the Homestead Strike and the Homestead Battle, an event "that historians think is one of the most important in the foundation of our country,” Bechtel said.

When they organized in the 1880s, the union – called The Amalgamated Association of Iron and Steel Workers – had a great deal of success gaining leverage over the management of Homestead. Eventually, the owners pushed back and tried to break the union’s back. Andrew Carnegie, a well-known Scottish immigrant who took over the Homestead Steel Works in the 1880s (an many other mills), and his business partner, Henry Clay Frick, led the effort. In 1892, with no bargaining agreement with the workers, the issue came to a head.

Management locked the workers out of the Homestead mill behind a barbed wire fence, installing sniper towers to enforce the ban. The workers responded by declaring a strike against the plant and its owners. After a quick escalation in tensions, on July 6 of that year, the management devised a plan to float a private security force called the Pinkertons up the river and get them to the mill to make it possible to restart steel production.

This action in the early morning hours led to an exchange of gunfire and the burning of barges, that would leave 10 people dead - 7 strikers and 3 Pinkertons – in the iconic Homestead Battle. The Pinkertons’ advance failed when they were left floating on the river on barges.

“Really what is being fought for is that right to negotiate, the right to have a say in the workplace, and that right to have a piece of the pie. Really they are fighting for the American dream,” Baraff said of the strike and the resulting battle.

The owners fought back. Eventually, 8,000 state militiamen were enlisted to protect and reopen the plant. Strikebreakers were brought in to start up the plant again, many of whom were living on the property, and about 10 days after the initial strike, martial law had to be declared in the town. Historians say the strike ultimately collapsed when a New York anarchist attempted to assassinate Frick, which turned the tide of public opinion stiffly against the strikers.

Indivduals Getting A Tour Of The Rivers Of Steel [Courtesy/Adam Piscitelli]

The union was devastated and there would be no significant protections for steel workers again until the 1930s, when the workforce was able to unionize again. “Post strike – that pendulum of power shifts so far to the corporate side that the workers really have no say in the course of their destiny at work – they really have little input,” Baraff said.

That was a long period of low morale.

“The biggest change is in the psyche of the workers.  Up until the failure of the Homestead Strike, there was that hope and that dream that they are part of the puzzle, that they can be partners in the mill,” Baraff said. “When at the end of the strike – when scab workers have been brought in and 300 people have been blacklisted so they can never work there again -- you have this feeling of desperation. It is almost the reverse ‘Wizard of Oz’ scenario: Homestead almost goes from a place of vibrant color to a place of black and white.” 

The Homestead mill and the surrounding areas was designated a national heritage site in 1996, and is run by the Rivers of Steel National Heritage Area. The organization provides tours of the various grounds, plants, blast furnaces, and other steel-making infrastructure that still stands. Additionally, the organization updates and protects buildings that were significant to the era, including the Bost Building, which was the headquarters for the Amalgamated Association during the brutal Homestead Strike of 1892. Rivers of Steel brought the building back to life with a $4 million restoration in the early 2000s.

The Carrie blast furnaces, both #6 and #7, which can be seen on the tour, rise more than 92 feet into the air and are “quite extraordinary to see,” comments Bechtel. Typically the blast furnaces were named after women in the family of the owners.

A once thriving, colorful town of immigrants and steel workers, Homestead has seen its share of tragedy and triumph in its history. Today those visiting the heritage sites have a chance to look back in time to examine how power and capitalism has been in struggle with worker’s rights for more than a century, and the reflect on the struggle that continues to this day.


David Irvin

A graduate with a Masters Of Science from the University Of North Texas, David has written on many beats including crime and business for such outlets as the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, the Montgomery Advertiser & USA. He enjoys RVing and surfing the Internet.

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