Industrial Pittsburgh and the Heartbeat of Homestead

“The wonderful story of steel is here told in such a way that those who have no technical knowledge of steel-making may enjoy and appreciate the miracles that have been accomplished.” -Herbert N. Casson, The Romance of Steel

 

General Information:

Hours of Operation: 10 AM – 2PM, Monday/Wednesday/Friday. All other times by appointment.

Admission Price: Adults $3, Children (under 14) $1, free admission for every active duty military member and up to 5 of their family members between Memorial Day and Labor Day

Address: 623 E. Eighth Avenue, Homestead, PA

Link to Rivers of Steel website: click here

 

The Bost House is one of the final standing relics of the rich historical past of Pittsburgh as a “Steel City”. Built in 1892, the original design of a hotel quickly became useful to the striking workers as they faced off against Andrew Carnegie and Henry Clay Frick. The Bost House is now home to Rivers of Steel Heritage Group.

The hotel was designed for new workers who had moved to the city in order to create a new life for themselves and their families. They needed a place to stay while they saved up to bring their families with them and buy a house big enough to accommodate them. There were a lot of men that were moving from Europe to Pittsburgh because the jobs here required limited skill as a beginner and they were plentiful.

The workers in the mill owned by Carnegie and operated by Frick were striking because Carnegie and Frick wanted to get rid of the Amalgamated Association of Iron and Steel Workers, their union. The skilled workers refused to work longer hours for less pay and decided to go on strike. The leaders of the rebellion needed a high point to keep watch over the mills while they were shut down. The Bost Building was the highest point in Homestead at that time so in the summer of 1892 it quickly became the home of the leaders of the strike to meet and discuss the decisions that needed to be made in order to be most effective.

Today the Bost Building has a lot to offer the surrounding community. They host events and sponsor different activities in and around the building itself. They have an annual 1892 Battle of Homestead Commemoration that includes a movie, creative writing readings and musical performances by the students of a local high school. This is hosted at the Pump House, another surviving building of the original mill.

Another great place to visit is directly across the river. The Carrie Blast Furnace is the other still-standing piece of the mills that were run by Carnegie. They also have annual events including their Iron Garden Tour which includes a history of how humans have shaped our urban environment. Master gardeners are on site to provide crucial information about the post-life of the Carrie Blast Furnace and how after closing down, the horticulture has taken back the land and encapsulated the still-standing pieces and grown around them.

In the Bost Building itself, the Rivers of Steel Heritage Group headquarters and a museum occupy the three floors. They feature rotating exhibits that focus on the history of the mills on personal and cultural levels using artifacts, photographs, videos and scale models to teach the visitors about the history of the mills and their importance to Pittsburgh as a whole. They also feature two restored rooms that are from the original hotel design. One features the story of the restoration of the building and how the Rivers of Steel visitors center saved the building from dilapidation and eventual destruction.

 

The Lifetime of the Mills

In another lifetime, almost in another world, the mighty Carnegie Steel Corporation labored endlessly at the internationally famous mills of Homestead Steel Works in Pittsburgh, PA. In this other lifetime, the city’s steel built a growing America, gave the Union Army the upper hand in the Civil War, and greatly aided the Allies in defeating Nazi Germany in World War II.

Carnegie Steel and the Homestead Works, once invaluable contributors to modern accomplishments and infrastructure, are now distant memories from that other world; a world in which workers’ rights and unionization were first bravely demanded and won, a world in which timeless literature captured the belching furnaces firing day and night, and a world which forever impacted the culture and identity of a city of profound magnitude located at the meeting of three rivers.

Today, Pittsburgh and the rest of America produce a mere fraction of the amount of steel that it once did. Whereas at one point in history Pittsburgh produced more steel than anywhere else on the globe, today US Steel is ranked 15th below producers like Luxembourg, China, and Japan. The reasons behind steel’s decline in America include deindustrialization in the late 1970s and 1980s, the rise of foreign competition, lower demand, lower prices, and financial turmoil leading to downsizing.

Yet despite industry’s disappearance from the Pittsburgh valleys and riverbanks, the impact of steel and the steel workers has never vanished from the region, and arguably, will never vanish because of the colossal effects it produced locally and globally in history. When a single site like Homestead, Pennsylvania carries so much responsibility for contributing to American innovation and infrastructure, to labor unions and victories for workers’ rights, and to Allied victory in World War II, the culture of the towns around the site of the mighty mills have long since felt the ripples of generations of laborers, despite the closure of the mills for several decades.

mill entrance
Entrance to the Homestead Works, WWII era

While not much of that old world is left, a witness to this history is left in the Bost Building. Built in 1892, the Bost Building originally served as a hotel for the ever increasing population of European laborers coming to work in the mills. That summer, it became the headquarters for striking workers and the press during the Battle of Homestead, also known as the 1892 Homestead Strike.

