No Strikes for Mr. Donner — The Homestead Strike

No Strikes for Mr. Donner — The Homestead Strike

William Donner, the founder of Donora, never liked unions. He was a businessman seeking ever-increasing profits, and unions tended to cut into them. Donner had grown into his wealth during a time of intense union organizing and several crippling strikes. Let’s take a look at three of the more devastating strikes of that period in this three-part installment of “No Strikes for Mr. Donner.”

Andrew Carnegie and Henry Clay Frick were titans of the steel and coal industries and, for a time, business partners and close friends. They both suffered a loss of public respect over the Homestead Strike of 1892. Their relationship broke down completely five years later. The strike was, in many ways, the beginning of the partnership’s end.

The year 1892 was one of great unrest throughout the United States between labor and management. There had already been general strikes in New Orleans, Tennessee, Buffalo, Idaho, and New York. Soon there would be one in a mill town called Homestead in Pennsylvania. Steel magnate Andrew Carnegie owned a steel plant in Homestead; his plant director was Henry Clay Frick. Steel prices had been dropping all over, and Carnegie and Frick wanted to slash wages at Homestead to maintain their revenue.

The mill was unionized, though, so they decided they needed to break the union. That way they could cut wages and increase hours as they saw fit.

Vacationing in Scotland as Frick was preparing his onslaught, Carnegie cabled Frick his support: “This is your chance to re-organize the whole affair. Far too many men required by Amalgamated rules.” “We are with you to the end.”

Andrew Carnegie and H. C. Frick

They were words Carnegie would come to regret, but at the time he wanted the union, Amalgamated Association of Iron, Steel, and Tin Workers of North America, gone from his Homestead mill as much as Frick did.

Frick and union leaders in Homestead never really negotiated. Instead Frick took great pains to prepare for a strike he knew would come. With Carnegie’s support Frick built what came to be called “Fort Frick,” a ten-foot-high solid wooden wall with two rows of barbed wire on top that surrounded the entire mill complex. Holes for rifles were bored through the wall every twenty-five feet, and large pipes carrying pressurized water were laid along the interior perimeter, all the better for repelling invading strikers. When “negotiations” inevitably failed, Frick closed two of the mills, locking out 3,800 workers.

It was June 30, 1892.

Frick announced that starting July 1 the mills would be operated as nonunion mills, shutting out Amalgamated completely. The workers fought back and blocked all managers from entering the mills. Tempers soared on both sides.

Townspeople soon joined the strikers in preparation for an assault by management. A thousand men began standing watch the north-flowing Monongahela River, downstream and up, ready to defend their livelihood and repel whatever force Frick sent.

That force turned out to be guards from the nation’s first detective agency, Pinkerton’s National Detective Agency. The agency had been founded in 1850 by Allan Pinkerton and an attorney named Edward Rucker, who left the partnership during its first year. Born in the slums of Glasgow, Scotland, Pinkerton and his wife, Joan, immigrated to the United States in 1842 and settled in Dundee, Illinois.

Pinkerton Agency logo

Pinkerton was a born lawman, with a keen sense of equality and a drive to fight for the underdog. Stocky, with muscular arms and “searching, cool blue-gray eyes,” Pinkerton found his calling almost by accident when, out of pure curiosity, he led local police to a campsite being used by counterfeiters. In no time he was heading the Pinkerton Detective Agency. The company’s motto was “We Never Sleep,” and its logo consisted of a single, wide-open eye, a compelling image that eventually prompted the phrase “private eye.” By the time H. C. Frick hired the company to break up the siege at Homestead, Pinkerton was dead, having perished in 1884 from an infected tongue. His agency by that point employed 2,000 active agents and held some 30,000 more in reserve.

Frick’s force consisted of 300 Pinkerton men who, just after midnight on July 6, ascended the river on two barges being pulled by the steamers Tide and Little Bill, the latter of which was captained by the well-known Pittsburgh pilot William Berlean “WB” Rodgers, Sr. Rodgers had been contracted to collect men for pulling one of the barges downstream to Homestead. One of the men, John T. McCurry, testified later how Rodgers had enlisted him into service:

“I met Capt. William Rodgers on Smithfield Street. He said, ‘Are you doing anything, John?’ I said, ‘Nothing, only down at the ball games.’ ‘Well,’ he said, ‘I have got a good job for you, and I will give you three dollars a day and your board, but I ain’t at liberty to tell you where I am going.’ I said, ‘All right.’”