The Bost Building stands now as a renovated museum honoring the legacy of steel workers and unions, a testament to the battle that was won just outside its walls at Carnegie Steel, between everyday working men, Pittsburgh royalty, and the Pinkerton Army. The museum, brimming with artifacts from the mills and local unions, helps to tell the story of the lived experiences of the working class who braved the fiery furnaces each day. These lived experiences of the workers are what have invariably shaped the culture of the old mill towns and surrounding hills—their lifestyle has been ingrained in books, art, and movies and orally handed down to younger generations.

One such example is in the somewhat fictional, somewhat autobiographical novel Out of This Furnace by Thomas Bell. It tells the tale of the generations of Slovak immigrants coming to the steel valley at the height of the industry; the culture that they found here and the culture they helped create; the dehumanizing hours and perils of the mills; and ultimately, the struggle of common men to organize for something better and to achieve more progress in this country with each passing generation.

The story told by Out of This Furnace helps to perpetuate the attitudes shaped in this region by the mills, even long after they have closed down, for two reasons. In “Constructing Real and Text Worlds in Responding to Literature” by Richard Beach, the author explains how the perceptions readers have help to shape how they interpret written texts. In the same vein, written texts help to shape how readers then look at the world. For anyone who reads Out of This Furnace, the characters and their accounts will forever shape the way readers interpret the space of the old mill towns in Pittsburgh, as well as how they interpret the importance of the immigrants who made up the region and the struggle of laborers against big money. Not only does the novel strike a chord with the natives of the area who have already been caught up in these cultural perceptions all of their lives (which then helps to perpetuate those perceptions), but it helps to form the same ideas in readers who may be unfamiliar with the topic when they put down the book for the first time and look at the world around them again. The modern day perceptions of workers’ rights and working class ideals live on in this space today, even though the physical structures inside which they were born are long gone.

If any doubt exists as to why so many generations of Pittsburgh families identify with the story of the mills, the justification can be found visually in the following timeline. These maps, provided by the Rivers of Steel, show the once-overwhelming industrial presence on the river banks of this region. Homestead, the Steel Making Capitol of the World and site of the Bost Building and the Strike, can be seen in the lower right corner.

steel mills 1850-1880
Image 1: Mills in Pittsburgh, 1850-1880 (The first wave of immigrant workers)
steel mills 1880-1920
Image 2: Mills Spreading, 1880-1920 (Period of the Bost Building and Strike)
steel mills 1920-1950
Image 3: Thinning of the Mills Around the Point, 1920-1950 (Urban Renewal occurring downtown, but Homestead fueling the war effort in WWII)
steel mills 1950-1980
Image 4: The Result of Deindustrialization, 1950-1980 (residents moving out to the suburbs)
steel mills 1980-2010
Image 5: The Vanishing of the Mills, 1980-2010 (Homestead Works shut down in 1986)

As seen in these maps, industry has all but vanished from the Pittsburgh region. Now that the majority of the mills have been closed for decades, Pittsburgh is in a pivotal time in its life where it is recreating its image in order to move forward from the woes of the Rust Belt. While Pittsburgh goes through its next renaissance, inviting in new waves of young people and artists who may know nothing about the buildings that have already been torn down before their arrival, it is important to take note of what had made Pittsburgh the city it is today as well as tomorrow. It is important to understand why we hold the perceptions that we do as a city and where those perceptions originated from, so as to preserve important histories, voices, and narratives within the midst of change.

In the wake of urban renewal, it is vastly important to uphold the culture of neighborhoods, lest they be left existing in limbo like a lost soul. Though change is necessary, it is very important to maintain historical traces in neighborhoods for the sake of their identities.

All of these things are important in acknowledging what the city can continue to represent as the world moves forward; the mills are gone and have become a thing of the past. The land must see the progress of new ventures and new livelihoods. While the memory of what used to be needs respect, a thriving city needs to evolve with the times. By that sentiment, how much of Pittsburgh’s past can we save to serve future purposes?

Want to know more about how mill relics are being used today? Click here for information about the Carrie Blast Furnace.

The Legacy of the Mills at the Waterfront Today

As I get off the bus I can imagine the smoke stacks active and the hustle and bustle of the workers running around, shoveling coal and melting the steel. I am in Homestead, the old home of the Carnegie Steel Corporation. As I walk around, I can see how much change has occurred to create the open-air shopping and dining center now in the Waterfront. As shown by Picture 1, the Waterfront used to look nothing like it does today. Back in the peak of the steel making days, the Waterfront was the focus of all the pride and glory that we in the “Steel City” have for our heritage.

Homestead was once home to the Carnegie Steel Corporation owned by Andrew Carnegie who hired Henry Clay Frick to run the business. These may be familiar names to you because of their well-known philanthropic work around the same time period, although they were enemies. Andrew Carnegie donated hundreds of libraries to communities all over the world and Henry Clay Frick was a large supporter of visual art and had an extensive collection that was also then donated. The lesser known facts about these titans of industry is that they were actually friends to begin with.

waterfront
Picture 1: Carnegie Steel Corporation 1890

Andrew Carnegie hired Frick to run his operations of his steel mills. Carnegie was very happy with the way things were going until June of 1892. Carnegie owned several mills and none of them had workers’ unions as they were not very popular in the 1890’s among steel industry workers. None of them except, Homestead Works, located at what we now call The Waterfront.

In 1892 the contract between the Amalgamated Association of Iron and Steel Workers and Carnegie Steel Corporation was expiring. Carnegie sent Frick to go negotiate the union out. He did not want any of his mills to have unions. Carnegie was conveniently on his yearly trip to his home country, Scotland during the negotiations. To the public, Carnegie was very supportive to the workers and always advocated for workers’ rights to unionize. In private however, he told Frick he refused to have a union in one of his mills (Online).

The working conditions in these mills were subpar to say the least. It was a regular occurrence for a worker to be detrimentally injured or even killed. Thomas Bell in his novel Out of This Furnace tells the story of one man who lost his best friend to a mining accident because of cost cutting measures with no regard to the safety of the workers. “Officially, it was put down as an accident, impossible to foresee or prevent, its horror accentuated by a grim coincidence. In a larger sense it was the result of greed, and part of the education of the American steel industry. The steel companies were using ever larger percentages of the earthy Masabi ores, which were cheaper to mine and handle than the massive rock ores but which demanded—as the ironworkers were learning—a variation in technique to prevent choking the furnaces.” (Bell, 54)

Frick did all he could but eventually the workers went on strike. Carnegie was livid. He told Frick to use any means necessary to stop the strike and get the mills back up and running (Standiford 1086). Frick did as he was told.

The morning of June 5th the Pinkerton men were sent on barges to stop the strike and have the workers return to working. That did not go as planned. The whole town came out to support the workers on strike and the men were defeated fairly quickly however, there were casualties on both sides.

This put a strain on the business relationship of Carnegie and Frick. They were close friends but Carnegie played it to the public as if Frick was the only one to blame for the strike and therefore the death of both Pinkerton men and some of the mill workers. They parted ways and Carnegie eventually sold his company to United States Steel Corporation.

After Carnegie and Frick were no longer associates, they both took to philanthropy. Many say that Frick was trying to do penance for his sins but I like to believe he was just a big fan of visual arts. Carnegie also took to philanthropy. He donated hundreds of libraries and money and supplies for those libraries all over the world including the 19 still in operation here in Pittsburgh. In Standiford’s Meet you in Hell he remarked that “…he (Carnegie) is often credited with having established the precedent of corporate philanthropy…when Bill Gates makes a gift of some of his hard-earned millions, it is probably the ghost of Andrew Carnegie that guides his outstretched hand.” (Standiford, 184)

party is over
Picture 2: Some of the leftover rail cars were tagged or spray painted on after the mills were shut down.

After a few years in U.S. Steel’s hands, the Homestead Works was eventually shut down for good. U.S. Steel’s headquarters were moving to New York and the declining demand for steel was running mills out of business. Picture 2 is an example of how some of the abandoned buildings and rail cars were tagged or art was spray painted on them after the mills were shut down.

In 1988, Park Corporation bought the property and tore down most of the buildings. They were gutted and sold for the scraps. After sitting empty for about 10 years after, it was bought again by some developers (Roth). They then built what is now The Waterfront. It took a long time and a lot of hard work.

The Bost Building is one of the few still standing buildings and structures from the original mill. The Bost Building was originally called the Columbia Hotel and was a place for the mill workers who had nowhere else to go to stay. During the strike and Battle of 1892, the workers who were in charge of leading the strike noticed it was the tallest building in Homestead and decided to use that as their look out point in case Frick or Carnegie had a plan to attack the town or the reopen the mill without the workers’ approval.

After the removal of the mills the only things left are the smoke stacks, the Bost Building, the Pump House and Carrie Blast Furnace (located just across the Monongahela in Braddock). All of these places have been honored as historical sites by the state of Pennsylvania and the City of Pittsburgh.