Pinkerton guards aboard the barges had been ordered to enter the Homestead complex and assume control. Most of the guards expected they would meet little resistance.

Strikers, though, spotted the barges about a mile from Homestead and sounded the alarm. The barges were fired on from that point forward. Back in Homestead word traveled explosively through town. Myron Stowell, in a chronicle of the Homestead strike, reported:

The effect was electrical. It is impossible to comprehend the wild-fire-like rapidity with which the intelligence was communicated to every one in the borough, much less to understand by what facility the news spread. The town was instantly in an uproar. The preconcerted signal, blasts from the electric light plant whistle, filled the air with hoarse, ominous shrieks. Humanity began to pour from the houses and buildings all over the town. Men, women and children who but an instant before had been in sound sleep, thronged into the streets like panic-stricken sheep. Then the men began to shout: “On to the river!” “To the river!” “The scabs are coming!” “Don’t let the black sheep land!”

The streets suddenly filled with striking workers, friends, sympathizers, and some who didn’t know why they were there. The growing throng hollered their way to the riverbank. Many in the crowd carried pistols, rifles, or other weapons; others wielded clubs, sticks, whatever they could find to defend the mill. When the barges reached the docks, a few Pinkerton guards tried to drop a gangplank. One of the union leaders at the front of the mob yelled to the guards, “In the name of God and humanity, don’t attempt to land! Don’t attempt to enter these works by force!”

Strikers and townspeople in Homestead ready to fight

The guards responded, “We were sent here to take possession of the property and to guard it for this company…. If you men don’t withdraw, we will mow every one of you down and enter in spite of you. You had better disperse, for land we will!” Frick’s lawyer and Carnegie’s company counsel Philander Knox had warned the guards, perhaps with a wink, to obey the law and “confine themselves to protecting themselves and the company’s property.”

No one knows who fired the first shot, but shots fired there were. The barges had been stocked with a total of 250 Winchester rifles, 300 pistols, and a surfeit of ammunition. Capt. Rodgers later testified that he had no idea the barge he was pulling was filled with weapons, a claim undoubtedly meant to deflect blame away from Pinkerton and toward the strikers.

Striking workers threw everything they had at the barges. They bombed them with dynamite, flooded the river with oil to try to set them on fire, and even fired cannons at them from across the river. The barges remained afloat. After the initial attack the guards scrambled below deck to regroup. At one point a Pinkerton man raised a white flag, but he was shot and killed. The workers finally overwhelmed the guards and ended the siege.

The violence at Homestead shocked and humbled the great Andrew Carnegie. Even though the strike had led to the end of Amalgamated’s power and prompted Frick’s subsequent rise in the company, Carnegie died saying that he regretted the whole wretched affair. “Nothing I have ever had to meet in all my life” he wrote, “before or since, wounded me so deeply. No pangs remain of any wound received in my business career save that of Homestead.”

Final ‘Goodbyes’

Frick and Carnegie’s relationship disintegrated in 1899, when the bullheaded Carnegie forced the equally bullheaded Frick from the Board of Carnegie Steel. Two days prior Carnegie had visited Frick in his office to lay out his plan to remove Frick from the Board. Frick grew incensed. “For years I have been convinced that there is not an honest bone in your body,” Frick told Carnegie. “Now I know that you are a god-damned thief!”

Frick sued Carnegie and won, a stinging rebuke to Carnegie’s efforts. Late in Carnegie’s life, when he lay weak and dying, he reached out in a letter asking Frick to meet so that they might put aside their differences.

“So Carnegie wants to meet me, does he?” Frick asked the letter courier, Carnegie’s longtime personal assistant, James Bridge. “Yes, you can tell Carnegie I’ll meet him.”

Frick then crumbled the letter and tossed it back at Bridge. “Tell him I’ll see him in Hell, where we both are going.”

The two leviathans of the industrial era died just three months and three weeks apart, with Carnegie passing first on Aug. 11, 1919, from pneumonia at age eighty-four. Frick followed on Dec. 2, dying from heart failure at age sixty-nine. The men never reconciled.

Part 2: The Pullman Strike

Part 1: The Homestead Strike

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