 

 

The Waterfront being transformed breathed new life into the city of Pittsburgh. After the mills were closed down, the city struggled greatly to compete with other cities in the United States. Spirits were broken and everyone was in a slump because unemployment rates were at an all-time high. Transforming from a milling town was difficult for the “Steel City”. It is now home to dozens of business’ headquarters, multiple leading universities in the sciences and medicine and a leader in technological advancements among other U.S. cities.

The Waterfront has come a very long way since the days of it being a steel mill. That is very true for a lot of other places in Pittsburgh as well. After U.S. Steel’s headquarters opened in New York, Pittsburgh needed a new identity. It was no longer the “Steel City” that it used to be. New businesses and companies saw that opportunity and started opening up in the old steel companies’ headquarter offices. There are now many national and international companies that have headquarters downtown such as GNC, Highmark Health, PNC and BNY Mellon.

The Waterfront being transformed breathed new life into the city of Pittsburgh. After the mills were closed down, the city struggled greatly to compete with other cities in the United States. Spirits were broken and everyone was in a slump because unemployment rates were at an all-time high. Transforming from a milling town was difficult for the “Steel City”. It is now home to dozens of business’ headquarters, multiple leading universities in the sciences and medicine and a leader in technological advancements among other U.S. cities.

The Waterfront has come a very long way since the days of it being a steel mill. That is very true for a lot of other places in Pittsburgh as well. After U.S. Steel’s headquarters opened in New York, Pittsburgh needed a new identity. It was no longer the “Steel City” that it used to be. New businesses and companies saw that opportunity and started opening up in the old steel companies’ headquarter offices. There are now many national and international companies that have headquarters downtown such as GNC, Highmark Health, PNC Bank and BNY Mellon.

Along with successful companies, there is a growing number of colleges and universities that all contribute to the city in not only education, but research in many fields including medicine and robotics. This attracts people that Pittsburgh never would have dreamed of bringing had it stayed an industrial city.

Pittsburgh transformed itself from an old industrial city to one of the most vibrant cities. Pittsburgh has one of the youngest populations of major cities and is continuing to grow in that direction. The smog has cleared and the redevelopment of the land is as strong as ever. The city now has growing green spaces and is bustling with things to do both indoors and out. With the addition of the South Side Works and the trails along the rivers that lead up to Point State Park, more and more people are coming to visit and see what Pittsburgh has to offer outside of the old steel industry.

What started as a city that’s only real export was steel has turned into one of the most successful cities. There are many local businesses as well as major players on the national stage that call Pittsburgh home. West Homestead and the Waterfront are the most vivid example of these extensive changes the city has seen. Pittsburgh is an ever changing city but will always be a great place to both visit and live.

Waterfront is now a beautiful outdoor space with acres of shopping, dining, entertainment and outdoor venues. The well-known biking path, the Great Allegheny Passage, goes straight through the Waterfront and along the river. There is also a shop where you can rent a bike if needed. The location cannot be beat, both day and night. With plenty to do and lots to see, it is easy to spend a full day just walking around and seeing everything.

still standing pilons
Picture 4: The remaining smoke stacks are lit up at night and are a beautiful reminder of the hard working men and women who fought for their rights at Homestead Works.

 

Bookshelf

Works Cited:

“1892 Homestead Strike.” AFL-CIO: America’s Unions. Web. <http://www.aflcio.org/About/Our-History/Key-Events-in-Labor-History/1892-Homestead-Strike&gt;.

Beach, Richard. “Constructing Real and Text Worlds in Responding to Literature.” Theory Into Practice 37.3 (1998): 176-85. Web.

Bell, Thomas. Out of This Furnace. Pittsburgh: U of Pittsburgh, 1976.

Casson, Herbert Newton. The Romance of Steel: The Story of a Thousand Millionaires. New York: Barnes, 1907. Print.

Online, PBS. People & Events The Homestead Strike. n.d. 10 March 2016.<http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/carnegie/peopleevents/pande04.html&gt;.

“Rivers of Steel National Heritage Area.” Rivers of Steel. Web. <https://www.riversofsteel.com/&gt;.

Roth, Mark. Homestead Works: Steel lives in its stories. 30 July 2006. 10 March 2016.<http://www.postgazette.com/business/businessnews/2006/07/30/Homestead-Works-Steel-lives-in-itsstories/stories/200607300258&gt;.

Standiford, Les. Meet You in Hell: Andrew Carnegie, Henry Clay Frick and the Bitter Partnership That Transformed America. New York: Broadway Books, 2005.

Pictures:

Gaughan, William J. 42 Inch Mill. 1890. William J. Gaughan Collection, Homestead, PA. N. pag. Historic Pittsburgh. Web. 10 Mar. 2016.

 

 

Advertisements